The Last Horror Film (1982)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #510

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Also known as Fanatic
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 9, 1982
Sub-Genre: Exploitation/Satire
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $2,000,000
Running Time: 87 minutes
Director: David Winters
Producers: Judd Hamilton, David Winters
Screenplay: Judd Hamilton, Tom Klassen, David Winters
Special Effects: Peter McKenzie
Cinematography: Thomas F. Denove
Score: Jesse Frederick, Jeff Koz
Editing: Chris Barnes, M. Edward Salier
Studios: Shere Productions, Winters Hollywood Entertainment Holdings Corporation
Distributor: Troma Entertainment, 88 Films (Blu-ray)
Stars: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Judd Hamilton, Mary Spinell, Glenn Jacobson, David Winters, Devin Goldenberg, Don Talley

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Jesse Frederick & Jeff Koz High Wire

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There are few tales as tragic as that of Joseph J. Spagnuolo. This Manhattan born character actor, better known as Joe Spinell, was 52 when he died alone in his New York apartment due to causes which still remain undetermined to this day. Some believe that a coronary was responsible for his sudden departure whereas others swear blind that it had something to do with his hemophilia. Either way, the last couple of years of his life were plagued by alcohol and drug abuse that accelerated after the passing of his beloved mother, so it was clear that he was battling against significant personal angst. I can relate to that.

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Never what you would consider conventional leading man material, Spinell found the blessing in his pitted features and landed a number of plum roles, traditionally as a thug or deviant, appearing in numerous big hitters the likes of The Godfather Parts I & II, Rocky and Taxi Driver amongst others. It is also notable that he forged close friendships with Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, and Sylvester Stallone, after taking the fellow Italian under his wing during his time as a struggling actor. Stallone repaid his kindness by making him godfather to his son Sage and also offering Spinell his most salaried role for his 1981 thriller Nighthawks. Despite this, he had to rely increasingly on low-paying bit parts through his later years and other jobs just to keep the wolves from the door.

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However, in 1980, Spinell finally received his shot at the limelight after co-writing and starring in William Lustig’s notorious Maniac and taking to leading man duties remarkably well. Years later, this film has become a much celebrated favorite for fans of exploitation the world over and it should have acted as a stepping stone but it ended in tragedy seven years later. He and proposed director Buddy Giovinazzo shot a ten-minute promotional reel for Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie and, after several years attempting to get the project off the ground, it received the necessary backing to commence shooting. Alas, that never came to fruition and his passing robbed him of the chance to go out on the high he so richly deserved.

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Despite the eighties consisting mostly of increasingly questionable roles in low-rent features, the surprise financial success of Lustig’s film did afford him another crack of the whip two years later. Lustig was asked to return to the director’s chair for The Last Horror Film but regrettably declined because of conflicting commitments. Thus, David Winters grasped the reins and the firm friends jetted off to Cannes with $2m in the kitty to realize his ultimate dream. You see, Spinell started his journey both on and off-Broadway and was simply desperate for that elusive captive audience. In many ways, the film is autobiographical and is very much Spinell’s movie. His kind and generous nature paid dividends as Hammer regular and Maniac co-star Caroline Munro signed up for the circus and, despite a general lack of organization, they came up with a fascinating little number.

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Also known as Fanatic, The Last Horror Film is the kind of film of which time has been somewhat obliging. It is often crude, more than a little confused, and falls some way short of the Maniac in all the all important splatter stakes. Having said that, since being affectionately restored by the magnanimous Arrow Video, it has enjoyed something of a second lease of life and deserves every last nod of appreciation destined to come its way. Spinell excelled as the deeply troubled Frank Zito and, as the deeply troubled Vinny Durand, he supplies us with an even more personal glimpse of that same tormented soul. Dear old ma Mary dons the apron strings to play his on-screen mother, while he is seen perched behind the wheel of a yellow cab, much as he did whilst making ends meet and dreaming of the bright lights.

