Posts Tagged ‘joe spinell’

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Bear with me, friends, as I take a circuitous and convoluted path toward any supposed “points” I’m trying to make here —

As far as catchy pop tunes go, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Michael Sembello’s amazingly popular (and only) hit single, “Maniac.” I’m not here to tell you that it’s a quality piece of music by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a few things going for it, namely that it’s fast (next time you’re on YouTube, do a search for “Michael Sembello ‘Maniac’ Cover” — you’ll be amazed by all the third-rate European speed metal bands that have taken a crack at it), it has some damn intelligent and evocative lyrics scattered about here and there (“there’s a cold kinetic heat — struggling, stretching for the feet”), and it knows enough to cut itself short before it becomes too terribly repetitious. Plus, it sticks in your head like a motherfucker if you haven’t heard it in a few years and happen to catch part of it playing overhead in the grocery store, the waiting room of the dentist’s office, or wherever the hell else they pipe in the Sirius satellite radio ’80s channel all the time.

There’s an interesting urban legend that’s been floating around for some time now that the song was actually written for William Lustig’s legendary, dripping-with-misogyny 1980  horror flick Maniac — which as you all are well aware, I’m sure,  features the late, great Joe Spinell in a tour-de-force performance the likes of which only happen in the cinema once every decade or two (and that’s if we’re lucky) — and that Sembello and his songwriting partner (whose name I’m currently just too goddamn lazy to look up) simply changed a few words here and there to make it fit in with the movie that it eventually landed in, namely Adrian Lyne’s runaway blockbuster hit  Flashdance.

Anyone who’s watched the bonus feature where Lustig sits down and talks about all this with Sembello and his (still too lazy to look up his name, sorry) writing partner that’s included on Blue Underground’s “30th Anniversary Special Edition” Blu-Ray/DVD of Maniac knows this isn’t true, of course — the actual facts behind the song’s genesis, its inclusion in Flashdance, and its mistaken association with Maniac are actually far more banal, yet bizarrely also more fascinating, than that. Suffice to say they really did alter the original lyrics pretty considerably, but it was never written specifically for inclusion in Lustig’s, or for that matter any, film.

But enough about that — let’s get back to these cover versions of Maniac that are all over YouTube (I did warn you this was going to be — what did I say, “circuitous and convoluted”? ). Some of them are, as you’d expect, pretty terrible. Others, however, are actually kind of fascinating. You can that tell some care went into their production and arrangement. The bands really do seem to be giving it their best shot.

But ya know what? Not a one of them, despite their best efforts, manages to get it exactly right.

All of which brings us — finally! — to the 2013 remake of Maniac, the movie, brought to us by director Franck Khalfoun , producer/co-writer Alexandre Aja (swiftly establishing a name for himself as the new reigning king of retread horror properties now that Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company seems to have slowed down its pace a bit) and co-writer Gregory Levasseur.

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All in all, you’ve gotta say this ain’t a half-bad effort. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of the few areas where it’s getting some theatrical play (most of us are stuck with the cable or satellite “On-Demand” menu if we wanna see it), you probably won’t leave the multi-plex feeling disappointed, by any means. Our intrepid European “re-imagineers” have taken pains to make the proceedings more “realistic” than what  Lustig and Spinell gave us (no hot female photographer love interest , our titular psycho actually seems to have a job in this one, etc.), while keeping the general thrust (sorry) of things agreeably simple and straight-forward and doing their level best to hang onto (if you’re feeling generous), or at the very least mimic (if you’re not),  the sleazy, unforgiving “edginess” their predecessors served up so expertly and generously.

Most wisely of all, though, they’ve chosen not to have their lead, Elijah Wood, try to emulate, reference, or even give off the faintest accidental odor  of Spinell. There’s just no point trying to catch  lightning (even if it’s of the extremely greased variety) in a bottle twice.

But is any Maniac without Spinell even Maniac at all? That’s the question I’m still struggling to answer. To me, this feels like another one of those cover versions that tries its  level best, but still doesn’t quite manage to hit the nail on the head.

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Wood’s take on Frank is an interesting one, to be sure — he’s still got the unresolved mommy issues, still got the whole mannequin obsession (hell, in this one he even owns a mannequin shop), and still harbors a pretty bleak and remorseless view of the fairer sex, but his presentation of the character is far more brooding, sullen, and internalized than was Spinell’s. You can pass this guy on the street and not think to yourself “what a filthy fucking creepy sleazebag!” And while that’s, as I said, pretty interesting, it still doesn’t feel quite right.

The “will-he-snap-or-won’t-he?” psychodrama that that the Khalfoun/Aja/Levasseur trifecta (who previously pooled their efforts on the shamefully-underappreciated P2) set up between Frank and art student/object of obsession/mother stand-in/unwitting muse (if homicide can an in any way be viewed as “art”) Anna (played with understated style and charm, and just a dash of dangerous intrigue thrown in, by Nora Arnezeder) manages to shift the main focus of the narrative a bit into “two-people-playing-a-dangerous-game-even-if-only-one-of-them-knows-it” territory, but again, while that makes for some nifty and even engrossing cinematic storytelling, it just doesn’t have that same completely random, scattershot, balls-to-the-walls sense of fury that Lustig and Spinell brought to things. It all feels too controlled, too calculated, too pre-planned to bear the Maniac title.

And finally, while Khalfoun does his best to keep things visually interesting — and to his credit largely succeeds — the street-level, “guerrilla” filmmaking style of the original is sorely missed here. Maniac circa 1980 felt like exactly what it was — some guys with a camera, little to no money, and certainly no filming permits, hitting the streets of New York late at night, getting things done in a take or two, and getting the fuck outta Dodge before the cops showed up and hassled them, or worse. Maniac circa 2013 is all about carefully selecting just the right color palettes, angles, and perspective shots to give its audience something of the same visceral experience that its predecessor achieved more by dint of necessity than out of actual choice. These guys want to make a sleazy, “street-level,” authentic slasher pic — and that’s great. I’m all for it. But it’s still not gonna pack the punch of something that can’t be anything but a sleazy, “street-level,” authentic slasher pic.

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When all was said and done, I think it’s fair to say that Maniac‘s new iteration left me feeling much the same way that many of the hard-core fans of Max Brooks’ World War Z novel feel about the big-budget  Brad Pitt “starring vehicle” bearing the book’s name (and yes, I realize I covered this point yesterday in my review of that film and I am, therefore, guilty of repeating myself — and quite quickly, at that— but the sentiment really does apply, so I’m sticking with it) — it’s very good at what it does, and I even liked it quite a bit.  But it should have been called something else.

 

Sadistic. Misogynistic. Lurid. Visceral. Exploitative. Shameless. Hateful. Sleazy. These are some of the more polite terms that have been used when describing director William Lustig’s 1980 slasher classic Maniac. More unhinged reactions at the time of its release essentially stated that it marked the end of good taste and civility, if not western civilization itself — and while all that might be a little bit much, the truth is that most of the critics, the ones who called it “lurid,” “sleazy,” “hateful,” “misogynistic” and the like were absolutely right — what they failed to realize, if course, is that those very — uhhhmmm — “qualities” are what make this flick so fucking good.

Granted, our definition of “good” here at TFG doesn’t exactly match what the dictionary has to say, but the fact is that Maniac is one of those movies that you just plain never forget once you’ve seen it. Most of that is down to the tour-de-force performance of the late, great Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, the titular “maniac” himself, a man haunted by memories of childhood abuse at the hands of his mother who is taking out a twisted form of permanent vengeance on the entire female population of New York City. Spinell doesn’t even seem like he’s acting in this movie, and the low-grade production values employed by Lustig give this shot-on-16mm slice of pure, unadulterated celluloid hatred an even more immediate, quasi-documentary look that conspires to communicate Spinell’s unhinged portrayal even more directly. Sure, most of that raw, immediate quality is foisted upon this film due to budgetary constraints, but like all the best exploitation efforts, this flick’s ultra-low budget is actually its best friend, and a more polished, professional production would have positively ruined things.

