After two more comical entries, Sean S. Cunningham’s House franchise took a drastic turn with its 1989 entry The Horror Show. Sharing many similarities with Wes Craven Shocker, released the same year, the movie boasted the talents of genre veteran Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Pumpkinhead) and the late Brion James (Blade Runner) and marked the directorial debut of special effects artist James Isaac, who would later work on the likes of Jason X and Skinwalkers. After his success with Friday the 13th and House, Cunningham was hoping to launch a new franchise in the vein of A Nightmare on Elm Street with his supernatural serial killer Max Jenke. But various issues resulting from producer interference would force the original director, David Blyth, to walk from the project and one of the writers, Allyn Warner, to be credited under the pseudonym Allan Smithee (the alias artists use when they wish for their name to be removed from a movie). The end result was not what Cunningham had been hoping for, causing the film to be retitled House 3, despite having no connection its predecessors, both in story or tone.
Detective Lucas McCarthy (Henriksen) has been obsessively searching for notorious psychotic Jenke (James), eventually tracking him down to his lair (which more than a little resembles Freddy Krueger’s boiler room from the Elm Street series) where his partner is hacked to pieces. With his nemesis behind bars, McCarthy takes great delight in attending his execution, which will see Jenke frying in the electric chair, overseen by angry warden Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs). But when it seems that he has finally been laid to rest, the maniac suddenly comes back to life, forcing the audience to watch in horror as more volts are sent through him, resulting in him setting on fire, although he still manages to rise to his feet and offer McCarthy one last promise, ‘I’m coming back to tear your world apart.’ With the nightmare behind him, the Detective tries to move on with his life and make up for the misery he has put his family through, but a creepy doctor (Thom Bray) warns him that the worst is yet to come, as Jenke’s experiments with electric chairs has caused him to so be transformed into some kind of entity that plagues McCarthy’s dreams and waking life, causing him to slowly lose his grip on reality.
It is never a good sign for a movie when a director is replaced halfway through filming and The Horror Show does have its flaws. The script is uneven, the pace a little slow at times and the story suffers from not only slasher clichés but those of cop thrillers as well. The premise is ludicrous but acts as a springboard for allowing Jenke to haunt the hero, who follows the usual formula of seeing bizarre visions and causing those around him to think that he is losing his mind (much like Roy Scheider in Jaws 2). Those who enjoyed the first two films may be disappointed by this addition to the series, which seems lost sandwiched between the humorous second entry and the fourth, which is the only true sequel to Steve Miner’s original. In fact, whilst it was credible of Anchor Bay to release all four films together in an attractive boxset, House 3 seems out of place amongst its contemporaries. Whilst the first two carefully balanced humour with zombies and eighties-style creatures, the third chapter seems more in tone with Elm Street‘s later sequels.
But for all its flaws, there is still plenty to enjoy. Henriksen is a master of the genre and more than capable of playing a neurotic cop, providing the underrated actor with a rare starring role. James, meanwhile, is clearly having fun hamming up every scene with his insane giggle (reminiscent of the one he boasted in Sam Raimi’s Crimewave) and scenery chewing. The special effects, provided by the always reliable KNB EFX (spearheaded by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger), provide a whole host of severed limbs and impressive set pieces, most notably the gruesome electrocution of Jenke. Slasher fans will also be happy to see Jason Voorhees himself, Kane Hodder, coordinating the stunts, whilst Friday the 13th‘s resident composer (and House regular) Harry Manfredini provides the score. The Horror Show may not have been everything Cunningham had hoped for, but it was at least a sincere attempt at giving slasher fans a new villain.