... aka: Marvelous Mervo, The
... aka: Nightmare
... aka: Nightmare: The Feature
The great Lon Chaney once said, "There's nothing funny about a clown at midnight." But does the same apply to a clown in the afternoon? How about a clown played by professional weird-o Tiny Tim? Perhaps even moreso! Tiny Tim (born Herbert Butros Khaury) isn't someone I'm very familiar with as his career peaked well before I ever existed. He was a singer and ukulele player who became a short-lived media sensation in the late 60s thanks to appearances on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Tim was tall, gangly, long-haired, sang in an extremely high-pitched voice and often wore baggy clothes and white face paint. He was so odd that, supposedly, his own mother had tried to commit him to a mental asylum at one point. However, America had never seen anything quite like him and were fascinated... at least for a little while. His falsetto cover of "Tip-Toe Thru' The Tulips With Me" became an unlikely Top 20 Billboard hit, he had several successful albums (including a Grammy-nominated children's album) and his marriage to "Miss Vicki" on Carson's show in 1969 was one of the most viewed television events of the entire decade. His time in the spotlight didn't last long, though, and by the early 70s his time as a major media curio was mostly over. Irregardless, he still continued to make albums and perform until his death in 1996.
So it was kind of a stroke of genius for someone to finally put this truly bizarre, eccentric man in a horror film. And it's not too often I use the word "genius" in association with the same guy who made MONSTER A GO-GO and CROAKED: FROG MONSTER FROM HELL. Tim was living in the Midwest (Iowa to be exact) and mostly performing in small venues when he decided to take on this role. Rebane, who'd met Tim in 1985 at a concert he held at his own movie studio, would later try to launch a children's show with the star, Tiny Tim & Friends (1992), but it was unreleased. This one however enjoyed wide video distribution and frequent TV airings.
After having been away at college for a spell, Jill Robinson (Itonia Salochek) heads back to her small Midwestern hometown of Winchester, Wisconsin to visit her parents. While she was away, her banker father had to foreclose on a lot of farms (a topical real-life crisis at this point in the 80s), making him public enemy #1 in the area. Jill's given a chilly reception from the locals but manages to catch a ride from her diner waitress friend Sarah (Lori Minnetti). Upon arriving at her home, she's horrified to find it's been vandalized. Someone's decided to spray paint the home red with welcoming messages like "Thief!," "Bastard!" and "Scum!" and have also hung a bloody dummy by the front door.
Even worse, her parents are nowhere to be found. Instead, she runs across Mervin (Tiny Tim), a, shall-we-say, mentally-challenged local in clown make-up who claims he's there to welcome her back home with a bouquet of flowers. He also prefers to now be called "The Marvelous Mervo" because that's the role he once played in a circus before he was injured in a trapeze fall. Gary Dickinson (Dean West), Merv's brother and a childhood sweetheart of Jill's, shows up to take him home and promises to come back and check in on her. However, the minute she's left alone again, she starts receiving threatening phone calls ("Fuck you, bitch!") and someone heaves a brick through the window.
Obviously feeling a bit shaken by the day's events, Jill goes to talk to the utterly useless Sheriff Spike Buckley (Frank Benson), but he seems more interested in his upcoming softball and poker games than actually doing his job. By the time Jill gets back to her home, the spray paint is gone, the dummy is missing and the broken window is fixed. Someone seems to be screwing with her but the Sheriff doesn't believe her and strongly suggests that she not bother him again. Meanwhile, Mervo visits a church where he prays, cries and speaks of blood and death. Apparently he and Gary's parents were found hung in their home some time earlier. At first it's unclear whether they were murdered or committed suicide, though that incident has driven the animal-loving, God-fearing Mervo a little madder than he already was. Gary, on the other hand, is trying to move on by attempting to rekindle the ol' flame with Jill. Unfortunately for him, she's now engaged to a guy she met at college and has to politely shoot him down.
Late one night while Jill is sleeping, someone sneaks into the home, chloroforms her, strips her down to her panties and takes nude photographs of her. That same person slaps a pair of pantyhose over his face and starts killing visitors to the home. Jill's boyfriend Scott shows up long enough for a sex scene and to get a baseball bat to the face and his throat cut. He's played by Peter Krause, later a TV star and Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for his work on Six Feet Under, in his not-so-auspicious film debut. Next up is Sarah, who gets the nastiest death. After getting shot in the hand with an arrow, she's stripped down to her bra and panties, hung up by her feet in the barn and has her throat cut. It's pretty evident the director saw Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby's DERANGED (1974) since it features the exact same death in the exact same location.
Most genre historians claim that slasher films peaked in popularity / commercial success in the early 80s but that's not entirely true. For starters, there were actually even more of these things made in the later part of the decade, thanks primarily to their continued popularity on home video. Second, the highest grossing slasher film of the 80s was the fourth installment of the Elm Street franchise, which was released in 1988. If anything, the first wave of slashers probably peaked toward the end of the 80s and fell out of favor soon after that. The problem by this point in time, aside from lack of innovation and over-familiarity with a tired formula, was that there were just too many of these damn things to choose from. Not to get lost in the shuffle, filmmakers needed a special angle to make their films stand out from the pack. This one actually kind of does!
Of course, the offbeat presence and bizarre line delivery / singing of Tiny Tim is the biggest selling point here and he really is the most interesting aspect of the film, though not the only interesting aspect. This also happens to be surprisingly pervy and sleazy, especially for the usually-reserved and old-fashioned Rebane. Itonia spends as much time with her clothes off than on and has several full frontal nude scenes. There are lots of exploitative camera shots; close-ups of boobs, panning shots up bare legs, etc. And once the killer is revealed, he gropes our leading lady in the shower and massages her breasts, then sucks on her nipples in close-up and climbs on top of her and starts raping her while she's unconscious. There's a pronounced (and actually quite distasteful!) darkly sexual element here that I wasn't at all expecting and one that isn't present in the majority of other 80s North American slasher flicks. Those typically tossed in some brief T&A simply to have it as opposed to making it a central focus like it is here.
Needless to say (and thankfully!), it isn't Tiny Tim sexually assaulting poor Jill. He's just a red herring; an obvious red herring at that. Normally I'd hate pointing that out but this functions so poorly as a mystery that it's extremely obvious very early on what's happening. Things become even more obvious at the midway point when we see the scrawny, barely-disguised killer and it's clearly not Tim. While this doesn't surprise in that regard and the last shot is an eye-roll-inducing cliche, it does manage to surprise in other ways. Though this isn't excessively bloody, the gore fx are pretty good and, because of where it was filmed (rural Wisconsin), it has great small town atmosphere.
Like many of the director's other films, this was a family project. Wife Barbara J. Rebane was the production manager and post production supervisor, son Randolph Rebane worked on sound and daughter Jutta Boettcher (formerly Rebane) was in charge of wardrobe. In addition, there's an Alan M. Rebane credited with set construction. Bill was also executive producer and cinematographer (under the name "Ito"). Co-writer / producer Leszek Burzynski, who also shows up in a small role as a priest, would later strike out on his own with Trapped Alive (1988).
This played on TV for years and there were numerous VHS and DVD releases in America, the UK and Canada, plus releases in Norway, South Korea and elsewhere. Retromedia was the initial DVD distributor in 2003 and 88 Films and Vinegar Syndrome bother released this on Blu-ray in 2018. Tim would be introduced to a new generation of horror fans when his most famous song was prominently featured in the box office hit Insidious (2010).