If your dad was Mario Bava, master of light and originator of the giallo film as we know it, you’d have a hard time following in his footsteps too; yet that is precisely what Lamberto Bava chose to do. He made some good ones right out of the gate: Macabre (1980) and A Blade in the Dark (’83) have their fans, but it was the fantastic Demons (’85) that brought him international attention. One lackluster sequel later and he was more or less relegated to the sidelines, where he found solace in Italian TV; he signed a four picture deal for a series of films under the umbrella High Tension, and the first one out of the gate was The Prince of Terror (’88), which was deemed too gruesome and shelved until 1999. I can understand why, because it does contain several gory set pieces, implied rape, and strong language. Oh, and it’s also insane and entertainingly weird.
AKA Alta tensione – Il maestro del terrore, The Prince of Terror is probably never mentioned because it hasn’t had any proper VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray release; quite a shame, because any fans of bizarre Italian cinema will definitely lap it up.
The story? Oh boy, let’s start at the start, shall we? A woman (Marina Viro – Chewingum) hops out of an RV stuck in a swamp to find her boyfriend. When she finds him in a pool of water, he soon begins to inflate (yes, inflate) into a milky eyed demon and gives chase. As we soon discover, we are actually on the set of the latest horror film directed by Vincent Omen (Tomas Arana – The Church), and he’s none too fond of the script by his longtime writer, Paul Hilary (David Brandon – StageFright), so has him fired on the spot by the producer (Pascal Druant – Leviathan). Next Vincent is off to the golf course, where he is interviewed by a reporter (Virginia Bryant – Demons 2) about his status as filmdom’s The Prince of Terror, which he does not downplay; in fact he embraces the rumors that he must be at least 50 years old even though he claims to be 37, and all his golf balls are marked with a 666.
Greeted at home by his wife Betty (Carole Andre – Yor), daughter Susan (Joyce Pitti – A Second Childhood), and their little dog Demon, he prepares for a dinner party with his producer and leading lady, but things don’t go as planned; first the power is cut, and then golf balls crash through the dining room window. There’s also the mysterious phone calls, proclaiming, “O-men, No-man” (which is a pretty big stretch for an ominous pun, but I’ll allow it). After the guests leave, the evening starts to escalate – gate security can’t be reached, Demon comes to an unusual (and hilariously grotesque) end, and the family is besieged by a bald, wild eyed lunatic (Ulisse Miniverni – The Card Player) carrying a big knife and an even bigger grudge…
But that’s just the first half of The Prince of Terror, and the really crazy stuff isn’t unloaded until the second; here there be robots, bear traps, head vices, a wall entombment a la Poe, and somehow golf ends up playing a big part in all of it. The idea behind the story makes sense, but the execution is burning down a secondary road with nary a chance of getting back to the highway. What was Bava getting at with this piece if anything?
Perhaps we should ask writer Dardano Sachetti (Demons), whose successful relationship with Lucio Fulci (including Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond) had long since grown acrimonious by this point; perhaps the hoops he has Omen jump through here are purely tongue in cheek, but if they’re not, he has some strong feelings towards Fulci, one might say.
Aside from that then, what we’re left with is a home invasion thriller that has some unique twists and a possibly supernatural bent, depending on how much credence one puts in Italian filmmakers’ perception of reality. Bava actually plays fair, until he doesn’t have to; and while the final denouement will have you questioning every decision that came before, sometimes carpet pulling is fun and appropriate.
Lamberto Bava is well known for energetic and wild set pieces, and while there is nothing on the scale of Demons (this is TV after all), he gets plenty of realistic enough work out of legendary special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti (Phenomena, Demons, Opera) to appease the grue gang. He also gets some pretty good performances, at least ones that seem more relatable due to American (Arana and Bryant) and Irish (Brandon) actors; Arana is quite laid back, which suits the role, whereas Brandon chews up everything in sight, and rightly so. The MVP though may be Miniverni as crazy Eddie the intruder; there’s a look in his eyes that’s appropriately deranged.
The Prince of Terror may not be Bava’s best film, but for TV it’s more than enjoyable and strange enough to please fans of Italian horror looking for something two or three steps removed from normal. Oh, and golf. Lots of golf.