Starring: Caroline Munro, Joe Spinell, Judd Hamilton
Director: David Winters
Vinny (Joe Spinell) is a seedy New York cabbie who lives with his mum, but who daydreams about being a big shot Hollywood director and making movies with his favourite actress, scream queen Jana Bates (Caroline Munro). Against his mother’s advice, he takes himself off to the Cannes Film Festival in hopes of meeting his idol, but his pasty, scruffy appearance marks him out as not nice to know and he’s thwarted at every turn. Soon the people who are rude to him start disappearing in mysterious circumstances, and the rumour spreads that there’s a mad killer loose on the French Riviera.
The Last Horror Film (1982) plays like a cross between Peeping Tom and The King of Comedy. Like Michael Powell’s murderous protagonist, Vinny takes refuge behind a camera. As he looks through the viewfinder the soundtrack goes deathly quiet, except for his heavy breathing, to reflect his blissful insulation from reality. But unlike Powell’s character and like Scorsese’s Rupert Pupkin, he’s not content to stay in the shadows. He’s a volatile fantasist, a Walter Mitty with a dark streak, and he’s in a constant sweat in his efforts to transform himself from a nobody to a somebody. Meanwhile, a drip-feed of news reports over the radio about John Hinckley, the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan as a love offering to Jodie Foster, seem to suggest that Vinny and his ilk are a sign of the times.
Yet one of the attractive things about The Last Horror Film is that on some level it appears to understand and share Vinny’s yearnings. As it records, guerilla-style, the glamour and hype and dazzle of Cannes, the fast cars, the topless bathing beauties, the giant billboards, the red carpet (there are snatched shots of Isabelle Adjani, Marcello Mastroianni and Kris Kristofferson braving the press gauntlet), you sense the filmmakers’ own desire to be included in the winners’ circle. And indeed the whole project had a whiff of wish fulfilment for Caroline Munro and her then-husband Judd Hamilton (who produced, co-wrote the script and appears on-screen as her director and lover). Part of the appeal of the shoot, surely, was that it gave them both a chance to stay in fabulous hotels and pretend to be the celebrity couple they weren’t quite in reality. (The film may not have been A-list, but it wasn’t short of cash and opportunities for the cast to indulge themselves. The budget ran to $2 million, and when Vinny corners Jana in her shower, he threatens her with a very nice bottle of Moet et Chandon.)
On a production that seems to have been something of a free-for-all, Spinell poured himself into his role, infusing Vinny with his own quirky traits. He shot the early scenes in his own apartment with his real mother and went off with his best friend Luke Walters to film bizarre mood sequences that capture Vinny’s fractured psyche. Putting that much of yourself into a role takes courage, and he showed physical bravery too in a scene where he had to walk along a narrow parapet of Jana’s hotel to her room. The trouble with the movie are the parts that he had less input into. The scenes with Munro are so bland and uninteresting, you wonder whether it was on purpose. They seem designed – perhaps by Hamilton – to keep the actress at arm’s length from the film’s grimy undercurrents. Similarly, her parade of ’80s fashion victim outfits have a way of undermining the seriousness of what we’re seeing. Nor are movie buffs likely to be thrilled at the way the script hypocritically peddles the line that Jana has brought her ordeals on herself by making horror films that have a bad effect on weak minds. (And if you want to know what weak-mindedness looks like, according to this movie, it looks like a middle-aged New York cabbie reading Starburst.)
The Last Horror Film doesn’t quite hang together as well as it might then, but you only have to reach into the messiness to find morsels of real cult movie goodness. For instance, there’s an intriguing sequence where Vinny sits down in a cinema with a tub of popcorn to watch a gory flick. Earlier, we’ve been shown that he’s in some ways an ideal audience, identifying totally with what he’s seeing. But this time he finds himself becoming physically ill: because of the violence in his heart, the violence on screen has become too real to him. And when we learn that fear of the serial killer is causing celebrities to abandon Cannes in droves, it seems to wittily prefigure all the times in the recent past when Hollywood has shunned the Festival because of whispers of terrorist threats.
This Blu-ray boasts a very nice transfer – no grain, dirt or scratches, some lovely depth to the exteriors, and even the wintry, overcast New York sequences come across sharp and bright. It’s hard to imagine the film looking better. The extras include a rambling but engaging 23-minute chat with Spinell’s long-time friend Luke Walter, who worked on the film off-screen and on. We drive around the streets of New York and go to Spinell’s regular diner, which serves very tasty-looking toasted sandwiches. Along the way Walter talks with affection about his old buddy and shares raunchy stories of life on set. Maniac II: Mister Robbie is a crackly but atmospheric and bloody 8-minute short, with Spinell starring. There’s an interview with Maniac director William Lustig – brief (only three minutes), but full of interesting info about what sounds like a totally anarchic production. Lastly, there’s an 11-minute Q&A with Caroline Munro, with the actress in engaging form, talking about another of her films, Slaughter High.