Something rotten is going on in Potter's Bluff, a seaside town where you certainly do not want to spend your weekend away, or even stop to ask for directions. Yeah it's another scary isolated community story, albeit with a few surprises along the way. There are a couple of reasons to see this beyond adding to the obvious '80s horror quota for the month, and while Dan O'Bannon's name on the title credits is apparently there against his wishes, the other main draw here is Stan Winston, who provides some of the memorable moments here. But let's go past the names involved and talk about this creepy venture into mysteries at the morgue.
This is a tale full of strange and eccentric characters, notably the local coroner Dobbs (Jack Albertson) who shows up hoping to perform post mortem magic for open coffin funerals while assisting the protagonist Sheriff Gillis (James Farantino) who is looking into a series of grisly deaths. Why are so many bodies showing up lately? There are plenty of suspicious characters hanging out in the local cafe, including a bit part from Robert Englund. The overall personality in general is what carries this over the bumpy storyline. You want horror, they got it.
The first victim is what will stand out long after viewing this, as a passing photographer is killed on the beach and is left in a real mess in the hospital. He should have read more Stephen King before stopping off in coastal New England. The dramatic shocks and the mystery that follows are the strongest elements, as the lone cop looks into who this unidentifiable guy is and what could have happened. Strange behaviour from the locals as well as his school teacher wife are soon very apparent, and hints that something weird and supernatural behind all this start to be revealed.
The effects are really interesting, not because they're used to create a spectacle but because they add to the uneasy feeling of all this. There are some neat camera tricks and sequences that require body doubles and sleight of hand. A lot of the nastier parts are pretty harrowing, particularly the first scene and a later chase after a family stops to find a gas station in the dead of night. The weird fog horn music and the growing realisation that all the familiar faces who show up to help with the murders are working nearby builds a lot of unsettling moments. There's also some interesting lighting effects as the killers all seem to be using crazy flash photography, some sporting multiple bulbs as they burst out from behind walls and wreak havoc.
The only real issues is that by the third act things are starting to become really silly and the levels of schlock are pushed to extremes. The big final twist sort of feels like a change in direction despite all the sign posts. It's still entertaining of course, but the sinister atmosphere and cruel detached characters are kind of replaced by cheesiness once the mystery is unveiled. The tone in general shifts gears and it loses some of the tension in doing so. There's just too many questionable motives and a couple of moments that elicit unintentional laughter. In the end it's all pretty effective though, and for an overlooked movie from this period it's totally worth checking out.