Saturday 4 August 2012

The Horror Show (1989)

Director: James Isaac
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Brion James, Rita Taggert, Dedee Pfeiffer, Aron Eisenberg, Thom Bray and Matt Clark

How good must a movie be if a director as good as David Blyth can't do it justice? No, that's both wishful and backward thinking. Let's try again. How bad must be a movie be if a director as good as David Blyth gets fired and one of the two writers, Allyn Warner, has his credit switched to Alan Smithee? It doesn't help that it was promoted outside the States as part of the House series, to which it's connected only by a few crew members. So, much of the film is set in a house? That's almost every non-western out there, right? That's all the distributors needed, apparently, so now it serves mostly to confuse people looking back, like Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I don't remember it being that bad, though it's been a couple of decades, and it stars Lance Henriksen and Brion James, two of my favourite actors. James has even said that the role he plays here, of mass murderer Max Jenke, was his favourite of all his roles. Let's watch again and find out.

Jenke is a real piece of work, not just your average, run of the mill serial killer but a candidate for Olympic gold if the Americans get their national pastime added to the event roster. He racked up a hundred and ten or so victims, seven of whom were cops. He leaves Det Lucas McCarthy, the cop who finally caught him, with nightmares so bad that he feels he has to see Jenke executed in order to find peace. That quickly turns out to be a terrible idea because pretty it isn't. Jenke is a stereotypical Hollywood badass: he spits his communion wafer back at the priest; his last words are profanity, directed at no less a warden than Lawrence Tierney; his final request is even to be buried with his treasured meat cleaver. In lesser hands, all this would be annoyingly cheesy, but this is Brion James. His electrocution scene is a peach; when he breaks out of the chair, burning alive, and swears to McCarthy that he's coming back for him, we'd better pay attention.
And of course, he does. His spirit takes up residence in the furnace in McCarthy's basement and has a ball playing around with his captor's mind, appearing at every opportunity, manipulating reality and threatening violence. Only McCarthy notices for a while, which makes him look as crazy as he starts to feel, stabbing the turkey when it grows Jenke's head on its own or shooting the TV when Jenke takes over the role of a stand up comedian. While the basic idea could easily be seen as a take on Obi Wan Kenobi's 'If you kill me, I'll become more powerful than you could ever imagine' line from Star Wars, the approach is totally A Nightmare on Elm Street with every opportunity taken to set up a shock moment. Not all are telegraphed and not all follow through, which helps the suspense to build nicely. The biggest difference is that this focuses far more on Det McCarthy than his kids, who would have been the main targets in most horror movies.

I really like this approach. It means that when McCarthy's daughter Bonnie brings her boyfriend Vinnie home against orders and Jenke takes his cleaver to him, it's McCarthy who's set up as the prime suspect. Given that he almost strangled his wife in a nightmare even before Jenke is put into the electric chair, maybe he really is and the whole reincarnated evil spirit thing is just him stuck in a nightmarish attack of post-traumatic stress disorder. That's the sort of thing that you might expect in a traditional thriller and it's refreshing to see an actor as good and as good at playing tough as Henriksen stuck in that sort of helpless scenario, where even the people he's trying to protect wonder if he's actually the one hurting them. He resists the horror aspects and plays McCarthy like he's in a psychological thriller, while the rest of the cast are happy to go for the stereotypical horror movie victim approach instead.

The often jarring disconnect between these different approaches ought to be a big problem, but bizarrely it's something of a success because it plays well into Jenke's surreal nightmare logic. I wonder if it was consciously aimed at. I'm guessing not, given that otherwise this really isn't that cleverly written. There are many holes in the internal consistency to deal with, even restricted to those we can confidently assume happen outside of nightmares. Some are little, like McCarthy's apparent non-concern about his son's habit of ripping off companies by pretending that he found icky things in their products. Others are larger, like what Prof Peter Campbell gets up to for most of the movie. He's a parapsychologist interested in pure evil as electromagnetic energy, so he's at once the key to the plot and a character who hardly gets to take part in it. I'm still confused about the final scene. Where does it takes place and how does everyone get there?
Story aside, the cast are capable, even though they gel about as well as the approaches taken by the actors. Henriksen does his usual solid job and the ladies will enjoy the fact that he spends quite a bit of it topless. He was in awesome shape and he was happy to show it, though he gets even more physical and even more frequently topless in Pumpkinhead and Survival Quest, both made only a year earlier. Rita Taggart is impressive as his wife Donna, but her character is badly built, spending half the film as a pillar of strength and then turning weak at a moment's notice. Bonnie is as stereotypical a horror movie daughter as I've seen, and her brother Scott isn't far off being as stereotypical a horror movie son. Dedee Pfeiffer and Aron Eisenberg aren't bad at all, however much the latter is trying to be Corey Haim, but there's not much for them to do. Thom Bray has a Norman Bates feel to him as Prof Campbell, but he gets no opportunities either.

And that leaves Brion James. After a string of important character roles in films like Blade Runner and the 48 Hrs movies in the early eighties, which highlighted his versatility, he gradually found himself typecast as a stereotypical villain or sidekick. He remained consistently solid, as material decreased in quality, but he rarely got the chance to really shine. This movie, at the other end of the eighties from his best, was the exception. He's a riot throughout, as cheesy as his lines get, and the film's commercial success ought to have meant a return to the role in a sequel or two. The horror genre has always loved series and it fell utterly in lust with franchises in the eighties. Perhaps getting lumped in with the House series around the world made it tougher to become its own franchise. Whatever the reason, it's easy to see why he was so fond of the character and he's why I'm more fond of The Horror Show than Wes Craven's Shocker, its overt rival in 1989.

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