Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Directed by: Michael Carreras
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Nadia Gray and Donald Houston
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThe only person who worries about me is me."
When you think of Hammer Films, your mind probably gravitates towards the big, bold, color-laden spectacles that the studio began to churn out in the late 50s. These garish, richly flavored productions came to define ďHammer Horror,Ē giving the studio a signature look that stretched over a couple of decades. However, the studio also churned out a bunch of low-rent black-and-white murder mysteries that traded in the more fantastic, supernatural leanings for Psycho-riffs about deranged madmen and their murderous impulses. 1960sís Scream of Fear (or Taste of Fear) was one of the first among these and borders on being one of the better films Hammer ever did; for the most part, though, these films tend to be superficial psycho-dramas that subtly play up the pulpiness of their Hitchcockian precursor. 1963ís Maniac is one of these, and itís all pretty much right there in the title, sort of; if weíre to be completely honest, itíd be titled Maniacs since more than a few pop up along the way.
This one begins luridly enough, with a young woman being snatched from the road by a predatory creep who eventually has his way with her, an act that riles up some of the locals. One of them goes psycho-vigilante and blowtorches the guy to death before we flash ahead to some years later, when American artist Paul Farrell (Kerwin Matthews) drifts into a small French village and falls in with a barmaid (Nadia Grey) and her teenage stepdaughter (Liliane Brousse). After making some entendres with the latter, the former begins to covet him and eventually draws Paul into her mysterious past--it turns out that she was the girl who was assaulted many years ago, with her husband the blowtorch-wielding avenger. Heís been stuck in an insane asylum ever since and is now in need of a jailbreak, a task for which Paul volunteers for whatever reason.
The blazing opening blowtorch number on Maniac will likely fool you into think youíve settled in for a violent schlock-fest, but it really takes a while to come back around to that stuff. In the meantime, it sticks with the usual illicit romances and vengeful lovers, and I think some might be disappointed that the eventual jailbreak doesnít suddenly result in a spree of mass murders for the last couple of acts. Instead, Paul finds himself wrapped up in a fairly intricate plot thatís wound rather tightly by Jimmy Sangster (arguably Hammerís best scribe) once it begins to take shape. He tucks away a lot of nice twists and turns on the backend, at one point seemingly revealing his hand far too early before playing his best card last once motivations and loyalties begin to shift.
Itís still mostly standard fare, mostly because it is so superficial, with the characters simply acting as vessels for the narrative turns; thereís no real attempt to peek into the underlying motivations involved. So instead, the characters are just carefully arranged, made to fill out types. Leading man Matthews certainly looks suave enough, even if heís hardly believable as an artist (a character tic that never even becomes relevant anyway); heís made up to be dashing and dapper, to smoke cigarettes and look like a cool American. Thereís something a little salacious about him jumping from the arms of the ďteenagedĒ Brousse (who thankfully looks to be 25) to her onscreen step-mother that keeps him from being an affable leading man; if anything, it feels like Brousse should be the focal point here--sheís the one who lost her father to the insane asylum and has to watch her cool artist guy make off with her step mom. Poor girl.
All of these characters are dutifully acted, with Donald Houstonís title character emerging as the most memorable. Heís affected with a slightly menacing French accent that gives him an unexpected stateliness; beyond that, though, heís a creepy beady-eyed psycho. Likewise, the film is handsomely mounted by Michael Carreras, who would mostly gain acclaim in an executive role for Hammer; his direction here is confident enough--I donít know that Hammer ever managed to churn out a film that looked downright poor, and this is no exception. Carrerasís scope frame often swarms with shadows and evocatively captures the countryside landscapes that deceptively house this tale of murder and deceit. Maniac often resembles dusty, rural noir, complete with a dark woman at its center and a man caught up in the wrong place. Instead of rain-slicked streets, you get a grubby backwoods with a derelict shack where a psychopath ties up and tortures his victims.
Maniac toes the line between its noir tendencies and its straight-up horror elements. Itís both a grisly and slick little crime story that keeps you on your toes until the very end; itís well-written pulp, the type of story that employs cheap tricks and cheaper thrills, but it works. Sony tossed it onto their Hammer: Icons of Suspense collection along with five other Hammer also-ran thrillers (for some reason, Scream of Fear was tossed onto the Icons of Horror release). As is the case with the other films, Maniac is only accompanied by its theatrical trailer, but its restored presentation is pristine. This set is obviously a must-have for Hammer fans, as itís modestly budgeted considering you get six films in total. Maniac itself wouldnít stand as well on its own two feet, so find a spot for it in your Netflix queue unless youíre a Hammer maniac. Rent it!
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