Joe Spinell was a unique character actor in his time. From supporting turns in The Godfather: Part II (1974), Rocky (1976), and beyond, he was never less than interesting on screen; usually playing a mobster, shyster, or cop, his amusingly sleazy demeanour helped him stand out from the crowd. Terror lovers know Spinell from Maniac (1980), the notorious passion project that he also co-wrote. His follow up on the silver scream was The Last Horror Film (1982), a much more lighthearted take on obsession that not only reteamed him with his Maniac co-star Caroline Munro, but jetted them off to The Cannes Film Festival to boot. And while it doesn’t have the gut punch impact of Maniac, it’s the more enjoyable film.
Shown at the Sitges Film Festival in 1982, TLHF did not receive a theatrical release stateside; instead most folks had to wait for Media Entertainment to drop it onto home video in ’84, and VCI for the rest of the world. Regardless of distribution, it has lived in the shadow of Maniac for far too long; it’s a tongue in cheek love letter to the art of filmmaking (and the business behind it), a slasher veneer hiding a film lover’s heart.
Vinny Durand (Spinell) sits in a darkened theater watching the latest splatter film, a naked blonde electrocuted in a hot tub for the amusement of the audience in attendance. Or in Vinny’s case, his arousal; as the lights come up we see Vinny fondling himself, clearly more than engrossed in the projected image. Vinny, you see, in addition to driving a cab, is a frustrated filmmaker looking to get his first picture off the ground. Hell, he’s frustrated all around – his fellow cabbies taunt him, he lives with his mom (amusingly played by Spinell’s very own madre) whose specialty is admonishment, and women ignore him. But that’s okay, because his all-consuming obsession is to have horror queen Jana Bates (Munro) star in his film; and it just so happens that she’ll be at the Cannes Film Festival to promote her latest feature, Scream (where she is up for Best Actress against the likes of Jane Fonda – it’s France; I’ll buy it). So off Vinny heads to Cannes to secure his leading lady, and hopefully win her heart as well.
Naturally, neither goes as planned. While Jana soaks up the spotlight, Vinny follows her around with his own movie camera, filming her every move (foreshadowing Bowfinger?) but never being able to make contact. Standing in his way are her manager and ex-husband, Bret (Glenn Jacobson – Merlin), as well as her current beau, Alan (Judd Hamilton, Munro’s real life husband at the time). As Vinny’s frustration grows at being unable to reach Jana, people at the festival start dropping dead, beginning with Bret. Is Vinny so determined to film his opus that he’ll resort to murder to succeed? (Probably. Cannes is a tough market.)
The great conceit of The Last Horror Film is that it was actually shot, guerilla style, at the festival. And this does give the proceedings an electricity that couldn’t possibly be there otherwise – the story is essentially a passe slasher take. But it doesn’t hang it all up on that one hook; in fact, I think the film really plays as a reaction to (and an apology for) Maniac.
Not only was it critically reviled upon release in 1980, but Maniac has kept an uneasy reputation within the horror community as well. Frequently regarded as a dire, misogynistic portrait of a psychotic killer, it’s mostly remembered for the exemplary effects work of Tom Savini. And while it does have a certain primal power, its grim business; delving too deep into depravity to be enjoyable, but begrudgingly admired for its technical achievements. So when the news hit that Spinell and Munro were reteaming for another horror flick, eyebrows were raised. Would it be another slog through unpleasantness, another journey into the deepest recesses of the soul? Surprisingly, no. In fact, The Last Horror Film recalibrates their on screen relationship to great effect.
Credit director David Winters (Welcome to my Nightmare) and the exotic locale for the sea change in atmosphere. The film is competently shot, but more importantly emphasizes the sun soaked decadence of Cannes from Vinny (and Spinell)’s perspective. Gone is the gritty, blood smeared miasma of Maniac’s New York; TLHF is more concerned with letting the light in, flooding the screen with bright colours far removed from the ashen images of its predecessor.
The Last Horror Film certainly wasn’t the first to take a look behind the scenes while telling a story (1980’s The Stunt Man did that very well), but it’s always a kick when horror gets a little ambitious; maybe the filmmakers aren’t up to completely pulling off the sleight of hand, but they bring a lot of enthusiasm to the table. And with that energy they somehow make it happen; squeezing in unwitting cameos (they had no idea they were being filmed) from the likes of Karen Black and Isabelle Adjani, adding to the giddy, guerilla filmfare. Respect must be paid for building a film around a real locale, and a famous one at that. But it does hold together well enough as a slasher that the sights don’t completely distract the viewer from the tale. And unlike Maniac, Spinell, Munro et al do provide an amusingly rewarding narrative with TLHF. The kills may not be as creative, but you might like yourself better in the morning.
Spinell has a tricky role here as Vinny; ostensibly the protagonist (or is he?), he’s our gateway into the back end deals and pool side glamour, and if he comes off too strong we’re unlikely to follow. Luckily he dials it back a bit (but not too much – you still get that good old Joey magic) and we gain access to a slightly more sympathetic psycho. Nobody played the disenfranchised with more honesty. Munro, as always, brings a sexy earthiness to her role as terrorized Bates; even while playing a movie star she stays grounded (and this film wants you to challenge its reality).
Maybe it is unfair to view TLHF through the prism of its grindhouse brethren. After all, Maniac is nothing if not true to itself; an uncompromising look at the human condition. However, it is nice to be reminded from time to time, with a wink and a smile, that horror should ultimately entertain – an adage that The Last Horror Film adheres right down to its last, flickering frame.
The Last Horror Film is available on Blu-ray from Troma Entertainment. They've also made it available to watch for free online on their YouTube channel.