The Horror Show (1989) Retrospective

Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) finally catches the serial killer named “Meat Cleaver Max” (Brion James) and watches his execution. McCarthy is shocked to see the electric chair physically burn Max before he finally dies promising revenge. Max has made a deal with the devil to frame Lucas for his murders from beyond the grave. Max scares the McCarthy family (who have moved into a new house) and the parapsychologist they hire. The parapsychologist tells Lucas that the only hope of stopping Max for good is to destroy his spirit.


As the family move in, Donna (Rita Taggart) searches the basement to find their missing cat Gazmo. She discovers their furnace turns on and flings the door open, apparently Max’s spirit is inside the house and focused on the basement. Lucas starts having hallucinations that lead him to behave erratically. Bonnie (Dedee Pfeiffer) goes to the cellar to secretly meet her boyfriend Vinnie, who is later killed by a physical manifestation of Max with a cleaver. The next night, Bonnie tells Scott (Aron Eisenberg) to come with her to look for Vinnie, while Lucas goes to the basement and angrily calls for Max to stay away from his family. Bonnie returns to the basement and finds Vinnie’s body for which Lucas is suspected of the murder.

Max kills Scott with the meat cleaver, transforms into Bonnie and decapitates the parapsychologist before holding Donna hostage. Lucas escapes from questioning and goes into the cellar to fight Max. Lucas sends Max to the electric machine where his arm gets stuck, Lucas and Donna use the chair to shock Max causing him to appear back in physical form in the house where Lucas shoots him dead.

The next day the McCarthy’s are moving out with Scott still alive. Bonnie goes into the basement and runs outside to find Gazmo in a box the family takes a photo as the screen freezes and fades to black.


The Sean S. Cunningham production was written by Leslie Bohem, a gold record-winning country and western songwriter who also served as a member of the rock ‘n’ roll band Sparks and a group called Bates Motel. Bohem’s script-his first to be produced was rewritten by Isaac and possibly one or both of the directors who preceded him on the project. The script is credited to Bohem and “Alan Smithee,” Isaac declined to reveal Smithee’s identity or discuss the genesis of the script, which closely parallels Wes Craven’s long-in-preparation Universal release Shocker (1989), but named Fred Walton and David Blyth as the film’s earlier directors.

“Producer Sean Cunningham didn’t hit it off with (Walton).” said Isaac of THE HORROR SHOW’s first director. “I’m still not sure why. Fred wanted the film to go one way while Sean wanted the film to go another way.” Six weeks before the film’s start date Cunningham hired Blyth to direct, but fired him after a week and a half of filming. Though footage that Biyth directed is still in the film.


“At that point, the original script was not being shot,” explained Isaac. “Then one Friday night Sean called me into his office and told me that he had to let David go. I must admit it was a real shock. Sean wasn’t happy with the dailies. He wanted me to start shooting on Monday. Obviously there were some problems with the script. But there was no extra time to work things out. The original script had a lot more humor in it. Things off-the-wall. It had some wacky stuff.”

Isaac recalled that the mood on the set of THE HORROR SHOW was tense as he took charge of the directing. The cast and crew, he felt, were unsure of him. “I felt especially bad for the actors,” he said. “They were trying very hard to make this movie more than just another slasher film. They also had some input in the script. Of course, I had been involved in the script before they started shooting. But, the actors didn’t know that.”

“Firing the director is the last thing in the world you want to do,” Cunningham said, “because it undermines everything. But if you know it’s not working, you have to come to grips with the consequences of not firing the director. You’ve got to make a change, or walk away from the whole thing.


“When Horror Show started to fall apart I had a real problem. I couldn’t direct it myself, and even if I had been able to, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. On the face of it, Jim wasn’t in line to direct, but he was in the right place at the right time. Jim was Visual Effects Supervisor on DeepStar Six (1989), and there was nothing I could throw at him that he couldn’t handle. I knew he wanted to direct, he knew all the effects, he knew me and I trusted him to ride this thing out and make it work.

“Sean brought me into his office and said, ‘Jim, I have to talk to you’, and just stared at me, while I was trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. I thought he was going to say something like, ‘Well, you know Jim, there just isn’t enough work to go around right now and I think I’m going to have to lay you off.’ Instead, he said, ‘I just had to let the director of Horror Show go, I’d like you to take over the picture, and you’ll have to start on Monday.’ Initially there was an idea that we’d direct together, but the more we talked about it the more it was obvious that one person really needed to take hold of Deepstar Six and one person needed to grab onto Horror Show.”

The film was shot non-union in seven weeks in Los Angeles on a budget of $4 million. “I’d have to get in a certain amount of set-ups a day,” said Isaac. “Id average 25 to 30 set-ups.” After shooting for a few weeks, Isaac was happy with the footage. “Sean was pleased too,” said Isaac. “Yet, I knew when it came time to edit the film, we were going to have some problems. There had been some suggestion of electricity that would bring killer Max Jenke back to life. But since it was a rush job, there wasn’t enough time to make it clear.”


In the director’s first cut, the film was pretty dark. Isaac took about 20 minutes out of the film that didn’t work. “We were left with a film that had some major gaps in it,” said Isaac. “Of course, Sean was well aware of the situation. I asked him if I could add some new scenes and have an extra week of shooting. Sean tried to get some money from UA. That didn’t quite work out. He said we’d do it anyway.”

Isaac spent about two weeks writing new scenes for the film. “We needed to see that Max Jenke is a wacky guy,” said Isaac. “For example, the scene where Max appears in the turkey at the family dinner. Lucas (Lance Henriksen) picks up the carving knife and starts to stab the turkey. The family needed to see that Lucas was going off the deep end.”


“We’ve been really kicking ass with this thing.” Henriksen says firmly. “It’s a surprise to everybody. This has a powerhouse cast; it really took off.”

the-horror-show-blu-ray-review-header-graphicWhen the slight similarities to the Nightmare movies are mentioned, Henriksen disarmingly agrees. “Yeah, but it evolved,” he nods. “To Sean Cunningham’s credit, we got together and did a round-table reading of the script, and everything that was bogus, we red penciled. We’re maybe a fifth-generation script away from what it originally was, which is great. For me, this has been a real pleasure the hardest work I’ve ever done on a movie, but the most rewarding.”

The change in directors caused giant troubles.” Henriksen sighs. When you start with a director, you really bond with him. And that bond is something you defend. you work with. you nurture throughout a whole movie. The replacement left us high and dry for about a week, and it was traumatic. The reshoots were very difficult, but as we got into the scenes with Jim Isaac, we realized he was allowing us to do our work, so we were able to get into new areas for this genre. Oh sure. you still have to serve the special efsects, but we were able to take it to another level. Jim has allowed me to be really spontaneous about the reactions of this guy.” – Lance Henriksen

Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurzman, and Howard Berger (KNB) supervised the special effects. Kurzman handled Max Jenke’s electrocution make-up. They used a dummy head that split open for the scene. The effects were designed to make Max unique. “He’s not Freddy and he’s not Jason,” said Isaac. “His facial burns are unlike Freddy’s hideous scars. When Max is electrocuted, he’s fried to a crisp. There’s smoke and sparks all over the place.”

But we wanted Jenke to have a unique identity.” The thing we were all really afraid of was having him be anything like Freddy Krueger,” Nicotero elaborated. “So we devised ways the effects could be used to make Jenke a very different kind of monster. Even the burn make-up is designed so it’s not like Freddy burns-it’s crispy and black.” “Jenke is a murderer who comes back from another dimension to torture the detective who caught him by destroying his family,” concluded Isaac. “He threatens to tear this guy’s world apart, and that’s pretty much what he does.”

