Friday, March 20, 2009

The Last Horror Film aka The Fanatic

The original cover art and title. Which is far better than Troma's ass-baby
pastiche of a cover.


To get this blog properly started, I can’t think of anything better than some Joe Spinell, neon lights, Euro-babes in spandex, and some of the cheesiest music this side of Franco’s “Faceless.” Of course, I am talking about David Winters fun but flawed “The Last Horror Film” aka “The Fanatic.”

When I originally did this review back in ’04, I had just watched this movie for the first time. I’m not sure if I had totally digested it because it is a weird mix of middling plot and filmmaking and rampant awesomeness. Even if you loathe it, there is nothing quite like “The Last Horror Film.” It’s far from perfect but Spinell alone makes is required viewing. Not to take anything away from Winters, but it is no surprise that all the surreal creative touches were courtesy of Spinell. (Eerily mirroring William Lustig’s “Maniac,” where all the great nighttime shots of Frank Zito staring at the mannequins were due to Spinell literally taking the camera himself with his assistant and filming those scenes.)

Nowadays, I count this as a one of my big favorites, flaws and all. Dammit, you have Joe Spinell crying, masturbating, dressing like a Pete Shelley pimp, menacing women with broken battles, in lingerie drag, and looking like a sweaty, tattooed Dracula. Awesome! If none of this appeals to you, then I pity for your poor un-nurtured soul.

Enjoy!


“A Pimp in Madman’s Clothing”: A Review of “The Fanatic” By Heather Drain



Big breasts, gory murders, heavy breathing psychos, goofy new wave music; these are all key ingredients of an early 80’s Slasher film. It was a period of time that was overripe with films dealing with all sorts of killers with various implements in their hobby of grue. So for a film to stand out from the pack, it would have to be pretty special. “The Fanatic” aka “The Last Horror Film” (1982) manages to somehow achieve this. Sort of. Let’s explore.


Joe Spinell is the man! Can you look this cool?


“The Fanatic” opens up with a pair of well-toned legs, clad in super high heels walking in the middle of the night. Quickly, the camera moves up to show the owner of the nice gams, a beautiful blonde whom immediately disrobes, possibly proving the existence of breast implants in the early 80’s. While she begins to sway and coo in the water, a faceless man with sinister purpose starts to covertly inch an open electrical wire towards the bubbling water. Soon the two make contact and our blonde has shuffled off this mortal coil. The End! Cut to a very sweaty, heavy breathing mustachioed man in the audience, apparently masturbating! (Ew!) The lights come up and he zips up. The scary thing is that you just know it is only going to get more sleazy, for better and worse.


The great thing about this intro is that as crude as it is, it does lure you into staying to see what the rest of the film has in store. In less than two minutes, we have a breasty topless blonde in a hot tub, a semi-gruesome murder by an anonymous man clad in shiny boxer shorts, and public masturbation. Most films can’t claim that kind of lurid entertainment in their whole running time! Yet in “The Fanatic,” it is all right there in front of you.



Despite the exploitative elements, there are some really nice visual touches sprinkled throughout this segment. The most vivid example is the use of a neon-candy colored lighting scheme that is very reminiscent of all those great Italian horror filmmakers, such as Mario Bava. In fact, throughout the entire film, the lighting is very good and adds a little bit of artiness to what essentially is, a potboiler horror movie.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to this pre-credits sequence, which in some ways, maybe a good thing. There is only so much gratuitous nudity, creepy self-loving, and shiny boxers one can take before having their brain physically explode. Anyways, we move on to a really well made title sequence that shows an editor working on a horror film, all set to “Photographic” by Depeche Mode. Enjoy this fun bit of good pop music, because the music will soon take a hellish detour into the land of fromage.

Vinnie has "unusual" directing techniques.


On to the plot! We soon learn that our public masturbator is one Vinnie Durand (Joe Spinell), a New York taxi driver who lives with his overly doting Italian momma and is obsessed with film. The main focus of his cinematic dreams is scream queen, Jana Bates (Carolyn Munro). To help him get through the drudgery of everyday life, he lives partially in a fantasy world where he is this glamorous film director, with his leading lady, Jana, is all vamped out and throwing him awards.



The lovely Caroline Munro. You know you're pretty when you get away with wearing this!



