Rosemary’s Killer 1981
aka The Prowler aka The Graduation
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Starring: Vicky Dawson, Farley Granger, Laurence Tierney
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So here we have it, my favourite ever slasher movie. (I don’t include Halloween in that, because well – that’s everyone’s favourite). I found out about Rosemary’s Killer when I was at school and by the strangest possible means. My buddies and I used to have a sly cigarette in an old shed in the woods nearby to where I lived. We would always find ripped magazine pages covering the floor and as devious thirteen-year-olds, we would hope to uncover something interesting amongst the mess. Anyway, one night I went there alone and as if by fate, lying in the corner was a horror fanzine in pretty good condition. I was already a huge fan of the genre and so I scurried home to study the pages in the comfort of my bedroom. There in loving colour, my eyes first met with the iconic image from one of the finest killings of the category; – ‘The swimming pool murder’. You can see it in the picture to your right and it is also the background of a SLASH above. I immediately began a hunt for a copy on VHS, which much like my search for Graduation Day, would continue for much longer than I’d hoped.
Now without eBay and Amazon, my method for tracking down slashers was restricted to car boot sales around the London area. I found lots of titles during my travels, including Night Screams, Nightmare (Dutch uncut copy!) Ghostkeeper, Stormbringer,One by One, The Demon, Fatal Games and Psycho Puppet. However the one that I REALLY wanted remained elusive. It started to become an obsession, but after months of trying, I finally came to the disappointing conclusion that I would probably never see the darn thing. Then through a twist of fate, I found a video-search agency that came to my aid with an almost pristine copy. The price of £30 was daylight robbery, but for me it was mission accomplished and I probably would have paid £50
Avalon Bay is getting set for the first annual dance since a young couple were viciously murdered 35 years earlier. The youngsters of the community are eagerly anticipating the event and spend the day preparing and decorating the town hall. The junior Deputy is alone for the first time as the Sheriff has gone on his annual fishing trip and stress levels are raised when it’s revealed that a wanted criminal that slashed two young females could be heading to the area. As darkness descends, it becomes apparent that there’s a maniac dressed in World War 2 army fatigues stalking the Bay. Can the Deputy muster the courage to stop him?
Rosemary’s Killer is not only one of the best examples of stalk and slash cinema from the golden era, but it’s also one of the most underrated. The movie ticks every box in terms of the relevant trappings and instead of just ticking them, in a few places it completely surpasses them. I like the World War II gimmick and I think that the killer’s disguise is an absolutely brilliant touch. His calling card of leaving a rose by his victims is creepily effective and there’s a great moment towards the climax where he offers it, almost romantically, to the final girl before attempting to ram a pitch folk through her! In 2007, a low budget entry by the name of Rose of Death attempted to utilise the same idea, but failed to add the slash with panache necessary to pay tribute to this sterling effort.
It’s Zito’s pacey direction that sustains an awesome amount of suspense during the first half, which works, because even when not much happens, we are kept fully aware that something could at any moment. Other parts of the film equally excel in their technicality with some beautiful photography and a focused score. I especially liked the staircase stalking sequence, which in true popcorn fashion, keeps everything tight by having the intended victim make all the wrong decisions.
Vicky Dawson makes for a classy final girl and she works well in partnership with Christopher Goutman. For relatively inexperienced performers, they carry the picture comfortably and they deliver only one or two weak moments. I thought Dawson was unfortunate not to have built a longer career in cinema, because much like Amy Steel in Friday the 13th 2, she offers a sweet and alluring naivety, but shows brave independence when left alone to face the prowler. Before the final credits rolled, my wife who was watching with me said, “tough girl” – my sentiments exactly. Farley Granger added class to the cast list, but it’s been confirmed that he had a horrible time on set and suffered some uncomfortable sweating during the make-up effects. Laurence Tierney’s on-board too, although I have no idea why, his character is barely used to much effect and was probably a waste of budget.
