Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven didn’t make anoth­er film togeth­er after Last House On The Left but their careers would end up being very sim­i­lar.  Both men became reluc­tant brand names of the hor­ror gen­re, find­ing it was eas­ier to make films in this vein if they want­ed stu­dio back­ing.  The strangest moment of sim­il­iar­i­ty in their careers arrived in 1989 when Craven made Shocker, a film about a  death-row inmate who used elec­tric­i­ty and dreams to attack the liv­ing — and Cunningham pro­duced a film with the same premise around the same time.

Cunningham’s film was called The Horror Show and it shows him bor­row­ing a few page from Craven’s play­book to cre­ate a film suit­ed to the hor­ror audience’s needs cir­ca 1989.  The hero is Detective Lucas McCarthy (Lance Henriksen), a cop whose san­i­ty has been test­ed by the evil of a seri­al killer he appre­hend­ed.  The vil­lain is the seri­al killer in ques­tion, Max Jenke (Brion James).  He’s set to be exe­cut­ed in the elec­tric chair as the film begins and Lucas shows up to wit­ness it.  Max takes more juice HorShow-posthan is nor­mal and vows to come back before expir­ing.

And that’s exact­ly what Max does: he begins to appear in Max’s dreams, caus­es strange hal­lu­ci­na­tions and takes up a ghost-style res­i­den­cy in the McCarthy house­hold, which also includes a wife (Rita Taggart) and two teenage kids.  Lucas’ only hope in stop­ping the­se ter­rors is a weird sci­en­tist (Thom Bray) who has a the­o­ry that might explain why Max appears to be haunt­ing the house from beyond the grave.  Everything cul­mi­nates in a finale that owes a debt or two to A Nightmare On Elm Street.

The results offer an inter­est­ing exam­ple of where the hor­ror film was at on a main­stream lev­el as the ‘80s came to a close.  It’s a weird mix of gener­ic sto­ry­telling con­ven­tions — the haunt­ed cop, the evil seri­al killer, the sit­com-ready fam­i­ly mem­bers — com­bined with attempts at sur­re­al, “wak­ing night­mare” hor­rors of the Craven-esque vari­ety.  The dream hor­rors get so arch they cross the line into mor­bid camp ter­ri­to­ry, like Max’s face appear­ing on the turkey Lucas is try­ing to carve on the din­ner table or one character’s sev­ered head giv­ing Lucas help­ful advice before sud­den­ly explod­ing!

As a result, The Horror Show is more mem­o­rable for its weird­ness than its scares or orig­i­nal­i­ty — but it brings a lev­el of crafts­man­ship to the pro­ceed­ings that ensures it remains watch­able.  The act­ing plays a big role in this.  The film anchored by two strong lead per­for­mances by Henriksen and James: nei­ther has much to work with but Henriksen is instant­ly believ­able as a bat­tle-weary cop and James hams it up with appro­pri­ate brio.  Bray and Taggart lend solid sup­port, as does vet­er­an char­ac­ter actor Matt Clark in a brief role as Luca’s psy­chi­a­trist.  The direc­tion by for­mer FX man James Isaac has a nice grasp of pac­ing and gets plen­ty of atmos­phere from Mac Ahlberg’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy, which includes a lot of sleek Steadicam moves.

In short, The Horror Show is pri­mar­i­ly a curios­i­ty piece for ‘80s hor­ror addicts and any­one else who was ever obsessed with the Nightmare On Elm Street series.  You might not walk away scared but the film offers some moments of FX-laced weird­ness that may stick with you after­wards.