Despite the lack of support from his mother and friends, Vinnie decides to take some action for his dreams and heads off to the Cannes Film Festival. At this point, two things are immediately apparent in the film. First of all, the music has switched from the fun kind of cheesy to the wanting to slowly drill out your eardrums with a salted coat hanger kind of cheesy. With a little research, I found out why the soundtrack is so bad. One of the main musicians behind the music in “The Fanatic” is one Jesse Frederick. The same man who was behind the uber-annoying and soul-stealingly catchy theme songs to the family TV shows “Step by Step” and “Full House.” The Bob Saget connection alone should tell you that the forces of evil are at work. The second thing is that no matter how you dress him up, Joe Spinell always looks kind of like a pimp. Okay, not so much in everyday clothes, but as soon as we get a glimpse of Vinnie’s fantasy alter ego, the pimpitude comes full swing. Granted, you put anyone in a white suit with a cape, then chances are, they are going to look a little like a pimp. But when you put Joe Spinell into these duds, it turns into this bizarre combination of superpimp and Phantom of the Opera.

The critics waxing poetic over Jana's latest film, "Stab."


Anyways, I digress. After a tearful and surprisingly touching goodbye with his mom, he leaves. All this leads up to a montage of various sights and movie posters from the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, including a shot of an advertisement for Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession.” (1981) In addition to this bit of real life footage, a radio broadcast is featured, mentioning the incident where John Hinckley’s attempted to kill then President Ronald Reagan, all to impress actress Jodie Foster.


Subtle? No, but a cool little effective touch nonetheless.




Obviously, we are being set up to equate Hinckley and Foster with Vinnie and Jana, which was a pretty daring move considering it hadn’t even been a full year after the fact.

After that there are more shots of various underdressed ladies, sleazy Euro and American business types, all palling around and going to various glittery discos. We meet Jana, her current love Alan Cunningham (Judd Hamilton), her ex husband director Bret Bates (Glen Jacobson) and fellow film associate Stanley Kline (director David Winters). Soon Jana receives a vaguely threatening note that says, “You’ve made your last horror film. Goodbye.” Alan gets the same note, but everyone shrugs it off and goes about their business. Even when Jana happens upon the headless (!) body of her ex, it is a matter that is treated like a minor inconvenience. Apparently her former flame and current director had a history of crazy stunts. It doesn’t help matters that by the time the authorities arrive, the body is missing.


Yes that is a cupcake between two large breasts. I think it's supposed to symbolize Vinnie's struggle with....fuck it. If you were a director that could con chesty women to disrobe and have food splattered in between their cleavage, you would do the same thing. Perv.


Meanwhile, poor Vinnie can’t seem to get a break. No one worthwhile will listen to his plans, he gets taunted by mean, topless Euro-beach bunnies, and his constant phone calls to his mom usually result in him telling her elaborate lies, while shouting and crying. Even worse, Vinnie’s low self-esteem eventually breaks into his fantasy world, resulting in his dream cast and crew and even his snazzily attired doppelganger all laughing at him.

Masturbation made arty...and awesome.


Just as we are building up sympathy for our sad, if still creepy protagonist, two things happen that re-introduce the “ick” factor. We have another masturbation scene with Spinell caressing his bare chest in front of a projected image of Jana. Then, we have him at a strip club watching a fairly classy (ie. no lap dancing) stripper.

You cannot have this.


Which would be fine except that interspliced throughout this scene is Vinnie’s fantasy sequence of himself as a stripper. As disturbing as it is seeing Vinnie in tight black undies and bra gyrating, this scene surprisingly does have a really nice, arty quality to it. Unlike the other fantasy sequences, it is in black and white and his make-up is more surreal than traditionally feminine. If you took it out of the context of the film, it would look like a snippet from an experimental short. A disturbing, experimental short film.

Spinell is the man and deserved an Oscar for having huevos of steel.


Vinnie ends up freaking out and starts to grope the stripper, calling her “Jana” as the clubs bouncers throw him out. From there on, the film spirals downward. Vinnie finally gets to meet Jana, but as one could surmise, it doesn’t quite go as planned. Then the film culminates in not one, but two twist endings. The first one could be seen from fifty miles away. The second one, not so much, but by then, it feels almost like an afterthought.

Joe runs while some Richard Barbieri looking dude stands in his way.



