Grotesque (1988, directed by Joe Tornatore, written by Mikel Angel)
“Nothing but a bunch of phonies around here.”
“Well that’s movie magic, isn’t it?”
In 1988, I was ten years old. The Slasher genre was well into its late cycle, and the video market was exploding. My mother was my gateway into horror films, and I often “borrowed” from her collection. She introduced me to Romero, Carpenter, and other icons. I have a faint memory of Hell Night. I had no idea the female lead was also the star of one of the biggest horror movies of all time, The Exorcist. My film intake at the time bordered on gluttony, so it wouldn’t be until later that I was able to distinguish and appreciate Linda Blair’s contribution to genre film.
Linda Blair released four movies in 1988. One of those movies was Grotesque.
As the star and associate producer, you would expect Blair to be front and center. Director Joe Tornatore (Codename: Zebra) apparently had other ideas (too many, but we’ll get to that). Blair is mostly absent from the film, and unlike much of her early 80’s output, her raw sexuality isn’t on display. The film takes the opposite route, establishing our leads as naïve innocents. Lisa (Blair) and Kathy (Donna Wilkes, Angel) wear entirely pink and blue outfits, respectively, and avoid curse words during conversation. Lisa says “Get off my butt” to a reckless tailgater who calls her a bitch in passing. This is our first look at the “punkers,” our prime evil for tonight’s show.
Grotesque presents another small-town heaven, ruined only by outsiders who carry the disease of a big city with them. “People sure are friendly,” Lisa says, moments before the tailgating punks arrive. Punks—the personification of disease in 80’s cinema. Punks with names like Earbox, Scratch, and Shelly. Oddly enough, the victim’s patriarch is named Kruger (Guy Stockwell, playing a grown-up version of Tommy from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter). Scratch (Brad Wilson) brings his best Vernon Wells impression, bug-eyed and experiencing mini-orgasms every time a female nuzzles his face. It’s a weird performance, but not weird enough to elevate the film. Robert Z’Dar is also along for the ride, but isn’t given much to do. His only line in the film: “It’s a baby’s nursery!”
One of the film’s better moments is spent with two underling punks, Donna and Gibbs. They go off to do their own thing, which is to have sex in a room decorated with prosthetics. Then they find a mineshaft and build a fire. She hums while he constantly giggles. “My ass doesn’t get cold,” she says, which kicks off a heated discussion about her ass, which is suddenly offensive to Gibbs. Donna, played by Sharon Hughes (Chained Heat), brings a likeability to her character. She doesn’t really fit in with the gang, and you have to wonder how she got here.
This is a film that feels like it wants to be darker, but is constantly undermining itself with unsuccessful meta and jokey elements. Factors like the misleading title (which according to IMDb, Blair didn’t approve of) and an inconsistent tone doesn’t help matters. Writer Mikel Angel, whose early credits fall in the Blaxploitation genre, was either trying something different or just following Tornatore’s blueprint, who’s credited with the story idea and concept. I suppose if there’s anyone to blame or praise for the creation of Scratch, then Tornatore’s your man.
This is a Slasher that turns into a home invasion film only to revert back to a Slasher. Which then becomes (SPOILERS, if you care) Death Wish starring Tab Hunter. No, this isn’t as great as it sounds, despite Tab’s melodrama game. This is like a Death Wish where 80 minutes of the runtime is spent with Paul Kersey’s family being tormented until Kersey himself shows up for the final minutes to dispatch a pinch of vengeance.
To his credit, Tab doesn’t phone it in—his desperate uphill run to the crime scene is something to behold. He spends most of the film running. It’s worth noting that Tab buys a shotgun from the director himself, Tornatore. Since we’re in Death Wish territory, we can assume this is supposed to be an old army buddy. Why wasn’t this the main story?
I will say that the conclusion of the revenge story is pretty satisfying. I think this film might be better remembered if it had ended following Tab’s quest. What comes after (without going into detail) is yet another tonal shift, one I feel to be unsuccessful and potentially ruins the film.
Grotesque is a mix of ambition and laziness. The home invasion scene, while doing nothing new, works. It’s awkward and goes for an eternity. Scratch and Shelly lick each other while she dry humps Kruger’s belly. They cackle and make literal monkey noises once the violence starts. It’s not as silly or over the top as the intruder scene in Mad Foxes, but it’s probably the only real unsettling moment in the film. The few highlights, including a sex scene with a woman wearing the skeleton mask from Season of the Witch, don’t involve Blair. She brings us into the film but leaves almost immediately. Still, Blair can say that she helped produce a movie featuring punks and snow onscreen at the same time, a rare cinematic sight. As a Linda Blair vehicle, it’s a failure. As a film, it’s also a failure, but an ambitious one that warrants a look.