Television Terror (2.16)
“Do you want the strippers who were in the same convent together, or the ones who use animals?”
WHAT IS IT?
A day-time television host does a report on just how haunted a local haunted house is. The verdict: Very.
Most of the show rests on the shoulders of trashy talk show host Morton Downey Jr., stunt-cast as a trashy talk show host. There are small supporting roles by negligible television actor Dorothy Parke, negligible television actor Michael Harris, and Peter Van Norden, who played a lawyer in The Accused. Heavy hitters, for sure. The episode was directed by television director/stuntman Charlie Picerni, whose claims to fame are mostly directing second-unit for 90’s action cult classics like Hudson Hawk and Demolition Man. Despite having little in the way of plot, the episode was penned by two writers: Randall Jahnson (The Doors, Sunset Strip) and G.J. Pruss, who literally never worked in Hollywood again. My guess? Fake name.
HOW IS IT?
Not great. Younger readers can be forgiven for not knowing who Morton Downey Jr. was. Trashy day-time TV peaked in the mid 90’s with Jerry Springer, but it was pioneered in the late 80’s by Morton. Trained as a right-wing shock jock, Morton’s abrasive attitude and regular screaming matches with his guests made his syndicated talk show a massive hit with the unemployed and sick in bed. Given the show’s history with stunt-casting, it’s not a surpise that they went to Morton, especially after his show was cancelled, for this episode about a sleazy talk show host investigating a haunted house. The premise of the episode tweaks a similar stunt of Geraldo Rivera’s, an anti-climactic special in which Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault, promising the gangster’s lost wealth and loot only to come up with a few broken bottles. Unfortunately, it follows this concept to a fault, with most of the episode being a boring guided tour of a dark old house. It’s fun in concept, but in practice this episode is a snooze.
The episode opens with Horton Rivers (Morton Downey Jr., with a character name that references his first name and Geraldo’s last) introducing the purportedly haunted mansion complete with buzzwords like “mass murder”, “dismemberment” and “suicide”. Five years ago it was a boarding house run by Ada Ritter who would murder her elderly residents for their social security checks; presumably as a living homage to Arsenic and Old Lace. Despite the crimes happening half a decade prior, there’s still police tape strung up around the house. Horton is nothing if not a good showman and, to his credit, so is Morton Downey in the role. Typecasting generally works in shows like this because it’s rare that characters have to expose more than one side of their personalities. As it turns out, real-life sleaze Morton Downey Jr. is definitely capable of playing fictional sleaze Horton Rivers. After going to commercial, his producer Sam (Dorothy Parke) comes out and goes over his week’s schedule, which includes wacky topics like Satanists, Impotent Transvestites and a Black Neo-Nazi group. If there’s a single avenue of humor that’s aged more poorly than “crazy day-time talk show topics”, I’d like to hear it.
Horton is a hostile prick to everyone from the cameraman to the make-up lady, so it’s no surprise that everyone on the crew hates his guts. Even Sam (who, it’s revealed, has been sleeping with him) gets pushed too far when he condescendingly tells her that she’ll never make it in the business because she lacks a “killer instinct” necessary to make it. Upon returning to commercial, Horton talks a long-faced psychic who calls the home “a pit of seething evil” and warns Horton not to go in. I’ve seen enough of these EC stories by now to know that all psychics, everywhere and at all times, are utterly and totally ineffable. But as a man who peddles bullshit for a living, Horton is understandably a skeptic. So he and his camera crew head inside anyway.