Which isn’t to say that it looks cheap — Tom Savini’s effects, especially the infamous “shotgun-blast-to-the-head” scene, are particularly effective. A lot of — dare I say it — love obviously went into making this flick look as authentic as possible.  And if we were looking for one word to describe Maniac in a nutshell, that would probably be it : even aspects of the film that are less than realistic — I can’t see the glamorous Caroline Munro falling for Frank under any circumstances, and of course the infamous ending cuts loose from the moorings of reality entirely — still feel absolutely fucking authentic.

I can’t imagine that there are too many readers of this blog who haven’t seen Maniac before, or who don’t own it on DVD and/or Blu-Ray (and I sincerely hope that if you do, you’ve got the Blue Underground two-disc 25th anniversary edition, loaded as it is with positively awesome extras), but if you haven’t watched in awhile, this is a great time of year to revisit it : and if by some strange and slim chance you haven’t seen it, now would be the time to do so before the Elijah Wood remake hits our screens in December.

In a world full of super-powered slashers like Michael, Jason, and Freddy, Maniac stands out in that Lustig and company really seem to mean it. They’re just plain not fucking around; Maniac is all about bringing the horror home, and not just erasing, but obliterating  the “comfortable distance,” if you will, that usually exists between the audience and the fictional killer whose twisted exploits we’re privy to. This is the real thing, folks, and leaves you feeling psychically unclean merely for having seen it.

Who could ask for anything more?

Well, friends, this one’s gonna be brief because we’re venturing into uncharted territory a bid here — the flick under review today, 1988’s The Undertaker, is actually an unfinished, believe it or not, but it’s worth looking at as it features the last starring turn of the one and only Maniac himself, the late, great Joe Spinell.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is included in our annual Halloween horror round-up more as an item of interesting curiosity than anything else. Given that director Franco Steffanino’s’s film ran into the twin obstacles of no more funding and Spinell’s untimely demise before it could be hammered out into finished form, essentially what we’re got on our hands here, thanks to the fine folks at Code Red DVD (specifications of said DVD being rather minimal here — the full-frame transfer looks pretty sparklingly, surprisingly good for the most part, though it veers into crummy, even downright greasy territory in some spots, and the sound is hit-and-miss to put it kindly — the only extra, cool as it is, consists of the legendary Robert Forster and his daughter, Kathrine, sharing their memories of Spinell — keep in mind I’m not complaining here because the fact that this thing even managed to get a DVD release at all is something of a miracle and I thank Code Red for doing all us Joe Spinell fans a great service here) is a rough cut of the movie. There’s very little by way of gore or other special effects, the editing is choppy (jarringly so in several instances), and the overall feel is of watching some semi-competent student project that just happens to feature a recognizable (to fans of cult cinema, at least) lead actor.

That being said, you can see that The Undertaker had some — I repeat, some — potential. Spinell is back to doing what he does best, playing a skin-crawlingly creepy and pathetic psycho, this time out said psycho going by the name of Roscoe, a small-town New Jersey mortician who has a penchant for necrophilia, a nagging wife who won’t leave him alone long enough to enjoy himself with his corpses, and a big problem with his business — namely, there just aren’t enough people dying in his town for him to have a variety of sexual — uhmmmmm — “partners,” not to mention a steady income.

As you can imagine, his only alternative is to take matters into his own hands and steer some business his way by dint of his own actions.

Spinell isn’t at his Maniac – level best here, but he still turns in a solid enough intentionally-way-over-the-top performance, and the overall tone of the film seems to be pretty self-deprecating in terms of its outrageously tasteless subject matter, but you never know how it all would have turned out with a few more scenes, a final edit, etc. Maybe the filmmakers unintentionally did us a great service by pulling the plug on this thing, or maybe we lost another Spinell classic, it’s hard to say (well, okay, it’s not — the surviving mish-mash of material leaves the distinct impression that we needn’t worry too much about the latter).

