Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about. Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the forgotten charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD.
Title: The Horror Show (aka House III)
Genre: Supernatural Horror/Slasher
Tagline: Now he’s really burned!
Released by: MGM/UA Home Video
Director: James Issac
Plot: Homicide detective Lucas McCarthy is haunted by nightmares concerning the electric chair execution of the vile murderer “Meat Cleaver Max” who he’s responsible for apprehending. It appears that frying Max Jenke like a piece of bacon only elevated him to another dimension of evil, pissing the deranged serial killer off even further in the process. Now Lucas must try to maintain his sanity as his family’s placed in harm’s way when the vengeful spirit haunts their own home.
Thoughts: There sure were a LOT of horror flicks dealing with the theme of capital punishment in the eighties. There was Wes Craven’s B-side entry Shocker, the Lyle Alzado vehicle Destroyer and Renny Harlin’s epic Prison starring a fresh-faced Viggo Mortensen. The concept of a vicious criminal put to death by the legal system only to return in some unnatural form to wreak vengeance on society is a pretty subversive twist. Mix that in with the haunted house genre and you’ve got yourself an awesome little horror hybrid you can place right alongside those previously mentioned gems.
Max Jenke (Brion James), aka “Meat Cleaver Max” is put to death by the state via electrocution for his murder spree that cost over 116 people their lives. In one of the most over-the-top execution sequences ever filmed we watch as the serial killer is placed on a huge metallic chair in the middle of an auditorium-sized room with a large group of witnesses in attendance. One of them is detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) who’s the man responsible for bringing the vicious maniac to justice, which is served with thousands of volts of electricity. Max is allowed no final words. No priest. Not even a mask. His last request is to be buried with his meat cleaver. He’s pumped full of juice and it becomes quite clear that Max’s not your typical psycho, so the voltage is increased as commanded by the Warden (Lawrence Tierney). The lunatic screams as his face pulsates from some nifty bladder effects while his body catches aflame. He tears himself from the restraints and manages a few steps before finally becoming a piece of charred meat… but the horror has just begun!
Max’s evil energy is transformed into an unstoppable supernatural force beyond reason or understanding. It begins when Lucas starts receiving harassing phone calls from the dead killer at his family home. Turns out the madman’s spirit has invaded their house and taken possession of the furnace Krueger-style. He even appears in Lucas’ nightmares, slowing driving the cop crazy in the process. An insane daytime hallucination causes the patriarch to shoot his television set like Elvis right in front of his family! As the bodies start to pile up again the police now suspect that maybe the cop responsible for catching the killer could have gone over the deep end. Luckily, a nerd scientist studying evil as electricity is around to help out!
This is an awesomely excessive supernatural cop-thriller with beautiful, smoky cinematography, great prosthetic effects, good writing and excellent acting. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen that’s featured the brilliant 80’s character actors Lance Henriksen and Brion James in leading roles and they are both fantastic as always. The late, great Brion James was quoted as saying that the part of “Meat Cleaver Max” was his favorite and you can really tell that he’s having a blast with it. A pre-Millennium Lance Henriksen is simply the embodiment of all things badass and it’s great watching him carry an entire film on his sturdy back.
Filmmaker and special effects wiz James Issac (Jason X) directs with tremendous energy and crafts a fun little flick that’s like a mixture of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist and The Shining filtered through the lens of early eighties David Cronenberg. Doesn’t hurt that veteran horror master Sean S. Cunningham, who brought Friday the 13th maestro Harry Manfredini along to provide another of his wonderfully suspenseful musical scores, produced it. It’s a home video classic and a late eighties entry into the third wave of the slasher genre that I hear is finally getting the Blu-ray/DVD release it deserves at the end of the summer. Finally, “Meat Cleaver Max” will be paroled from digital jail!
Fun trivia note: This film has absolutely nothing to do with the House franchise whatsoever, but the producers renamed it House III for the non-U.S. market. As a result, the owners of the House series had to rename their third entry House IV.
CHECK OUT THIS VINTAGE TRAILER FOR “HOUSE III” EN ESPANOL: