…or: The Quentin Tarantino Story!
By Paul Mavis
It’s almost October here in the Great American Middle West, and you know what that means: yep, the illegals are getting laid off from the summer jobs that used to go to your kids, fentanyl use is way up, and a gallon of gas costs less than a gallon of milk. That’s right: it’s Biden-tober! So break out your Tyrolean hat, lederhosen and your Depends, and lets watch some seasonally-appropriate horror flicks!
A few years back, Troma Team Video released a spiffy Blu transfer of The Last Horror Film (a.k.a.: Fanatic), the Twin Continental Films 1982 cult slasher opus from some of the team that brought you 1980’s iconic sleaze-terpiece, Maniac. Starring that movie’s super-fun couple, Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro (surely a mating of eagles…), The Last Horror Film shoots for a markedly lighter, breezier tone than its financial antecedent, as its guerilla-style stolen shots of the 1981 Cannes Film Festival—and plenty of hot, topless babes—pad out an acceptable story of greasy mama’s boy Spinell’s murderous efforts to get international star Munro to appear in his low-budget horror movie.
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Sleazebag New Yawk cabbie Vinny (Joe Spinell) spends all his sweaty time either whacking it to slasher flicks in crummy grindhouse theaters, or collecting movie magazine photos of his favorite exploitation star, luscious Jana Bates (Caroline Munro), plastering them all over his bedroom as he dreams of one day directing her in one of his own movies. Vinny’s mother (Filomena Spagnuolo), with whom Vinny still lives, thinks he’s crazy, particularly when Vinny actually ups and leaves for the Cannes Film Festival, where he’s convinced he can snag the beauty.
Equipped with a 16mm Arriflex, Vinny proceeds to stalk Jana, filming her every movement as she promotes her latest horror opus, Scream, inbetween answering questions about the difference between movie violence and the real-life brutalities playing out in the news (such as whacko John Hinkley’s efforts to impress movie star Jodie Foster by attempting to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan). Unfortunately, someone isn’t pleased with Jana and her Scream company’s latest efforts; she and her colleagues receive the same threatening note (“You have made your last horror film. Goodbye.”), and people start getting bumped off in the most gruesome of fashions, including Jana’s producer and ex- husband, Bret Bates (Glenn Jacobson), screenwriter Marty Bernstein (Devin Goldenberg), and director Stanley Kline (David Winters) and his girlfriend Susan Archer (Susanne Benton). And all fingers point to Vinny as the culprit….
Filmed in 1981, The Last Horror Film, after a few scattered play dates overseas in late 1982, effectively “disappeared,” failing to show up in the crucial, lucrative U.S. theatrical market. Some sources say it did play in theaters, under the title Frantic, but finding confirmation on that proved beyond me (it doesn’t appear in any weekend charts for July 1983, its supposed release date). Regardless of any minuscule theatrical run, it was eventually dumped onto VHS in 1984, where it could have easily gotten lost in the shuffle of rack after rack of those clunky VHS boxes (if the name didn’t somehow stand out on the spine of the hardcase—or there wasn’t a partially nude woman on it—your eyes tended to just glaze right over it).
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Anyone who grew up during that “golden age” of VHS rental horror remembers what a unique time that was, when the novelty of actually being able to bring a movie home and play it on your very own TV (suddenly you controlled the content on your tube; you were suddenly its master!) was matched by the illicit, gamey thrill of seeing things—gory beheadings, disembowelments, naked women, etc.—you weren’t supposed to see outside of the drive-ins and grindhouses. Certainly 1980’s Maniac, the previous collaboration between Spinell and Munro, fit the bill of cheap, exciting, tawdry thrills for anyone happening upon it at their local video store (and that random, “catch as catch can” method of seeing movies was the norm for most viewers back then, before the internet clued-in movie lovers to even the most obscure offerings, its instant communication easily creating “instant cult classics” accessible by anyone).
