The Horror Show (1989)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #24


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: April 28, 1989
Sub-Genre: Slasher/Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $1,738,897
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: James Isaac
Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
Screenplay: Alan Smithee, Leslie Bohem
Special Effects: Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger
Cinematography: Mac Ahlberg
Score: Harry Manfredini
Editing: Edward Anton
Studio: Sean S. Cunningham Films
Distributor: United Artists (US Theatrical), Shout! Factory (DVD)
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Brion James, Rita Taggart, DeDee Pfeiffer, Aron Eisenberg, Lawrence Tierney, Thom Bray, Lewis Arquette


Suggested Audio Candy

Megadeth “No More Mr. Nice Guy”


Lance Henriksen can do little wrong in my book. This distinguished actor has long since been something of a flag-bearer for horror and quite rightly so in my opinion. Damien: Omen II, The Terminator, Aliens, Near Dark, Pumpkinhead, and Pit and The Pendulum are just a handful of features that benefited from his involvement and he was particularly prominent throughout the seventies and eighties. It doesn’t stop there either as, with a plump résumé boasting almost two hundred credits, Henriksen remains one of the most consistently hard-working professionals on the circuit to this very day. Unquestionable acting chops aside, he also just has a fucking great face.


Among his lesser known works is James Isaac’s The Horror Show from 1989. Arriving some time after the slasher money-making machine ground to a halt, it barely made the slightest dent in the marketplace and disappeared without so much as a whimper soon after. Unfortunately, Isaac’s film fell foul to woefully misplaced marketing in the same manner that robbed Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch of its rightful place within celebrated horror folklore. Rebranded as House III in a bid to gain it a wider audience, this shameful publicity stunt backfired rather spectacularly, and its lack of success wasn’t aided by the fact that House II: The Second Storey had already effectively buried the franchise previously. It’s a crying shame as, taken on its own merits, there’s actually rather a lot here to commend.


Henriksen plays burnt-out detective Lucas McCarthy who, along with his expendable sidekick (the ill-fated eighties black partner), is focusing all of his energy into bringing a serial killer to justice by whichever means necessary. Meanwhile, his target Max Jenke (played with ghoulish relish by the late Brion James) is proving a particularly slippery customer and is very much aware of McCarthy’s dogged pursuit. Meat Cleaver Max, as he has been less than affectionately labelled, is not about to come quietly and makes his point in no uncertain terms, taunting his opposite number every step of the way through a gleefully grisly opening flourish that instantly makes a mockery of any House connotations.


Recognizing that Jenke is way beyond rehabilitation, the judicial system wastes no time in dishing out the most severe punishment possible and sentencing him to death by electric chair for his crimes. Still reeling his recent ordeal, McCarthy decides that the best therapy is to watch this sick bastard fry and settles into his front row seat fully prepared for closure. Alas, Jenke proves to be one of life’s survivors (picture the incapacitated cow from Me, Myself and Irene and throw in Tourette’s) and refuses to die without first stating his intention to return and wreak havoc like never before. Worse still, he plans to make life a living hell for Lucas in particular and his entire family to boot.


Of course, it isn’t long before Max comes good on his malignant oath and things in the McCarthy household take a turn for the decidedly worse, courtesy of some outlandish dream sequences that borrow from the Elm Street franchise and a piece of possessed poultry à la Eraserhead. Realizing that his nearest and dearest are in direct jeopardy, our besieged detective enlists the assistance of disreputable college professor in a last-ditch attempt at ridding himself of Jenke’s heinous curse. Of course, Jenke has other ideas and, when you consider that Lucas’ daughter Bonnie is played by none other than Michelle Pfeiffer’s utterly delectable sister DeDee (Vamp), who can blame him.


The Horror Show is a curious beast. Flitting between the slasher and haunted house sub-genres seemingly at will, it often appears unsure of its own identity and this comes as no surprise when you consider that original director David Blyth was relinquished of his duties midway through filming. To make matters worse, Wes Craven’s uncannily similar Shocker arrived hot on its heels, and benefited from far less confused marketing, leaving Isaac’s less fashionable effort to fade without a trace. Indeed, it was almost a decade before it finally arrived on home in the United States which is borderline unforgivable.


When you consider the countless tribulations it endured, it is all the more remarkable that The Horror Show delivers such an upright experience. High art it is most definitely not and Isaac’s film is repeatedly culpable of playing by-the-numbers (the three-beat pattern of scare, relief and then scare again). However, thanks to its affable cast, a typically committed turn from Henriksen, and a borderline iconic one from James (who cited Max Jenke as his favorite role before he died) it manages to achieve a fair few of its goals. In a decade where most assailants chose to remain shrouded, Max Jenke was like a breath of wonderfully putrid air.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement:  7/10

Grue Factor:  4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Regrettably, the censors had themselves something of a field day at the expense of The Horror Show. While the MPAA ordered numerous scenes to be trimmed, what’s left is plenty gory, and dab handed SFX gurus Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger splash the grue about with gleeful abandon throughout. Decapitation, dismemberment, bare-skinned cleaver entry, bubbling flesh blisters, you name it… they promptly serve it up. And I shall never ogle a roast chicken with the same lusting allure after spending thanksgiving with the McCarthys.

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DeDee… you mighty fine!

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Read House (1986) Appraisal

Read Shocker Appraisal

Read A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Appraisal

Read Pumpkinhead Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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