Monday, May 2, 2011

The Henriksen Principle of Elevation

Today marks the beginning of the epic Lance Henriksen Blog-A-Thon, and for my part here at Fantasmo I’ve chosen what I believe to be the most interesting facet of the talented actor. Having appeared in an extensive list of genre films over the years, his filmography includes titles ranging from amazing (e.g. Aliens) to the not so great (e.g. Sasquatch Mountain). What is absolutely true however, despite the quality of any particular film, is that Henriksen’s participation guarantees that there will always be something worth watching. You see no matter what the project may be he gives it his all. Whether you are watching him in an A-list film like The Right Stuff or Dog Day Afternoon, or in any number of direct-to-video cheapies, you get the same top notch level of performance. Honestly I have never seen a Henriksen performance I didn’t like, and I can think of few actors out there for which I could make a similar claim. I challenge you to put this assertion to the test. Watch a “prestige” picture like Appaloosa back-to-back with something like Screamers: The Hunting, and tell me you disagree that Lance is any less engaged in the latter, low-budget affair!

Bearing this in mind, I’d take things just a bit further. Because Henriksen consistently gives his all, he actually raises the watchability of lesser films. Using the 4-star scale of film ratings as a starting point, if Henriksen is in a movie it would automatically get a star in my universe (maybe two depending on the extent of his participation). For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to refer to this as the Henriksen Principle of Elevation. To illustrate this principle in action, I thought it would be interesting to examine one of his all-too-rare leading man appearances in a theatrical release, the 1989 film The Horror Show. No one will ever mistake this movie as a classic, nor is it particularly noteworthy in terms of its place in horror cinema. However it is a textbook example of how a pedestrian film, which basically amounted to a lazy copy of the Elm Street movies, is made worthwhile by Henriksen’s contribution.

For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing The Horror Show, the film features Henriksen in the role of Detective Lucas McCarthy. McCarthy has finally captured the legendary serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James), but has begun having nightmares in which Jenke has come back to kill him. After attending Jenke’s execution, McCarthy believes life can return to normal. Unfortunately as it turns out, Jenke has perfected a way to return via electromagnetism, and proceeds to inhabit the circuits at McCarthy’s home. This allows Jenke to bend reality and stalk McCarthy and his family. McCarthy learns from a local college professor that he will have to force Jenke back into reality via a massive jolt of electricity, leading to a climactic final battle spanning McCarthy’s home and the hereafter.

The Horror Show opened theatrically in late April of 1989, essentially kicking off the summer movie season. More accurately it was dumped out by the studio in the quiet period before Batman and Indiana Jones arrived, in the hopes that it might have a shot at generating at least a little revenue. The fact is that The Horror Show is little more than a blatant attempt to rip off the 80’s slasher/otherworldly killer hybrid made popular by Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. Unfortunately the movie was about 5 years too late in this endeavor. All of the major series had already been ripped off several times, and even the continuing installments of Friday, Nightmare, and others were themselves failing at the box office. Incredibly the film was produced by original Friday the 13th mastermind Sean S. Cunningham, who should’ve known better at that point. Likely he was hoping to reignite his faltering House series, with this as its next installment (The Horror Show was actually released as House III overseas). Needless to say this gambit failed to pay off. It might have worked if it had premiered in October, but the remarkably similar Shocker by Wes Craven would have been in direct competition.

The chief problem with The Horror Show is just how transparent the intentions are behind it. Max Jenke is clearly meant to be a new Freddy, and many of his fantastic appearances seem lifted directly from Elm Street. For example there are sequences where Jenke appears as a turkey creature during a family dinner, he shows up on a television show the family is watching, and he appears as McCarthy’s lawyer following an interrogation at police headquarters. One could easily insert Robert Englund into any of those scenarios without missing a beat. Despite a solid effort by the always reliable Brion James, the whole thing just feels tired. The turkey creature might have been shocking circa 1983, but by 1989 we’d already seen Freddy morph into any number of creatures, rendering the whole business well past the prime of such tom foolery. Perhaps indicative of the ingenuity not at work here, one of the writing credits belongs to Alan Smithee.

