Norman Thaddeus Vane
Ferdy Mayne - Conrad Radzoff
Barbara Pilavin - Etta Radzoff
Jennifer Starrett - Meg
Luca Bercovici - Saint
Scott Thomson - Bob
Carlene Olson - Eve
Donna McDaniel - Donna
Alan Stock - Oscar
Jeffrey Combs - Stu
Genre - Horror/Slasher/Supernatural
Running Time - 82 Minutes
Hollywood can be a funny place sometimes. While much of it is very superficial, there are some stories that everyone should appreciate. One of them involves Bela Lugosi, the great horror star best known as 1931's DRACULA. Apparently, it was rumored that during the end of his life, his alleged drug addiction caused him to lose touch with real life. It got so bad that he actually believed he was Dracula, even requesting to be buried in the character's cape, which actually happened!
There's another funny story involving 1938's THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD Errol Flynn. Director Raoul Walsh played a prank on Flynn, due to Flynn being upset about his friend John Barrymore's death. Walsh was tired of Flynn's crying, so he went to the morgue, stole Barrymore's corpse, and actually sat the body in the middle of the living room. Wanting to "cheer" Flynn up, Walsh invited Flynn for drinks to surprise a traumatized Flynn with Barrymore's corpse. Gotta love Hallmark moments!
Why am I mentioning these two Hollywood stories? Because they both influenced the 1983 slasher film, THE HORROR STAR - or as it's better known in the United States, FRIGHTMARE. While the inspiration is great, it's really too bad that FRIGHTMARE isn't. Hell, it isn't even close to being mediocre. When the most famous thing about the film is that it's the debut movie for future cult horror star Jeffrey Combs [of RE-ANIMATOR fame] and nothing else, there's a real problem. Let's open up the WTF? Vault and see why it's hungry for this disappointing slasher flick.
Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne) is an aging horror star that's a cross between Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. After being popular during the 50s and 60s in the horror genre, his star has dimmed and is now reduced to starring in really bad TV-commercials and doing the whole horror convention tour bit. This has really bruised his ego, as Conrad believes himself to be one of the greatest actors ever in Hollywood who deserves better than what he's getting.
Surprisingly, film students at a local university seem to admire Conrad, so he attends the school to conduct a lecture on his life and career. However, he collapses on stage and apparently dies. We learn, however, that Conrad faked his death to showcase a powerful final performance. At his home, he murders one of his old directors out of revenge [for some reason] and ironically ends up dying for real.
After Conrad's funeral days later, a few of the film students decide to break into Conrad's mausoleum. They pull Conrad's corpse out of the coffin and actually have a party "in his honor" by dancing with his body and sitting him down for a really disturbing dinner. Karma is a bitch, as some sort of black magic brings Conrad back to life. Seeing unwanted guests on his property, Conrad begins to hunt and kill these students one by one to prove that he's still the best around - even in the afterlife.
I have three words for FRIGHTMARE:
WHAT THE FUCK!?
FRIGHTMARE really disappointed me. I love slasher films, and this one was made during its peak period. So I was expecting it to be, at least, better than average. Also, the inspiration behind it is very original for the basis of any horror film. The foundation was wonderfully set here for a memorable slasher flick. But the writing and the direction are unable to form building blocks to really create something that's "must see". FRIGHTMARE has a ton of potential, but doesn't know how to use it at all.
Like I mentioned, I love the idea behind FRIGHTMARE. Bringing the Bela Lugosi and John Barrymore stories together as the premise for this film is brilliant. Both stories are disturbing in their own way. Both stories are tragic. Both stories are extremely memorable and quite funny in a sick way. If any of them were made into a film, you would probably remember it because the ideas are so bizarre and out there. What happens with Conrad Radzoff is a mix of both rumored stories, setting up the terror and punishment that's to come for the students who decided not to let the dead rest in peace. The script for this really should have been a no-brainer. I'm not expecting greatness, but you could have fun with it and be creative as to how the story is told. So what the hell happened here? Why was director-writer Norman Thaddeus Vane [great name] not able to capitalize on something as good as the set up?
The main issue with the narrative is definitely the characters. You can have the best story in the world. But if your characters aren't worth investing in, then why bother? FRIGHTMARE suffers from this problem. The film students don't have any depth at all, but you kind of expect that in a slasher film anyway. But they are not even stereotypes or archetypes we can connect with. Hell, they aren't even likeable or worth caring about. How can anyone honestly feel sympathy for characters who intentionally break into a mausoleum, take a corpse out of its resting place, and then party with it like death is some kind of joke? These people deserved what they got! Even the Final Girl was involved. I don't care if she felt guilty afterwards. She made a conscious decision and only started regretting it when her friends started to turn out missing. Plus all she does is whine and does nothing of note that could help anyone and entertain viewers. None of them really have personalities - just various levels of annoying and stupidity. I could have cared less about any of them.
Conrad Radzoff, by default, is the most interesting main character. He's the only one who seems to have motives and actions that keep the film moving. Even so, he's still a poor man's Vincent Price and/or Christopher Lee. And there's not enough of his presence alive that you really get a sense of who this man is. He's obviously an egomaniac who can't comprehend why he isn't as famous anymore. So he has to fake his death in order to gain some mainstream attention. This is the type of person I don't find myself enjoying to watch more of. It doesn't help that when he returns from the dead, he's boring as fuck. All he does is stare at people and make them die in really predictable ways. For a guy who's made to be this grand thespian of the stage, film, and television in the horror genre, Conrad as the villain is lifeless [no pun intended] and not scary at all. Plus, what was up with his video appearances any time someone stepped into Conrad's mausoleum? How could this actor plan all this, as if he knew something like this would happen? It really makes no sense.
