Let’s give three cheers for, well, three things: special effects people, cartoonishly terrorizing punks, and Tab Hunter showing up to save the day. This trifecta (and much more) is brought to you by Grotesque (1988), a truly loopy home invasion thriller with enough turns for two films and enough B movie savvy to have you laughing along with it.
Given a limited theatrical run by Empire Pictures in September, Grotesque wasn’t even embraced by horror fans, who were thoroughly thrown off by the tonal whiplash present in the final product; I get it, but at the same time it gives you so much movie for your money that it can’t be faulted on its ambitions.
An interminable opening kicks us off, as we watch a maiden locked in a castle get accosted by a cloaked monster. The film suddenly cuts, and we find ourselves in a Hollywood screening room, where FX master Orville Kruger (Guy Stockwell - Santa Sangre), after showing his latest handiwork announces he is off to his mountain retreat for a family reunion. Next we meet his daughter Lisa (Linda Blair - The Exorcist) and her friend Kathy (Donna Wilkes - Jaws 2) as they head up to the family cabin; the girls run into trouble when they come across a gang of punk troublemakers, who as it turns out, are looking to loot the Kruger getaway (one of the punkers says she used to visit the area as a kid and that their house was allegedly home to...something incredible).
When Lisa and Kathy arrive, they’re greeted by Lisa’s mom; Lisa asks her about Patrick, and her mom says he has “good days and bad days” (keep that in your back pocket for about 15 minutes of screentime). It wouldn’t be a home invasion film without an invasion, and before long our group of punkers, straight from NBC central casting, attack everyone in the house - until Patrick shows up, coming out of his secret room, face misshapen and full of rage, to avenge the killing of his family.
Realizing that it wasn’t diamonds or cash or drugs that was “special” about the Kruger residence, the punks flee the home only to be chased and dispersed by Patrick; a bit of a beat down artist, but he likes to use a tree or two to get his point across as well. Orville’s brother Rod (Tab Hunter - Polyester), a plastic surgeon, arrives at the lodge and helps the cops in searching for the remaining thugs and his niece Lisa, only to come across the two remainders in a fierce battle with Patrick.
Naturally the police off poor Patrick thinking him the killer, so the punks use him as a cover for their murderous spree. Uncle Rod has other plans for them…
Grotesque. The film that asks, “Do you really need your toplined star present for the whole picture?” which then answers with a resounding “Meh.” Miss Blair has top billing, but the film really is an ensemble; one that has no problem mowing down the entire cast, but an ensemble nevertheless. Neither Blair nor Wilkes are given much to do beyond scream and try to fight back against the intruders; Stockwell fares better as the FX patriarch prone to practical jokes and unfortunately, stabbing; and the punks? They fare the best, because they go way over the top with true Afterschool Special elan - especially Brad Wilson and Nels Van Patten as Scratch and Gibbs, respectively. (Nels’ brother/uncle/cousin Timothy played a punk in Class of 1984; I wonder if Vincent ever rocked a mohawk.)
It is hard to ascertain exactly how director Joe Tornatore (The Zebra Force) thought Grotesque would hang together; the first two thirds is all goofy splattersquall before passing the baton to a police procedural that in turn hands it to revenge before crossing the finish line at absurd. Okay, so it’s really Last House on the Left (‘72); Tornatore is no Craven, however, so the seams are bulging and very visible.
The ragged narrative and ridiculous plot twists go hand in hand; energy outshines finesse and creativity pushes convention to the side. The screenplay by Mikel Angel (Psychic Killer) is molded from several better films, yet has a solid exploitation vibe - without the exploitation. There is no nudity in Grotesque nor is it particularly violent, but rather is ready built to house these genre staples without actually taking that step. I don’t believe it was out of some kind of fear of censorship rather than a touch of prudence. Frankly, the film is wild enough without it.
Okay, so Grotesque isn’t the perversion that it sets itself up to be; in fact, it tries to say a little something about how being different - physically and mentally - is special. And when you get to the very end (which was cut from certain releases) which punctuates the thought, you may roll your eyes, scratch your head, or smile. Perhaps all three.
Grotesque is available on DVD as part of the four film Vampires, Mummies, and Monsters Collection from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)