From what I gathered, when director William Lustig and screenwriter/actor Joe Spinell hit (relative) big money with cheapie Maniac, there was a push by executive Judd Hamilton (then Munro’s real-life husband…that insanely lucky bastard) to mint its formula: horror + gore + nudity x Spinell + Munro = box office coin. Joined this time by co-writer Tom Klassen and pro writer/choreographer/director David Winters, producer/co-star Hamilton gave $10,000 to Spinell’s pal, Luke Walter, to shoot the New York scenes (where money was saved using Spinell’s real mother and actual apartment for the set).
Then, when the company flew over to Cannes, Walter shot all the black and white 16mm footage “Vinny” was supposedly capturing during his stalks/kills, while cinematographer Thomas F. Denove “stole” shots of the Cannes Film Festival, including capturing—without their knowledge—big stars like Kris Kristofferson, Marcello Mastroianni, Karen Black, Isabelle Adjani (and um…Cathy Lee Crosby) doing what stars do at film festivals: walking around, waving and smiling like idiots for the cameras. Indeed, since the budget for The Last Horror Film was so tight, everything staged and shot out on the streets of Cannes was “stolen,” with no city permits and no release forms as unsuspecting tourists and industry types reacted realistically within Winters’ immersive scenes. Apparently a pretty wild shoot, according to Walter, funds ran short (the cast and crew skipped out to Switzerland, ditching a $40,000 bill at the Ritz Carlton) and The Last Horror Film wrapped in appropriately chaotic fashion.
Premiering at Spain’s Sitges Film Festival in October, 1982, The Last Horror Film then just sorta…disappeared. Frustratingly, no one on this disc’s commentary track brings up and explains this key piece of the movie’s history (wouldn’t one think the reason behind a “lost” movie getting lost in the first place, would be the first thing one would discuss?). But one wonders if perhaps part of the reason it didn’t get a U.S. theatrical release (or at least a significant one), was the possible threat of a lawsuit from one of those big stars being unwittingly shanghaied into this grubby little exploiter? A spotty record on home video (for example, an uncut version was released in England, before it was banned for over 20 years) has only helped The Last Horror Film’s cult status.
The Last Horror Film’s movie-within-a-movie premise, with the killer (and audience) trying to navigate a reality-versus-fantasy subtext, while hardly original, is certainly promising here, particularly when seen against most of the unimaginative junk that passed as exploitation garbage back in 1981-82. When the movie opens with a laughably derivative “kill” that looks like a deleted scene from similarly-designed crap like Halloween II (a defiantly naked woman is electrocuted in a hot tub), only for the scene to pull back and show it’s a sweaty, apparently masturbating Spinell watching the movie in a grindhouse, we hope that maybe we’re in self-reflexive Blow Out territory. The kill is funny because it’s obvious and poorly staged, and it’s creepy because Spinell is singularly creepy no matter what he’s doing on screen.
That uncomfortable humorous/unsettling tension continues, as Spinell is catcalled by unfriendly neighborhood louts, before he’s yelling and crying at his incredulous mom, insisting he’s going to make it big in film (“I got talent, Ma! I’m gonna be a great director!” he desperately persists…before she implores him to eat more protein so he won’t have so many “crazy ideas”). The satire continues when we arrive in France, as we’re shown the Cannes Jury panel selecting Munro getting her face melted off over efforts by Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda (the lampooning may be a bit obvious, but it’s Noel Coward level stuff compared to the average exploiter at that time).
Once The Last Horror Film settles in, though, and we get the gist of what the moviemakers are trying to say, it’s easy to bitch and nitpick about all the cracks that appear (as it is with any low-budget cheapie). How did Vinny get the money to come to Cannes in the first place (flights cost a bundle then, and staying there during the absolute peak season would be prohibitively expensive, regardless of how crummy his room is—especially for someone living with their mother)? How does he know that phony Texas cowboy in the Corvette (Don Talley), Vinny’s first contact in Cannes? How does Vinny manage to cull together a fairly credible Hammer-like “Dracula’s castle” set, complete with special effects coffin, in a matter of hours?
A lot of this stuff we assume fell by the wayside because the producers simply didn’t have the time or money to better explain them (or, just as believably, they just didn’t care). It sounds like it was a lot easier in this chaotic, haphazard shoot for the moviemakers to randomly grab some hot girls off the beach and have them take their clothes off for filler, rather than put in the detailed, time-consuming work that’s needed in a production to make a story appear seamless to the viewer. Of course…if the scares and the gore are plentiful (and the girls attractive enough—as they certainly are here), then we shouldn’t mind these expositional bumps in the road. That’s what we’re paying for, after all, isn’t it?
