The Horror Show (1989): Brion James is no Turkey (Well, Perhaps Occasionally)

Some months back, I accidentally watched Shocker. Well, that’s not exactly right. It’s not as if I fell down and was forced to see Skinner from the X-Files menace the Mayor from Batman Returns. I watched it voluntarily during a series called Whatcha Craven, but it wasn‘t the film I intended to watch. The one I wanted did also star an X-Files alum, a similar plot, and made their debut in the same year, but it wasn’t a Wes Craven movie at all. What I wanted was The Horror Show (1989), the first film for future Jason X director Jason Isaac. I first saw when it made its way to videotape in the summer of 1990. I would have been around thirteen or fourteen at the time, and I had just graduated from a steady diet of Universal classics, campy ‘60’s sci-fi, and other assorted cult gems to embracing the modern era of the gore film.  The Horror Show quickly became one of my favorites even becoming the title of the dot matrix horror “zine” that I made around that time. (In which I blustered that Night of the Living Dead and Blood Feast were not all that good. Reading it not makes me want a time machine so I could give young me a swift kick in the junk. Let’s face it, past me deserves it. )

Like Shocker, The Horror Show also concerns a serial killer being put to death in the electric chair and coming back to menace the man who put him in the chair. The killer, Max Jenke, is played by none other than Brion James, an exceptional screen baddie best known for his role in Blade Runner, going head to head with genre film icon Lance Henriksen as arresting officer Lucas McCarthy. After Max Jenke gets fried, he somehow manages to turn his evil into electricity or something like that. Character actor Matt Clark shows up as a nutty professor to try and explain the theory to Henriksen‘s cop Lucas, but neither the audience or Henriksen get very interested in it. (So uninteresting is it that Clark’s severed head shows up to remind Lucas how to beat the disembodied killer right before the climax.) However he did it, Jenke can bend reality, and he intends to do a number on McCarthy. First he starts bending the cop’s reality, showing up to taunt him or appearing as the head of a very Cronenbergian Turkey, but then he really turns up the juice by framing him for the murder of Vinnie, his daughter’s boyfriend. With Lucas behind bars, the disembodied killer intends to have his way with the rest of the McCarthy family.

Until recently, I was unable to get a copy of The Horror Show, but thanks to some recent magic that has occurred on Netflix, a number of out of print films have found their way into the ranks of Instant Watch viewing. I was overjoyed with the thought of seeing Brion James go so far over the top that he has to go around and back over again, but I wondered if it would hold the same fascination for me twenty years after it had been my favorite flick. The answer is both yes and no. The older me longer for a plot that made some kind of middling sense, but the horror fan still overrode that misgiving and I still had an incredible time with the film. James was quoted as saying that it was his personal favorite performance, and it’s easy to see why. Lance Henriksen gives a solid performance, but he plays Lucas as a relaxed under pressure type of guy that can seem lackadaisical at times.He even looks relaxed when he shoots his TV like he was Elvis and a Bob Goulet special just started. The screen is actually playing the Max Jenke's Death-A-Thon as James continues his quest to chew up any and all scenery in his path. Over the runtime of the film, he’s leering, letching, doing accents, delivering one-liners, and still finding time to hack up some folks in the process. James was an actor that could do it all, and he seemed out to prove it in The Horror Show.

While the film primarily keeps its eyes focused on Henriksen and James, The Horror Show also features a number of interesting supporting players. Lucas McCarthy’s daughter is played by Dedee Pfeiffer who memorably appeared in Falling Down as Sheila, the poor girl at Whammyburger who has the unfortunate duty of denying Michael Douglas his breakfast. Her brother is played by Aron Eisenberg, the young actor who would go on to appear in seven seasons of Deep Space 9 as Nog. The Horror Show also has a great cameo from tough guy actor Lawrence Tierney three years memorably appearing as Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs. The film itself also has a couple of interesting stories attached to it. Originally, it was intended to be helmed by Kiwi director David Blyth (Death Warmed Over), but when he was fired from the project Isaac completed the job and earned his first directing credit.

Before I sign off, and say more nice things about what ultimately is a middle of the road kind of film, I have one other bit of trivia that I have to include. When the film was released, it was titled The Horror Show in the States, but in the overseas market, the producers sent out the film as House 3. It actually did well enough that when the next House movie was released, the producers of that series had to skip a third installment and make House IV. Outside of Zombie 2, I can’t think of another film that has so firmly entrenched itself in another franchise, but even Fulci’s film didn’t cause Romero to treat it like part of the family. How can you not love a film that pulled off a fast one like that? I don’t know if everyone would have the same reaction that I do to The Horror Show. For me, it’s the summation of the gory, giddy fun that was happening in horror films back in my teenage years. That sort of description could be used by many people about many different films, but for me, The Horror Show will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s pretty near where Max Jenke would like to firmly place a meat cleaver, but at least he’d be damn entertaining while doing it.

Bugg Rating


  1. The Horror Show is a lot of fun and while the film would be so with anyone in the Jenke role, it's James INSANE performance that puts the film on a whole other level!

    Great write up, Bugg, and I'm glad you mentioned the House III thing because not very many people know about that. It's a very odd situation, but makes for great trivia!

  2. I skipped this film as I was not a fan of the original "House" movie, but after reading your review, I am going to put this on my list of movies to see.

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

  3. After reading the feature on it in Fangoria a looonnnggg time ago, I remember begging my folks to let me get it on PPV. I thought it was great and holds a nostalgic factor with me. I agree with Matt, the performance by James takes it up a level for sure.


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