Funny story: originally released in the States as “The Horror Show”, this gore soaked psycho chiller was slapped with the title House III for it’s european release in order to hopefully make it more successful. Produced by House head honcho Sean S. Cunningham who also created the Friday The 13th franchise, The Horror Show was as strange a tonal fit for the goofy haunted house series as labeling Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive as a Fast And Furious spin off but nevertheless it seemed to stick – even going as far to have the next House movie label Part IV in the US even though Part III technically didn’t exist…
While none of this is actually relevant to the review of FX artist turned director James (Jason X) Isaac’s debut, it’s actually somewhat more interesting than film itself, which ends up being a mildly above average Nightmare On Elm Street rip off that features two great cult actors facing off and some nifty gore.
Lucas McCarthy is a police detective left traumatised after bringing in the beserker serial killer Max Jenke (aka. Meat Cleaver Max) and is having horrific nightmares of the night he waded through a literal charnel house to arrest the man who apparently boasts a bodycount of over a hundred. While the after effects of that night has left him somewhat distant to his loving family, he figures that getting a front row seat for Jenke’s execution will be just what the doctor ordered to help the nightmares go away (hey, it’s the 80’s ok?). Needless to say, the electric chair doesn’t exactly do what it says on the tin and instead of killing Max, it supercharges the maniac while simultaneously char broiling him to a bloody mess and his ghost finds it’s way via an electrical current into Lucas’ household where it chills in the basement like a teenage moocher.
Plagued with nightmares and hallucinations thanks to the evil, reality-fucking force lurking in his furnace, Lucas is worried he’s going crazier than a shit house rat as his home life starts to collapse, thanks to him violently reacting to a mutated turkey with Jenke’s face or spotting the cleaver wielding monster delivering a comedy routine on television.
If Lucas doesn’t start getting a better grip on what’s real and what’s not, Max is going to be able to smoke him and his loved ones easier than a cheap roll up and so the stage is set for the two hated enemies to have a brutal showdown where the rules of reality are as tangible as a wet fart and the very lives of Lucas’ family are in the balance.
Can Lucas find a way to stop this cleaver twirling ghost with a grudge the size of a whale’s prostate before he shreds his loved ones into something resembling strips of bloody ramen?
There’s another fact about The Horror Show that weirdly more interesting than the movie itself is how eerily similar it is to Wes Craven’s Shocker, another film that features a burly serial killer proving that the electric chair may not be the best deterrent to crime when they become superpowered Freddy Krueger wannabes after a good zapping. Now, saying a couple of slasher movies are pretty similar is hardly a reason to stop the presses, but when you consider they were both released in 1989 and both the brainchild of old collaborators Craven and Cunningham who started their careers with Last House On The Left, things get a little strange…
Anyway, while I prefer Craven’s more colourful effort over the antics of Max Jenke, I still have a soft spot for Brion James’ cackling also-ran to the horror hall of fame because House III, while heavily flawed, still has enough, brutal 80’s charm to carry it through.
The major draw here are the two leads who are played by the twin character actor legends Brion James as Max and Lance Henriksen as Det. Lucas, his heroic opposite number and both give the film way more effort than it probably deserves as they chew their way through ludicrously macho dialogue and the kind of post-kill quips that sound like they’ve been dug out of Freddy’s rejected pile. With that being said, it’s actually a low-key joy to watch them work so hard on a movie that didn’t even get to keep it’s original name and Henriksen in particular attacks the role of his PTSD suffering cop like he’s being directed by David fucking Fincher as he staggers from special effects set piece to special effect set piece completely drenched in sweat and looking as if he’s the one his family should be truly scared of.
In fact the movie misses a trick by making its villain so cut and dry and instead of framing Lucas for crimes he couldn’t possibly have committed (chopping up his daughter’s randy boyfriend in a mad rage us gonna be a bastard of a charge to make stick if he hasn’t got a single drop of blood on him) the film would have been better served forging down the path of trying to make Lucas the danger by weaponizing his post traumatic stress – and to be fair, it does some of that quite well. Watching Henriksen flip out and pop a cap in his set during family television time or attack the turkey he’s carving while his two point four kids stare on agog is actually pretty cool and it’s almost a shame the film keeps insisting of choosing the less subtle route.
I say almost, because The Horror Show has quite the gruesome body count up its sleeve starting with an early scene which has a kitchen double up a gauntlet of horrors that Lucas has to stride through while exclaiming in shock. Severed heads on plates, severed heads in deep fat fryers and a pair of legs jutting out from crunching and whirring industrial meat grinder gets things going nicely with more surreal shit bringing up the rear such as the monstrous image of Jenke’s face leering through the skin of pregnant belly and Lucas having some trouble trying to keep his breast from spontaneously splitting open as Max plays reality like it’s his own endless personal guitar solo on a prog rock album.
It ain’t big and it certainly ain’t clever – 30% of Henriksen’s dialogue is him bellowing “Fuck you!!” at the majority of the cast – but there’s wee glimmers of gold here; for example the notion of a tough male cop being unable to admit he needs help when his mental health take a sizable downward dip.
If you watch only one electrified, undead serial killer movie made in 1989 this year – I would still suggest the far more crazily ambitious Shocker, but as no one’s making you limit yourself to one you could do a lot worse than The Horrow Show. The problem is you could do a lot better too.
Average: to the Max…