'Re-Animator' might be the only 'Frankenstein' movie without a Dr. Frankenstein. Instead, we get the devil and the angel on Frankenstein's shoulders, personified by Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and Bruce Abbott as Dan Cain. West is obsessed with conquering death, while Cain recoils at the horrific results. Considering 'Re-Animator' has spawned two sequels, it's not a spoiler to say that the devil won out.
It's the project that put director Stuart Gordon, and his star Combs on the map in a way that slowly leaked out from the confines of hardcore horror fandom into the fringes of mainstream acceptance. 'Re-Animator' doesn't kowtow to easy slasher cliches like other films of its time, and West is an immediate stand-out as a unique horror villain. He's a controlling, condescending nerd, whose ego forces him to do terrible things without consideration of consequence. In 'Re-Animator,' those terrible things include killing Dan's girlfriend's cat, bringing the dead cat back to life (twice!), and de-capitating his college professor out of professional jealousy (the true villain of the piece -- David Gale as John Kerry look-alike Dr. Hill).
Combs is so wicked as West that he goes so far beyond unlikeable as to become likeable. His twinkling black eyes and twitchy resolve make him not only one of the 80's best horror characters, but one of the best cinematic mad scientists of all time. Combs never, ever plays West for laughs, but Gordon can tell when West is funny and finds the right moments to let some humor into his own sickeningly over-the-top zombie opus.
It's taken a little while longer for 'From Beyond' to find its audience than 'Re-Animator' did, probably due to how genuinely funky it is. It's easy to get into 'Re-Animator''s gory, zombified riff on the Frankenstein tale, harder to penetrate 'From Beyond's' psycho-sexual freakiness and oddball, goopy special effects. Here, an evil scientist (Ted Sorel as the literally slimy Edward Pretorius) creates a resonating machine that creates a window into an unseen world, causing his assistent (Jeffrey Combs) to go mad, before disappearing into this other dimension himself. Barbara Crampton plays Combs' psychiatrist, convinced that by forcing her patient to relive the night Pretorius disappeared, she will cure him. A side of effect of Pretorius's machine? Sexual stimulation.
'From Beyond' is Lovecraft as post-Cronenberg horror, but stripped of that director's nightmare logic and open interpretation. Stuart Gordon tackles some of the same material as early Cronenberg in a satisfyingly literal sense. Dr. Pretorius' experiments are life-altering, secretive, and messy, and so is sex (Even the lighting is hilariously sexual. When the resonator is turned on, everything is awash with vibrant blue and pink light, a visual cue to remind us of the difference between boys and girls). This no-nonsense clarity allows Gordon the freedom to move past Cronenberg's artsy musings and right into rubbery monster movie thrills, for better or worse.
'From Beyond' really belongs to Barbara Crampton, and it took repeat viewings to finally realize that. It's so hard to look past Comb's wild upstaging as Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, the beady-eyed scientist driven to the furthest reaches of fear by the dimension-shifting pineal gland experiments. She's one of the few "scream queen" actresses willing to get completely naked on film that can actually play a convincing doctor. No matter how nude she gets, no matter how much B-movie dialogue she has to deliver ("This is the greatest discovery since van Leeuwenhoek first looked through a microscope and saw an amoeba!"), she seems smart. Well, smarter than most.
Here, she has to go from caring psychiatrist, to sexually curious adventurer, to ice queen dominatrix, to total insanity. While psychedelic puppets swim through the air, and Combs sucks people's eyeballs out of their sockets under the command of a pineal anntanae, Crampton plugs away at her performance, managing to be the single believable thing in a movie where Ken Foree, armed with a steak knife, fights a giant inter-dimensional worm.
Gordon always allows Combs the opportunity as an actor to play, which is why they make such a compelling combination of director and star. Combs can perform without restraint, and Gordon is there to guide the ship, finding a thin balance between grimly realistic and comically histrionic. With 'Nevermore,' Combs found the role of a lifetime playing Edgar Allan Poe. It's a chance for the actor to play and explore in a live stage setting that is more raw and electric than anything Gordon has directed before.
Combs fully inhabits Poe, dusting off our collective fondness for the author in a remarkably vital way (Poe being the first poet that most high schoolers aren't reluctant to read). The play, written by Gordon's collaborator Denis Paoli, bridges Poe's stories and poems with actual personal writing from the author, creating something that is not quite recital, not quite biography, and not quite character study. It promises an "evening with Edgar Allen Poe" and that's exactly what it delivers. I'm not even sure Combs was at the two performances I saw, but Edgar Allan Poe definitely was.
He was right there on the stage in front of me. This role could very well be the kind of thing that Combs becomes forever linked with (like Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain before him). At turns, charming and frightening, 'Nevermore' is Combs' and Gordon's first transcendent collaboration. It marks a major accomplishment for both artists, re-purposing the energy found in their splatterpunk horror movies to create something that elevates the audience and illuminates one of America's most beloved authors. 'Nevermore' is a genuine must-see.
('Nevermore' is currently playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas through October 2, as part of Fantastic Fest. Tickets are available online and at the theatre box office.)