[review by JA Kerswell]
GROTESQUE is a series of what-the-fuck moments. It's topped off with an extra special what-the-fuck moment as a veritable cherry on top of this hodge-podge genre cupcake. If you've ever wondered what a slasher movie crossed with a home invasion movie crossed with mad scientist movie crossed with a monster on the loose flick crossed with a ... oh, you get the idea. It's all this and, depending on your disposition, so much more - or less. Despite featuring every cliche under the sun, you'll paradoxically have never seen anything like this before. Again this either a very good or a very, very bad thing.
Blair and Donna Wilkes first meet the 'punkers'
Although released just seven years after Linda Blair fought for her life at Garth Mansion in HELL NIGHT (1981), GROTESQUE is a world away from that classic era slasher. Blair, who co-produced this, is ostensibly set up as the heroine again this time. I say ostensibly because many of the better known faces in GROTESQUE barely make it past a single reel, which perhaps suggests calling in favours on the behalf of the director (or blackmail).
Here Blair (as Lisa) has swapped her costume party bodice and cleavage for power pastels and frizz perm (the late 80s didn't do anyone any favours). Lisa is the daughter of famous horror movie director Orville Kruger (Guy Stockwell), who is organising a family reunion at their remote winter lodge in the mountains. Over lunch she invites her friend Kathy (Donna Wilkes - who had previously battled a flute playing psycho in BLOOD SONG (1982) and a fish-cum-slasher in JAWS 2 (1978)). Lisa warns Kathy that her father has a strange sense of humour ...
On the trip up the mountain, Lisa and Kathy are nearly run off the road, and then harassed, by a gaggle of over-aged 'punkers' in a VW van. They manage to escape, but are warned to keep away from them by a local shopkeeper (played by the film's director). "Be careful of the freaks!" he winks. They think nothing more of it and are warmly welcomed by Lisa's parents when they finally arrive at the lodge. Only for Kathy to fall foul of Lisa's father's penchant for dressing up as a monster fish to scare her (flashbacks to Amity). He also puts a prosthetic severed hand on her bed. Guess it beats a mint on the pillow. Lisa casually asks her mother after someone called Patrick. "Oh, he has his good and his bad days", she replies nonchalantly. It turns out that Patrick is the horribly disfigured man the family adopted and, for some reason, keep behind a bookcase.
Bunky Jones goes goth!
Whilst watching family home movies (which consist of Dad chasing Mom around the kitchen with a hatchet, like you do) the Punk gang gatecrashes the party. Thinking that they would be some rich Hollywood types, they sneer their way into the house and begin to ransack and terrorise the inhabitants. However, the horribly disfigured Patrick watches with mounting rage from another room. Soon all hell breaks loose ...
It is probably safe to say that GROTESQUE scores a first by having a disfigured killer who has what looks like a testicle hanging from his chin (which magically also resembles a vagina at certain angles). Tom Savini eat your heart out. GROTESQUE also features one of the slowest chase scenes in genre history, as Blair is pursued across a snowbank by one of the punks; with each step sinking up to their knees. Then there's a scene where one woman tries to barter for her life by talking about Santa Claus. Plus there's a montage of dead bodies intercut not once, not twice but what feels like 42 times with a jolly country ditty. GROTESQUE is nothing if not unusual.
The film tips its hat playfully from the off with what turns out to be a film-within-a-film opening. In it a woman with long blond hair (she oscillates from young maiden to old crone) is romanced/menaced by a monster in a cassock called John. Her opening monologue seems to go on for ages, with her rambling about "zebras in the night" and "fine wine exposed to the wind" (no, me either). Thankfully John puts an end to her wittering by biting out her throat ... Cut to a screening room where the film's producer (obviously a relative of Helen Keller) enthuses how this is the best film ever made! Incidentally, this role was a cameo by veteran genre actor John F. Goff, who has appeared in films such as DRIVE IN MASSACRE (1976), THE FOG (1980), BESERKER (1987) and many more.
With the home invasion GROTESQUE gets gritty for about five seconds, but the eye rolling and teeth nashing of the Punks soon puts pay to that. Clearly the director asked the spiky haired ensemble to turn up the scenery chewing to eleven and they don't disappoint. Subtle it ain't. We even have a maniacal giggling character. It's like someone spiked the cast of an Italian post-nuke Mad Max rip-off with angel dust and espresso shots. They make the Punk gang in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 (1982) look like UN Peacekeepers. Of course, it's all too silly to ever be disturbing.
