Frightmare (aka The Horror Star)
Norman Thaddeus Vane
Norman Thaddeus Vane
Seemingly undaunted by the terrible Midnight (1989), I decided to check out another Norman Thadeus Vane film. Once again he has decided to create a film that centers on horror fans and their culture, and thankfully it’s not nearly as off the mark as it was in Midnight.
Aging horror icon, Conrad Radzoff (Ferdinand Mayne), has grown tired of doing commercials and only recognized as an artist by a few devoted horror film buffs. Knowing that he’s going to die soon, he has a massive mausoleum constructed, complete with deathtraps for anyone foolish enough to break-in, and a video screen where Conrad appears in character as a vampire. Shortly after his death, a college horror film club decides to honor Conrad by stealing his corpse and throwing it a party. Much to their dismay, Conrad Radzoff is not quite as dead as advertised and doesn’t take kindly to being disturbed.
Frightmare is very successful in building an atmosphere of weird horror. Several elements of the film are cloaked in a strange ambiguity. Conrad seems to be accidentally brought back via a séance, but there are indications that it was planned all along. Once he’s out and about bumping off college kids and ex-wives, he’s no ghoul crawling around and attacking his prey with teeth and claws, he has powerful psychic powers to crush people with floating coffins or overwhelm them into an open casket which he wheels into an incinerator. This weirdness is helped along by some very good sound design, with all manner of unearthly noises and screams emanating around Conrad and his tomb.
Sadly, the story begins to lose a lot of steam as it becomes evident that no one is able to understand what is happening to them, much less figure out a way to combat it. A sharper script would play on this to build an encroaching doom, but it feels more like Vane just didn’t know where to go once he had all his characters in motion.
Ferdinand Mayne dominates every scene he's in (as it should be.) He’s a magnetic presence on screen and it’s a shame he isn’t better known by the general movie going public. The rest of the cast aren’t really much to note, their characters are generally so unpleasant it’s hard to sympathize with them in any fashion, and no one really seems able to draw anything useful out of their thinly written parts. The one exception is a young Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator (1985), The Frighteners (1996)) who even here begins to display some of his quirky charisma that would go on to make him a horror idol.
It was tough going while reviewing this film, the Troma DVD release (which looks to be the only version available at this time) is terrible, with a murky dark print and a loud hiss on the audio track that makes it very difficult to hear most of the dialogue. Frightmare is surprisingly better than I expected, and much like Conrad Radzoff deserves a much better preservation that it has received.