Tom Savini’s effects once again steal the show and there’s no denying that Killer is amongst the best of his work. We feel at times that what we are watching is almost too realistic and the swimming pool killing even includes an aftermath shot that’s uncomfortable in its authenticity. It happens as the victim’s lifeless body sinks to the tiles below and her legs begin to twitch as her nervous system comes to terms with the fact that the lights are going out for the last time. The best part of the sequence was actually a mistake from Savini, because at the same time as the gallons of blood seep from her wound, some bubbles also appear under the water (from the pipe pumping the goo). Instead of re-shooting, the effects master recommended that Zito utilise the footage as is, because the bubbles look as if they were the last gasps of the dying teenager’s breath.
It’s been noted that the plot structure is similar to the same year’s My Bloody Valentine and the two would work superbly on a double-bill. Strangely enough, what one title lacks the other boasts in abundance and if you were to mix the two together you would have the perfect slasher film. Whilst MBV also has some great kill scenes (equally as gratuitous) and a good-fun factor that adds momentum to the plot, it lacks any decent suspense. Rosemary’s Killer on the other hand is nail-bitingly tense in places, but has some serious problems with its pace.
Now I picked my favourite slasher film when I was about fourteen years old and much like my love for the Arsenal (the closest team to where I lived), I must admit that it was a ‘teenager’s decision’. Adults have the ability to analyse; step back and view the bigger picture before making a choice. Young minds do everything spontaneously and I didn’t notice the faults back then in Rosemary’s Killer that I see now. As I said, it starts superbly and comes across almost like an anxiety marathon. My Mrs and I were watching it together in silence, knowing full well that there would be a shock at any moment (And I have seen this flick a lot of times). Then after about thirty minutes the rapidity dries up and the film can’t maintain the same thrust.
It’s not necessarily the fault of Joseph Zito, but the script wastes too much time building the mystery in locations that are drab and overtly dark. Some parts could have been much shorter or removed completely during post production to make the film slicker. I especially thought that the length of time used when the Deputy was contacting the Sheriff was ridiculous and ultimately ended up being a pointless diversion.
Despite those issues, this is still one of the best entries of the golden period. It does drag a bit in the development of the plot, but the excellent kill scenes and two fantastic leads more than make up for it. Joseph Zito was widely tipped to be a future horror maestro after his work on this and Friday the 13th The Final Chapter (one of the better sequels of the series). When horror began to lose its way towards the second half of the decade, he moved over to action-orientated flicks, which didn’t give him the same chances and his career unfortunately faded.
I would say that Rosemary’s Killer, even under its superb two alias titles, is a perfect example of a solid horror director’s work. It’s also a time-capsule from the best year of the slasher genre thus far. I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember but still not once too many. Enjoy…
Killer Guise: √√√√√
Final Girl √√√√√
The Burning 1981
Directed by: Tony Maylam
Starring: Brian Matthews, Brian Becker, Jason Alexander
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Tony Maylam’s The Burning is one of the most notorious non-franchise slashers of all time. Even before pre production had begun in the summer of 1980, the movie had an incredible buzz surrounding it. Enough so in fact that superstar horror FX maestro Tom Savini rejected the chance to return to the Friday the 13th series for Steve Miner’s classic sequel and instead took this project for a lesser salary.
Of all the peak period genre entries, none can boast the depth in terms of personnel that was put together here. Alongside the aforementioned magic of Savini, the cast included Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg and Oscar winners Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter. The grim and unique score came from former Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman and directorial duties went to Tony Maylam, who at the time had been predicted for big things after his work on rock band Genesis’ outstanding concert video from 1977.
There can be little doubt that the hype and quality in recruitment was down to an early example of the skills of production partnership Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose company Miramax films would go on to become one of the most successful entertainment brands in Hollywood over the next three decades. This was the first feature length motion picture to be released under that brand and thereafter, they would go on to distribute over fifty films, including classics such as The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and even Wes Craven’s Scream. If that wasn’t enough, then can you believe that the script was co-written by future Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey? Astonishing…
After a prank goes wrong, a sadistic camp caretaker returns to the site where the accident took place, looking for revenge. Armed with a shiny pair of shears, Cropsy begins to stalk a group of counsellors with mutilation on his mind…
In the UK, The Burning was one of the first entries to join the video nasty list and it received perhaps higher persecution for the fact that Thorn-EMI accidentally released the full uncut print instead of the censored copy that the BBFC had cleared. The tapes were impounded and destroyed, but bizarrely, Thorn-EMI were more fortunate than David Grant who was sent to prison for doing the exact same thing when he distributed a longer version of the film Blood Splash a year later. I paid an absolute fortune for an unedited version of this when I was a nipper and it was a mistake as the cassette had an infuriating line running through the middle, which made it almost as bad as just sticking to the 18 rated VHS. Watching it now though, on the BlueRay pre-screener that I was sent, is a glorious experience and the film looks as if it could have been a production from the last decade. The masters have obviously been well looked after and playing it on my Plasma allowed me to turn out the lights and almost feel like I was in the cinema in 1981.
