My curiosity in watching Frightmare began & ended with my most recent visitation of the Richard Kelly cult classic Donnie Darko. In the scene where Donnie sits alone in a desolate cinema with his sleeping girlfriend & the time travelling bunny that haunts his hallucinations, the theater’s marquee advertises a double feature of John Carpenter’s classic slasher Halloween & the (deservedly) much less frequently referenced Frightmare. Curious about what that film could have to add to Donnie Darko’s already overstuffed mythos, I discovered that it’s a Troma-distributed supernatural horror cheapie written & directed by (the totally fake-sounding) no-namer Norman Thaddeus Kane. For a cheap horror flick distributed by one of the most questionable schlock peddlers around with only a ridiculous portmanteau title & a tenuous connection to a decades-down-the-line sci-fi indie, however, Frightmare’s not all that bad. In fact, in isolated moments of supernatural spookery, the film even nearly touches on genuine greatness. Presuming its inclusion in Donnie Darko wasn’t simply a tossed-off detail (as nothing ever seems to be in the director’s work), it’s fairly easy to see how a young Richard Kelly could’ve grown up with a dedicated affection for it.
Frightmare partly mirrors the narrative conceits of the Vincent Price films Madhouse & Theatre of Blood. A typecast horror actor (falling somewhere between Price and Christopher Lee), seeks revenge on a world he feels wronged him from beyond the grave. At first he casually murders directors, casting agents, and producers who’ve ghettoized his talent as a legitimate stage actor into a one-note joke who’s stuck in a career-length role as Dracula. This setup is mostly meta wish fulfillment, though, as it leaves little room for drive-in audiences to be scared (unless they also happen to be big shot movie producers). That’s presumably why a college campus film society steals the deceased actor’s body from a mausoleum, providing a fairly solid reason for the actor to be murderously angry with a group of horror’s favorite victim type: horny teens. Our naïve dumdums desecrate the corpse of their favorite 80s Bela Lugosi knockoff, which opens them up for a world of pain when the actor’s corpse reanimates, now equipped with telepathic command of the fires of Hell (not unlike my favorite Marvel hero, The Son of Satan).
The idea of a beloved horror icon rising from the dead to attack his most dedicated fans is a pretty interesting launching point for a horror film and Frightmare takes great delight in the supernatural implications of that scenario. The actor literally explodes out of his coffin using the fires of Hell. His supposedly pre-recorded messages speak directly to visitors at his wake & his neon-lit mausoleum with eerie statements like “Thank you, friends, for coming to my funeral.” He telepathically decapitates an idiot teen so that a mysterious crow can pick at their scalp. If Donnie Darko is any way thematically connected to Frightmare it’s in these otherworldly creep out moments. In particular, both films suppose supernatural ways for their main players to affect the living world after their deaths, serving as slices of high concept attending-your-own-funeral wish fulfillment, the kind that comes with revenge against your worst bullies. Frightmare’s post-mortem revenge tale might come with mood-cheapening one-liners (when the actor kills a director he dislikes he quips, “Take 20”) that directly conflict with Donnie Darko’s heart on the sleeve earnestness, but the connection’s still there.
Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t the supernatural terror that interests or unnerves me in Frightmare. The most striking sequence of the film, by far, is when the college campus film club parties with their hero’s limp corpse. They waltz with him romantically, feed him spaghetti, take portraits with him, and even go as far to make out with the lifeless legend (*cue “Chrissy Kiss the Corpse”*). And all of their morbid pranks are set to a soaring orchestral score while the camera spins and the young, foolish, soon-to-be victims don rubber Halloween masks & drink themselves into oblivion. It’s a shockingly lyrical moment in a film that can often be intentionally silly. If Frightmare spent more of its time chasing that art house take on Weekend at Bernie’s it might’ve been a cult classic title that landed itself on fictional double bill marquees a lot more frequently. I enjoyed the silly, ramshackle film well enough as is, but something about that party scene had me curious about the kind of work that Norman Thaddeus Kane (who I refuse to believe is a real person) could be capable of with a bigger production budget & more dedicated focus on real-world scares.