“Maniac” Goes To Cannes : “The Last Horror Film”

Posted: May 26, 2009 in movies
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Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when you’re imitating yourself, what should that be called? Resting on your laurels? Beating a dead horse? In the case of the 1982 reworking of “Maniac” known as “The Last Horror Film” such pejoratives are probably undeserved, and we’ll settle, I think, on calling it a transplant—more specifically, a rather successful transatlantic transplant of a damn good slasher film. Not so much a sequel or even a rip-off as maybe a companion piece. Read on and all will be explained—

Most slasher fans will acknowledge that William Lustig’s “Maniac” was undoubtedly one of the genre’s finest early-80s offerings(a time period with an embarrassment of riches to choose from, so that’s no small feat), featuring as it did two standout elements, the first being the late Joe Spinell’s absolute tour-de-force performance in the lead role. He absolutely oozed creepiness and patheticness at the same time, and delivered one of the signature performances in horror movie history. Spinell didn’t even seem like he was acting, truth be told—he absolutely inhabited his character, to the point where I’m not sure I’d want to be the guy’s neighbor in real life. He wasn’t playing a lonely, pathetic psycho—I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t seem like he was a lonely, pathetic psycho. Chillingly believable stuff from start to finish, and in a sane and just world he probably would have won an Oscar for it.

The other star of the film was Tom Savini’s outstanding gore effects, limited as they were—particularly the classic ending scene. This was the era when Savini was really coming into his own and earning his legendary reputation with every project he worked on.  Gut-wrenching stuff—-literally. What this guy could do with “real” effects and a shoestring budget still puts today’s CGI “wizards” with millions of dollar as their disposal to shame.

Sadly, Savini wasn’t a part of “The Last Horror Film” (aka “Fanatic,” a title that tied it in even closer with its—ahem!—“source material,” probably even a bit too close as it was little more than a glaringly obvious attempt to paint the film as a type of “Maniac 2”—which, okay, in many respects it is, but since the original “Maniac” died, it’s rather ridiculous to paint this as a “pure” sequel — not that death ever stopped the Jasons, Michaels, and Freddies of the world), nor, unfortunately, was director William Lustig, who wove an atmosphere of tension and inner psychic decay with his expert helmsmanship, in truth TLHF is more dependent than ever on Spinell to carry the show himself, teamed as he was with relative newcomer David Winters in the director’s chair and, generally speaking, less-experienced folks behind the camera in all respects. Without Lustig and Savini around, then, “The Last Horror Film” gives Spinell a chance to prove how much of the success of “Maniac” was down to him alone and how much was due to Lustig, Savini, et. al.

As it turns out, Spinell answers that question forcefully and with supreme confidence, turning in another fine performance as, for all intents and purposes, the same character, albeit with a couple of fun twists.

This time around, Spinells’ non-“Maniac” maniac is a New York cabbie named Vinny Durand, a mama’s boy who still lives at home (go figure) and is the sole inhabitant of the absolute bottom of his own social barrel, a guy who’s such a loner and a putz that even the other geeks at the local comic book store give him shit. Vinny’s a bit of a dreamer, you see, and his mind is always at the movies. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps celluloid, and has big dreams of making his own films a reality. And the star of all his filmic fantasies is the lovely Jenna Bates  (Carlone Munro, Spinell’s co-star from “Maniac,” providing another strong tie to Lustig’s , errrmmmm, let’s call it “original,” even if this isn’t a sequel, strictly speaking). Vinny’s bout to prove all those doubters and finger-pointers wrong, however—he’s been saving his pennies (living at home is cheap, after all) and is headed to the Cannes film festival, where he intends to win the attentions, and the heart, of the woman of his dreams and cast her as the leading lady in the horror film he’s got swirling around in his head (no evidence of an actual plot on paper on Vinny’s part is ever offered).

Once at Cannes, Vinny is summarily rebuffed in all his attempts to get at Ms. Bates or even any of her handlers, and decides that if he can’t get her to work with him by using conventional means, he’ll simply eliminate anyone and everyone else around her to the point where she’ll have no one else to work with — call it process of elimination, if you will — elimination of the permanent sort.

The sights and sounds of the festival are on full display here, including a guerrilla-lensed (I’m assuming) take or two of contemporary sort-of stars like Cathy Lee Crosby making their entrances into various festival venues.  Vinny’s staying in a fleabag hotel adjacent to, of course, a movie theater (that’s playing “Cannibal Holocaust”!) and quickly decks out his room to look much like his—err, not his— hovel in “Maniac,” with pin-ups on the walls of Ms. Bates, dim lighting, and sparser-than-sparse actual furnishings. The room’s got “nutcase” written all over it.

When Vinny goes into action murdering Bates’ handlers (including her love interest)and anyone else around whose work rubs him the wrong way, the killings are inevitably brutal and bloody, and while lacking the sheer panache of Savini’s “Maniac” work, they remain nonetheless effective and even semi-memorable in their own way. Needless to say, some of Vinny’s attempts to get at his leading lady border on the absurd, and when he does eventually get at her the border is even crossed, but Vinny’s not one to let an army of hangers-on and middlemen stop him, and the shots of him scaling hotel rooftops and performing various other feats of physical dexterity that would be well beyond a guy of his challenged physique are well and truly ridiculous, sure, but Spinell’s performance is so effective that he gets you to literally believe that our guy Vinny is compelled to do the near-impossible by sheer force of his demented will alone.

Vinny’s a good boy and calls home every day, of course, and he even seems to have his mom believing that he’s on the way to becoming a superstar director who has attained the services of the film industry’s most-desired starlet for his film.  It’s classic stuff, and while the live-at-home loser who will kill to fulfill his sick fantasies has been done a million times over, nobody does it quite like Spinell and it’s also, to my knowledge at least, never been done in a setting quite this exotic.

To be sure, “The Last Horror Film” lacks some of the dramatic tension and raw impact of “Maniac,” but that’s only to be expected—after all, Cannes setting aside, we’ve seen this all before. Still, everything here is done well enough that you certainly won’t mind seeing it again, and if for some reason Joe Spinell didn’t convince you the first time around that he was one of the best actors ever at playing lonely, pathetic psychopaths, seeing him do it just as well a second time should cement his argument.

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

“The Last Horror Film” has recently been re-released on DVD by Troma (it had been available earlier under the “Fanatic” title) as part of its fledgling “Tromasterpiece” collection. In addition to the usual nonsensical Lloyd Kaufman introduction, it features an interview with “Maniac” director William Lustig, the Buddy Giovinazzo-directed, short film “Mr. Robbie” (aka “Maniac 2”—which I guess sort of makes this “Maniac 3”),the original theatrical trailer and a collection of TV spots, an interview with the late, great Joe Spinell’s best friend, Luke Walter, and a full-length(and highly engaging) audio commentary by Walter, as well as the usual semi-absurd Troma-themed extra stuff.  Well worth your time and money, it’s a pretty impressive package to go along with what is a pretty impressive slasher flick — one that by all rights should feel a lot more redundant than it actually does.

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