Maylam attempts the John Carpenter methodology of slowly generating an undertone of dread that boils along in the background and then attacks like a shark in the places when the killer strikes. A great example of this is the infamous ‘Raft Massacre’ sequence, which boasts an almost perfect build up. Wakeman’s scoring warns us that something is about to happen, but the camera never reveals enough to let us be sure. When the loon finally strides on to the screen, the bloodletting is quick, brutal and graphic. To this day, you can count on one hand the amount of times in slasher cinema that an antagonist has taken out so many victims in one fell swoop. Tom Savini proves once again here why he was the go to guy for the most realistic special effects back in the overkill period of the slasher cycle.
What I like about the script is that it spends time developing its characters and their performances really add the necessary realism that makes what happens later seem all the more shocking. Jason Alexander steals every scene as a quick-witted camper, whilst Brian Matthews, Leah Ayers and Ned Eisenberg were solid and flawless in their roles. The dialogue and banter works not only to add fun to the parts where the horror takes a backseat, but also to develop a genuine level of believability in the set up and I found it easy to forget that I was watching a group of actors. The screenplay also separates itself from the multitude of its genre brethren by having a ‘final boy’ instead of the usual heroine left alone to face the marauding maniac. The thing is that despite the fact that Brian Becker does a good job with the role, the decision is a risk that just doesn’t pay off.
The Burning has become a true cult classic and has legions of admirers in not only slasher but also horror movie circles. Personally though, I think that it is slightly overrated and perhaps undeserving of so much notoriety. Despite its visible slickness, it lacks a real cutting edge in its moments of terror. Whilst the gore is great and almost like a snuff film in places, the murder sequences lack jump scares or suspense and there’s very little true tension. This is most evident in the conclusion, which I found to be really disappointing. Our hero heads up with an axe to take on the boogeyman and we’re expecting at least a fight. There’s a revelation that builds up a deserving target, at least in the eyes of our nut job caretaker, but Maylam’s attempts at prolonging the money shot are overwrought. In the end it’s more ‘was that it?’ than ‘oh yeah that’s it!’ if you get what I mean. Whilst the notorious ‘Raft Massacre’ is magnificent in terms of the excellence of the make-up FX and it’s an all round great postcard of slasher genre splatter, has anyone ever wondered how it might have looked had it not been SO rapidly edited?
As I highlighted earlier, the script doesn’t bother with a traditional female heroine and instead develops a male geeky type guy in her place. The thing is though we are not talking about a loveable mummy’s boy here. Instead, he is conveyed as an unlikeable pervert and it’s just too hard to bond with him or even want him to survive. It’s funny because before this, we watched The Prowler and Joseph Zito opted for a conventional lead character there and the difference is impossible not to notice. When Vicky Dawson was trying her darnedest to fend off the pitch folk clenching maniac, my partner shouted, “Go on girl!” But there was never any chance of the Mrs doing the same thing here. We ended up saying that Todd should leave Cropsy to get on with it and save himself instead of risking his life for the dweeby Alfred.
I have regular conversations with you guys and girls about these slasher films and I know that not all of you will agree with my view. That’s the beauty of the genre though; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Tom Savini delivers on the goo-o-rama, there are some nice performances, it’s beautifully produced and Rick Wakeman’s score is a masterpiece. If I could however take maybe 15% of its reputation and give it to Nightmare at Shadow Woods, I would feel a lot better about the whole thing. Tony Maylam’s biggest film after this was Split Second with Rutger Hauer. Maybe this picture would have been better if Steve Miner had also opted not to work on Friday the 13th Part 2 and followed his friend Tom over to Camp Blackfoot? Just a thought…
Friday the 13th 1980
Directed by: Sean S Cunningham
Starring: Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon, Betsy Palmer
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
It’s a known saying amongst film fans that the first actor that you see who plays Bond will always be your favourite. There’s most definitely some truth in this, because I watched The Spy who Loved me when I was about six years-old and Roger Moore, despite being nowhere near as cool as Sean Connery, is inexplicably the one that I like the most.
