House III: The Horror Show (1989)

First published by Movie Gazette

Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Aliens Henriksen) has finally apprehended Max Jenke (Brion Bladerunner James), “the most feared mass murderer in this nation’s history”, and hopes that his own traumatic nightmares will come to an end once Max has been electrocuted. Max, however, has other plans, and returns from the grave to make Lucas’ home life hell. Lucas’ behaviour becomes more and more deranged as he starts seeing Max’s mocking face everywhere – on the head of his wife Donna (Rita Taggart), in the downstairs furnace, in the passenger seat of his car, in the dinner roast, on the TV set, even in the belly of his daughter Bonnie (Dedee Pfeiffer) – and when Bonnie’s boyfriend Vinnie (David Oliver) is found in the basement hacked to pieces with Max’s trademark cleaver, Lucas finds himself in the frame for murder. Max, however, is going to learn that it is one thing to mess with Lucas, but quite another to mess with his family.

Despite being produced, like the other House films, by Sean S. Cunningham, being scored once again by Henry Manfredini, and featuring a haunted house that opens onto other dimensions, James Isaac’s House III was released in the US under a different title (The Horror Show), and is often cited as the only instalment of the House franchise that is a ‘straight’ horror film rather than a horror comedy. The record, however, needs to be set straight: House III is clearly meant to be a comedy. How else could one explain the villain’s hilarious ‘evil laugh’, the fraudulent scams perpetrated by Lucas’ son Scott (Aron Eisenberg) with absolutely no relevance to the main plot, the talking poultry (with a nod to Eraserhead), the gratuitous conversations about Elvis, Max’s appearance on TV as a stand-up comedian, the absurdly feel-good ending (even the family cat, Cosmo, survives), and the line “never sneak up on a man when he’s blasting Metallica”?

The problem is that almost all of the humour misfires terribly, and is difficult to reconcile with Henriksen’s typically intense performance – and the script is so uniformly ridiculous that it becomes difficult to distinguish the jokes from the more serious material. One seemingly endless scene of ludicrous exposition sees Professor Peter Campbell (Thom Brey) describing his research at Columbia “working on a theory of pure evil as a form of electromagnetic energy”, only to end with Lucas saying, “Keep talking”. It comes as no surprise that one of the film’s co-writers is ‘Alan Smithee’, a dummy name employed when a project is deemed so embarrassingly bad that someone no longer wishes to have their real name associated with it.

What really haunts House III is the success of the A Nightmare On Elm Street franchise, and Max’s menacing quips and reality-warping manifestations are stolen directly from Freddy Krueger at his worst. After seeing Max’s features in the McCarthys’ lunch, Lucas violently plunges his carving knife into the roasted bird, explaining to his horrified family “I just don’t like turkey, alright?” – which is exactly how many may feel about House III.

© Anton Bitel