In the modern horror world, few actors have been as prolific as Lance Henriksen. After getting his start with small roles in big films like Dog Day Afternoon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Henriksen transitioned into bigger roles in fright films like Damien: Omen II and The Visitor. By the mid-eighties, he had found his niche, having scored bona-fide starring roles in classic films like Aliens, Near Dark, and Pumpkinhead. In 1989, Henriksen closed out the eighties with the lesser known but completely enjoyable thriller The Horror Show.
The Horror Show stars Henriksen as Detective Lucas McCarthy, a cop who is mentally scarred after taking down “Meat Cleaver” Max Jenke (Brion James from Blade Runner), a serial killer who murdered over a hundred victims, seven of them being police officers. Jenke is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, and Lucas wants to watch the execution in order to gain some closure for himself. After Jenke is strapped in the electric chair, the switch is thrown – and Jenke doesn’t die. Jenke takes enough voltage to literally set him on fire before he is finally killed, but Lucas’ problems are only beginning. Soon, Lucas begins seeing Jenke’s face everywhere he looks. A parapsychologist named Peter Campbell (The Prowler’s Thom Bray) informs Lucas that Jenke has found a way to use electricity as a conduit to come back from the dead, and he’s coming for the detective’s family. With Professor Campbell’s help, Lucas has to find a way to stop Jenke, even though Jenke is already dead.
The screenplay for The Horror Show was written by Leslie Bohem (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) and “The Tonight Show” writer Allyn Warner (under the often used Hollywood pseudonym Alan Smithee). The film was directed by special effects man James Isaac (Jason X), who wears his influences squarely on his sleeve. Although it beat it to theaters by eight months, The Horror Show was in production at the same time as a very similar film, Wes Craven’s Shocker, and both films draw huge influence from Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The blending of dreams and reality is a staple in all three movies, and The Horror Show capitalizes on the shock of not letting the viewer know where reality ends and the surreal begins. Max Jenke is a great villain, and he is played to perfection by Brion James. The use of electricity to “haunt” his victims is a fun trademark, and Jenke is every bit as much of a wise-cracker as Freddy Krueger. He may not be a household name, but Meat Cleaver Max should be on the same pedestal as Krueger and Shocker’s Horace Pinker when it comes to horror antagonists.
In foreign markets, The Horror Show was released as House III, even though the story has nothing to do with either of the first two House movies. The film does share a few crew members with the more comedic House franchise, including producer Sean S. Cunningham (who also did Friday the 13th and The Last House on the Left, among many others) and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator), and director James Isaac did handle the special effects for House II: The Second Story, but the characters and plot are completely unrelated. Tacking the film onto the House series was just a ploy to connect The Horror Show to a pre-sold property, so the film has a bit of a Halloween III mythology to it. Most significantly, the retitling forced the actual third House film to be called House IV, further adding to the confusion. Rest assured, anyone looking for House III will find it in The Horror Show…kind of.
Throughout his career, Lance Henriksen has mainly played protagonists, but ones that have dark sides that force them to the border of villainy. Henriksen has an inimitable way of playing an anti-hero, and his performance in The Horror Show is no exception. Lucas McCarthy is a good cop, but the emotional toll that Max Jenke has taken on him has turned him into a short-tempered, foul-mouthed jerk. The fatally flawed Lucas is the type of guy to which audiences can relate, so they root for him. Max Jenke may be a great villain, but Lucas McCarthy is just as good of a hero.
The special effects for The Horror Show were another early project by the KNB Efx group, the company founded by effects makeup gurus Robert Kurtzman (Night of the Creeps), Gregory Nicotero (Day of the Dead), and Howard Berger (976-EVIL) that would become the gold standard in horror effects. The gore in The Horror Show is a practical effects fan’s dream, with severed body parts and bloody wounds everywhere. Some of the more creative scenes find inspiration in the films of David Cronenberg, with a Videodrome-influenced chest slicing effect and a Scanners-like head explosion. The most fun effect occurs during one of Lucas’ waking dreams, when the turkey that his family is having for dinner comes alive and looks back at him with Jenke’s face, appearing to have come right out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. If there’s one thing that eighties horror films had to have, it was gore. KNB made sure that The Horror Show was up to par.
The music for The Horror Show was done by another one of the House series veterans, iconic horror composer Harry Manfredini (the Friday the 13th movies). Like most of Manfredini’s scores, the soundtrack to The Horror Show eschews the typical eighties moog synthesizer compositions and opts for a much more traditional and suspenseful horror score, percussive yet orchestral, full of impact and punch. No one writes a better accompaniment to a psycho-killer stalking scene than Harry Manfredini, whether it’s Meat Cleaver Max or Jason Voorhees. Manfredini’s work on The Horror Show is nowhere near as renowned as his iconic ki-ki-ki ha-ha-ha motif from the Friday the 13th score, but it is still timeless and tense, and it sets the nerve-wracking tone for the entire film.
Lance Henriksen is still playing the no-nonsense quasi-hero in movies like It’s in the Blood and Phantom when he’s not taking roles on television shows like “Hannibal” and “TRON: Uprising.” He’s showing no signs of slowing down, either, with more than a dozen films slated for release in the next couple of years. The Horror Show may not be as well-known as Aliens or Pumpkinhead, but it shows Henriksen at his protagonistic best.