I wondered if a similar method could work on Friday the 13th films. Now first things first, I’m a massive fan of the franchise. I mean massive. I live in London, but flew to the US specifically to attend an advanced screening of Jason X when I had barely turned 20. It cost me an arm and a leg, but it was worth it. It all started because I was desperately searching for some more slasher action after watching Halloween when I was knee-high to a hub-cap. Back then, without the Internet, we had to rely on the stock of our local video stores for selection choices and there I found the extremely Michael Myers-alike back-cover blurb of Friday the 13th Part 2. So that became my first taste of the Voorhees legacy.
Straight after, I began visiting all the mom and pop rental shops within a 100 mile radius until I’d tracked down every single entry to the story. In Spain, Paramount distributed parts 2 to 8, but this film, the opening chapter, was released by Warner Bros. It could be because they didn’t print as many copies on VHS, but bizarrely enough, this was the last of them that I got to see.
Taking a browse around the other websites, I noticed that it is perhaps the most highly rated by my fellow stalk and slash critics in the blogosphere. Justin over at Hysteria Lives gave it a full five-stars, whilst Hud from Vegan Voorhees did the same. In my review of Friday the 13th Part 2, I said that it was my número uno of the series and one of the best slasher movies ever made. I have watched it at least ten times, whereas I’ve only seen this on two occasions and both were many many moons ago. I guess that the point that I’m trying to make is would a mind completely free of bias or any kind of sentimentality really call Sean S Cunningham’s notorious shocker the best of the collection? Is it really THAT good?
A local businessman has decided to reopen a summer camp that has remained in his family for almost fifty years. Previous attempts to restore Camp ‘Crystal Lake’ have always met with ominous incidents that began after the drowning of an unfortunate child. The following year, two youngsters were brutally murdered and when the killer was not apprehended, the cabins were closed and abandoned. Nowadays, townsfolk call it ‘Camp Blood’ and gossip amongst them states that it is cursed and so it has remained uninhabited since that fateful night. Steve Chrysty doesn’t believe in those whispers and has already hired a group of counsellors to help him with preparation for the grand opening. As soon as they’ve began to settle however, they are stalked and ruthlessly butchered by an elusive psychopath…
Whilst the filmmakers have admitted both privately and in interviews that this was little more than a cash-in on the success of Halloween, the key source of inspiration behind the picture was Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood and knowing that allows you to clearly see the nods and winks. Cunningham makes great use of the campsite location and the crisp photography laps up the greens and browns of the forest to give the picture a colourful radiance of a backdrop. After a brief (and surprisingly – keeping in mind that Savini was on board) gore free murder in the pre-credits, we get introduced to the first of our counsellors. What is interesting is that Annie, a bubbly hitchhiker, is given enough screen time that would lead you to believe that she could become our heroine. She’s sweet, fiery and sincere and offers something of a backstory to her persona. The opening scenes with her are intriguing because we don’t get a clear picture of what we can expect to happen. Crazy Ralph’s warnings are that ‘Camp Blood’ is doomed. Does that mean haunted? Are we about to watch a ghost story? Whilst of course we know now that wasn’t the case, the film does begin with a feeling like we could be up against something more supernatural than a twisted killer.