Further compounding The Horror Show’s problems is the look of the film. No question it is a low budget effort, but that can often be overcome with imagination on the part of the filmmakers. Here the execution is workmanlike, with very few truly interesting visuals. In a movie that involves the merging of reality and a nightmarish, otherworldly plane of existence, you really have to make a point of interpreting the fantastic in an interesting way. The only thing consistent in terms of a vision on display is, ironically, murky lighting. The Horror Show has a muted color palette and is sometimes so darkly lit that it’s hard to see what’s going on (particularly in basement sequences where much of the action takes place). There are also occasional flashes of neon pink and blue, an unfortunate reminder of the worst trends of the 80’s. In a nutshell the whole thing is a muddy mess. Apparently the original director on the project was let go, and James Isaac (the special effects guy on House 2) was brought in to finish the job. I don’t know how much to lay at his doorstep, but he later went on to do Jason X which has similar problems, make of that what you will.

So The Horror Show is uninspired thematically and visually, how about the rest? Fortunately this is where the filmmakers really got things right. A number of familiar faces pop up including genre vets Thom Bray (Prince of Darkness), Dedee Pfieffer (Vamp), and Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs). Their presence helps to distract from the other elements lacking in the picture. Better still was the decision to put Brion James in the role of the Jenke, a part he was born to play. James is terrific in the role and is clearly having a ball with the material. I can’t help but believe Jenke’s creepy laugh, which James executes very well, was meant to be a signature trademark that would have carried through any number of Max Jenke adventures (never to be). Above and beyond all of these players though, we have the element that holds it all together . . . Lance Henriksen.

From the first frame of the film Henriksen takes the proceedings seriously. There’s no wink in his eye that he’s in on any joke, or slack in his step because he’s not working with James Cameron. He exhibits an intensity and weariness that register as genuine. His trademark chiseled appearance and deep voice of course help in this endeavor, always coming in handy for his portrayal of tortured souls. And make no mistake, McCarthy is tortured. Having seen Jenke’s wicked path of destruction, including the grisly loss of a partner during his apprehension, he is at the end of his tether. A lesser actor viewing The Horror Show as a throwaway B-picture might have phoned in the performance. Not Lance Henriksen. He makes McCarthy a real person that the audience can identify with. He’s not a supercop by any stretch of the imagination, just a dedicated professional trying to make sense of that which has no explanation. After Jenke’s execution, as he starts to hallucinate and potentially endanger his family, Henriksen makes us feel like we’re in his shoes. His dedication to creating a believable character pulls the viewer in, making one forget (at least for a time) that they are watching a cheapo Nightmare on Elm Street rip off. In a way Henriksen’s performance as McCarthy reminded me of his character in Millennium, who is haunted by the unending struggle to shield his family from the ugliness in the world. McCarthy is a little less cerebral than Frank Black, but they certainly share a great deal in common.

Because Henriksen is so invested in the role, it also elevates the effectiveness of Brion James’s Jenke character. If you had a bland actor in the role of McCarthy, who was merely there because of affordability, James would be utterly overwhelming. Henriksen has no problem holding his own, and the confrontations between the two leads are a lot of fun to watch as a result. It’s like you’re seeing a cop from a great crime film confront a most convincing, raving lunatic. I kept thinking while watching the film recently that Henriksen would have been terrific as the lead in something like Prince of the City (in which he co-starred). Or imagine him as one of the principals in Michael Mann's Heat. Instead he has to settle for The Horror Show, but that doesn’t matter. As far as he’s concerned there’s no difference between the two, he’s still going to give the same committed performance. Honestly the pairing of Henriksen and James alone is enough to recommend The Horror Show regardless of any reservations. The problem is they don’t have enough screen time together, but what there is makes the trip worthwhile. It’s a shame the creative folks behind the project couldn’t match the ability of their talented leads.