Take Jenke’s execution. “Bob did the electrocution make-up,” explained Nicotero, “which took four days to shoot. The first stage burn make-up comes after they put the headpiece on him and start the juice, you just have a series of little burns around his temples. The first prosthetic stage starts with his face looking normal, then the skin begins bubbling and little veins show through. The second stage of make-up has more burns, and Bob scored the bladders so that when they started swelling the skin would split…that took us to the third stage, where we had a full dummy head and torso that Howard did, with the skin split open even more. We were able to squib that with a lot of sparks, so you could actually see sparks on his body. There were smoke tubes in his clothing the whole time, so you also saw little curls of smoke. The fourth and final stage was a straight prosthetic make-up so Brion can get up out of the chair and move towards Lance.”

With his dying breath, Jenke-who has been secretly experimenting with a home electric chair, devising a method by which he can project his spirit into another dimension as his body dies-threatens to make McCarthy’s life a living hell.

That he makes good on his promise is clear from the following sequences. “There’s a scene where the daughter, Bonnie (DeDee Pfeiffer), is in bed crying. Lucas comes in, she pulls her nightgown up and she has this huge, pulsating pregnant stomach, then Jenke’s face appears stretching through from under the skin,” noted Nicotero. “And it goes one step further-Jenke starts talking to Lucas, saying really obnoxious, offensive things to him about his daughter.

“We were actually able to get all three of them into the same shot. DeDee and Brion were both dropped through a fake bed; we positioned her off to the left and him to the right. He had his face stuck up into the belly appliance and Lance is leaning over them both. The shot is really disturbing, because you can see they’re all there in the same space.


In that same scene, Lucas falls back against the wall and pulls his chest open-there’s a dream sequence earlier when we see Jenke bury a meat cleaver in Lucas’ chest, so we know its something he’s touchy about-and is trying to keep his heart and every. thing else inside. It has a Videodrome feel. We did a full torso appliance and put Lance through the wall on a slantboard-only the head, arms and shoulders was really Lance.”

Horror Show also features the nastiest uninvited dinner guest scene since the debut of Alien’s chestburster. As the McCarthys gather for a moment of family harmony, “Lucas looks down at the turkey and sees it’s not the same turkey anymore-it’s a weird, stretching, mutated turkey, a la The Thing.” Nicotero explained. “In the first shot all these tentacles shoot out and grab hold of the table. In the next shot, the turkey leg lifts up and it’s got three human fingers and two turkey fingers, as though it’s metamorphosing into something. Then this big turkey head that’s been lying on the table all covered with slime, lifts up and looks at Lucas, and there’s a little mechanical Jenke face growing out of the side that starts to talk to him. At that point Lucas picks up a knife and starts to stab it. It’s a whole creature transformation, and it’s pretty weird and gross.”

The corpse of a little girl in a nightdress, her head loosely attached by a bloody line, dangles from the wall. This is one of Max Jenke’s (Brion James) victims from Horror Show. There’s also a hot-melt vinyl head found in a deep-fat fryer in Horror Show, which comes up from under the fat with exploding eyes.

The Things I Have Done To Our Love Gleaming Spires Performed by Gleaming Spires

Directed by
James Isaac
David Blyth

Produced by
Sean S. Cunningham

Written by
Allyn Warner
Leslie Bohem

Lance Henriksen as Detective Lucas McCarthy
Brion James as Max Jenke
Rita Taggart as Donna McCarthy
Dedee Pfeiffer as Bonnie McCarthy
Aron Eisenberg as Scott McCarthy
Thom Bray as Peter Campbell
Matt Clark as Dr. Tower
David Oliver as Vinnie
Terry Alexander as Casey

Special Effects by
Howard Berger … special effects
Kit Cathcary … special effects apprentice
Keith Claridge … special effects technician
Ken Ebert … special effects technician
Robert Kurtzman … special effects
Greg Nicotero … special effects (as Gregory Nicotero)
Doyle Smiley … special effects technician
F. Lee Stone … electronics specialist
Richard Stutsman … floor effects supervisor

Fangoria#81 p.36-39
Fangoria#81 p.40-43
Cinefantastique v20 n03

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