Still, in my book at least The Undertaker is definitely worth a look. You have to be willing to cut it a hell of a lot of slack, to be sure, but getting the chance to see Joe Spinell in action one final time makes putting up with all of this flick’s — how shall I put this? — glaring inconsistencies more than worthwhile. They just don’t make lecherously slimy cinematic killers like this anymore, and even in a raw and incomplete production (that, it must be stated, looked like it was most likely doomed to be a substandard effort anyway given the rather second-rate nature of the script),  Joe Spinell stands out.

"Starcrash" Movie Poster

What do you get when an Italian director and crew, French producers, and English and American actors try rip off Star Wars on a shoestring budget? Read on and you’ll find out —

In the later half of 1977 and the early part of 1978, every movie executive worth his or her salt was looking for the next Star Wars. George Lucas’ space epic had literally revolutionized the movie business and become a blockbuster the likes of which the world had never seen before.  And who would you expect to be at the forefront of those looking to cash in, often as directly as possible, on the public’s sudden love for epic space adventure?

That’s right, friends, the Italians were standing right at the front of the line, eager to prove they could so sci-fi intergalactic opera at the very least cheaper, if not better, than anyone else. For a brief, shining moment between the eras of the spaghetti western and the pasta-flavored postapocalyptic yarn, between the Godfather riffs and the Alien rip-offs, the Italians turned their attention to the Star Wars homage, churning out titles like Star Odyssey, War of the Robots, The Humanoid, and the most well-remembered of the bunch, writer-director Luigi Cozzi’s seminal shlock masterpiece Starcrash (also released under the title The Adventures of Stella Star).

The (Stella) Star of the show, leaving no question as to why she got the part

Now, in fairness to Cozzi, he had been pitching an earlier version of this script around for several years before the global success of Lucas’  baby finally convinced a group of French financiers, lead by Nat and Patrick Wachsberger (who would go on to produce to Tom Cruise starring vehicle Vanilla Sky, among others) to green-light his project. But Star Wars blowing up the way it did was both a blessig and a curse for Cozzi — yes, it insured that his pet project would finally get made, but it was with one important caveat — he had to make it as similar as possible to Georgie-Boy’s cash cow, his initial ideas be damned.

And so what began life as an homage to the old sci-fi Saturday afternoon serials of the 30s like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (Cozzi was a lifelong sci-fi fanatic) ended up evolving into a pastiche of a movie  that was — well, that was a modern retelling of those old classic matinee serials, anyway, as Lucas himself has admitted that they were the single biggest source of inspiration for his at-the-time-nascent franchise.

Still, it wasn’t quite what Cozzi had envisioned, and his script was fucked with so mercilessly that co-producer Nat Wachsberger himself ended up with a co-screenwriting credit.

The matinee serial pedigree didn’t really get entirely buried, though, as Starcrash doesn’t so much tell a story as string a bunch of disjointed scenes together. Roughly every ten minutes or so our heroine, intergalactic smuggler Stella Star (British beauty Caroline Munro — looking, it must be said, sensational) finds herself plunged into a new ordeal that barely has anything to do with the last. So don’t expect the script to make much sense here — and Cozzi and Wachsberger’s rather rudimentary grasp of English doesn’t help matters much here, either. What we’ve essentially got is a story that makes very little sense being “explained” to us by dialogue that makes even less. But you’re not here for the story, you’re here for the spectacle, right?

Original "Starcrash" VHS boxcover. Looks kinda familiar ---

On that score, Starcrash doesn’t disappoint. As pure visual feast, it’s unlike anything else you’ll ever see. Which is not necessarily a compliment.  Nor is it a criticism. It just — is.

