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Horror Show, The

Shout Factory // R // November 26, 2013
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 12, 2013 | E-mail the Author
Max Jenke (Brion James) isn't sweating the 'chair. Hell, before getting dragged to prison for hacking apart more than a hundred victims with a meat cleaver, the nutjob had built his own homebrew electric chair and routinely zapped himself night after night. I guess he built up a resistance or whatever. When the state throws their switch, Jenke laughs it off, tearing off
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his restraints to torment Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) one last time. "Lucas, " he hisses, "I'm coming back to tear your world apart. I'm going to fuck you up!"

...and he does!

See, I don't know if you've been keeping up with the papers that Dr. Peter Campbell (Thom Bray) has been publishing in the American Journal of Science, but he theorizes that evil is a measurable form of electricity. You pump a psychopath like Jenke full of 50,000 volts, and all of a sudden, he's reduced to raw energy and can travel through power lines. He can even torment you from the electrical impulses firing away in your noggin. It doesn't matter that the meatsuit he used to wear looks like last Thursday's lasagna was left in the microwave too long; he's electric, boogie woogie woogie. Jenke can recorporealize whenever he feels like it and zip away through a circuit breaker before your severed head hits the basement floor. Jenke has the whole cat-and-mouse thing down, inducing psychotic hallucinations that push Lucas towards the brink of insanity and even framing the poor bastard for murder. But hey, he threatened to tear the detective's life apart, and madness and a murder rap are just Jenke warming up...

The Horror Show is awful, but I think it might be my kind of awful. This Nightmare on Elm St. knockoff is a really bizarre head-on collision of a limp, lifeless, paint-by-numbers horror flick and complete batshit insanity. Yeah, yeah, I know everyone talks about how similar The Horror Show and Shocker -- both hailing from the class of 1989 -- are, but the Elm St. thing is pretty tough to overlook. Serial killers seeking revenge from beyond the grave,
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inspiring waking nightmares in their prey with dark, demented senses of humor, they both have a thing for little blonde girls, both movies revolve around a supernatural mass murderer attacking a cop's suburban home, furnaces are a central, recurring visual in both flicks, they both climax with the non-corporeal killers being dragged out of dream-time and into reality, and, hell, both killers possess food at some point to torment their victims. One area where The Horror Show doesn't stack up is with its extremely low body count. Ignoring nightmares and stuff, there's not a supernatural kill until right at 40 minutes in, and the second -- almost entirely offscreen! -- doesn't come until after the hour mark. The teasing and torture in the middle of the flick is inexplicably sparse and kinda routine. Jenke lacks the menace of pretty much any other slasher from the '80s, and his high-pitched cackle is nails-on-chalkboard.

Producer Sean S. Cunningham mentions a couple times in his commentary about how The Horror Show was meant to be "scary and intense", but...where? It never manages to build any tension or suspense, and too many of the jump scares are hack clichés like a cat jumping onto frame, a sudden hand on a shoulder, a boyfriend surprising his girlfriend right when you're expecting the killer to leap out...ugh. There really isn't much of anything creepy or unnerving lurking around in here, and its stabs at twisted, depraved fun are just about always a swing-and-a-miss. Jenke's not-really-one-liners are all dreck like "back the fuck off, bitch!" and "don't look now, but your family's dead...just kidding!" It's a drag that Scream Factory couldn't track down the uncensored cut that apparently made the rounds internationally as House III. This R-rated version hacks out all the bloodiest bits, and sloshing around buckets of over-the-top splatter might've made The Horror Show a whole lot more
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...and yet there is a bunch of entrancingly strange, wonderful stuff bobbing around in here, even if just about all of it comes at the very beginning and end. I mean, in the first few minutes, you get a deep-fried hand, a cop's severed head trussed up on a plate, dismemberment, a six year old girl getting decapitated, and even a serial killer in drag for good measure. The third act is gloriously insane, overflowing with twisted imagery and tossing in a coda that breaks every last rule in the Horror Flick Epilogue Playbook. It doesn't hurt that inhumanly cute Dedee Pfeiffer is on the bill as McCarthy's daughter either. At the end of the day, it's not Jenke or the detective he's tormenting that steal the show, though; it's Aron Eisenberg as McCarthy's doofy looking son. His big subplot is that he writes letters to all sorts of different companies, complaining that he finds rat hairs and severed thumbs in his food so he can score cases of free Nestle Quik and canned chili. It's so random and completely disconnected from everything else that's going on, but I'm not sure The Horror Show would be anywhere near as watchable as it is without all that.