Patrick's rampage (cue more slo-mo chases in the snow as he hunts the gang down) is where the film earns its slasher star. But even then GROTESQUE can't help but go off on a tangent, with Patrick - despite making out like a pizza-faced Charles Bronson - prone to bouts of philosophic introspection! Even two of the Punks stop briefly mid-chase to have a brief existential exchange.
face for radio
And then, just when you think it couldn't get any stranger, Tab Hunter turns up. Come the morning most of the household - both Punk and family - lie dead in the snow. Hunter plays the plastic surgeon brother of the director. He joins a manhunt with the local police so epicly mundane and plodding it seemed to be in real-time. Without wanting to give away too much more, let's just say that a couple of the surviving Punkers get what's coming to them in a plot twist it's unlikely you'll see coming (unless you're sniffing Hard Rock hairspray and are tripping on mescaline). And if that's not batshit crazy enough for you it's all topped off what a coda (missing from some releases) that, although has some symmetry with the film's opening, takes the biscuit (and then gets a unicorn to stamp on it).
The film was lensed in late 1987 in the San Bernardino National Forest, California. I'm sure there's a fascinating story behind GROTESQUE, but it appears that no one is talking. Despite a producer credit, rumour has it that Blair had disagreements with the director over the titling of film and, perhaps after seeing the finished product, hasn't discussed it much since. It would be fascinating to know the story of how the cast came together. Luana Patten (who plays Blair's mother) had been a child star for Disney in the 1940s. She had been retired from the screen for 18 years before somehow being persuaded to appear in GROTESQUE (the film was her swan-song!). Guy Stockwell (the younger brother of actor Dean) was also a child star in the 1940s. He went onto lots of big and small screen credits including Larry Cohen's killer mutant baby opus IT'S ALIVE (1974) and the little seen BURNED AT THE STAKE (1982). After GROTESQUE Stockwell went on to a turn in Alejandro Jodorowsky's remarkable SANTA SANGRE the following year.
Hunter enjoys himself in GROTESQUE
Seasoned slasher movie fans will also recognise a few faces from the punker crew. The memorably named Bunky Jones (Belle) here plays a deranged goth with Siouxsie Sioux eye makeup, who makes shrieking bird noises. She had a small run of genre credits to her name around this time. She had appeared in THE KINDRED (1987) and was in department store slasher HIDE AND GO SHRIEK the same year as GROTESQUE. She disappeared from screens shortly after. Robert Z'Dar's (Eric) distinctive face is easy to spot and is best known as the title character in William Lustig's MANIAC COP films. Sharon Hughes (Donna) had appeared with Blair in CHAINED HEAT (1983) and had a small part in the Cannes set slasher THE LAST HORROR FILM (1982). Nel's Van Patten (Gibbs) (brother of Blair's HELL NIGHT co-star Vincent) went on to appear with his brother in CAMP FEAR (1991) (which was at one time intended as a sequel to CHEERLEADER CAMP (1988)). Another classic slasher movie connection was actor Charles Dierkop (Matson), who appeared as the Santa who killed Billy's parents in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984).
Although it may have seemed a little incongruous to have cast Tab Hunter - the former 1950s teen 'sigh guy' heartthrob - the actor had his own photo-slasher credits. He had appeared as the killer in SWEET KILL (1972) and had secured his cult credit in John Waters' POLYESTER (1981). He also appeared in OUT OF THE DARK the same year as GROTESQUE. Hunter does an admirable job here, and manages to keep a straight face even as the proceedings get ever more demented.
Director Joe Tornatore was perhaps better known for his acting work in major Hollywood fayre, such THE STING (1973) and THE CHAMP (1979), but was also a regular face in Blaxploitation flicks in the 1970s. He started his directing career with the action trash classic THE ZEBRA FORCE (1976).
Judging by some poster art, the film got a release in some international territories, but was little seen in its home country. It didn't get a theatrical release, but was released to VHS in the States on the Media label in 1989 (before getting a bare bones release by Scream Factory in 2011). It didn't get a certificate for home video release in the UK until 2003.
5 / male: 6