The Film: 3/5
Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) has been plagued by disturbing nightmares ever since he brought the notorious serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James) to justice. When Jenke, whose body count surpasses the triple digit mark, is sentenced to die in the electric chair McCarthy believes that by witnessing the execution he will be able to put his mind at ease. Things don't exactly go according to plan as Jenke takes every ounce of voltage the chair can muster and still manages to rip loose from his restraints and use his dying breath to swear unholy vengeance on McCarthy and his family before finally expiring. Lucas dismisses Jenke's warning and is satisfied that the maniac is finally dead....or is he? Scientist Peter Campbell (Thom Bray) believes that Jenke survived the execution because of his theory that pure evil can become a form of devastating electrical power. The cop understandably is more than a little skeptical of this idea until he starts seeing visions of Jenke in his house, in his dinner, and even cracking lame jokes on his television set. Worse than that, several people close to McCarthy start dying off mysteriously in ways similar to Jenke's bloody modus operandi, and the dogged detective is the only suspect. Using Campbell's theories regarding the malevolent murderer's newfound supernatural powers, McCarthy must battle Jenke in a final showdown with the lives of him, his wife Donna (Rita Taggart), and children Bonnie (Dedee Pfeiffer) and Scott (Aron Eisenberg) resting in the balance.
Creating a horror franchise villain intentionally is a thankless job. When Jason leaped out of Crystal Lake at the end of the original Friday the 13th it was meant to be one last scare to send the audience out on. Wes Craven didn't mean for A Nightmare on Elm Street to conclude with Freddy Krueger still alive and more powerful than ever. Leatherface only survived The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because his final victim was only interested in escaping with her life. And that final shot of Halloween was not supposed to be the opening scene of a sequel; John Carpenter simply wanted to convey to the viewers that true evil cannot be killed. Subsequent follow-ups were only spawned by the blockbuster box office grosses of those movies. Not even Norman Bates was originally destined to return for more Psychos, but in the early 80's slasher movies were all the rage and seeing the mother-obsessed anti-hero of Hitchcock's classic of mind-fucking terror hack his way back onto the big screen again was inevitable. Once nearly every major movie studio was taken over by international conglomerates films became products, and the consumers just loved those trusted brand names. Especially those consumers who dress completely in black to feed the ducks and have tattoos and piercings in places not usually listed in high school health textbooks.
The Horror Show began filming under the direction of New Zealander David Blyth - best known to horror fans for the obscure splatter oddity Death Warmed Up - but Blyth was summarily relieved of his duties for reasons unspoken and replaced with special effects artist James Isaac. Previously known for his work on several of David Cronenberg's films including The Fly and Naked Lunch, Isaac was making his directorial debut on a movie that was hoped to be the launching pad for a new series of slasher flicks to compete with the aforementioned alpha dogs of the day. Little-known television writer Allyn Warner initially collaborated with Leslie Bohem (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Dante's Peak) on the screenplay, but then again maybe Warner wrote the first script and was subsequently rewritten by Bohem. That would certainly explain why Warner decided to be credited as "Alan Smithee", the once-preferred pseudonym for film and television writers and directors who were dissatisfied with how their work had been mangled and misappropriated by producers and studio executives throughout the development process.
Whatever the reasons were for Warner's name being voluntarily removed from the final credits The Horror Show bears the mark of too many cooks in the kitchen. The only language it speaks is that of commerce and compromise. Its financial backer United Artists was no red-headed stepchild in the industry even when it had to be rescued from fiscal freefall by MGM in the early 1980's (and not solely due to the massive box office failure of Heaven's Gate, though that didn't help matters much). It is no small miracle that Isaac and producer (and Friday the 13th mastermind) Sean S. Cunningham were able to snatch a moderate victory from the jaws of defeat by managing to make The Horror Show a pretty decent hunk of cheesy horror entertainment. But the movie wasn't successful enough to warrant sequels. In fact it was marketed internationally as House 3, the in-name-only second sequel to the 1986 horror-comedy Cunningham produced. Despite its title there aren't many genuine scares in Isaac's movie unless you count the tired "cat jumping into frame" gimmick that was tired long before it appeared in The Horror Show.
