For someone like me, what’s better than an obscure horror anthology movie? An obscure horror anthology movie starring the late and much missed John Ritter, of course.
The idea for Terror Tract is frankly pretty brilliant, at least by straight-to-video horror anthology standards. Terror Tract doesn’t just have a framing story or one or two installments that unfold in a high-end suburb, but it’s all about the possible horrors lurking in a prim bedroom community. In fact, our horror host isn’t a crypt keeper or a chief of staff in an insane asylum. It’s a hapless real estate agent, Bob, who just wants to sell a house. Too bad every house he tries to sell to a young, affluent, and recently married couple, the Doyles (Allison Smith and David DeLuise), just happens to have a very recent and very violent history.
The first house Bob shows his guests belonged to an old, rich businessman and his younger wife. Since this is a horror anthology, of course, the wife (Kim Correll) is having an affair with a buff, handsome young man (Carmine Giovinazzo). As a matter of course, the husband traps them in the act and already has an elaborate plan to murder them both and make it look like a murder-suicide, but the scheme backfires and the husband ends up dead. Afraid that the cops will instantly drag them off in cuffs, the couple chuck their would-be killer’s body in a lake. Unfortunately, they make a couple of boo-boos in the course of covering up their incriminating act of self-defense, even as the not-grieving widow has vivid nightmares of her husband returning from his watery grave.
When the Doyles sour on the house after Bob’s tale, he tries to warm them up to another place. It’s another beautiful house, and Bob, true to realtor’s ethics, has to admit this house, too, has a sordid past. It used to be home to a dad, Ron (Bryan Cranston!), who was dedicated to his very young daughter. But then, their relationship goes off when his daughter takes in a very weird pet, Bobo, a monkey in an old-timey organ grinder uniform. Unfortunately, Bobo has a bit of a violent streak, even more of one than you’d expect from even a stray monkey…
The prospect of the cute but inexplicably deadly monkey returning home puts a damper on things, so Ron shows the Doyles a third house. This one doesn’t quite have a grim history, but what it did have was a resident who was a teenage psychic, Sean (Will Estes). Unfortunately, his visions are all related to a suburban serial killer, the “Granny Killer”, not named because they kill grannies but because they commit their murders while wearing the mask of an elderly woman. Sean does what any rich suburbanite teen does and sees a therapist, Dr. Corey (Brenda Strong). Is Sean actually seeing through the eyes of a really bizarre murderer? Or is Dr. Corey’s sinking suspicion that Sean might have some kind of dangerous split personality correct?
Well, I should jump to the chase and admit that I prefer Future Shock as far as obscure, low-budget anthology movies go. Sure, Future Shock has worse production values and less consistent writing. But whatever the flaws on the screenwriting level with Future Shock, the stories gave me more of an impression. That’s not to say the three tales Terror Tract offers are bad; they just feel like they were taken out of the oven a bit too soon. (At least both movies do have an inexplicable violent sequence displaying the food chain with birds and housecats. In that regard, they both deliver.)
The first story does offer an interesting twist on an age-old horror anthology staple you can trace all the way back to the original Tales from the Crypt comics: the adulterous couple getting their comeuppance/the cruel husband taking revenge on the adulterous couple getting his comeuppance. It’s interesting enough that I won’t spoil it here. Also, it’s my favorite of the three, but even then the story does rather hobble itself with its ending, implying a supernatural element to the proceedings that actually ends up detracting from the twist.
At least it’s an improvement over the third story where there is arguably no twist, even though it’s the sort of story that begs for one. We learn that, no, Sean is not the Granny Killer. In fact, while we learn who the Granny Killer isn’t, we never learn who she or he is or why Sean has a psychic connection to them. Of course, it’s fine for a story to not answer every question it raises or leave some deliberate mystery. Here, though, it just comes across that the story wasn’t finished or was part of a longer narrative we don’t get to see. What we do get—Sean trying to save Dr. Corey, who he knew would be the Granny Killer’s next victim, but not only failing but getting himself killed in the process—is pretty damn bleak. Well, okay, that’s definitely not a fair complaint about a horror story, but in the context of the mystery surrounding both Sean’s psychic connection to the killer and the identity of the Granny Killer, it’s a bleakness that is, in this case, unsatisfying.
But the centerpiece of the anthology for obvious reasons is Bryan Cranston versus the small, cute monkey. As goofy as I make the premise sound, it’s done fairly well if a bit too seriously for its own good. The absurdity of the threat, which I understand was the point, was still at times hard to handle (at one point, we see the monkey that can effortlessly escape cages and kill a dog ten times its size happily tucked into a baby carriage). Bryan Cranston actually does give it his all and the child actor here actually is quite good, at least by child-actors-in-low-budget-movies standards. Still, though, the central motif, a loving father whose relationship with his daughter is ruined by “competition” from a menacing pet who poses a threat only he understands, just doesn’t really land. Maybe the story would have been easier to pitch to the audience if it was left more ambiguous whether the threat was real or just a psychotic break on the part of the father, or if the daughter was older and thus could display an attachment to the pet that’s more complex than just a small kid’s exuberance. Or maybe they just shouldn’t have had the deadly menace be a small monkey.
While the stories left me lukewarm, I actually absolutely adored the framing story. I can’t imagine anyone being more perfect for the role than John Ritter from the blandly pleasant start to the chaotically bloody finish. The over-the-top climax, which brings new meaning to the term “suburban hell”, is absolute black comedy gold. So, for that reason alone, I still do recommend Terror Tract, which as of this writing is up on YouTube. Just don’t be surprised if, like me, you instead find the cake on the outside more satisfying than the filling.