Let's be honest, there are better films out there featuring Lance Henriksen in a leading role. Near Dark, Pumpkinhead, Survival Quest . . . and even Piranha 2(in my humble opinion) come to mind. Nevertheless, The Horror Show still figures as an important entry in his filmography, mostly due to the inspired pairing of Henriksen and James. Also, given his leading man status, it provides an abundance of evidence of how Henriksen invests himself in every performance, no matter how big or small the production. There is no moment in The Horror Show where I felt Henriksen (or James for that matter) was involved only for the paycheck. In some ways it was almost a dry run for his iconic character Frank Black, and on that note alone quite enjoyable. In terms of the Henriksen Principle of Elevation, The Horror Show is a fine exemplar on two counts. First, Henriksen’s performance allows the audience to identify with the lead character, compensating for the lack of positive elements in other areas of the production. Secondly, Henriksen’s investment provides a solid presence to counter James’s over-the-top performance. A lesser actor would have been completely overshadowed in the situation. I rest my case!

For the sake of full disclosure, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big Lance Henriksen fan, with Millennium being one of my favorite pieces of filmed art ever. Even so again I challenge you to find a Henriksen film where you think he’s on autopilot. I have yet to experience anything of the kind, and I’ve sat through a LOT of DTV my friends : ) I would also encourage you to seek out a Henriksen move this week that you haven’t seen before, especially if you know him only from theatrical movies like Aliens and Hard Target. And if you do know Henriksen, be sure to join in the Blog-A-Thon by writing up your thoughts. Click on the link to the right for all the details on how to get in on the party! Not bad for a human indeed!


Joe said...

Great post, Jim!

Here's what I had to say about THE HORROR SHOW in an early draft of Lance's bio:

... it could be that the filmmakers decided they didn’t need a coherent plot, and chose to justify the mayhem according to a vague notion of what a “rubber reality” horror movie should be. The term “rubber reality” came into popular use after the success of Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), but it can also be applied to earlier films such as Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM (1979) and John D. Hancock’s LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) – films that rely on impressionistic, dreamlike storytelling rather than conventional, logical narrative. These films, however, work because the stories have their own internal logic; the filmmakers establish new rules for a new reality. The absence of any kind of internal logic can make for rather frustrating viewing. Case in point: THE HORROR SHOW.

I LOVE the idea of an alternate-universe version of HEAT starring Lance Henriksen. He could have played just about any of the male roles in the film. Imagine the Pacino/DeNiro diner scene with Lance Henriksen and Brion James...

Jim Blanton said...

That is so true, the rules in The Horror Show are never really made clear. The movies you reference are all terrific, and do have internal logic. Sometimes you can even have dreamlike films that work without internal logic. I'm thinking specifically of Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, where the visuals and style can carry the day. Unfortunately The Horror Show has no style to speak of. It's sole redeeming quality is the acting talent.

I agree wholeheartedly!! I would have LOVED to see the diner scene from Heat with Henriksen and James!!

Joe said...

You're right about dreamlike films that work without internal logic. I know this is a heated discussion between John Muir and some of the other "Betweeners." I seem to remember that Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs did a great job of making the pro argument for filmmakers like Argento and Fulci in their book IMMORAL TALES, by alluding to Robbe-Grillet's theory of "generators."

Jim Blanton said...

Yeah the discussion as I recall involved a debate over the relative merits (or lack thereof) of Fulci's The Beyond. The thing about dreamlike films that make no attempt at establishing internal logic is that their success or failure rides on whether they produce a desired effect. Assuming Fulci was attempting to unsettle and disorient, I would submit that he pulled that off.

The problem with that approach, in terms of winning the appreciation of viewers, is that it is polarizing by its very nature. So when rating something like that in a traditional it was good/bad/four stars sort of way is difficult at best . . . and sure to spark controversy.

Immoral Tales is a great book, and Robbe-Grillet is a prime example of a filmmaker who employs imagery/ambiguity vs. exposition, plot, etc. Last Year At Marienbad is a personal favorite, and although it doesn't feature zombies, I think it could be appreciated by fans of Fulci (and particularly David Lynch).