So for a film that has so much going for it, why isn’t an instant classic? First of all, the quality of the direction drastically ranges throughout. Certain segments, such as the aforementioned introduction and most of the Vinnie scenes are very capable and done with a bit of flair. Yet, since Vinnie/Joe Spinell is the real heart and center of this film, things tend to really drag whenever the focus is off of him.


Painted nails and tattoos. Spinell as Dracula.


This has less to do with the quality of the other actors and more to do with the script, which at times, reads like a first draft. There are some good ideas and images sprinkled throughout, but it isn’t enough to make up for the filler. The Euro-disco scenes alone drag on for way too long. There are only so many shots of sleazy producers hitting on glossy lipped models to crappy dance music before you start longing for scenes of Vinnie breathing heavy and crying to his ma. Another problem is that everyone aside from Vinnie, and to a lesser degree, his mother and Jana, are dreadfully boring. Film characters don’t necessarily have to be sympathetic or empathetic to work. But they do have to be interesting for the film as a whole to work. You can have the best plot in the world but if your characters and actors are bland, then the project is practically doomed.Despite the fact “The Fanatic” is a very flawed film, it does boast a handful of intriguing people in front and behind the camera. Naturally, the most obvious person associated with this film is Joe Spinell and with very good reason.


His Vinnie Durand is equally repellent and sympathetic. Here is a character that lives for his dreams and the daunting reality that they might go on unrealized is too much. This is something that a lot of us can relate to, albeit in a saner and less grand scale. While he is someone you would try to avoid crossing paths with in real life, Spinell at least makes Vinnie a human character. Now Joe Spinell the actor was an established character actor who has such great cinematic works on his resume like “Rocky,” (1976) “The Ninth Configuration” (1980) and my personal favorite, the great cult musical “The Forbidden Zone.” (1980) Like any character actor worth his salt, he really goes full out here, whether he is sobbing, fantasizing, masturbating, and dancing. In many ways, this is truly a balls out performance. (Metaphorically speaking. If it was literal, I would be scrubbing the dirt off of my soul with a steel scrubby right now.)

Then there’s Caroline Munro as the gorgeous and surprisingly resilient Jana Bates. While her role is pretty flimsy, Munro makes the best of it and shines as best as she can. (Trivia note: Judging by the blonde streaks in her hair, this film was made around the same time as Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” music video.) In a bizarre twist, there are not one but two brief pseudo-celeb appearances. In the press conference scene, not only can you spot pre-Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Robin Leach (!) but also June Chadwick, who is best known for her role as Jeanine in “This is Spinal Tap.”(1984)


June Chadwick NOT looking like an Australian's Nightmare.


Behind the scenes, there is director David Winters whose career has been as wildly varied as this film. On one hand, he was the man behind Alice Cooper’s classic TV special, “Welcome to my Nightmare.” (1975) Yet, he was also behind the hilariously bad Cameron Mitchell epic, “Space Mutiny.” (1988)

One thing you have to give Winters some credit for is the constant blurring of reality and fantasy that occurs within the film. For example, the actress who plays Vinnie’s mother, Filomena Spagnuolo, was Joe Spinell’s real life mother. In fact, she had made a decent career as finding work as a film extra and even helped her son get his feet wet in the business. Then you have Vinnie as a taxi driver, a profession Mr. Spinell once had during his starving actor days. The actor that plays Jana’s beau, Judd Hamilton, was at one time, Caroline Munro’s real life husband. Of course, there are the constant references to the Cannes Film Festival and Hinckley’s assassination attempt. (The big difference with the former, is that it is very unlikely that a real Cannes jury would have picked Jana Bates in “Scream” over Meryl Streep in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981). Then again, did Streep have her head set on fire at the end of her movie? I think not!)

I won’t ponder about what brand of crack Winters and his producers were smoking when they decided on the soundtrack for this film. A continuous loop of Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” would have been infinitely more preferable then the Night Ranger meets “Full House” score. Not counting the great opening song of Depeche Mode’s “Photographic.”


Despite those misgivings, “The Fanatic” is a really entertaining film and has enough good with the bad to keep the viewer’s finger away from the “eject” button. It is currently available on DVD through Troma. While the extras are slim pickings, the extremely low price makes it worth it. For under ten dollars, it is definitely a must have for any sleazy horror film fan and Joe Spinell/Caroline Munro/Jesse Frederick buff.


Joe and his Mom, Mary. They are both missed.




1 comment:

  1. Duly noted and added to the top of my Netflix heap.

    ReplyDelete