Saturday Nightmares: Horror House on Highway Five (1985)
Bargain basement horror doesn’t get much stranger than this unusual little effort from 1985. Ostensibly unfolding as another entry in the long-running 80’s slasher canon, that label only applies to a piece of these truly wacked out proceedings as there’s so much oddity on display throughout Horror House on Highway 5 that it truly needs to be experienced more than once in order to catch everything.
Making sense out of the convoluted storyline is almost impossible, but we open up firmly in John Carpenter territory (complete with a Halloween-esque sting) with a brutal - and slowwwwww - stalk and slash murder involving a prankster in Richard Nixon mask. When his girlfriend rejects his sexual advances and sends him to the store to get ”some stuff” (what stuff she actually needs is never specified), the poor sod finds himself strangled by a psycho killer hiding in the back of his car.
And so the stage is set for another maniac on the loose movie, but that’s not completely accurate. The premise sends a trio of old and haggard looking college students out into rural America (right off of Highway 5!) to research the life of a reclusive fugitive Nazi doctor by the name of Bartholomule. An intrepid female student is quickly kidnapped by another lunatic doctor (and his semi-retarded brother/henchman) only to wind up embroiled in a story involving an experimental rocket and Satanic Nazi rituals. And while the crazed slasher (now clad in a Richard Nixon mask) runs amok killing teenagers at random, the remaining college students uncover the bizarre secrets of Dr. Bartholomule, culminating in what is arguably the most nonsensical ending of all time.
Horror House on Highway Five isn’t a terribly competent experience: as expected, the parallel storylines never quite gel and the slasher elements fail at generating much in the way of suspense. Writer/Director Richard Casey’s screenplay refuses to explain much of anything and once the credits roll the audience has many more questions than answers: We don’t know why our resident psycho has such an axe to grind and once his identity is revealed, it makes zero sense. As for our mad scientist and his brother, they’re given precious little to do aside from bicker with one another. The doctor complains about parasites in his brain chomping away at his sanity while berating his slow-witted brother with lines like, ”Look at you, you've got a boner!"
Hilariously inappropriate and unbelievable dialogue isn’t relegated to the brothers, either. Take, for example, the bit where the Richard Nixon slasher goes after two teens in a car, only to be run over. The ungrateful girl looks at her date with disgust before exclaiming, ”What's wrong with you!? You just ran that guy over, you must have a low IQ!" And there’s more. So much more. But spoiling it here would ruin the fun of slogging through 90 minutes of this wonderful nonsense in a heightened state of disbelief.
Here is a movie that works almost entirely in spite of itself. Characters never once speak or act in a manner that’s remotely identifiable and nearly every actor is woefully miscast. From the college professor who delivers an early dose of exposition while on the constant verge of laughter to victims who fail at mustering proper base emotions, it’s as if the entire cast and crew were suffering from those pesky brain-eating parasites. Any other explanation would not suffice.
Director Richard Casey supposedly cut his teeth on music videos before attempting the transition to feature films. And while this remains the only film of his that I’ve seen, I’m curious to see if he can recapture the magic with the alleged sequel. While this is badly shot and poorly edited, Casey deserves credit for the straight-faced approach to such a ridiculous script. The actors sell the concept without any annoying self-referential mugging that so often deflates modern genre humor which is what makes the film such a delight to endure. A glance around the Internet reveals an opinion that the movie is funny because it fails in every possible way. It’s easy to see where those critics are coming from, but I can’t help but feel as though they missed at least part of the point. With dialogue like ”My God! The chemicals! We could’ve been exploded!”, it’s hard to believe these guys weren’t trying to make their audience laugh.
In 2006, David Arquette received some faint praise for his clumsy and unfocused political slasher, The Tripper in which a psycho in a Ronald Reagan mask went around hacking up hippies. Make no mistake, Horror House on Highway Five did it first and better (even going as far as to credit the Richard Nixon slasher as being played by Ronald Reagan). The political commentary isn’t particularly well done, but its sheer audacity (suggesting that our evil Nazi doctor was an avid supporter or Richard Nixon) can’t help but be loved.
It’s rare when a film is both intentionally comical and unintentionally hilarious at the same time, making this trip down Highway 5 just too hard to ignore. A friend of mine once remarked that Horror House on Highway Five is like a film you might see on cable at 4 am only to wake up the next morning and wonder whether or not you actually saw it. Truer words have never been spoken about this 1985 peculiarity and while that isn’t exactly a shining endorsement, you may just find yourself strangely engrossed in what this has to offer.
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