Stars: Lance Henriksen, Brion James, Rita Taggart, Dedee Pfeiffer, Aron Eisenberg, Thom Bray, Lawrence Tierney | Written by Allyn Warner, Leslie Bohem | Directed by James Isaac
If there was one genre that spawned countless knock-offs (some better than the films they were imitating, others not so much) it was the slasher film. Even some films that were touted as the greats amongst the sub-genre would be still hidden in the shadows of the films they were emulating. There’s a waterfall effect to these films that start with Psycho and fall through Black Christmas onto Friday the 13th. But within the sub-genre, a splintering could be found as well, creating a mutated family hierarchy of slasherdom. Every slasher film had to find some sort of way of setting itself apart from the other, by creating some sort of different villain who was unstoppable and creative in ways that kept bodies in seats. So films like Bad Dreams, Shocker, The First Power and finally The Horror Show washed up in the wake of these films in the sub-sub-genre of supernatural serial killer film replete with rubber band realities.
A bit of sidestepping related to the film: In my youth, and still to this day, I loved the original House, which was produced by Sean Cunningham (he of the Friday the 13th fame) and pretty much lukewarm on House II: the Second Story. So when the time came, I went to find House III, I came up empty handed and moved on to House IV, which I remember more vividly than any other horror film weirdly enough. So, I was confused understandably when the third entry was nowhere to be found. Until, that is, the advent of the internet alerted me to the fact that due to an overseas snafu with another film led to The Horror Show being called House III, and to avoid confusion with those two films, they called the next film House IV, which in reality would actually cause everything to be more confusing than it necessarily needed to be. So finally, thanks to the Blu-Ray release of The Horror Show, from those genre greats at Scream Factory, I was able to finally see this film and close a part of my horror history.
And the results?
Despite the clean, polished transfer, The Horror Show is mainly hit or miss, with hits tallying up more than the misses. The story is the usual killer wreaks vengeance from the dead tale, with light character development, but really there are two things that would get audiences in their seats and keep them there. That’s the performances by genre stalwarts Brion James, emitting the perfect amount of sleaze and sweat in the role of deceased but not quite dead, Max Jenke. He steals the show when he’s front and center, and oozes menace. The other is Lance Henriksen, who does great work as the good cop and family man haunted by Jenke. It’s basically a show for the two men to act and sometimes overact against the special effects which are the third star of the show. And the effects by a young KNB, are appropriately gruesome in places (see Jenke’s execution) and create a sense of otherworldliness to the dream sequences that filter in and out of Henriksen’s reality. The plot is a decent copy of Shocker, although like that film, they never give you a good sense of how Jenke’s back and doing the things he’s doing other than a few expository lines of dialogue by an ill-fated professor who comes in and gets taken out before doling out how to end Jenke again. But it really makes little to no sense. Is Jenke real? Or is he some sort of corporeal force of energy like a charged-up ghost? They never answer it clearly, but it doesn’t really matter in the context of a film like this. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. That’s how it works for this film. Ignore the plot holes, which are large enough to drive a space shuttle through, (how did Jenke get into the police station, and how did the cop who hunted him for so long, not notice him, or the interesting thread they drop where Jenke is framing Henriksen’s character for his crimes) and just enjoy the freaky, pulpy ride for all it’s worth. And Brion James has a seriously iconic laugh.
There are just a small morsel of features, one of which is a feature length commentary featuring producer Sean Cunningham, moderated by Michael Felsher, which aptly was recorded on Friday, September 13th (!). The conversation steers towards the casting of Henriksen, it was a connection Cunningham’s longtime collaborator Lewis Abernathy, discussing the origins of the story, which clears up the “House III/Horror Show” snafu and that the film was a course correction after the cutesy antics that ran throughout House II: The Second Story, (which, yes, Sean is an amazing title), to return to the darker side of horror. They also discuss the MPAA cracking down on the film, and others in that time period (especially Shocker) with preferential treatment, during the rather violent execution scene.
Two interviews round out the rest of the features, one of which is ‘The “Show” Must Go On’ – an 11-minute documentary with stunt coodinator and actor Kane Hodder, who shows his unending loyalty to Sean Cunningham (after all he is Jason’s creator), discusses his origins in landing the role of stuntmanfor Max Jenke, and waxes nostalgic the cast and crew, especially on the late Brion James and tells a funny Lance Henriksen story all while discussing his stunts which are as unpredictable as they can be, even saying that he hurt himself off-set playing football. And he memorializes late director Jim Issac, who he teamed with later on Jason X, with some typically kind words. The other interview is with Rita Taggart called ‘House Mother’ – which runs about 10 minutes and discusses her history as an actor and balked at doing the film, because it was horror until she’d heard that Lance Henriksen was doing the film, even digging into the change that took place from the original director, David Blythe, and the switch to Jim Issac, and how it made her feel uncomfortable, given his green status as a director. It’s sweet that she seemed so upset about losing Blythe, and is hilarious when she talks about trying to take the talking demon turkey. And finally the theatrical trailer completes the set.
It’s a must-buy for slasher movie completists, anyone who loves the oevure of Sean Cunningham, or loves a damn fun horror film that knows exactly what it wants to be.
The Horror Show is currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD combo.