Victor Miller’s screenplay manages to break archetypal slasher movie boundaries even before they were set by killing off that first, well developed, character almost immediately and letting us know that no one is safe from the unseen menace. Whilst the world and their mother are aware by now of who the antagonist of this feature turned out to be, audiences of 1980 had no idea, and the story plays like something of a regular giallo/whodunit. Sean Cunningham didn’t get the breaks that would build careers for Carpenter, Craven and Hooper, but what is clear to me here is that he got the right performances from his inexperienced cast. Whilst none of them are given complex enough dialogue to really steal a scene, infamous moments such as Marcie’s Audrey Hepburn in the mirror, Ned’s practical jokes and Alice’s hysterical heroine were all pitch perfect for this campy horror classic
Once the night scenes come around, the movie really steps up a gear and delivers a genuinely dark and tense atmosphere. The backgrounds are shot in a tone that’s almost grey scale and the constant barrage of rain is a horror cliché that is used to the best possible effect. If Cunningham deserves credit for helping sustain a sense of mystery and suspense, the film really belongs to Tom Savini’s make-up effects and Bill Freda’s razor sharp editing. The pair create some amazing death scenes; with the impalement of a young Kevin Bacon and Jeannine Taylor’s gruesome end being two of the most memorable slasher murders of all time. Harry Manfredini’s musical accompaniment is powerful enough to single handedly change the mood and the poignant tranquility of his last piece, which successfully builds up to the closing jump scare – Jason’s screen début – is creative and unique.
When the killer is revealed and finally shows her face it’s a genuine shock, but also a bit of a cheat. The majority of the runtime sees suspicion point at Steve or maybe one of the campers but then it turns out to be a face that hasn’t yet been introduced to us. It’s hard to believe that this could really be the person that we have seen ramming axes through people’s faces and nailing counsellors to cabin doors, but once the final battle gets going, we just let the filmmakers take over and it turns out to be one of the best showdowns of the cycle. Betsy Palmer was heavily criticised by Roger Ebert and the like and Gene Siskel even went as far as to tell fans to write to her expressing their disappointment that she accepted such a poor choice in role. She was also nominated for that year’s supporting actress Razzie – one of the worst and most insulting things that can happen to any screen performer. Personally, I really enjoyed her natty Mrs Voorhees and think that she did exactly what was asked of her. That hammy as a sandwich schizophrenia is surprisingly effective and I just couldn’t imagine how the film would play without it. Oh and by the way Señor Siskel, Señora Palmer later stated that she received exactly 0 complaints through the mail and only letters praising her inclusion in the picture. So there :p
Friday the 13th is, for me, a four star slasher movie. It’s a suspenseful and exciting killer in the woods flick that has a couple of memorably edited scares, a wonderful final battle and some of the best character-driven situations of the entire genre. The only thing that it lacks is a solid central antagonist; or to be more clear, a Jason Voorhees. Of course though, we have to keep in mind that without this, we would never have had a mass-murderer in a hockey mask and the greatest legacies have to start somewhere. Whilst I am still convinced that part two, the first that I ever saw, is the best in the series, I have only the tiniest of disagreements with those that consider this to be their favourite.
Maybe it is just like what they say about Bond and that I saw the sequel first…?
Final Girl: √√√√
Eyes of a Stranger 1981
Directed by: Ken Wiederhorn
Starring: Lauren Tewes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John DiSanti
Luisito Joaquín González
I am interested, of the two most important horror ingredients, which one do you prefer? Are you a fan of gruesome gore or teeth-clenching suspense? Let’s put it another way. If you went to the local multiplex and were in the mood for a bit of terror and there were two choices showing: – In screen one a gratuitous Grindhouse slaughter-thon and in screen two a taut suspense marathon, which would you buy a ticket for? It’s a good question, right?
Now I love seeing someone get an axe in the face as much as the next man (on screen of course). In reality I think I’m more amazed by watching a true craftsman manipulate timing and framing to make me bite my nails than I am watching someone spill pig’s intestines everywhere in close-up. Eyes of a Stranger is an interesting case, because its synopsis hints at the formula of suspense classics like Rear Window, Someone’s Watching Me or When a Stranger Calls, but it has gore effects by Tom Savini. Could this be one of the extremely few horror films that delivers on both counts…?
There’s a maniac terrorising Miami and committing gruesome rapes and murders. Jane Harris, an ambitious reporter, becomes involved when she begins to suspect a creepy neighbour that lives directly opposite. She has always felt responsible for what happened to her younger sister who was attacked and as a result lost her hearing, sight and the ability to speak. Can she find the evidence to stop the creepy killer?
Unlike in my country of birth, a sunny day in the UK is very hard to come by. Earlier this year, we woke up and looked out the window and the sun was scorching at 8am. We packed up our bucket and spade, I put on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and we jumped on the train to Bournemouth. Halfway through the trip, I started to feel a little cold and suddenly a big ominous cloud appeared in the sky. As soon as we arrived, Señor sol had disappeared and it started to hammer down with rain. To cut a short story even shorter we ended up on the next train home. So what had started as a glorious adventure, ended up being a water-drenched nightmare and my Bermuda trunks have never recovered.
