40 Years Ago: The Unintentional Horror of “Pandemonium” (1982)

Pandemonium (1982) is a notoriously terrible movie, and yet there is every reason in the world to post about it today; not just the 40th anniversary of its release date, and the fact that director Alfred Sole passed away earlier this year, but because it has a legendary all-star cast that prompts a brain-busting amount of speculation about how and why it got made.

What do I mean about a legendary cast? Well how about Tommy Smothers, Carol Kane (still on Taxi at the time), Paul Reubens (already famous as PeeWee Herman), Judge Reinhold (fresh off of Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Dave L. Lander (still on Laverne and Shirley at the time), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen from the Superman movies), Debralee Scott (from Mary Hartman Mary Hartman and its sequels, as well as Welcome Back Kotter and Angie), Eileen Brennan (then still on Private Benjamin) and then-newcomer Phil Hartman, as well as veteran stars Eve Arden (fresh from Grease; this was her last movie), Donald O’Connor, Kay Ballard, and Tab Hunter (recently revived by John Waters). The least famous person among the principals, Candice Azzara, was nearly as well known as the others; this film came out during a streak in which she was also in The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) with Gene Wilder, House Calls (1978), Fatso (1980) with Dom Deluise, and Easy Money (1983) with Rodeny Dangerfield (she also starred as Gloria in one of then original pilots for All in the Family).

I mean, am I wrong? You assemble an all-star comedy cast like that, you don’t want to waste it. Well…this movie wastes it. This is what I mean about it being a mystery. Sort of. It kind of makes sense that Sole was hired to direct it. He had previously helmed the low-budget horror classic Alice…Sweet Alice (1976), which included an early performance by Brooke Shields and a late performance by Lillian Roth. His most recent film had been Tanya’s Island (1980), a starring vehicle for Prince protege Vanity of Vanity 6. What’s wild is how bad Pandemonium looks. Sole later went on to great success as an art director for film and television. He knew how to make a movie look good. The budget of this movie clearly went entirely to the cast, because it did NOT go to sets and locations. It seems like the operative theory was that since it was a parody of slasher movies, it was okay for it to look like the cheapest of slasher movies. But this film is NOT a case of making lemonade out of lemons.

It was co-written by Richard Whitley, best known for penning Rock and Roll High School (1979) starring the Ramones et al, but somehow Alan Arkush managed to turn that one one, with a similar script and location, and a much less professional ensemble of actors into a much more successful entertainment. Somehow Sole managed, with a cast of like 3 dozen genuinely hilarious stars, to produce something that seems like a teenager’s home movie. There’s the occasional laugh, and the smarter actors gamely attack their lines in something like the correct spirit. This was after all, the great era of spoofs. The ’70s spoof wave was winding down, but ZAZ had just begun the revitalization of the new wave that started with Airplane. But Pandemonium was not the “classic slasher spoof” it was clearly intended to be. That would need to wait for the glories of the tongue-in-cheek Scream (1996) and the flat out burlesque Scary Movie (2000).

For more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.