A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #30: “The Horror Show” (1989)

by A.J. Hakari


In the video store’s golden age, your eyes may have graced the cover of House. It was a modest chiller whose box art, tagline (“Ding dong, you’re dead!“), and brilliantly-titled sequel (The Second Story) cemented its genre infamy. But while House IV eventually hit shelves, a third would be conspicuously absent, and with good purpose — it doesn’t exist. For whatever reason, The Horror Show was retitled House III in certain foreign territories, causing the original series producers to skip right to #4 anyway to avoid confusion. Still, despite having no real ties aside from its alias, The Horror Show does share one thing in common with the House franchise, in how the film itself is the least interesting thing about it.

After a rampage that took the lives of over 110 victims, serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James) has finally been brought to justice. Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) was the one who nabbed the sicko, and despite still suffering from nightmares brought on by the spree, he’s first in line to see Max take a seat in the electric chair. But unbeknownst to the law, a visit with Old Sparky is just what Max needed to really open up his bloodlust. All those volts pumping through the madman’s body only free him of his earthly constraints and let him loose on the world as a vengeful ghost. First on his list is Lucas, who can only watch in terror as Max’s spirit tears his world apart and goads him ever closer towards the breaking point.

The Horror Show is less of a stand-alone thriller than it is a glorifed test reel. It’s got the feel of a promissory note, a guarantee that, with a little extra coin, the filmmakers can totally do it better. Thus, The Horror Show doesn’t have the most consistent tone on the books, veering from the damned dark (i.e. a rape that leads to an icky pregnancy scene) to trying to set up Max as the next wisecracking slasher villain to challenge Freddy Krueger’s reign. Max is one unsavory dude, boosted by James’s effective performance (he’s said to have chosen this role as his all-time favorite), and a whole array of solid practical effects slaps his demented mug on everything from a roast turkey to an infant. But as a whole, The Horror Show finds itself spinning its wheels an awful lot, gaining little traction and regurgitating its same schtick over and over. It boils down to 90 minutes of James snickering and Lance Henriksen being Lance Henriksen, with nothing to keep you engaged otherwise, save for the odd hallucination sequence.

Yet another cinematic curio that’s ultimately no big deal, The Horror Show is neither a diamond in the rough or a deservedly-buried blight upon the genre. It really is just a dime-a-dozen ’80s slasher, although one that isn’t as epically-moronic as Wes Craven’s similarly-themed Shocker from the same year. Worse time-wasters have come and gone, but methinks The Horror Show is one obscurity that the cult circuit should just let be for now.