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Vinny is somewhat obsessed by scream queen Jana Bates (Munro) and determined to direct her for film. Having drafted a script as a sweetener, he heads off to the Cannes Film Festival with lofty aspirations and the unshakable belief that he will bag himself his leading lady, despite the mockery of his pals and a last-ditch reality check from mother. Bates is there promoting her upcoming feature and is also in contention for a coveted prize, thus gaining access proves to be a rather persistent obstacle for the spirited dreamer. While Vinny tries his darndest just to sniff her trail scent, her entourage are falling foul one by one, and their bodies disappearing faster than O.J. Simpson at a crime scene. Of course, we are left under no illusion that he has some serious wired-in childhood trauma to contend with, but the true extent of his sickness remains undefined.

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It is also noteworthy that all is not well for Jana. Recently split from hot-shot executive manager Bret Bates (Glenn Jacobson), she is now warming the bed sheets of producer Alan Cunningham (Judd Hamilton) causing no end of tension, and needs a fanatical stalker right now like a perforated ovary. Munro gives a predictably enigmatic turn as the object of Vinny’s infatuation and, while the lion’s share of her screen time is spent smiling for the paparazzi, she later reminds us that she possesses the lung capacity to shriek with the best of them and dazzles brightly enough to ensure that we too wish to bask in her resplendent rays. We are being offered the chance to slip into Vinny’s brogues, and Ms Munro proves to be the ideal bargaining tool to share his shoe leather.

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Make no mistake, this is Spinell’s movie through and through and our investment depends ultimately on his ability to resonate with his audience. The great news is that he achieves this with considerable aplomb, marrying his character’s increasingly sociopathic tendencies with a genuine likeability that is impossible not to win you over. His mind may be a cluttered locale and his actions apparently dishonorable but we never lose sight of the fact that his heart is in the right place and this is no small feat given the unhealthy fascination for his fair lady. While Vinny’s plight plays out like one long comedy of errors and appears unlikely destined for a happy ending, we still find ourselves rooting for both his safe keeping and realized dream.

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There can be no question that Maniac is the more polished product and, under Lustig’s direction, events are orchestrated in a far less haphazard manner. Having said that, The Last Horror Film finds a number of ways to engage its addressee, with all manner of atmospheric and humorous dream sequences and a wonderfully extrovert display of repressed sexuality from its lead. It has been reported that, at one point, Spinell actually painted his toenails red, and watching him writhe around bare-chested over a projection of Jana’s face proves a real willingness to reveal his full spread of feathers for the sake of art. Meanwhile, Chris Barnes and M. Edward Salier deserve great credit for attempting to edit an abnormal amount of shot footage and, moreover, doing so without compromising his vision.

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At times it is crass and, should you be searching for plot holes, then Winters’ film will invariably begin to resemble a wheel of swiss cheese. Should you do so then you’ll be culpable of missing the entire point of the exercise. There is just as much satire on exhibit as there is exploitation and The Last Horror Film strikes a canny balance between the two throughout its brisk 87 minutes. Cannes provides a suitably starry backdrop to the escalating madness and Winters’ guerilla approach to capturing said buzz ensures that we constantly feel on the fringe, just like Vinny. Spinell’s refreshingly self-effacing performance, combined with honest insight into the parallels with his own ill-fated journey, make for a poignant piece of trash cinema which any self-respecting horror enthusiast owes it to themselves to undertake alongside him at least once.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Those expecting a bloodbath of Maniac proportions may be left a little underwhelmed by the carnage depicted here. While a more stingy body count means less splatter on the platter, Peter McKenzie’s practical expertise is put to sound use on a number of occasions, with electrocution, throat severance, stabbing and decapitation for anyone with a hankering for deep red. As for the skin quota, we are treated to that before barely a minute has passed, while the sight of Munro in varying states of undress makes our Cannes expedition all the more appealing. Spinell’s emotional state may well have been in question but his choice in women most certainly wasn’t.

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