What else doesn't make sense? Conrad's motivations. Conrad kills two directors, one who doesn't see his appeal, and the other who hates his guts. I don't know what murder accomplished with any of them, because he ended up dying before his plan could come into fruition. You'd think you would want to remain friends with people within the industry that could make or break your career? I guess I just don't know how Hollywood works. What makes me scratch my head is why he would want to kill the film students? I get that they broke into his mausoleum and tampered with his corpse. But these students were huge fans of Conrad's. While what they did was very disturbing, I don't think they really did it out of pure malice - just stupidity. The man has a second chance at life - why not hurt those who took his fame away rather than those who are keeping it alive? Maybe dying messed with his head, but he was planning that anyway. So why was he so upset? Because his wife wanted him to kill them as she spoke to him through a medium? I would buy that if it wasn't for the ending. There's too much confusion here and not enough explanation, which ruins the story for me.
It also doesn't help that FRIGHTMARE tries to be clever and original, but loses any effectiveness by being repetitive as hell. Once Conrad comes back from the dead, he kills a character. The other characters begin searching for the dead character. Conrad kills them. Some more characters do their own hunt. They get killed. It's the same deal over and over again. If Conrad was made to be creative with his kills, his stalking, or baiting in his victims, I would let this slide. But it just keeps going and going until it mercifully ends. This goes on for 35 to 40 minutes. The first time it happens, I'm down. Then it just becomes dull as it continues. This part of the slasher should be the most interesting visually, but you just want to turn the film off and watch something more stimulating.
The death sequences, while repetitive in terms of pace and flow, are okay to watch. We get a decapitation. We get multiple strangulation moments. We get a tongue ripped out. We get someone set on fire, while another gets cremated [in a pretty cool scene]. There's nothing really gory in FRIGHTMARE, and dummies are obviously used when body parts are detached from their hosts. It's worse when Conrad never really lays a hand on many of his victims, instead staring at them while covered in neon lighting and smoke. It's an interesting supernatural twist to a slasher, but it loses its flavor very quickly. Still, the special effects weren't the worst and were more interesting than the actual narrative.
The direction by Norman Thaddeus Vane isn't all that great, to be honest. There are pacing issues. The editing is too repetitive to be interesting. Plus I think some of the death sequences were cut in a way to make them less bloody and gory, which this film could have used more of. The audio is uneven. Vane tries to make Conrad creepy by having him be lighted by neon colors and covered in fog. It just makes the character look silly instead. I know a lot of what is wrong with FRIGHTMARE stems from the script, but Vane also wrote it, so obviously he felt that more stimulating visuals would have been needed to make up for a confusing narrative. There's nothing really here you haven't seen before, and done better as well. I did enjoy the attempt at a Gothic, sort of Hammer Films, feel for the movie. Other than that, wasn't too impressed by anything else.
The acting is a mixed bag. Ferdy Mayne hams it up as Conrad. But at least he seems to be having fun in the role, at least while he plays a living person. Too bad his good work is ruined by his 'just stand there and stare like an idiot' every time he tries to kill someone. Still, he made the character watchable, even though I didn't understand Conrad's motivations here. The other actors don't make much of an impression, due to a script that doesn't give them much to do. Jeffrey Combs, in his first horror film as one of the students, is actually pretty good and does stand out a bit from the others. I'm glad he survived this mess because Combs has given us some quality stuff since. Ironically, he was only hired because he looked like the mannequin head used for one of the death scenes. I didn't think any of the actors were terrible. They just didn't have great material to work with.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE FAKING MY DEATH JUST SO I CAN TREND ON TWITTER FOR AN HOUR
- Conrad pushed an upstart director off of a balcony because of some insulting comments by the director. Uwe Boll better pray he never works with this dude!
- Don't ever try to fake your death. Karma will bite you in the ass and you'll die for real. Or they'll find you on an island and you'll have to owe some people a ton of money. Neither one seems fun.
- The students propped a dead Conrad up at the dinner table so they could have a party in costumes and masks. Lady Gaga sure has a lot to look forward to when she's dead.
- Conrad pulled Oscar's tongue out. He's be a grouch about it, but it's hard when you can't speak coherently.
- Stu got his head decapitated by Conrad. He'll be okay. He's an expert at re-animating corpses, even if it is his own.
THE FINAL HOWL
FRIGHTMARE, or THE HORROR STAR, isn't a film I would recommend at all unless you want to see every slasher film and/or Troma distributed film out there. It has a great premise, but the screenplay only provides a shadow of its major potential. If it weren't for the okay acting, the Gothic look, and the decent death scenes [as bland as they are], this film would be a total flop. I'm really disappointed that this film wasn't better than it could have been. I actually wouldn't mind a remake of this in the near future for the sake of the premise being done justice. I'm sending FRIGHTMARE to the WTF? Vault, where it can rest in peace until some of the other inductees bring it back to life. And when it does, this film can...
SCORE1 Howl Outta 4