Due to budgetary constraints above all else, this movie has a unique stylistic — uhhhmmmm — sensibility that was almost certainly achieved by accident, but definitely stands out for its absolute singularity. Starcrash is a unique viewing experience, and I use that term with precise intent. Star Wars may have had revolutionary special effects, expansive sets, seminal costume designs, and sweeping landscapes and starscapes, but goddamn if you won’t find the overall look of this film a whole lot more memorable.

Let’s go down the list of visual treats on display here — art-deco primary-color starfields, glowing planets, dime-store Ray Harryhausen stop-motion robots and monsters (Harryhausen’s work was another admitted huge influence on Cozzi), a blue-headed (and shaved-headed) alien cop, a “robot” with a southern lawman’s drawl that breaks the visual stereotype of characters dressed head-to-toe in black being automatically evil, lava-lamp red blobs which are alternately referred to as “energy waves” and “monsters,” (script continuity, again, is not a strong selling point here), “hyperspace” travel that looks like a drawing of energy-zap motion lines on the screen, black construction-paper “outer space” backdrops, the Maniac himself, Joe Spinell (in the first of three films he would appear opposite Munro in, the others being The Last Horror Film and, as mentioned a split-second ago, Maniac, which TLHF was actually a sequel-in-all-but-name to) decked out in an outer space Dracula costume, and our gal Caroline prancing around for about 3/4 of the movie in a black leather bikini. Yes, this is indeed a feast for the eyes in every sense.

You're probably wondering why I've called you all here ---

The disjointed and entirely nonsensical visuals literally leave the viewer not knowing what the hell he or she will be seeing next, and since the “plot” leaves the viewer not knowing what the hell will happen ext — or indeed, what just happened before — it all works together almost operatically. If you go hit the opera on three tabs of purple microdot, that is.

There are some surprising flourishes of actual quality in here, as well, which makes the already-convoluted proceedings even more of a hopeless mishmash. For instance, John Barry, of James Bond fame, provides the music score, and it’s a lot more elegant and majestic than the antics on camera deserve, to say the least. Barry himself admits that he stole huge chunks of the score for his later, Oscar-winning work on Out of Africa, figuring nobody would remember this thing (even though it raked in $30 million at the box office in the US and over $100 million internationally).

And how about that cast? Sure, we’ve got B-movie stars, and future Z-grade TV stars, left and right — but in the middle of Caroline Munro as Stella, former tent-revival evangelist (and subject of an Oscar-winning documentary on what a fraud his “faith-healing” shtick was) Marjoe Gortner as her faithful and quasi-mystical sidekick Akton, Robert Tessier as the treacherous sellout space cop  Thor, Joe Spinell as Darth Vader-without-the-mask Count Zarth Arn, Munro’s at-the-time husband Judd Hamilton as Elle, the comic-relief-robt-with-a-Texas-sheriff-twang, and a very young David Hasselhoff as Simon, who becomes Stella’s quasi-sorta-semi-pseudo love interest, we’ve got, flown into Italy for exactly 48 hours and probably getting paid  more than the rest of the cast combined — Christopher Plummer, as Simon’s father, The Emperor. More specifically, his full honorific is The Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe. Scoff all you want, but it’s a more prestigious title than you’ll ever receive.

Sure, the story’s not only got problems, the story is problems — but you almost have to stand back in wonder at how they make it all work (and yes, I use the term “work” incredibly loosely). Gortner’s Akton character, for instance, seems to develop new magical, or advanced scientific, powers  at the drop of a hat whenever they need to pull something out of their ass to move the action along from one scene to the next. He’s literally a walking, talking, breathing deus ex machina — that is, when he’s not a walking, talking, breathing info-dump of quick and nonsensical plot exposition.  And The Emperor can command his Imperial Ship to “stop the flow of time!” Don’t try that at home, kids (and it’s not a power that apparently always works, or that he apparently always thinks to utilize — for instance, it would come in real handy at the end, when Count Zarth Arn is trying to kill them all with his ill-defined doomsday weapon, but the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe comes up with a much more discombobulated plan — the “star crash” of the film’s title — to deal with a menace thousands of times more deadly than the one he stopped time to deal with a few minutes earlier). The normal laws of science don’t seem to apply to this flick any more than the normal rules of logic, either — for instance, when the Emperor launches missiles filled with soldiers inside into Zarth Arn’s ship, they break through all the windows and there’s not even the slightest bit of decompression even thoug the vessel is flying through space (specifically through the region known as The Haunted Stars).