Eyes of a Stranger is a very similar experience to the one that I just mentioned, as in it kicks off exceptionally well, but then the clear blue sky turns a bit grey and the sun never manages to break back through. I will only ever post a review of an uncut movie as censor intervention can have a massive effect on the final result of a feature (Cherry Falls anybody?). Well Tom Savini’s inclusion here was pretty pointless as aside from one standout sequence, there’s nothing notable from his work. Certainly no blame can be put on his shoulders, but you’d think that any producer willing to fund his presence on set must’ve had the motivation to make the most of his capabilities. Stranger doesn’t really give him enough to work with. There’s some decent stuff here, but too many of the killings are off screen.
The first featured murder is superb and mixes jump scares, tight framing, brutality and some pretty good gore. One guy gets decapitated with a cleaver and his head chucked in a fish tank (check that hand twitching) and then the female is attacked by the masked menace (you can see it uncut above). This was a pretty terrifying opening and we were expecting some more of the same. Funnily enough, after the introduction of the final girl, the slide to mediocrity began.
There are three things that ruin Eyes of a Stranger. Firstly, the script gives too much time to the psychopath and he doesn’t get characterised as well as say, in a movie like Maniac. There are no real shots of him behaving like a loon and instead we just see him sitting down to have his dinner and with all due respect to John DiSanti, he just doesn’t ooze scariness. He’s certainly no bad actor, but he has a kind of everyday bloke-ness about him and for me, he just doesn’t cut it as a bogeyman. The synopsis would have been wiser to take the Somebody’s Watching Me route of keeping the assailant in the shadows. But in its ambition not to feel like a rip-off (which it is), it deliberately breaks the most important rule: Don’t give your monster too much screen time.
Next up we have our final girl (or in effect we are given two of them). Again there’s nothing here that would suggest that Lauren Tewes couldn’t handle the role, but the story portrays her character as foolish and annoying rather than victimised and brave. Instead of unintentionally crossing paths with the maniac, she invites him to stalk her by being plain stupid. She’s a victim due to her own actions and not for any other reason. Jennifer Jason Leigh on the other hand gives a good enough Laurie Strode impression, albeit a blind, deaf and mute one. The only thing that I didn’t like was the fact that she had to flash her breasts. It just felt pointless and took away some of her innocence – final girls just shouldn’t do that.
Lastly, the movie has some serious problems with its pacing. It’s hard to put a finger on why it can’t sustain its momentum, but once it starts to drag, it never really picks itself back up. If ever there was a fine chance to build suspense, it was in the apartment scene. Jane thinks that she knows who the killer is, so she breaks in to his flat and begins searching for some proof. Meanwhile he is downstairs waiting for the lift. Can she get out in time or will he catch her in his wardrobe? You couldn’t dream of a better route to create some tension, but director Ken Wiederhorn doesn’t manage to make anything of the situation. If he fails to excite in a scenario like that, you can be sure that it’s not going to get any better. There’s the old slasher trademark of two randy youngsters in a car parked up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The build up is good, the gore effects are neat (the second best of the feature), but the shot feels rushed and there are no real shocks.
I liked the pretty decent score and even if this is by no means the best of Tom Savini, it is Tom Savini all the same. Jennifer Jason Leigh put up a good battle with the killer and the cat and mouse chase in the apartment between them was pretty intense. It was particularly mean spirited the way that he was mocking her disabilities and tormenting her by moving items around in front of her. I am struggling to think of any other positives. Well… it’s nicely acted and it looks professional. It’s also another of those slasher/thriller features of which there were plenty of back then (Eyes of Laura Mars, Dressed to Kill) and… umm … well did I mention Tom Savini?
I really wanted to like Eyes of a Stranger, because it’s the one peak-period slasher that I had never got round to watching until now. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if it was just plain bad, but the problem is that it showed glimpses of genius, but never made the most of them. I gave it two stars because well… I would pick this over the majority of new-skool slashers, but as a time-capsule from the overkill years, it’s not one of the strongest.
