Grubby ’80s shock-rock exploitation film Terror on Tour is ripe for another look
History will cite late exploitation filmmaker Don Edmonds‘ crowning achievement as being 1975’s salacious and still-upsetting Nazisploitation classic Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS and we’re fine with that. That’s the director’s most famous and probably best picture, no doubt. But his weirdest work is without question 1980’s rock and roll slasher sludge Terror on Tour, a film that aims to gel the burgeoning body count horror film with the waning appeal of ’70s shock rock bands like KISS and Alice Cooper. A staple on VHS and Beta in the early days of home video (out domestically in a way-too-dark transfer from Media Home Entertainment, who offered the same near-blackout with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Terror on Tour has faded into obscurity with very few around to champion its quality and push for a proper DVD or Blu-ray release.
And while we won’t argue too hard that it’s a great horror film, we will applaud its sheer strangeness and cite it as a vital and little loved movie that deserves more thought.
Here’s the synopsis ripped right off the back of my videocassette:
The Clowns are a rock group on their way up the ladder of success. In their macabre makeup it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. Their incredible stage performance center around sadistic, mutilating theatrics and eventually real murders begin. The police are called in and consider the band members prime suspects until they realize the killings are occurring during their performances. The search for the murderer begins,,,and ends with the audience chanting, Kill, Kill, Kill!
That synopsis is an accurate summation of the film, which indeed charts the murky adventures of shock-rock outfit The Clowns, a black spandex-clad, greasepaint-wearing band whose stage show feels like an unholy and tacky blend of KISS and the evil, Caligari-meets-Roxy Music band in Phantom of the Paradise. With their sleazy, murder-riddled lyrics and violent stage show that sees the band spilling much fake blood, The Clowns are controversial and thus incredibly popular. But internally the band is breaking apart, weary of the hollow horror movie antics and pining for simpler days when the music came first.
So when the murders start and various groupies and hangers-on start dying in gruesome ways that mimic the band’s show and lyrics, the cops get curious and the band’s fabricated notoriety becomes very real. Sales are healthy, the victims that pile up, not so much.
Terror on Tour is a dour, grubby affair. Outside of the murky Media VHS transfer this writer is basing this essay on, I cannot imagine the movie feeling cleaner in High-Def (if that ever happens). And that muddiness adds to the unholy appeal of the film. It’s slow moving, depressing, the music isn’t all that great, the concert scenes are filmed like proto-YouTube fan videos and the acting is flat as the pancake makeup The Clowns wear. But this all adds up to make the movie oddly effective. If feels like a 70’s porno without the sex. It feels dead. It feels borderline evil, like it was made with bad intentions. And on that level it works, though its appeal is admittedly a very niche and limited one.
But as far as weird horror movie artifacts go, Terror on Tour has something going for it that no other film of its ilk does: The Soup Nazi. That’s right, actor Larry Thomas, whose immortal “No soup for you!” berating in TV’s iconic sitcom Seinfeld has secured his spot in pop culture lore, stars in the film, in what would be his very first role. And the amazing thing is that Thomas hates the movie so much, he took to the film’s IMDd page and blasted out this apology in the user’s comments section:
“For anyone who makes the mistake of sitting though this movie: I had just decided to become an actor and I knew very little about it. I was majoring in journalism in Junior college and took a theatre class to get a date with a girl I liked and got interested in acting. I drove a friend to the audition of Terror on Tour (originally called “Clowns”) and the director (Don Edmunds) asked me to read. I told him I wasn’t ready as an actor to do a film and didn’t know anything about acting much less film acting. He cast me and talked me into doing it. I was patently awful. I over acted every word and indicated like crazy. Above that a year after initial filming when I knew a little more about acting they called me back to shoot two pick up scenes (easy to spot as my hair was much shorter–it went from ’79 to ’80 nuff said). I was told to yell my dialog as there would be loud rock music playing in the background. The other guy in the scene was producer Sandy Cobe who wasn’t an actor and couldn’t really handle yelling while imagining loud music. In the end they forgot to add the music so it seemed like I was over acting even more than in the rest of the film. When I saw the film I came very close to quitting trying to be an actor altogether. The only reason I didn’t quit is that I figured if I could spot how awful I was maybe I had a chance to learn to do it right. The band members were a real band and had never acting before so you could forgive them their acting. Of the rest of the cast there was (in my opinion) one good actor. Jeff Morgan. In filming he actually seemed to be in the moment and connecting on an honest level when you were talking to him. When I saw the film I felt I could see it in his performance. I never heard from him again and don’t know what he’s doing now but I do think he escaped the horror of the acting in this horror film. Again I hope whoever has to see me in this film will understand my horror that it still exists.”
Terror on Tour is a curio that’s earned a place in the lexicon of lurid cult cinema. It’s filled with nudity (all female, of course), cheap gore, bad rock and roll and terrible performances. It makes KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park look like Battleship Potemkin. Here’s hoping someone digs it up one day…and gets Thomas to do a commentary. In the meantime, you can pick up the film on VHS. But a warning: it aint cheap!