THE HORROR SHOW (1989) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: James Isaac
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

If you’ve ever wondered why the HOUSE franchise skipped from the theatrical second installment to the direct-to-video fourth part, check out THE HORROR SHOW on Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” series.

Serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James, BLADE RUNNER) is the essence of pure evil with his body count of over 110 known victims (including seven cops). His capture by Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen, PUMPKINHEAD) – which cost the life of his partner (DAY OF THE DEAD’s Terry Alexander) and a little girl – still gives the cop vivid nightmares that have kept him on desk duty and in therapy. Witnessing Jenke’s execution via electric chair does little to bring him closure (especially since Jenke is able to stand up even after a blast of increased voltage and swear to McCarthy that he’s “coming back to fuck you up” even as he burst into flames and dies). Also at the execution is Professor Peter Campbell (Thom Bray, PRINCE OF DARKNESS) who attempts to warn him that Jenke may be dead but he is far from resting. His spirit has traveled through the power lines and taken up residence in the McCarthy family basement, leading to several false scares as the plot contrives to find reasons for each family member – mother Donna (Rita Taggart, MULHOLLAND DRIVE), daughter Bonnie (Dedee Pfeiffer, VAMP), and son Scott (Aron Eisenberg, PUPPET MASTER III: TOULON’S REVENGE), as well as Bonnie’s expose-your-abs-and-die boyfriend Vinnie (David Oliver, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS) – to visit the basement.

Known overseas as HOUSE 3, so much so that the producers of HOUSE IV decided to skip a sequel stateside to avoid confusion with international sales (even though it left us Yanks totally bewildered and some still asking what happened to HOUSE III), THE HORROR SHOW bears a striking similarity to Wes Craven’s SHOCKER (one of two films he made for Alive Films, the other being THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS). Although THE HORROR SHOW was released six months before SHOCKER, it can be seen as the low-tech, low-ambition version of the same concept (although SHOCKER was no great shakes either). Produced by HOUSE franchise producer Sean S. Cunningham (FRIDAY THE 13TH) and directed by late visual effects artist James Isaac (who later directed JASON X), THE HORROR SHOW is heavy on the false scares (a cat even jumps out of a cabinet to startle Henriksen at one point) and lackadaisically-visualized ELM STREET-esque nightmare sequences. James is his weird, imposing self, but least scary when he’s speaking here (especially since he isn’t restricted to Freddy-esque one-liners). Since it’s not really a HOUSE film, the McCarthy family home isn’t really a character of its own, but it does start in on some surreal grisly comic visuals common to the series later in the film (including an amusing stop-motion turkey monster).

With the dearth of imagination on display here, KNB Efx’s gore would seem to be the film’s raison d’etre, but the film was neutered by the MPAA for an R-rating like just about every other horror title during this period. A slightly longer pre-MPAA cut was screened theatrically abroad and has been available on import releases like the Japanese tape (and presumably the Hong Kong laserdisc) and one of the British DVD releases. Presumably MGM was not able to find film material from which to create an uncut version (as they did with their HD master of DERANGED) – the anamorphic transfer on Anchor Bay UK’s HOUSE boxed set was also the R-rated version while the earlier uncut DVD was fullscreen – and Scream Factory has not included the pre-MPAA footage as an extra (according to die-hard fans of the film, Fangoria’s article on the film reportedly featured even more gory bits not seen in even the overseas version). The cast also includes Matt Clark (THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES) as McCarthy’s psychiatrist, Lawrence Tierney (THE PROWLER) as the prison warden, Lewis Arquette (SCREAM 2) as McCarthy’s superior, and a late comic appearance by Alvy Moore (GREEN ACRES) as the punchline to an unfunny running joke involving McCarthy’s postal fraud scams. The photography of Mac Ahlberg (HELL NIGHT) – who also shot the HOUSE films and DEEP STAR SIX for Cunningham – is occasionally atmospheric but less accomplished than some of his other low-budget horror works from this period while the scoring of Cunningham regular Harry Manfredini (DEEP STAR SIX) is undistinguished.

Scream Factory’s 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 transfer – presumably using the HD master that MGM has been streaming at various carriers like Netflix and Amazon is colorful with sharpish close-ups but less detailed long-shots (partially due to Ahlberg’s lighting and diffusion, particularly in the basement and power-plant settings as well as the nightmares). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the Dolby Stereo track is appropriately forceful during the music stings and false scares while ably capturing every nuance of Henriksen’s muttering and Jones’ bellowing (although some of Bray’s dialogue during the climactic nightmare universe scene is muffled by the music track). No subtitles are available (as there are on the line’s more deluxe editions). The DVD side of the package features a 16:9 anamorphic rendering of the same master with Dolby Digital audio.

THE HORROR SHOW isn’t a loaded “Scream Factory” edition, but it does have some respectable extras. First up is an audio commentary with producer Sean S. Cunningham, moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher (recorded while the two were attending a convention in Lexington). He discusses the HOUSE films and their principal architect Steve Miner (FRIDAY THE 13TH 3-D), and that THE HORROR SHOW was actually intended to be HOUSE 3 – and a more hard-edged one after the more “family friendly” HOUSE II: THE SECOND STORY – but United Artists wanted it to be seen as a one-off (or at least not a continuation of a rival studio’s series). Cunningham dismisses ideas that the film was a set-up for a franchise; however, he says rather unenthusiastically that it might have led to sequels had the film been successful. He does admire the film’s technical elements (like Ahblerg’s photography and his general nurturing presence with filmmakers on low budget shoots), but groans at the cat scare and some of the by-the-numbers elements of the plot and the execution of the suspense scenes (of the shower scene he admits that it’s hard to make such an obligatory scene scary anymore). Felsher and Cunningham address the gore that was cut (including the stuff that showed up in none of the finished cuts), and how it had the effect of making the film seem more serious.

Stunt coordinator Kane Hodder (11:07) is on hand for a video interview in which refers to the film as “the equivalent of HOUSE 3” and recalls how excited he was to get to work with Cunningham. Usually cast as a character (or creature) that requires stunt work rather than actually doubling for another actor, Hodder fondly recalls working with James, Ahlberg (who he felt was instrumental in getting him hired for HOUSE, the first of his Cunningham collaborations which lead to his later work as Jason Vorhees), and Isaac who had faith in his abilities as a stuntman. Actress Rita Taggart (10:52) recalls working with the original director Blyth and not feeling as if Isaac was experienced with directing actors (although she seems to understand his position). She speaks warmly of her co-stars – and recalls that Pfeiffer was not pleased to learn she had a nude shower scene – and cites the turkey scene as her favorite setpiece. The discs also include the film’s theatrical trailer (1:30). The fact that Scream Factory’s edition is of the R-rated version might mean it’s a pass for fans or even first-timers, although the included extras might make it a supplementary purchase for diehard fans who have tracked down one or more of the uncut versions. The uninitiated may want to stream the film before purchasing. (Eric Cotenas)