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When Frightmare finally hit theaters in 1982 (under the moniker Horror Star), its novelty got it more than a little attention. Wanting to mesh the current trend toward corpse carving with those old school shivers (almost always helmed by a certain Vinny Price) it hoped to bring fright flick purists into the wicked world of newfangled psycho killer cinema. And for many, it's a found fond memory, an above-average horror happening founded on nostalgia and nuance, as well as endlessly inventive incising. Cable only cemented such sentiments, as Frightmare went on to earn a legion of pay channel champions. Add in the booming VHS market where even the most marginal movie could find a comfortable abode, and you'd swear this film flanked Chainsaw and Evil Dead as a long lost classic. Just one look, however, and you'll instantly understand how misguided such attitudes are. Frightmare is a monotonous mess, made even less memorable by its lack of anything closely resembling a movie – like characters, plot or purpose.
Conrad Radzoff is more or less a combination of Vincent Price (without the polished persona or fey flexing) and Christopher Lee (without...well...without anything the bravura British bloke brings to the screen). His career in horror films has made him a superstar. But now, at the tale end of his bodily box office run, he's reduced to making cut-rate commercials. So he does what any other disgruntled D-list actor can – he kills the director. Fast forward a few seconds and Radzoff is now being honored by a local college's film society for his impeccable ghoul grooming. Of course, he responds to the admiration by stroking out. Next thing we know, he is dying. Then he's coming back to life. But then he's really dead. And typical of most movie stars, he in interred in a mausoleum the size of a Deep South Double Wide.
Since the university students feel gypped by Radzoff's recent appearance (he passed out without signing memorabilia), they decide to celebrate his craft and career by stealing his coffin and taking it to his gloomy, Gothic estate. There, they defile the corpse a little, eat spaghetti while wearing monster masks, and generally indulge in the kind of hopeless hi-jinx that Mommy and Daddy's matriculation money is known for. When the widow Radzoff discovers that her husband is missing, she gets a silly psychic to contact him. Instead of a paranormal conversation, the medium makes a supernatural wake-up call, and Conrad rises from his coffin to get some revenge, golden age of Tinsel Town style. And as the undergraduate bodies pile up like cordwood, no one is quite sure why the late, lamented actor would want to go on such a strange spree-killing Frightmare.
There are three words that should tell you right up front if Frightmare is any good or not, six syllables that indicate exactly the level of entertainment and expertise you'll be experiencing for your near 90 minutes of movie macabre. And that collection of vowels and consonants is - drumroll, please – NOR-MAN THAD-DE-US VANE. This anti-auteur, this faux filmmaker with a resume only blacklisted blindman could envy, has created something so dull, so incredibly incompetent that parents with hyperactive children would be well advised to treat their tyrannical tykes to a daily dose of this miserable movie morphine.
Only problem is, the obvious side effect will be advanced idiocy, as Vane's vain attempts at fear will turn even the most strong-willed wee one into a feeble minded muskrat. With a plot that has no valid motivational foundation, a featured creature main character who looks more like a homeless ham actor than...well, a celebrated terror thespian, and gore elements that are neither special or effective, we end up with one Bataan Death March of a movie. You'll feel like filing war crime charges on the entire cast once you've served your time in this fright flop sewer.
It's easy to understand Frightmare's former mythos. In a realm where death and dismemberment meant a lack of narrative imagination and a whole lot of boastful bloodletting, something that tried for a semblance of yarn uniqueness was seen as a cause for festivity, not a reason to run. Well, looking back over the decades, whoever determined that Frightmare was leveraged with likeable storyline should have their plot proscribing perceptions readjusted. Confusion is not narrative. Absent motivation is not solid stratagem. No scare saga should be based on the non-creative concept of corralling passable potential victims, only to have them offed by a butler in bad movie makeup.
Others will still voice their undying approval, recalling the gooey gore effects filled with decapitations, immolation and tongue tearing. Using such claret calling cards as reason to rejoice, they praise this pathetic property, arguing that any supposed shortcomings are almost instantaneously cured by the regular arrrival of body broth. Once again, in a post-millennial milieu, this is a bunch of corpse crap. Frightmare's sole effective F/X moment comes when Jeffrey Combs – yes THAT Jeffery Combs – buys the first film farm by getting his far too young looking noggin nudged off by a blow from a sword. We get a decent torrent of blood, a Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte - esque head roll, and a final tableau where a friendly neighborhood raven picks pieces of brain out of the messed-up melon. Not quite Bobby Peru's demise in Wild at Heart, or Ray Liotta's reveal in Hannibal, but a tasty slice of horror head, nonetheless.