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts --- she'll do .5 past light speed. Whoops, wrong movie ---

But I digress. Again, if you’re here for the story, you’re watching the wrong movie.  If the appeal of Starcrash can be summed up in one word, it’s the absolute and unequivocal otherness of the film that makes it work. It feels like it was made by a group of aliens who intercepted transmissions of Star Wars from Earth, had no idea what it was was about or how to make it, but saw that it was making a lot of money and figured they would give it a go and see what happens. It’s a truly alien viewing experience, and it feels almost entirely decoupled from reality itself. Needless to say, I absolutely love it.

"Starcrash" DVD from Shout! Factory

And I’ve saved the best news for last — for “Crashers,” as the small-but-way-too-enthusiastic cult of fans that has sprouted up around this spaghetti space opera are known, the long wait is finally over. No more bootleg DVD-Rs or 30-year-old VHS cassettes. Thanks to the fact that legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman (who, it should be stated, had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual making of this film) picking up its US distribution rights back in 1978, Starcrash is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics library from Shout! Factory. The movie is presented in a superb widescreeen 1.78:1 anamorphic high definition transfer that look,s no pun intended, stellar, the sound is presented in either 2-channel Dolby Digital or an awesome new 5.1 DTS surround mix, and as for extras, well —

How about not one, but two commentary tracks by Stephen (Shock Festival) Romano, who’s got to be the world’s foremost Starcrash expert (he wrote a book on the film that remains unpublished) — the first take a detailed look at the story behind the scenes of the film and its pre-production, as well as placing it within the larger context of science fiction movie history, and the second offers a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of its production. They really should be listened to in order, and are numerated as “commentary 1” and “commentary 2” on the on-screen selection menu. Then there’s the trailers — three of them, to be precise. One is the plain, bare-bones version, then we get it with commentary from legendary director Joe Dante, who actually assembled the trailer, and in fact did all of Corman’s trailers for several years before “making it” as a filmmaker in his own right. And thirdly we get it with commentary from Hostel director Eli Roth, who offered his remarks on it as part of his “Trailers From Hell” website. You may wonder what the point is of watching the same damn preview three times in a row, but trust me, you’ll want to. Then we’ve got an enormous selection of still photos featuring screen caps, pictures from the studio floor, behind-the-scenes production stills,  all kinds of advertising and poster art from around the world, and even a selection of fan art. Next up there’s a detailed interview with the man himself, Luigi Cozzi, and to top it all off we’ve got a nearly 20-minute featurette on John Barry’s score for the film.

And folks, that’s just on the first disc (unless you’ve got the Blu-Ray, in which case everything’s contained on a single disc). The second disc features a 72-minute interview with Caroline Munro about her entire career, with special attention paid, of course, to Starcrash, , a feature on the making of the special effects for the film, 17 deleted scenes that Corman excised for the US theatrical cut of the film, a selection of behind-the-scenes home-video taken during shooting presented with commentary by Romano, and the entire original screenplay presented in .PDF format for your PC or Mac, including corresponding storyboard sketches for many of the scenes.

No doubt about it, this DVD/Blu-Ray release is a genuine labor of love, and while all of the releases in the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series have been, to date, superb, this stands out from the rest of that admittedly dinstinguished pack and is, I think it’s fair to say, the year’s best DVD release.

Do I even need to tell you to rush out and pick this up immediately? I didn’t think so.

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.