This is where the show screeches to a halt. In satirizing Geraldo’s infamously anti-climactic Capone vault unveiling, the episode has to go the same route, spending the next ten minutes (which, mind you, is nearly half the episode) following Horton as he wanders around the darkened house, desperately trying to make it interesting for his live viewing audience. The very concept means that this time can’t be used to build tension in any worthwhile way, so instead it’s a waste of valuable time that just doesn’t work in a half-hour format. Thankfully, the fake scares turn to real scares as Horton and his cameraman Trip begin to hear noises coming from upstairs. Shortly after Trip’s camera starts to pick up interference. They go to commercial as Trip attempts to fix the camera and the ghost shit hits the haunted fan. First Horton spots an old man with a slit throat in the bathtub. Then all the whole house begins to shake like Michael J. Fox in an earthquake. Chandaliers spin around, tables vibrate, a door splinters and begins to bleed. I don’t care if you’re a skeptic or not, once blood starts to pour out of the decor, it’s time to leave.
But Horton’s a pro, and doesn’t budge, even after the psychic flat out tells him he’s probably going to die during another interview via satellite. In fact it isn’t until he finds cameraman Trip disemboweled and hung in a doorway that he begins to realize that maybe he’s possibly in over his head. But by then it’s too late, as the network has been calling the producers telling them that the ratings are going through the roof (Are Nielsen ratings THAT instantly accessible?) and Sam, choosing to take Horton’s advice and embrace her killer instinct, joyfully decides that Horton is more valuable dying on camera than living on camera. There’s a practical parade of blood-thirsty ghosts at this point but the one that ends up getting him is an old lady with a chainsaw(!) who disembowels him and hangs him out the second story window (these ghosts certainly have a method and stick to it), making him the second known person killed for ratings, after Howard Beale.
Ultimately, I want to like this episode more than I do. The story of a man who cultivates an audience of immoral thrill seekers only to die by their hand (that is, the hand that holds the remote) is strong satire, stronger than pretty much anything else you’d see on a show like this. And once things really start moving in the third act it is effective, with some of the strongest violence we’ve seen on the show yet. But it takes so long to get there and there’s no real build-up to the climax, it just happens. In a better director’s hands, I can see this being a great marriage of haunted house horror and the found footage genre, but instead we got an only occasionally entertaining oddity that proves that not all celebrity cameos age the same.
HOW EVIL ARE THE WOMEN?
Sam, the only female character of any note, makes the call not to save Horton’s life in order to advance her career. This, on it’s own, wouldn’t be too damning. Horton was a total prick to her, after all. But the the insane glee that spreads across her face as she makes this decision implies that she’s enjoying her revenge upon her former lover a little too much. EVIL!
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*Every so often there’s an episode that feels so dated and of it’s time that it’s impossible to imagine it’s based off a comic from the 1950’s. This is definitely one of those episodes. Interestingly enough, the show’s wikipedia page says that this episode came from a story from Vault of Horror #17, but it doesn’t match up to any of the stories listed as being on that issue, or any Vault of Horror issue for that matter. If someone can help me out on that one, I’d be really interested.
*There’s a part where Horton talks about a couple who claim to have photos of Jim Morrison alive in France, which sends him into a bizarre parody version of “Hello, I Love You” that, for obvious copyright reasons, doesn’t actually sound anything like “Hello, I Love You”. Easily the weirdest part of the episode.
*There are a couple witty directorial flourishes that hint to something greater, particularly a shot at the end juxtaposing the “Horton Rivers Live!” logo on the crew’s van with Morton’s dead body.
*Both director Charles Picerni’s brother, Steve, and son, Chuck, worked on the film as stunt-men in another shining example of Crypt nepotism.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“That Horton, he’s such a swinger. He hangs out at all the right places!”
Strangely enough, I kind of love this episode.. It’s nostalgia, to some extent, as this was pretty much my favorite when I was a kid. The “final broadcast” narrative device is one of my favorites too, and you can see the DNA of the whole found footage horror subgenre here, from Blair Witch to Last Exorcism. It has its issues, to be sure. The supporting cast and the writing for it are dreadful, and does feel like a story that needed more time to tell properly. But I actually like the second act build up, and think it feels more dangerous than it should.. There are even a few legit scary moments at the end, like Horton finding his cameraman murdered and staring into the lens, wondering who’s holding the camera. Season Two is a bit dodgy, but I think this is one of the best in it. Top five, probably.