However, the rest of the routine gore glory is derivative and dull (and, one suspects, cut for this release). When Herschell Gordon Lewis, a rotten lamb's tongue and a mouthful of cranberry sauce make for a more effective lick-ectomy - and Blood Feast was 20 years before this boredom – it's hard to champion such taste bud busting. Yet Frightmare is filled with such failures. When an ancillary character is set on fire, you hope for bubbling flesh and scorched shorts. What we get instead is a lot of slow-mo flaming, followed by a scene right out of Unsolved Mysteries: Spontaneous Combustion – a single burnt mannequin hand laying among a person-shaped pile of ashes. A coffin to the head produces a single, sloppy spray of vein vittles and the other demises are equally unexciting (one guy gets smoke machined to death...yawn...).
Had we the slightest emotional involvement with the victims, had we really cared if they lived or died, perhaps such shoddy slaughters could be tolerated. But Vane gives us nothing in the way of character development or consideration. The entire movie is based on two incredibly arcane ideas (dead horror legend is brought back to life by a third rate psychic - a group of college age film fans steal the actor's corpse because...umm...umm...the Kubrick festival at the student union was cancelled?) and we are then left to fill in many of the missing elements. Relationships are delineated by who's hanging off whom during the first few scenes, and occasional moments of exposition appear to be missing that concluding sentence that gives closure and completeness to the thought.
Instead of fear, we get fog. The terror of vivisection is replaced by the novelty of video (our main character, a tad overplayed by the frightfully foppy Ferdy Mayne taunts his tormentors with pre-taped messages from beyond the grave). And to top it all off, that redneck nuisance, that proprietor of white trash strippers himself, Chuck "Porky" Mitchell shows up as the only police detective in Los Angeles missing most of his bottom teeth. Frightmare fumbles so many of the standard scare tactics that it's almost impossible to see where it gained such a supercilious legitimacy. In the end, this is just a timid throwback to the entire 'splatter matters' style of film. But with Jason and his jousting now considered a justifiable classic, all those pathetic pale imitators no longer get a free pass – novelty or not. Someone should have stopped Norman Thaddeus Vane when they had the chance. Instead, a whole generation fed off the cable-infused glass teat now think this drivel is desirable. And how scary is that?
Maybe the reason why Frightmare fails some 23 years after its initial theatrical foray is the incredibly dark, almost indecipherable print provided by Troma. The 1.33:1 full screen image looks like it was dipped in India ink and rinsed with some black poster paints. There are several sequences that are almost unwatchable as actors and actions get lost in a murky mire of lightless logistics. And just to make matters a tad less tolerable, uncomfortable editing suggests that moments of beneficial bloody mayhem have been excised, lost to the ages as the movie passed from distributor to distributor. Resembling one of the worst VHS varieties one can imagine in the digital domain, this DVD will make fans furious, while newcomers will miss most of the proposed putrescence that sold this schlock in the first place.
Frightmare also suffers from an Atari/Casio concept of sound design. While the music is standard horror film fare (all dark, broody and bombastic), the rest of the sonics resemble Super Mario Brothers' balderdash. Radzoff's tomb is outfitted with the latest in technological advances (mainly, a big screen projection TV and some Roman statuary) so, naturally, when anyone enters the vile vault, we hear all manner of bops and burbles, itchy diodes misfiring and modulating with ear irritating regularity. Dialogue also suffers from some drop out, as actors emote into their shirts instead of the surrounding boom mics. While this is really no worse than most homemade movies that hit the market, Frightmare still stumbles in the aural arena.
By now, the Lloyd Kaufman/Debbie Rochon fill-in-the-blank intro has gone from funny, to sad, to irritating, to nauseating, to funny again. Here's a suggestion for all you Troma fans out there who've grown tired of this fake-voiced bullskit. As Lloyd and Deb drone on and on, attempt your own imitation of the inserts. Get your best Frank Gorshin going and try to match and mimic the spoken sputum you hear. Suddenly, what seemed stupid will feel fresh with the flower of enjoyment all over again. As for the rest of the unexciting extras, it's PETA/Trailers/Make Your Own Damn Movie time.
Individuals anxious to relive those nights in front of the boob tube, memories of favorite off-brand horror film fresh in their mind, will probably lap up this lousy lox of a movie the minute they hear it's available on DVD. And others hampered by that cat-killing curiosity to see what all the hubbub is about will also potentially dive in for a rationalized rental. But neither concept is credible. Frightmare fails to hold up, voiding almost all the variables that made it an innovation during the opening years in Uncle Ronnie's reign. It's far too slow and somber for a modern macabre audience, and its supposedly ingenious premise pales in comparison to those that would later really fidget with the scary movie dynamic. If you just have to see it once, then by all means, take a gander. But be prepared to be disappointed. In reality, your best bet would be to skip this spit all together. It's far too late in his crap career to give Norman Thaddeus Vane such validation. God forbid, it may cause him to consider making another movie. And no matter your feelings for Frightmare, we just don't deserve such a chilling prospect.
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