The film plays at times like a mash-up spoof of slasher flick and another genre popular with late 80's moviegoers - the hard-boiled cop movie. The hero isn't a helpless female camp counselor running around in her underwear futilely trying to battle a masked lunatic with only an unplugged electric carving knife for a weapon. You don't hire Lance Henriksen to play a mewling victim, you usually hire him to be the victimizer. He's always been one of the most intense screen presences in horror, sci-fi, and action cinema; even when Henriksen's playing it low-key you can still catch a glimpse of a raging demon behind his penetrating stare and vocal delivery that sounds like Tom Waits eating boiled saddle leather for breakfast. He could play a role like Lucas McCarthy in his sleep, but Henriksen rarely phones a performance in, even in one of the countless contrived pieces of DTV garbage he's headlined in recent years. He never overplays the role and remains sympathetic and believable as the story hurtles headlong into realms of total absurdity. At the opposite end of Horror Show's acting spectrum is the late Brion James, one of filmdom's finest tough guy character actors and a literal giant of the screen whose could out-act George Clooney with just his neck. It's clear that his character Max Jenke was meant to be modeled on Freddy Krueger, but James rarely bothers with playing his monstrous mass murderer with disquieting menace. The actor was never afraid to go screamingly over the top when a performance called for it, and whether he's taking thousands of volts of electricity and commenting with a smile that "all that did was give me a hard-on" or hamming it up as a hack TV comic terrorizing McCarthy's fragile psyche with horrible jokes that would barely pass muster on one of the lousier episodes of An Evening at the Improv James is happily in his element. He makes a terrific beast with his nightmare-inducing huge eyes and Satanic toothy grin and often shines in his performance even when the script barely gives him anything original or fun to do.
Thom Bray barely makes a blip as the ineffectual scientist, but Rita Taggart makes the most of her limited characterization as McCarthy's loving and empathetic (to a fault) wife. Isaac wrangled some fine character actors to fill out the supporting cast, including Terry Alexander (Day of the Dead) as McCarthy's unlucky partner in the opening scene, Matt Clark (The Driver) as a police psychologist, Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs) as a prison warden overseeing Jenke's execution, and Lewis Arquette (Waiting for Guffman) as McCarthy's skeptical superior office on the force. I was even surprised to see Alvy Moore (a.k.a. Hank Kimball from the 60's sitcom Green Acres) show up in the last scene for a lame chili salesman gag. Some of the excellent make-up effects work created by Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman survived the wrath of the MPAA but it's pretty clear throughout The Horror Show that certain scenes were truncated to get that all-important R rating. What was left behind is decent enough and yet overseas markets were able to enjoy a much more gruesome cut of the movie that still has yet to be made commercially available in the U.S. Fortunately the scenes look very bright and intimidating thanks to the great cinematography from Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator, Prison), and though the score by Harry Manfredini isn't up to the standards of the iconic music he composed for the Friday the 13th movies it is fine and functional enough to give the bloodier kill scenes in The Horror Show some extra juice and get the job done with high professionalism.
No complaints here. Shout! Factory's 1080p transfer of The Horror Show was sourced from a high-definition print prepared by the good folks over at MGM that I've seen pop up on late night television recently. Presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (slightly compressed from its original theatrical A.R. of 1.85:1), this movie looks excellent on Blu-ray. There is not a single trace of detectable print damage and the grain content is kept to an acceptable minimum. Ahlberg's atmospheric cinematography really shines, especially in the plentiful night scenes, with vivid colors and inky blacks. Great details too. Our sole audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track and it does its job admirably. Every component of the sound mix comes through clear and with solid volume control and there is no audio distortion or overlap between the various elements. No subtitles have been provided.
Since director Isaac passed away in May of last year audio commentary duties are taken up by producer Cunningham, who does a fine job of discussing the origins of the film, what works and what doesn't, and briefly touches upon the troubled early days of the shoot, and manages a certain level of respect and admiration for the final product. Next up are a pair of newly-produced video interviews courtesy of Red Shirt Pictures: "The 'Show' Must Go On!" (11 minutes) features stunt coordinator Kane Hodder talking about doubling for Brion James, his working relationship with Cunningham, Isaac, and the cast, filming in Los Angeles, and a story about how he injured his ankle while playing football at a picnic and had to deal with it throughout the rest of the shoot; "House Mother" (11 minutes) brings in actress Rita Taggart to share some memories from her time playing Donna McCarthy in The Horror Show, including a few choice anecdotes about her fellow actors and her thoughts on the film's cult reputation today. The original theatrical trailer closes out the extras. Sadly, none of the uncut gore footage that can be found in international home video releases of The Horror Show has been included here. Shout! has also included a DVD copy with a standard-definition anamorphic widescreen presentation of the movie and all of the accompanying supplements.
The Horror Show is pretty stupid genre filmmaking - even for the 1980's - but it's fun schlock and will satisfy your evening's mindless entertainment needs just fine. Fans of the movie will be beyond thrilled by this new Blu-ray release from Shout! will an excellent a/v presentation and some moderately informative bonus features.