Although New York-born Joe Spinell had been a popular supporting actor since making his film debut in THE GODFATHER in 1972, it wouldn’t be until 1980 and William Lustig’s MANIAC that he achieved his first and long overdue starring role. Intensely brutal and excessively graphic, MANIAC was a grindhouse hit which further elevated Spinell’s cult status, so it’s not surprising that the opportunity would arise to try and repeat the winning formula. Soon after, Spinell would be reunited with his MANIAC (as well as STARCRASH) co-star Caroline Munro for a follow-up of sorts, a horror-film-within-a-horror film shot largely in Cannes during the 1981 Film Festival. Previously available on DVD under its alternate title FANATIC, Troma is now re-releasing it fully uncut for the first time in the U.S. as a full blown special edition.
Middle-aged cab driver Vinny Durand (Joe Spinell) decides he’s going to leave the New York apartment he shares with his elderly mother and head to the Cannes Film Festival in France. Obsessed with horror film queen Jana Bates (Caroline Munro), he has eagerly plans on tracking her down with the intention of making her next film. With her boyfriend Alan Cunningham (Caroline’s real husband at the time, Judd Hamilton, also one of the producers and one of the writers) always around, as well as hordes of assorted paparazzi, that’s not such an easy task. When Vinny attempts to phone Jana's ex husband, sleazy producer Bret Bates (Glenn Jacobson), he outrightly refuses to speak to the fledgling and frustrated filmmaker. In the first of a series of murderous events, Jena discovers her ex decapitated in a hotel bathtub, and now it appears that anyone in her entourage is in danger of their life. Trailing the sci-fi starlet anywhere and everywhere with a 16mm camera in tow and, is the ultra obsessed weirdo Vinny the culprit of the serial murders or is their another unidentified psychotic slasher responsible?
With some questionable production values and a rather weak script, there are two things that make THE LAST HORROR FILM work: the backdrop of Cannes during the 1981 Film Festival and Joe Spinell. Those looking for the gory FX excesses of MANIAC should look elsewhere as this film relies less on graphicness (though there is still quite a bit of bloodshed) and more on being a send-up of extreme horror film fandom and the movie industry as a whole, with a very irresistible performance by its star. Whether he’s conversing with his mother (played by Joe’s real-life mother, Mary), struggling to get near his cinematic idol, fantasizing about her in front of a projected image, or stalking her to extreme measures, Spinell is quite priceless in one of his few starring roles before his untimely death in 1989. Adding his own quirks to the character and improvising some of the eccentric dialog, he really makes the film and steals every scene.
With a number of bloody killings spread throughout the proceedings, plenty of naked babes and an assortment of laughably bad acting and over-dubbing, THE LAST HORROR FILM has enough to recommend it when attached to Spinell’s performance. Having been a Hammer and Bond girl, and starring in a number of other prior fantasy epics, the stunning Caroline Munro is perfectly cast as Jena Bates in a role somewhat akin to what Boris Karloff played in TARGETS or Vincent Price in MADHOUSE. Unfortunately, Munro, as well as Hamilton, had their voices post-dubbed by other actors. WEST SIDE STORY star and prolific TV and film producer David Winters (who also appears on screen as a dubious horror film director and served as a producer) helmed the project, but apparently Spinell and his buddy Luke Walter (more on Luke below) directed a lot of material themselves and are solely responsible for the highly entertaining stuff shot in New York (including the use of Joe's real apartment). The film also makes repeated references to the recent fanatical assassination attempt on President Reagan’s life by John Hinckley, an act instigated by his fascination with Jodie Foster in TAXI DRIVER, which by the way featured Spinell in a small but memorable role.
You have got to hand it to the filmmakers to use Cannes as the main setting here. Not only does it make the show appear as if it has a bigger budget, but the spontaneous, natural reactions of the crowd, journalists and photographers seamlessly merges with the activities of the main cast, often seen interacting with these unknowing participants. Watch closely for June Chadwick (THIS IS SPINAL TAP) and Robin Leach (“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”) as journalists, and you’ll also spot candid footage of the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Adjani, Karen Black, Cathy Lee Crosby and several other unsuspecting celebrities. It’s also great to see all the giant poster promotions for the various films playing Cannes that year, and you’ll also witness a marquee at a French theater playing CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST!
Although previously available on DVD as FANATIC, THE LAST HORROR FILM is now presented on DVD uncut for the first time in America, as the longer version was only available on the pre-certification U.K. VHS tape released over 25 years ago. Presented here full frame, the DVD looks reasonably good if you can live with the fact that the film is never going to look dazzling. Colors are decent and most of the feature is clean looking, but several darker scenes are overly grainy and tend to bleed out detail. Before the feature, there is an announcement card stating that several bits were sourced from inferior elements to present the uncut version here, but if you’ve seen this film on video or DVD before, you’re not going to be shocked by any jumps in quality. The mono audio track is perfectly fine, and there are no subtitle options.
Extras on the disc are plentiful and most of them are quite entertaining. The featurette “My Best Maniac” is an afternoon interview with Spinell’s best friend, Luke Walter. Taking place mostly at a diner in Spinell’s old neighborhood and concluding with a visit to the cemetery where he lays rest, Walter is a delightful and enthusiastic conversationalist not only giving great insight into the late actor’s personality, but also providing some sincere, heartfelt moments about their friendship. Walter is also on deck for a full audio commentary, moderated by Evan Husney. Walter, who is credited as the associate producer of the New York sequence, was there by Spinell’s side for the entire shoot. He’s full of cool and sometimes very funny stories about the guerilla filmmaking schemes the cast and crew employed at Cannes, and his overall memories of working and chumming with Spinell make for a an enjoyable listen. William Lustig, instrumental in hooking up Walter with the DVD producers, has a brief interview explaining how his film MANIAC lead to THE LAST HORROR FILM being made. Other extras include Buddy Giovinazzo’s priceless short film MR. ROBBIE (aka MANIAC 2) which features Spinell in one of the last things he ever did, a still gallery including material from Luke Walter’s private collection, trailers and TV spots for the film under both titles, a comical introduction by Troma Pres Lloyd Kaufman and other Troma-related promo goodies. (George R. Reis)
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