Final Girl √√
Directed by: William Lustig
Starring: Joe Spinell, Carolyn Munro, Abigail Clayton
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Over one century ago (1897 to be exact) in the dingy back streets of Montmartre, Paris, an eccentric ex-secretary to a Police commissioner named Oscar Metenier, opened the Theatre du Grand Guignol. For 65 years, groups of performers staged one-act plays that depicted graphic scenes of murder, mutilation and torture. Famous works by authors such as Charles Dickens and James Hadley Chase were adapted for Grand Guignol and made into, some might say, horrific gore-laden masterpieces. People’s morbid curiosities kept the shows ever popular, all the way up until the Nazis invaded France during World War II. Perhaps because the French population was experiencing true horrors of their own, the urge to see such events portrayed on stage, quite obviously became a lot less alluring. The theatre never recovered, and it finally closed its doors for the last time in 1962. William Lustig’s Maniac is basically Grand Guignol for the cinematic audiences of the eighties. A movie that viewers of a quainter disposition will describe as depraved, demoralising and redundantly mean spirited; while others have touted its story telling as artistic, ballsy and daring.
Although it’s often labelled as a formulaic stalk and slash offering, it is actually a member of the sub, sub-genre that differentiates itself from the Halloween and Friday the 13th created format. Along with Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Mardi Gras Massacre, and Don’t go in the House; Maniac offers something refreshing, by giving the killer characterisation and making him more than just a loony in a mask with a machete.
The plot portrays the life of Frank Zito, an insane and stammering psychological mess of a man, with more than a few severe problems upstairs. His story unravels around his descent into madness, which stems from his seclusion and isolation from the outside world. He is a lonely, redoubtable character, with no friends or companionship. He spends his time alone with just his fragmented mind to torment him. His desperation to feel accepted by civilisation results in him creating his own ‘family’ from female mannequins. To add realism to their beings and to make them as human-like as could be possible, he furnishes their heads with the scalps of women that he butchers remorselessly. In the first ten minutes, an unfortunate prostitute is ruthlessly slaughtered for no apparent reason and the misogyny continues all the way through the movie. Nurses, models and innocent bystanders are gorily slain for nothing more than the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The creepiest thing about these murders is the fact that Zito has no apparent understanding of the results of his actions. He reads headlines, which describe the feelings of a city left in fear by his spate of madness and he watches news updates that inform us of the aftermath of his bloodthirsty rein. His reaction however is non-existent. He shows no knowledge of any wrongdoing, almost like he is unaware that he commits such atrocities. His mental downfall takes a U-turn, when he meets up with Anna D’Antoni (Caroline Munro) a photographer that attracts his attention for the first time when she snaps him wondering through a park. We finally get to see a thoroughly different side to his character: – a romantic, insecure personality that’s been buried beneath years of self-inflicted misery and emotional torture. There is a constant battle between two separate personalities that rages inside Zito’s mind and Anna’s fate depends upon whether the good or evil side emerges victoriously…
The opening sequence stays true to its stalk and slash counterparts, as the masked, heavy breathing Zito kills a loving couple on a beach. Lustig describes the scene as homage to Jaws, only this time the monster is out of the sea and on land, thus explaining the beach setting. It’s a well-handled commencement, with Savini adding the magic that he is most reputed for and Robert Lindsay’s competent photography creates energy that prevails throughout the whole movie. Body count material is introduced without any characterisation or development, but it can be argued that the story revolves around Zito and to him victims are only objects or playthings anyway.
I have always considered Bill Lustig to be a highly underrated filmmaker. Maniac Cop was yet another great movie, although I would consider this to be one of his best – probably because he was relatively unknown when he worked it. The parts that were filmed inside the killer’s flat are shot in complete silence, which effectively adds to the feeling of seclusion and abandonment. It’s like the viewer is inside the character’s apartment, but also inside his own remote world, where his loneliness has degenerated into an unrelenting insanity. It is added moments like these that make Maniac all the more creepy. The subway scene adds some awe-inspiring suspense, as Frank stalks a nurse through the station. Lustig does well to keep the atmosphere tense and the viewer is always aware that something is about to happen, meaning there is never any allowance for comfort in the fact that any of the characters will escape to safety. He also manages at least two effective jump-scares. The final Carrie-esque jolt is particularly memorable and adds the perfect finale. Jay Chattaway provides a superb score to accompany the visuals and Lorenzo Marinelli’s editing is equally impressive.
Although you could never call Joe Spinnell a fantastic dramatic performer by any of his pre-Maniac work, Frank Zito (named as a nod to Joseph Zito the director of The Prowlerand friend to Lustig and Savini) was undoubtedly the part he was put on this planet to play. It’s a convincing performance that allowed the actor to immerse himself deep into something that he had researched thoroughly and accurately and he gives his character a vivid portrait of realism that was necessary to create the child’s nightmare-like quality that the movie possesses. Spinnell is Maniac and Maniac is Spinnell, there’s no doubt about it. It was his signature role. It’s impossible to imagine another character actor fitting the bill so perfectly. Not only does he play the part; he also looks and sounds it too.
He wasn’t the only one that hit a career high under Lustig’s direction though; Caroline Munro gave her most realistic portrayal too. Her career had reached it’s cliff-top in 1980, before she became a scream queen in less memorable flicks such as Slaughter High and Faceless, which would supplement her income well into motherhood. This also offered a chance to break away from the bikini-clad bimbo roles that she had been given up until that point and it gave her an opportunity to try something a little different. I strongly respect her refusal to do any nudity, which cost her a contract with Hammer Horror in the early seventies. It takes a strong woman to reject such offers for the sake of her modesty and Munro proved that she was just that. It’s worth noting that the pair were reunited two years later forFanatic (aka The Last Horror Film), which lacked the gritty edge and invitingly sleazy surroundings of its predecessor, but attempted to cash-in on the fame that Lustig’s film had earned from its gruesome reputation.
Maniac was filmed on super 16 mm and like the best slashers from this period it was shot for the most miniscule of budgets (‘under a million dollars’). A lot of the on-location work was staged illegally, without any insurance or authorised permission. In speaking, Lustig anecdotes about the exploding head scene (no less than Tom Savini’s, by the way), where they had to fire a shotgun through the windscreen of a car and then make a quick getaway, before the Police arrived to investigate the gunshot!
Munro was given only one-day to rehearse the script before starting work, due to replacing Dario Argento’s wife of the time, Daria Nicolodi. Admittedly, it does seem pretty strange that a woman with a name as Italian as Anna D’ Antoni, would be played by an English Rose; but she does a good enough job and is truly a sight to behold. Many, MANY countries rejected this movie on the grounds of its unnecessary violence towards women, including the censors here in the UK, who made sure to add it to the DPP list almost immediately. The Philippines’ board of film review was so outraged by what they discovered that they told the producers to take it to Satan instead of their country and went on to describe it as ‘un-entertaining’ and ‘unfit for Human consumption’! Of course, knowledge of those monstrosities, only made it seem all the more curious to youngsters that had heard such tales of unruly degradation and were eager to check it out for themselves. This helped to give the flick a massive cult following. Upon release, it became immensely popular, although it was heavily criticised for its brutal violence. Spinnell said that the blood was never on screen long enough for his creation to be considered too gruesome. He lied. – There are parts of the movie that are incredibly gory and blood-soaked. You’ll find decapitations, scalpings and dismemberment – if you can name a gory way to slaughter a female, then you’ll find it somewhere in here. Maniac is one of the only video-nasties that have managed to retain its shock factor, even after twenty-four years.
I saw an edited copy of this in the mid-nineties and was left totally unimpressed. Perhaps my attentions were elsewhere or I was expecting something more? I can’t be sure, but last night, watching it once again for this review, I found myself captivated. There are flaws, yes for certain. It’s unlikely that a beauty as striking, as Anna would give the time of day to a misfit like Zito in the first place and the end sequence is a little bizarre to say the least. But all niggles are forgiven when you acknowledge the effort that has been put into making this production as realistically as they possibly could.
Credit has to be given to Spinnell for believing in the project and his dedication and research into serial killers deserves recognition. Maniac has earned itself another fan and I believe that it deserves to be seen. There has never been, and probably never will be, another slasher movie so depraved and disturbing; so grab a copy whilst you’ve got the chance. It’s an innovative and daring take on the standard stalk and slash genre, which succeeds because it is just that.
Final Girl √√√