Fright House (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2021-10-24 06:37

Written by: Len Anthony(story), James Harrigan
Directed by: Len Anthony
Starring: Al Lewis, Paul Borghese, and Jennifer Delora

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"Intruders! They have defiled the ceremony!"

Horror history is lined with creators who came and went, sometimes producing a handful of films before vanishing off into the ether. Something about them is fascinating: these folks felt compelled to make a movie or three, then decided to simply do something else. It’s an arc that’s often as bizarre as the artifacts they left behind since these films tend to be strange, idiosyncratic dispatches. Consider the case of Len Anthony, who blessed the world with three films in the late-80s before practically vanishing. From what I can gather, not much is known about Anthony, who, according to the American Genre Film Archive, “was one of the strangest trash auteurs to emerge from the NYC film scene” and “had a habit of not finishing films he started.” This latter fact can at least partially account for the existence of Fright House, one of those abandoned features that now exists as a fragmentary glimpse into a Anthony’s psychotronic world, where Satanic ghouls terrorize a Jersey college town on a budget that would otherwise be used to fund a decent Halloween haunt.

But there’s something lovable about the threadbare nature of the production, of course, which overcomes those budgetary constraints with homespun charm. A rash of suicides has befuddled the local police force, who sends in an undercover campus agent to get to the bottom of things—but that’s not our story, contrary to what you might expect since the opening scene establishes this plot point. The real story kicks in a bit later, when detective Les Morane (Paul Borghese) has a conversation with his eccentric brother, who’s been tracking occult activity in the area that might hold a clue to the deaths, which he insists aren’t suicides but the work of something more sinister. He’s obviously getting too close to the truth because a mysterious ghoul claims his life. When the force writes this off as another suicide, Les refuses to believe it and launches his own rogue investigation that eventaully brings him to the Vincent mansion, the local haunted joint that’s about to become a fraternity’s new digs.

Fright House reminds us that a familiar story (because how many times have we seen oblivious dopes raise literal hell in a haunted house?) can still work with the right touch. Making a derivative movie isn’t a sin in and of itself; making one without imprinting any kind of personality on it is more egregious. And this one oozes personality with the signature charming voice you get with these regional, semi-amateur productions. Fright House feels like the approximation of a movie, as Anthony and company weave a hard-boiled cop procedural through a rickety dark ride with the enthusiasm of a bunch of folks who’d scoured the video store and decided to mount their own production. Everything from the eccentric dialogue to the odd narrative digressions let you know they’ve seen a movie before, and this is their attempt at stuffing everything they’ve ever seen into 57 minutes: sex, monsters, melting faces, frat panks, stand-up comedy routines, Satanic rituals.

You might point out that plenty of movies feature some combination of these things, and you’d be right. However, only Fright House does it with Al Lewis wandering in for a handful of scenes, first as Les’s police chief and later in a more nefarious capacity. Only Fright House features a frat faking a suicide before breaking into a brief rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” with all the guys staring directly into the camera, thoroughly shattering the fourth wall and inviting you to get a load of this shit. Only Fright House features topless women chanting gibberish as they prepare to sacrifice another victim in order to...well, I’m not quite sure exactly what this cult is up to. Anthony’s apparent tendency to leave movies unfinished manifests itself in a slipshod ending that features plenty of portentous dialogue but no real explanation for the carnage that’s unfolding.

Instead, it’s the sort of ending that asks you to get lost in the funhouse, as Anthony conjures rubber-masked ghouls and community theater parlor tricks. It’s Night of the Demons, only it’s being done by a bunch of amateur jabronis giving it their all. Anthony leans on his fog machine, eerie lighting, and cheapo effects to transcend the mundane trappings of what seems to be an actual abandoned house, which he transforms into a dime store netherworld before abruptly cutting the movie short. There’s something I love about the aesthetic, though: Fright House is low-rent and grungy, but its vivid, colorful photography creates an uncanny lush effect, kind of like if Hammer Films ever staged a production in the wilds of New Jersey. Between this and the film’s devil-may-care approach, we have ample evidence that Anthony certainly had potential to pull off something impressive, had he ever had the means or will to do so.

For whatever reason, that never happened: Anthony’s career was as abrupt as Fright House’s ending, as he never produced anything afterwards. And when this one eventually surfaced to VHS, it became an anthology of sorts, as a distributor (perhaps at the behest of Anthony himself? Who knows?) spliced it together with Vampires (retitled as Abadon), a previous Anthony production notable for featuring Duane Jones’s last screen appearance. The Frankensteined hybrid has likely warded off even the most adventurous of cult fans who might be wary of a 110-minute Jersey backyard production. In its original form, however, Fright House is easier to digest: it’s simply a 57-minute burst of madness that tosses in everything but the kitchen sink—but I bet Anthony would have tossed that into the blender if he could have afforded it.

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