Ironically, that cheapjack necessity of stealing shots on the fly with unsuspecting passersby also provides The Last Horror Film’s best element: the unadulterated, gilt-edged Cannes Film Festival milieu. If you were like this reviewer back in the early 80s, reading the weekly Variety at your local library, looking at the garish ads for proposed movies being flogged at Cannes (most of which never saw the light of day), and delighting in the seeming decadence that was this most famous of European film festivals (you mean unknown starlets got naked in public for photographers…and no one arrested them?), then The Last Horror Film’s Cannes is just as you imagined the festival would be, with movie advertising covering every square inch of available space, as stars on the red carpet pretend they were better than the flashy, amoral movie peddlers hawking their wares at the discotheques.
Indeed, The Last Horror Film’s best joke is seeing all those industry phonies falling for an even bigger bunch of phonies: The Last Horror Film’s cast and crew (those real shots of a camping Spinell, costumed like Dracula-as-director, fooling the crowds who think he’s some kind of eccentric artist, are priceless). It’s too bad, though, that the expediency of using these guerrilla tactics wasn’t more thoroughly developed into a deliberate, overall aesthetic. The best scene in the movie—Spinell threatening Munro in the shower, before she runs through her hotel and the streets of Cannes, clad only in a towel…as real onlookers applaud what they imagine is another Cannes p.r. stunt—is a rather brilliant oasis in a sea of slipshod tomfoolery.
Director Winters, with his celebrated choreography credentials, perfectly blocks Munro and Spinell as they spiral down an elaborate staircase, before Munro is running pell-mell through the streets, with realistically astonished passersby gawking (according to Walter, the French bystanders eventually returned to form: they started snatching at her towel before security jumped in). Had Winters fully exploited his budgetarily limited way of shooting, The Last Horror Film could have been a far more tense, and certainly more interesting, little gem.
Where The Last Horror Film critically falls down, if it was indeed trying to say something serious in the end, isn’t the “violence versus reality” shtick we keep getting, as Winter repeatedly has news reports relaying info on the shooting of Reagan and the Pope, while Robin “Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams!” Leach and June Chadwick wonder if Munro’s movies aren’t making people commit crimes. That circular discussion was old news way before The Last Horror Film came along. No, where the movie really drops the ball is in the final (or more accurately, first) twist ending.
SPOILERS ALERT! In revealing that Vinny didn’t kill anyone (or at least…we think that’s what the script is saying…), save for a few clues that come back to us concerning Vinny’s outrage at the decadence of modern moviemaking, the twist de-legitimizes almost everything else Vinny does in the movie, sabotaging a potentially fascinating switch by treating it like an “A ha!” goof on the viewer. So much of The Last Horror Film is so ineptly put together that when the real killer is revealed, it has no impact…because we weren’t sure if Vinny wasn’t hallucinating the whole thing anyway—a feeling compounded by that ridiculous chainsaw kill (nice to suddenly find a fueled, primed and warmed-up chainsaw at your fingertips) and the final twist, where we’re encouraged to think everything we saw was just a dream/movie made up by dope-smoking Vinny.
Too bad, too, because a tighter script could have better showcased Spinell’s forceful performance. Looking particularly scuzzy next to all those “beautiful people,” in his fat-assed chinos and Members Only knock-off jacket, his greasy strands of hair tortured over his sweaty, balding head and his eyes bugging out like two mismatched hard-boiled eggs, Spinell goes off the deep end here in ways De Niro or Pacino wouldn’t be caught dead doing (the movie’s money shot: Spinell caressing his gross naked chest as Munro’s beautiful face is projected on it). Spinell’s shower scene, switching from inept pleading to whining crybaby to seriously scary tormentor with a jagged bottle, is a mini tour de force in totally committed acting that you just don’t see in too many movies today. It’s a shame the just-okay vehicle for it didn’t match his intensity, or honesty.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.
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