January 28, 2016
Last week, Cinema Fearité examined the Dwain Esper 1934 exploitation/educational film Maniac. This week in our continuing Maniac series, we take a look at the 1963 Hammer Film Productions crime thriller called, of course, Maniac.
Maniac is about an American painter named Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Mathews from Octaman) who, after a fight with his travelling companion/girlfriend, finds himself stranded at a French Café. Jeff gets friendly with the proprietor, Annette Beynat (Paranoiac’s Liliane Brousse), only to turn his attentions to her stepmother, Eve (Nadia Gray from La Dolce Vita), once he meets her. Jeff learns that Eve’s husband, Georges (Donald Houston from Where Eagles Dare), is in a mental asylum for murdering a man who sexually assaulted Annette years ago. The legendary killing is known locally as “The Acetylene Murder” because of the method of execution. While on a visit with her husband, Eve confesses her love for Jeff to him, and Georges agrees to let her be with the American if they’ll help him break out of the hospital. Desperate to be together, Eve and Jeff help Georges escape, and the police are instantly suspicious of the couple. Furthermore, the killer decides to stalk and torment the family as well, giving Jeff, Eve, and Annette nowhere to turn for help.
Although it was produced by Hammer, a studio which is the undisputed king of sixties and seventies horror, Maniac is a borderline fringe horror movie. Directed by Michael Carreras (The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb) from a script by the great Jimmy Sangster (The Legacy, Scream of Fear, The Snorkel), the film is more of a crime drama than it is a traditional horror flick. The movie is full of long, smoky conversations and overly-wordy expositional lectures that let the double- and triple-crosses unfold slowly, but the palatable tension and unrelenting suspense still pack one heck of a wallop. Heavily influenced by the film-noir pulp mysteries of the forties, Maniac has a relatively low body count, but bloodshed is not where the terror in the film lies; it’s a psychologically torturous movie.
The opening scene of Maniac is absolutely gripping. It shows Annette being led away by her assailant, then saved by her father - thankfully, it does not show the actual assault, leaving the details of the attack to the viewer’s imagination. Georges takes the rapist into his garage and lights his acetylene torch, and the film once again lets the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks. The sequence sets up the killer as a sympathetic psychopath, a man who does the things that he does in an effort to protect and avenge his family. Once he escapes from the institution, however, Georges is noticeable crazier, more methodical and cold blooded. There’s a reason for this change, but explaining it here would spoil an important plot point of the movie. Just know that the Acetylene Killer is an extremely effective antagonist, even if he’s a little underutilized.
The photography in Maniac is very reminiscent of the classic Fritz Lang or John Huston film-noir mysteries. Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper (Stage Fright, Jason and the Argonauts) skillfully combines light and shadows in a dark and dreadful way. Cooper keeps the film’s energy focused with interesting follow shots and long takes while never letting the viewer miss a thing by quietly and cleverly sneaking in inserts and close-ups to burn important images of objects and actions right into the audience’s eyes. Wilkie Cooper’s cinematography in Maniac walks the line between hard-boiled detective movie and classic fright flick.
The musical score for Maniac, provided by composer Stanley Black (Jack the Ripper), is surprisingly American, considering that the film is set in France. Black’s music is mostly up-tempo jazz and be-bop swing with lots of walking bass, splashy drums, and tight horns. The cinematic score and the diegetic music are all pretty much the same; the sounds of a smooth jazz combo play everywhere, whether Jeff and Eve are planning a jailbreak or Jeff and Annette are boogying on the dance floor of the local watering hole – yes, there’s a groovy dance scene that is corny and hysterical, but also necessary to establish character. Overall, the score for Maniac is just another bit of film-noir influence seeping its way into the picture.
The 1963 edition of Maniac isn’t as spooky or terrifying as the average Hammer Horror film, but it definitely has its moments, and it’s a fine example of the inimitable way that writer Jimmy Sangster could weave a complex tale of paranoia and betrayal. If this week’s Cinema Fearité has left you wanting a little blood with your horror, you’ll be happy to know that next week’s conclusion to our “Maniac Trilogy” will be William Lustig’s seminal 1980 slasher. Until then…try to enjoy the daylight…