Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Jeffrey Combs’ memorable performance as Edgar Allan Poe in Stuart Gordon’s The Black Cat.
Despite being a gargantuan figure in the horror genre, we rarely see Edgar Allan Poe’s life dramatized for the screen. Poe, as a character, has certainly appeared in a number of films, television shows, and theatrical productions. Typically, though, he’s just a supporting character (The Pale Blue Eye) or a comic gimmick (Monkeybone). For a man whose work – and life – was filled with torment and tragedy, it’s a little surprising. You’d imagine his struggles with addiction and destitution would have been more thoroughly mined for cinematic gold.
Most often, when Poe’s life has been the subject of a film or a television show, it’s strained through the lens of his stories. Just look at the 1915 silent film The Raven or the 2012 John Cusack-led movie, also called The Raven. However, the best of the bunch in my book is Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of The Black Cat for the television series Masters of Horror, starring his frequent collaborator, Jeffrey Combs. They take Poe’s famous tale of alcoholism and quasi-supernatural revenge and embed it with elements of Poe’s reality. Poe himself was an alcoholic, getting on and off the wagon throughout his life. In Poe’s story, the narrator admits to the disintegration of his life “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance.” The story effectively reads as an admission of Poe’s own guilt over his inability to quell his addiction.
Many Poe-influenced films really lean into the darker edges of his life. But few attempt to confront Poe’s alcoholism in any substantial way. This is what makes Gordon and Combs’ work on The Black Cat so worthwhile. Not only does it do a fine job blending Poe’s reality and fiction. But Combs effectively plays the struggles of addiction in ways that are startlingly relatable. Especially to anyone who’s ever come face to face with alcoholism.
The first thing you’ll notice in Combs’ performance is obvious. He’s hidden behind a rather large piece of prosthetics: a big ol’ fake nose. But it helps Combs, the actor, completely fade into his character. It’s uncanny how much he resembles Poe’s famous daguerreotype you’ll have seen on any dust jacket of his stories. But the limitations the makeup may have on his performance doesn’t stop him from being unmistakably emotive. He employs subtle physical gestures and expressions – his brow furrowing, his gaze casting down – to simply convey Poe’s palpable sense of anxiety.
That said, it’s still hard not to see Herbert West in everything that Combs does. However, as Poe, he suppresses the neurotic tics we associate with his most beloved performance. Those tendencies, though, don’t fully vanish beneath his prosthetics. He’s able to retain the nervous energy we expect from his performances, he just keeps it right under Poe’s skin. It makes even the tiniest of gestures feel like it is exploding with an energy of authentic pain. And even when this fictionalized version of Poe begins to crack up, Combs’ energy doesn’t rocket to the stars. It burrows into the earth. As he violently roars at his editor or a barkeep, the rage seems to erupt from a pent-up place deep within him. A place that he attempts to soothe – and drown – with alcohol.
Unlike how he’s depicted in the episode, Poe wasn’t known as a violent person. But he was a textbook case of alcoholism. Throughout his life, he vacillated between periods of hard drinking to stone-cold sobriety and back again. Combs handles Poe’s alcoholic mannerisms with grace. He waxes between an effective portrayal of the uncontrollable nature of an addict and his own brand of finely-crafted cheesiness.
Sure, his slurred speech may feel melodramatically affected at times. But he also effortlessly conveys the drooping, unfocused expression you’ll have seen in every obliterated drunk person’s eyes. But in Combs’ hands, he uses this dead-pan expression to be more than just the face of a blacked-out drunk. Because Comb’s Poe hides behind those unfixed eyes a feeling of deep resignation with his lot in life. That Combs can express it all through a face covered in makeup, and relaxed by liters of imaginary booze, makes the deep emotions he stirs in the audience all the more impressive.
When his wife says she feels culpable for his drinking, rather than an overwrought expression, Combs conveys an almost imperceptible revulsion. His eyes quickly dart away from hers as his gaze sullenly dips downwards. Combs doesn’t need to tell the audience that Poe is ashamed for us to sense it in his inability to meet his wife’s eyes. Even though Poe says that he promises to stop drinking, there is a sense of remorse in Combs’ face. It’s one that tells the audience Combs’ Poe has made a promise he knows is destined to be broken.
And Poe breaks it almost instantly after he discovers his pet bird crushed to near death. It should be noted that once the blood starts flowing – and oh boy, is there blood – the episode quickly departs from Poe’s real life and goes straight into the narrative of his short story, The Black Cat. Poe didn’t actually kill a bunch of animals before accidentally axing his own wife. Blame that on the unnamed narrator in the original story.
But Poe’s actual struggles with drinking still aligned neatly with the thematic through line of The Black Cat’s cautionary tale on addiction. And it’s in these scenes, where the two worlds collide, that some of Combs’ best moments shine through.
As he approaches his dying bird, an expression of abject pity and heartache flashes across his face. But as he comes to terms with what he must do, we see Combs lick his lips. It’s a gesture we saw in an earlier drunken barroom scene. And here we know exactly what it means as his gaze falls towards a decanter on the bar. He’s using his pain as permission to break his promise and down a glass of liquor to calm his nerves. But even with the liquid courage, Combs still shows us wave on wave of emotion as Poe closes his eyes and crushes the bird. It’s sadness and despair, not just for having to kill this poor animal, but for the profound sense of loss that seems to linger in every corner of his life.
While this episode of Mick Garris’s TV show flew relatively under the radar, it germinated an idea in the heads of Gordon, Combs, and screenwriter Dennis Paoli. They spun out their exploration of Poe’s life into a one-man show, Nevermore: An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe. It first premiered in Los Angeles before transferring to various venues across the United States. The show presents itself as an academic lecture by Poe, where the audience hears tales of his life while the poet interweaves recitations of his most famous pieces of literature. And as he recites his poetry, the audience watches him get progressively and progressively drunk.
While the show is not currently touring, there is a five-minute sizzle reel available online that reinforces the power of Combs’ performance. He has an uncanny ability to completely disappear into his version of Poe. He may toe a thin line between effective realism and stage theatricality. However, he still manages to imbue mournful authenticity into a portrait of one of America’s greatest – and most tortured – literary minds.