In a way, Linda Blair had it easy; her breakout role as Regan, the possessed child in The Exorcist, came very early in her career when she was barely into her teens. The down side to this is that Blair has never been able to duplicate the success of her signature performance. Since The Exorcist, Blair has worked fairly steadily in the mainstream, making guest appearances on television shows such as “The Love Boat” and “Supernatural,” but has also never stopped making cult horror movies like Hell Night and The Chilling. One of her lesser-known horror outings was a movie that she produced as well as starred in, a 1988 gore-fest called, appropriately enough, Grotesque.
Grotesque stars Blair as Lisa, a young woman who, along with her friend Kathy (Donna Wilkes from Schizoid and Jaws 2), takes a trip to visit her parents at their mountain home. Lisa’s father, Orville (Guy Stockwell from Santa Sangre and It’s Alive) is a Hollywood special effects artist who has a sense of humor that is just as big as his collection of screen-used props and masks. On the way up the mountain, Lisa and Kathy run into trouble with a gang of punks led by a thug named Scratch (Brad Wilson from “Boston Public”). Unbeknownst to Lisa, the punks are planning to rob her parents, having heard about a “big secret” and believing that there must be a hidden stash of money at the big-time movie maker’s house. The punks break in and murder the family, and while searching the house, they unwittingly discover the “secret” and accidentally release Lisa’s brother, Patrick (Bob Apisa from Amistad and Mallrats), a mutant who lives in a locked closet. Patrick takes violent revenge on his parent’s murderers, chasing them out into the cold woods and hunting them down one by one. The next day, Lisa’s uncle, Rod (Cameron’s Closet’s Tab Hunter), shows up at the scene and attempts to make some sense out of the horrid crime, but he is so distraught that he decides to take out a little revenge of his own.
Directed by Joe Tornatore (Demon Keeper) and written by Mikel Angel (The Black 6, Curse of the Crystal Eye), Grotesque is the epitome of a low-budget horror movie. It’s a slasher movie mixed with a creature feature that has the subtext of one of those mid-eighties entries into the threatening punk counterculture subgenre. Surprisingly, the mixture works because the film occurs in stages, beginning with the punk invasion and progressing into the monster chase. As a movie, it’s flawed; it’s awkwardly acted and clumsily put together. But boy, is Grotesque a lot of fun.
One of Grotesque’s strong points it its makeup effects, all practical magic skillfully done by effects artist John Naulin (Night Train to Terror, Deadly Blessing). It’s somewhat of a slasher movie, so there’s plenty of stabbing, chopping, and slitting, but the real fun is in the character makeup. Patrick the hidden son has a grossly deformed face, and Naulin’s design for him is part Star Wars, part The Elephant Man. Since Orville is a Hollywood effects man, his house is full of cool latex masks and props, and he is always playing pranks on his wife and family, all of which look slasher-ific. John Naulin did uncredited prop work on Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and sharp-eyed (and even the not-so-sharp-eyed) viewers will notice that all three Silver Shamrock masks make cameos in Grotesque. Between the creature face, the blood-and-guts effects, and the fun prop masks, the makeup in Grotesque is reason enough to give the film a watch.
Another aspect of Grotesque that makes it fun to watch is the film’s cinematography. Grotesque was shot by experienced horror cinematographer Bill Dickson (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Silent Night, Deadly Night) at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest in California, so the movie has an authentic isolated mountain look. Snowy weather plays an important role in the second half of the film as Patrick is chasing downs the punks, and Dickson uses blue filters to exaggerate the cold and dampness of the landscape. Grotesque is shot very much like a slasher movie, with colors that bleed red and camera angles that hide just enough of the frame to keep the shots intriguing. Grotesque may not be as slick as a big-budget horror movie, but Joe Tornatore got his money’s worth when he hired Bill Dickson to shoot it.
The score for Grotesque utilizes the work of stock music composers Jack Cookerly (Night of the Living Dead, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) and Bill Loose (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, “Davey and Goliath”), so the score sounds generic in places, but it fits the low-budget mold of the film. Many of the scenes are stereotypical sequences, so it would make sense that the musical accompaniment would sound stereotypical as well. As vanilla and safe as the music for Grotesque is, it never lets the film down; it’s not completely memorable, but it doesn’t distract from the meat of the film, either.
For as weird and low-budget as Grotesque is, the film as a whole works really well – up until the very end. Even the climax and resolution are fairly effective, with the slasher/revenge story giving way to an artsy, philosophical conclusion wrapped up in a clever twist ending. The part that doesn’t work is a tacked-on epilogue, an attempt to tie the movie back to an opening scene in a bookend-type of way. The film opens in a movie theater, with an audience watching one of Orville’s movies. The ending is set up in a similar way but, in trying to inject some silly humor into an otherwise straight-campy film, it ends up falling flat on its face. Smart viewers will turn the film off before the final scene – and it will be obvious where the final scene is, because the penultimate scene feels like a logical place to end the movie. The last scene seems like Joe Tornatore’s grasp at getting Grotesque up to a ninety-minute running time.
Unfortunately, Linda Blair has never been able to duplicate the success of The Exorcist, even when she appeared in its sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, or the requisite horror spoof of the original, Repossessed. To cinema buffs, she will always be Regan, but hard-core horror fans know and love her for films like Grotesque.