Great Bad Movies: "Frightmare" (1983)
(aka "The Horror Star")
Written and directed by Norman Thaddeus Vane
Starring: Ferdinand Mayne, Jeffrey Combs, Luca Bercovici, Nita Talbot
1983's Frightmare (also known as The Horror Star) is a weird little film that tries to combine the atmosphere of classic 1930s/'40s style horror movies with the shock factor of the then-current '80s slasher craze. It isn't completely successful due to very obvious budgetary restraints, and the less-than-professional caliber of its cast of young actors, but it still has moments of cheesy fun, mostly due to the classy/hammy performance of Ferdinand Mayne, whose aging horror movie star "Conrad Radzoff" is obviously modeled after scary-movie icons like Christopher Lee and Vincent Price.
When we meet the elderly has-been actor in Frightmare's opening scene, he's in the midst of shooting a commercial for denture cream, so his career is clearly on a downward spiral. However, it appears that ol' Conrad is still a hoity-toity, prima donna jerk-off. When the ad's director berates him for blowing a take for the umpteenth time, the old goat snorts that he shouldn't have to put up with this treatment, since he "did Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw on the London stage before you were a gleam in your father's eye" ... and then he uses his cane to push the punk off a balcony to his death. Nice, huh?
Next, Conrad visits his fans at a meeting of a college "Horror Movie Society," where he suffers a sudden heart attack in the midst of the event. Soon the still-feisty curmudgeon is bedridden at his mansion, though he still manages to do away with a despised business associate by smothering him with a pillow (!) before he finally kicks the bucket. Conrad is laid to rest in true old-Hollywood style in a high tech neon-lit tomb with a large video screen above the casket, which will play prerecorded messages from Conrad himself for any visitors who enter to pay their respects.
It is at this point that the kids from the campus Horror Movie Society return, paying Conrad's grave an after hours visit in the dead of night. After breaking into the tomb, the kids get the bright idea to take the old boy's body back home with them for an impromptu party. Grave robbing was never my idea of fun, but remember, these are characters in an '80s horror film -- logic has no place here. The college party animals have a pleasant, formal dinner with Conrad's body seated in a place of honor, pose for photos with him and even take him for a few spins around the dance floor before they finally park the old boy in the attic and retire to their rooms for an evening of fornication.
In the meantime, Mrs. Radzoff, who's understandably distraught over the theft of her husband's corpse, has called in a psychic to try and "reach" Conrad through a seance. You can figure out where this is going, can't you? Conrad wasn't a very nice guy in life, so it's not a stretch to assume that he won't be very friendly in death, either.
Revenge of the Dead Has-Been!
Psychic Lady makes successful contact with Conrad, who re-awakens in predictably pissed off fashion and spends the rest of the movie wandering around the darkened corridors of the students' ridiculously huge house, picking off the young grave robbers one by one. The film settles into standard slasher movie fare from here on, with lots of scenes of the teens stumbling through spooky hallways, with occasional bursts of gory violence. Eventually the last two survivors figure out (WAY later than any semi-intelligent people would have...) that the only way to end the mayhem is to return Conrad's body back to its crypt where it belongs. The film's sluggish midsection is padded out with a lot of weird lighting and dry ice fog effects, backed by a soundtrack made up almost entirely of sound effects rather than music (thunder, moans and groans, howls, etc.) that become severely annoying after a while.
Frightmare will probably work best for those of us who grew up watching cheap horror movies like this on late night cable back in the '80s. "Modern Horror" fans will doubtlessly find Frightmare incredibly slow moving and goofy, but if you came of age in that magical decade, however, you may get a blast of nostalgia. Fans of Jeffrey ("Re-Animator") Combs may also want to check it out, since the future Dr. Herbert West makes his movie debut here as one of the unlucky film students.
I will advise readers to avoid copies of this film on the cheap-o EastWestDVD label, which was paired with Roy Ward's "Vault of Horror" and sold at dollar stores, because the picture and sound on that release is absolutely terrible. However, I revisited the film recently via Amazon Prime and was glad to see that the copy being streamed there was much better quality, which made the film much more enjoyable the second time around.
I'm told that the rights to Frightmare are currently held by the fine folks at Troma Films (home of the Toxic Avenger), which seems appropriate. If you're a Troma kind of person, then Frightmare should be right up your alley.
© 2019 Keith Abt