Jeffrey Combs talks RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

I was recently lucky enough to sit down and chat with cult icon and returning star of the upcoming sequel RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Jeffrey Combs.Read on to see what Dr. Vannacut himself has to say about the film, his work as Edgar Allan Poe and his record-making string of roles in the STAR TREK universe.

A – Can you describe your experience in revisiting the part of Dr. Vannacut, the demonic Doctor in charge of Hill House Asylum?JC – It was kind of surreal. You know, 8 years later is kind of weird. I’d really kind of forgotten about that project. Usually when a sequel comes up, it comes up fairly quickly. This one really came out of nowhere. You know… ‘what do you mean RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL?’ I think originally when they conceived of this, Vannacut wasn’t part of the idea – at least that’s what the director told me. Then he advocated… kind of lobbied really for Vannacut. I mean, you have to have Vannacut, right? He’s the face for the house and, without him, you just have a house with no real personality to it.
A – What are your thoughts on why now, 8 years later, is the time for a sequel?JC – Well, what I also didn’t realize at the time was how they were dovetailing the production to use this new technology, which will allow the viewer to navigate and determine the course of the movie, much like a videogame. I think the technology came first and they were looking for a project to utilize it in and right there in their library was HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL… and they’d have a better shot at getting some exposure with a title that was already known.A – Speaking of that new technology and the kind of marketing they are able to create from that, do you feel that the sequel is more in line with William Castle`s type of theatrical marketing than the first film (the 1999 film)?JC – That’s a good question because he was the king of ‘sense-U-round’ and buzzing your seat and any kind of gimmick that he could come up with. So, in an obtuse way it is a sort of homage to that way of thinking. It seems to me that that sort of stuff obviously doesn’t get people into theatres anymore, but maybe it will get them to buy a DVD. It might be a little ahead of the curve because you need to have an HD or BluRay or Xbox player to utilize the navigation technology. I’m no expert on this but, what percentage of the population has that right now?A – It’s a slowly burgeoning small percentage, I think.JC – Slowly burgeoning until the price comes down on that stuff. Of course, having said that, it still has the pull of being a sequel to a movie that did very well 8 years ago. So, whether you have the equipment or not, you may be compelled to check it out because of the name.A – How was your experience working with new director Victor Garcia? This was his first feature, right?JC – It was his first feature but I was blown away by his short. He won an award for Best Short at some film festival for this short. It’s just a terrific, atmospheric piece and really quite powerful, with not a word of dialogue spoken in the entire movie. It impressed Joel Silver so much that it moved him to the top of the list to direct this movie. The movie has a great look and that’s due in large part to Victor and to the Director of Photography, Lorenzo Senatore. The thing to remember is that this wasn’t just a regular movie, there were all kinds of variations and different versions of scenes… logistically it was a nightmare, and Victor was able to keep that all straight and organized and still keep a good sense of humor about it, and that’s what you need to be a good director. The director is constantly having problems and demands throw at him. It’s amazing to me that he could keep it all straight, I mean, I was confused and I only had to deal with my little world.A – Did you find much of a difference, working with European filmmakers, as opposed to the North American ‘Hollywood’ style of filmmaking?JC – The only real difference – and it’s a big one – is that usually, when you’re making a movie, you tend to bond with the people you’re working with. That’s not so easy to do when you’re in a country where everyone speaks Bulgarian. You can’t ask people how they’re doing, how’s the family… what’s for lunch? You’re kind of on the outside, in your own little bubble. Victor is Spanish and, while his English is very good, you’d use slang, or a turn of phrase… he just doesn’t have those shortcuts, so even there you find problems with communication. A – Did that sense of isolation lead to the cast bonding more than you’ve usually found?JC – Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I really was very isolated. They did all of my stuff in a very short period of time. When I got over there, I also found out that they were filming all nights! Which was good for me, really. Their night is our day, in America, so I never had to adjust myself for jet lag. But at the same time, they didn’t get to me for a week. They said ‘we need you out here right now!’A – And then said ‘hurry up and wait’, right?JC – Right, ‘hurry up and wait’. So I ended up turning into a vampire, because I had to stay on their schedule so I was ready to work. So I had a week off, but I had to stay up all night and sleep all day. So that was really weird. What are you going to do at 3 AM in Bulgaria? Just kind of hanging out in your room. And then sleeping all day, getting up in the late afternoon in this strange country… I began to feel very isolated and started getting a little squirrelly.A – So it didn’t work as a great ‘method acting’ technique for you?JC – Well, I was pissed off… No, when it comes to the work you just get down to it. There were a lot of technical things they had to work out before we could start, so it was unavoidable. In the first film I had these very specialized glasses that I used to operate with… very retro from the 30’s… and they were just a prop that looked cool. They built them from scratch in Bulgaria and they’d keep coming to me with these prototypes. They just kept working on it until they got it perfect. They take a lot longer to do things in Bulgaria, but they get it done right.A – You began your career as a stage actor at the renowned Old Globe Theatre. JC – In San Diego. There’s actually two Old Globe Theatres. One in London, which is the ‘new’ Old Globe and the ‘Old’ Old Globe in San Diego. I didn’t start there, but I worked there. A – How does your classical training help you in these kind of genre roles?JC – It helps and it hurts. The transition from stage to film and TV is rough. It helps a lot to have the experience you get doing a lot of different plays, different styles and techniques. Being exposed to that and doing so much stage work before I ever did a film, really helped tremendously. You learn how people speak differently, carry themselves differently according to their character, according to historical periods. On the flipside, film requires such a dialing down of what you learn on the stage. A hand gesture needs to be translated into raising an eyebrow for film. You’re not required to ensure that the guy in the back row gets your gist, because the camera is right in front of your face. That’s a major adjustment that stage actors have to make. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do that than to do the opposite. It always amazes me when someone has a successful film or TV career and then decides they’re going to do theatre… it so rarely works out. I really think that’s just because it’s always easier to do less than to try to add more.A – Your also well known for having played several different roles on the last 3 STAR TREK series. What draws you to these projects? Are you, yourself, a Trekkie? JC – I wouldn’t say I was a Trekkie, I never went to conventions or anything. I did love the original series, just for the pure energy and force about it… and the humor, obviously. You know, you look at it now and the sets and everything are kind of cheeseball, but they had a commitment to the material that was absolutely infectious. I think that’s why STAR TREK has lasted so long with so many branches and franchises, is just because of the groundwork laid by the original writers and cast, they were all so committed to making it believable. I remember though, when NEXT GENERATION came out, I couldn’t get arrested on that show. I couldn’t even get an audition. I was thinking ‘come on, I can do that. I don’t understand!’. Then DEEP SPACE 9 came around and the guy that ran the show, the executive producer, was a fan of mine and of RE-ANIMATOR. That opened the door for me to play a role on that show, which they then recurred. Then, down the road, they had another role, a one-off, that they also decided to recur. So for a glorious three years I was recurring in two roles on the same show, something which is generally unheard of. Then I did one spot on VOYAGER. Then when ENTERPRISE came along, they asked me to come in and guest star and I was kind of ‘you know, I’ve already been there and I’ve done that’. To which they replied, ‘yeah, but this time you’re going to be an Andorian!’. And, because I was a fan of the original series, I knew what an Andorian was…A – And you can’t pass up the little blue antennae…
JC – Exactly! And hadn’t really been explored, so that intrigued me. So I have been very fortunate with the STAR TREK franchise having three recurring roles. A – You are also sometimes referred to as the first and only ‘Lovecraftian’ actor because of your roles in several, really almost all of the Lovecraft adaptation in the last 20 years.JC – Well, not all of them, but I think that’s really more because RE-ANIMATOR really brought Lovecraft back into people’s psyche and they were all of a sudden saying ‘hey, this guy is cool’ and with success perpetuating this kind of thing, there was FROM BEYOND and then, at some point, somebody made a trilogy – NECRONOMICON – and had me play Lovecraft as sort of the glue that held the three disparate stories together. I suppose you could throw THE LURKING FEAR in there as one of the Lovecraft-based films. The curious thing is that none of them are really close at all to the stories. Lovecraft is notoriously hard to adapt. His stories aren’t really character or plot driven, they’re just very atmospheric, and that doesn’t hold up too terribly long on film. FROM BEYOND is only a one or two page story. I’d say RE-ANIMATOR is probably the most faithful to the Lovecraft story and even that is updated and characters added, but the same relentless idea is there.
A – You also gave a magnificent performance as Edgar Allan Poe in THE BLACK CAT. Are you a fan of gothic American literature? Having played two of it’s biggest names?JC – No, not really. I’m a much bigger fan of Poe than I am of Lovecraft. To be perfectly honest, about 3 or 4 years ago, I was reading a lot of historical novels and biographies and I came across this book about Poe. I read it and I said to Stu (Stuart Gordon, director of RE-ANIMATOR and THE BLACK CAT), ‘This guy had an amazing life. I can’t believe nobody has made a movie of this!’ His life was so tragic. He’s like the American Van Gogh. Stuart, I guess, took that in and about a year later called and asked me if I wanted to play Poe. He said that he and Dennis Paoli had this idea for MASTERS OF HORROR and they wanted me to play Poe, but as the main character in one of his stories. I mean, the story’s written in first person, the guy is an alcoholic and tormented by this cat which, in the story, is clearly a metaphor for his own demons. I thought that was just perfect, and that’s exactly what they did. The script blew me away and I immediately said yes, but I was still scared to death. Poe is iconic, and I knew that if I fell on my face I would never be able to forgive myself. I really wanted to do the man justice. He was a very sad, but misunderstood, man. He lost his whole family very early in his life, so when he got older, family was very important. Unfortunately, he had this genetic proclivity to drink, which ultimately destroyed him. He really just didn’t have very much luck in his life. Despite that, and the fact that he made very little money during his lifetime – he lived in abject poverty – yet we revere this man, just like Van Gogh. No one had ever done him before. No one had portrayed this man. I’m just glad we were able to do it, and do it well, I think.A – Alright, here’s the cheeseball closer… the ‘INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO’ question… this is the one that everybody hates, because it puts them on the spot. What are your top 5 Desert Island DVDs? The 5 discs that you couldn’t live without?JC – Right. Top 5 DVD’s? That’s really hard. I don’t categorize or pick my top ten or five or whatever, you know. I just can’t do that. Books, actors, films. Can’t do it.A – 5 favorite films then.JC – Well, I guess… one of them… I guess I should try to actually make this list. I am going to fail you miserably. You’ll have to tell your boss that I could answer every question but this one. I don’t know. I like too many for me to distill it down to just five.A – Fair enough. Thanks for your time. It has been a pleasure talking with you.JC – Alright Axel, pleasure talking to you. Take care.
****RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL hits DVD shelves on Tuesday, October 16********The Masters of Horror episode THE BLACK CAT is available from Anchor Bay/Starz Entertainment at DVD stores and online retailers everywhere.****

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