Horror Show, The (1989) d. James Isaac (USA)
When word rolled around that Shout! Factory would be releasing a Lance Henriksen/Brion James horror flick from the late 80s, I was honestly perplexed at my ignorance of this title’s existence. I mean, I’ve seen a few movies in my time and of those that I haven’t seen, there’s usually a blip on the radar either through having seen the box art while combing the local video store’s aisles (pardon me while I weep for this younger generation that will never experience such pleasures) or reading back issues of various genre mags. After a bit of research, I realized I actually had heard of it, but under its international distribution title: House III: The Horror Show. Sean S. Cunningham, who produced the first two House films, explains on the audio commentary track that the foreign markets were more interested in the branding than the film. So, even though it bore no relation to its predecessors and doesn’t actually deal with a haunted house (unless you count Henriksen’s chatty furnace), The Horror Show became the third installment in the franchise for overseas distribution (leading to some confusion for U.S. audiences when Cunningham decided to make House IV in 1992).
Following the capture of notorious cleaver-wielding mass murderer Max Jenke (James), responsible for over 100 grisly slayings, Detective Lucas McCarthy (Henriksen) is plagued by nightmares of his former quarry. He hopes that attending Jenke’s execution by electric chair will ease his mind, but the killer does not go gently into that good night, rising from his seat (in flames) and cursing the cop before crumpling to the floor. In the days that follow, McCarthy experiences vivid hallucinations of Jenke appearing all around him, whispering, giggling, taunting…at least, he thinks they’re visions. But when his daughter’s boyfriend turns up dead in the basement, the question arises whether the psycho is back from the grave or whether our boy with the badge has gone round the bend.
Even before its (very) limited theatrical release, the film had problems, starting with original director David Blyth’s being fired a week into shooting and replaced by James Isaac (Jason X, Pig Hunt). Then there was discontent over original writer Allyn Warner’s script, reworked by Leslie Bohem (Dante’s Peak, Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) and leading Warner to demand his name be removed. Of course, once the scribe re-read the WGA rulebook and realized that he could get a higher fee if he received credit on the film (even under a pseudonym), he went back to the producers and insisted on billing, but under the oft-used moniker of directorial shame, Alan Smithee.
Needless to say, this didn’t instill moviegoers with much faith, but the bright spot on the horizon was that upcoming goremeisters KNB EFX (still billed as Kurtzman-Nicotero-Berger at the time) were on the job and preparing to unleash some nasty splatter, as seen in several Fangoria promotional stills. Sadly, this was the era of the MPAA’s war against onscreen violence and bloodshed – when the scissors had stopped slashing, there remained a few rubbery showcases, but the flick overall was figuratively gutted and bled dry.
As a result, it’s hard to say where things first went wrong, but finger-pointing aside, the script’s conceit of Jenke returning from the grave due to experiments with excessive amounts of electricity is pretty slippery at best. (Oddly enough, Wes Craven’s execrable Shocker came out the same year with a similar plot device, so maybe there was something in the Tinseltown water.) As a mysterious brainiac attempting to prove some theory, Thom Bray (TV’s Riptide, Prince of Darkness) is given the thankless job of trotting out this claptrap, but it’s clear even he doesn’t believe it. It’s too bad, because had Warner and/or Bohem simply gone with a time-honored “ghost from beyond” or voodoo curse trope, viewers probably would have had an easier time swallowing the hooey.
Even so, we’re never really sure whether what is being shown is in McCarthy’s mind or genuine supernatural happenings, since both types of scares appear in equal measure. Further complicating matters is the misleading title; there’s no actual show of any kind going on (unless you count the short vignette where McCarthy hallucinates Jenke appearing as a stand-up comedian on TV) and no other Clockwork Orange references, so fans were understandably confused.
The upside is that the always-intense Henriksen is in top form here, showing off a welcome range of emotions (and his well-sculpted frame), equally authentic as laughing family man, fearful paranoiac, or vengeful hero. The late, great B-movie staple James (best known as Leon from Blade Runner, though I’ll always remember him as Southern Comfort’s one-armed Cajun) gives a robust if limited performance as the murderous Jenke, screaming, sneering, bellowing, or sniggering in taunting childlike fashion from start to finish.
Rita Taggart does well as Henriksen’s devoted wife, while their bouncy, boy-crazy daughter is played by Dedee Pfeiffer (Vamp, TV’s Cybil and younger sister of Michelle) and music-obsessed son Aron Eisenberg (you can tell because he’s always wearing a Walkman or air-guitaring in his room) pulls scams on major retailers. Day of the Dead's Terry Alexander also has a brief appearance as Henriksen's ill-fated partner.
Behind the scenes, you’ve got Kane Hodder on hand as coordinator for the film’s stunts (many are quite impressive), Harry Manfredini composing the score, and all-star cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (everything from Hell Night to Re-Animator to Innocent Blood) working the lights and lenses. As mentioned, KNB’s best gags probably ended up on the cutting room floor, but they manage to sneak in some snazzy mo-mos.
In retrospect, one gets the feeling that this could have been a better film had a single vision been adhered to instead of serving so many different masters; Isaac pulls off some genuinely suspenseful scenes and the cast creates a nice sense of ensemble, but there are too many gaping logic holes and lazy set-pieces to succeed overall.
Shout! Factory’s new DVD/BR combo release brings another welcome host of supplemental features. (Their menu items, on the other hand, are reduced to “Play Movie” and “Special Features,” i.e. no chapter selections, although really, does anyone use those anymore? Did they ever?) Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher does an excellent job interviewing Cunningham on the commentary track, highlighting many different facets of the producer/director’s career, including Friday the 13th (original and remake), Deep Star Six and the recent Last House on the Left remake as well as his non-genre fare like Spring Break and Here Come the Tigers. Cunningham is jovial and frank about what works (and what doesn’t) onscreen, along with the trappings that accompany being identified as a genre director. He’s a fascinating subject, openly admiring groundbreaking filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron, saying, “I couldn’t do what they do, because my brain doesn’t think that way.” He refers to himself as a smaller story teller, character-based dramas being more in tune with his strengths.
Along with a theatrical trailer, the other RSP extras include “The ‘Show’ Must Go On,” an interview with Hodder who speaks fondly of Ahlberg and Isaac, giving credit to the former for getting him the Horror Show gig and the latter for his “best Jason role” in Jason X. “House Mother” sits down with TV/fim veteran Taggart to discuss working with Henriksen and James, and her surprise in discovering this forgotten horror flick’s passionate fan base that had developed over the years. She also laughingly recalls how Pfeiffer bemoaned her requisite shower scene, saying “no boobs, no butt, no bush.” (Isaac must have cajoled her into the overhead shot by saying we wouldn’t see much.)
The Horror Show is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine