Slotting nicely into the Hammer psycho thriller series, but also continuing the trend developed in TASTE OF FEAR of ‘British horror films set in France’, we find this directorial effort from the oft-maligned ( and not without good reason either) Mr. Carreras, scripted of course by the undisputed cinematic king of this stuff – Jimmy Sangster. Yes, I know there are those among us who prefer Brian Clemens, but let’s be honest, all his best stuff was written for the small screen. Imagine what they could have come up with together… well, at the time of writing they were both still alive, so it’s not too late.
Anyway, back to the film in question. All the usual requisite elements are there – an American beefcake of a leading man (Kerwin ‘Later To Be Sinbad’ Matthews in this case), a pouting, doe-eyed heroine (Lilianne Brousse, yet another of those ‘where the hell did they disappear to’ women the studio seemed adept at slotting into high-profile roles), a dodgy duplicitous slightly older female (Nadia Gray), a sinister looking nutter with a gun, sunglasses and a disability (Donald Houston), a ridiculous plot, and some beautiful monochrome cinematography. In short, Hammer has the winning formula here down pat. One would imagine, and in fact records show, that this was a fairly successful box office venture at the time – this type of film being very much in vogue in the early-to-mid 60s. Which is presumably why they started making them.
So why, then, have so few people seen it (unless you have been lucky enough his century to catch one or two of its brief appearances on TCM, which I must confess is where I found it), why is it not spoken of fondly by the same people that remember The Nanny or Die, Die My Darling aka Fanatic, and why is it still languishing in the ‘yet-to-be-released-on-DVD’ file?
It certainly isn’t because it’s a crap film – far from it, Maniac is one of the superior entries in the ‘mini-Hitchcock/ersatz Clouzot’ canon which the studio mined from 1961 through to 1972, a bloody long time by anyone’s standards. And it certainly isn’t because it’s ever been confused with William Lustig’s 1981 slasher of the same title – although I made that mistake once with a fellow Internet trader!! Maybe it’s simply down to its poor distribution – for years it was largely unavailable on video, and it definitely wasn’t a regular feature in the late 70s/early 80s TV schedules most of today’s horror buffs remember so fondly. ‘Horror’, of course, is in this case classification only by association – it’s more of a suspense movie than anything else (as indeed are all of Hammer’s films in this style) yet on the other hand, it contains enough shocks, chills and psychosis to elevate it above bog-standard thriller status. One may surmise that had it been an Italian film it would have almost definitely been regarded as a giallo. For a true admirer of the genre, of course, these grey areas in-between more easily defined styles are where the ‘gold’ that make the whole shebang so interesting is hidden – and maybe that’s the whole point.
The plot is fairly straightforward – one balmy, beautiful day in the Carmargue, a young teenage girl (Brousse) is attacked and raped by the local nutter en route home from a hard day’s berry picking. Daddy finds out about this, goes ballistic, and in what should be one of the all-time classic ‘name that scene’ segments of a British horror movie, murders the culprit with his trusty blowtorch. Several years later, once recovered and out of hospital, the young girl’s affections are aroused by the appearance of a travelling American (Matthews) who just ‘happens’ to be in the area, and before you know it she and her equally alluring but definitely sinister mother (Gray) are engaged in an unspoken but blindingly bleedin’ obvious love tussle over his square jaw and healthy abs. This would be hassle enough were it not for the fact that they’ve also hatched a plot to break incarcerated Dad (Houston), who obviously isn’t going to take that kindly to this unrequited ménage-a-trios, out of choky – and having done so, of course, it’s not long before he’s reaching for the weapons again and another series of ‘acetylene murders’ are shattering the tranquil calm of the rural French scrublands. The police, particularly the grumpy and far-from-saintly Inspector Etienne (George Pastell) become interested, and before too long one of those great ‘end-of-film’ climaxes ensues in a stone quarry (and why not? They hadn’t used one yet to my knowledge, although the obviously influential earlier Butchers’ production PAINTED SMILE (Lance Comfort 1961) had done so in an altogether bleaker manner.
And of course there’s a twist before the final reel, which I’m not going to be callous enough to reveal to you save to say that it concerns the ‘identity’ of one of our main protagonists, but other than that that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Nothing cataclysmic or mind-shattering- just decent entertainment.
It’s hard to say anything bad about MANIAC, because it is suspenseful enough in parts, not to mention beautifully shot in an amazing location, and it has all the constituent elements we would come to admire in practically every episode of the aforementioned Mr Clemens’ masterful THRILLER series of the mid-70s (that is, assuming that those of you reading this are fellow admirers of said programme) but then again, it’s hard to actually find many things to say about the film at all – which would seem to be the crux of the matter, as if there were something missing from the overall finished product. What that thing is is not easily definable, and from the point of view of a fan, I have watched the film several times and enjoyed it, and may very well do so again. Maybe it’s the kind of film one needs to watch without distraction to become fully enveloped in it- although it could be posited that if it was all that engaging in the first place, the viewer wouldn’t be so easily distracted.
All in all, a film that does exactly what it promises on the tin, a far from workmanlike effort, and easy enough to follow despite its many plot layers (which could also be taken as either a plus or minus, depending where you stand on such things) but not by any standards one of the all-time greats. Still, if you haven’t seen it you probably should, if only to see what Carrears could turn his mind to before he went completely tonto, or to get a glimpse of Houston, best known for his appearances in such televisual fluff as ‘Moonbase 3′ and ‘Now Take My Wife’ attempting a much meatier and darker role togged out in some decidedly camp getup. And it’s got a much better ending than NIGHTMARE as well. Go on, you know you want to.