Even though the bulk of the film is dragged down by endless stretches of nothing, the runtime's padded out by people slowly walking around and saying the name of someone or something over and over and over and over, and the cramped basement set is torturously overused, The Horror Show is shockingly tolerable. There are just enough bursts of dementia to keep things from getting too boring, and even though I'd never actually seen The Horror Show till now, it still brings back all the right memories of the '80s junk food genre flicks I devoured growing up. The Horror Show is in that class of horror where I'm glad I saw it but will probably never give it another spin, so I guess my vote would be to Rent It.

The Horror Show looks okay in high-def. Some stretches are awfully soft and diffused, although that can probably be traced back to the original photography a quarter-century back. That softness is at its heaviest throughout the first act of the flick and rears its head only sporadically after that. Definition and detail rarely impress but are decent enough most of the time. There's plenty of speckling along with the occasional thin, vertical line, but that's not too much of a distraction. I'm surprised by how lackluster the AVC encode is, though. Look at the heavy artifacting and general digital unpleasantness in this randomly selected, uncompressed screenshot, for instance:

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The bitrate has plenty of headroom, and The Horror Show does have a dual-layer disc to lounge around on, but it just looks like...something went wrong. Not one of Scream Factory's better looking releases. Anyway, The Horror Show is presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and an anamorphic widescreen DVD is along for the ride.

The Horror Show sports a respectable 24-bit stereo track in the usual DTS-HD Master Audio. The dialogue shows flickers of strain at times but is generally clean and clear. Effects come through well enough, and there aren't any clicks, pop, dropouts, or overbearing hiss to get in the way. Exactly what it oughtta be.

There's not even an audio submenu, so that lossless stereo track really is it.

  • Audio Commentary: Oh, wow! The flipside of the case doesn't say anything about this commentary track with producer Sean S. Cunningham, so that's a nice surprise. This track was recorded, appropriately
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    enough, on Friday the 13th, and moderator Michael Felsher is onboard to ask all the right questions: why it was titled House III overseas, the Alan Smithee co-writing credit, the directorial change-up less than a week into filming, and a reaction I wouldn't have expected to the MPAA forcing so much of the gore to be snipped out. Cunningham also speaks about the seismic shifts in filmmaking and distribution in the nearly twenty-five years since, this film featuring some of the earliest work from KNB after the splatter wizards officially formed their own company, and why he doesn't think being pigeonholed is necessarily a bad thing. I really enjoyed it, and this track again shows what a terrific presence Michael Felsher is on Scream Factory's commentaries, bringing the energy and enthusiasm of a rabid fan along with the interviewing skills of a seasoned documentary filmmaker.

  • Interviews (22 min.; HD): Actress Rita Taggart and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder both score interviews, each clocking in at 11 minutes. Taggart speaks about being a lifelong performer, her feelings about director David Blythe and his dismissal from The Horror Show, the camaraderie on the set of this low-budget production, and being on the edge of all this extensive stuntwork. Speaking of which, Hodder runs through the most memorable stunts throughout The Horror Show, a nasty injury he suffered off the set, and what a joy it was to work with everyone on both sides of the camera. Both conversations are pleasant and professional but didn't really grab me the way Red Shirt Pictures' interviews usually do.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last to bat is a high-def trailer. With lossless audio, even!

No slipcover or reversible cover art this time around. The Horror Show is a combo pack, though, so you do get a DVD out of the deal.

The Final Word
Eh, it's '80s horror junk food. You're either into that sort of thing or you aren't. The Horror Show has just enough unhinged highlights to make it worth a rental, but just about everything else about the flick is too mediocre to warrant anything more than that. Rent It.
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