Laughable dialogue and beyond cheap production values put this dire horror anthology in a stranglehold from which it never escapes.
There’s a long and illustrious history to the horror anthology film: it’s usually an opportunity for filmmakers to have a little bit of fun and get creative with shorter, more experimental scary stories. Unfortunately, Terror Tales isn’t the finest contribution to this proud legacy of films. In fact, its a bit of a mess, with schlocky acting, cheesy dialogue, and remarkably low production values (even for an independent horror film, which is saying something). Often, this adds a charming, so-bad-its-good element to a film like this. Not so here. Terror Tales feels like a movie I would have made in my high school film class and not even gotten a good grade on it.
The film revolves an unstable fellow (Christopher Showerman, who you may recognize from the CW’s Supergirl) who has kidnapped a family and, after locking the mother and daughter in the trailer hitched to the back of his truck, decides to regale the father with three unrelated scary stories. Why not, right? It’s a long ride to that remote destination where you’re most likely going to die, and you’ve got to kill the time somehow.
The first of the three stories, “By Proxy,” is about a horror writer whose young son kills himself after a long and mysterious illness. If you’ve seen The Sixth Sense, it feels a lot like the Mischa Barton subplot what with all the Munchausen by proxy going on. The best thing this story has going for it is the creepy dead kid makeup (always a crowdpleaser). Unfortunately, it suffers from a tediously meandering plot complete with a Ghost of Christmas Past bit apparently designed to fill in all the holes that the narrative couldn’t manage on its own, and a shockingly incompetent performance from its lead actress. We’re talking, like, The Room–level bad.
The second story, “Radical Video,” fares a little better. It takes place in a very 80s video rental store — you can tell it’s the 80s because everyone looks like they came straight from having glamour shots taken at the mall by that guy who’s definitely a legit talent scout and can hook you up with some modeling gigs. It’s a bit more fun because it:
a.) Makes me wish that video rental places were still a thing — I would be there all the time
b.) Heavily features a giant poster from 18 Again, a fairly obscure 80s movie that I happen to find incredibly endearing, in like seven out of ten shots. (Interesting side note: Jennifer Runyon, who appears in the “Epidemic” story, was the female lead in 18 Again.)
In this story, there’s a mad serial killer on the loose, and his weapon of choice is an unwieldy-looking sledgehammer. It’s up to two hapless video store owners and a parodic detective complete with a tragic backstory to track down the murderer. It’s all a bit of silly nonsense, but here more than anywhere else in the film it feels like its sort of leaning into how ridiculous it is.
The final piece of the puzzle is the “Epidemic” story. A preacher kills his wife who has been possessed by the devil, he’s committed to a psychiatric institution, only to be brought back into the fold because his daughter is now possessed. Also, the possessions seem to be… contagious? At any rate, there’s a whole lot of demonic possession going on. It feels a lot like The Exorcist, which makes sense because it’s a remarkably blatant ripoff. There probably could have been a more intimate horror addressing the fractured relationship between the deeply devout father and his family, but it tries to go for epic and face plants spectacularly.
Overall, not a strong trio of scary stories — all could use some significant narrative retooling, dialogue rewrites, and the less said about the production values, the better. But let’s take a look at the positives.
1.) The set design in Radical Video? Very fun.
2.) I have to think that die-hard horror aficionados will get a kick out of some of the actors from D-List horror films that appear in Terror Tales.
It bills itself as featuring a cast full of supporting actors from middling horror films of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Some of them are almost able to rise above the material and amateurish direction, but most get eaten alive. That said, it was an ambitious idea to bring them all together in what was clearly meant to be an homage to that era of horror. It’s just a shame that they weren’t all assembled for a more worthy venture.