...or: The Quentin Tarantino Story! Troma Team Video has gone back to the well for a very nice progressive widescreen Blu-ray release 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 fun couple, Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro, 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. Aside from the widescreen transfer and a new intro from Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (in drag, no less), as well as some wretched, unrelated Troma-trash filler, nothing’s new here in terms of extras compared to Troma’s 2009 fullscreen release of THE LAST HORROR FILM ...while a few bonuses from that previous disc are, unfortunately, M.I.A. here.
Sleazebag New Yawk cabbie Vinny (Joe Spinell, THE SEVEN-UPS, THE GODFATHER) 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, CAPTAIN KRONOS – VAMPIRE HUNTER, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), 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, THE GODFATHER, PART II, VIGILANTE), 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, in between 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, WILD GYPSIES, TRICK OR TREATS), screenwriter Marty Bernstein (Devin Goldenberg, GUESS WHAT WE LEARNED IN SCHOOL TODAY, THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD), and director Stanley Kline (David Winters, WEST SIDE STORY, SPACE MUTINY) and his girlfriend Susan Archer (Susanne Benton, CATCH-22, A BOY AND HIS DOG). And all fingers point to Vinny as the culprit....
Filmed in 1981, THE LAST HORROR FILM, after a few scattered playdates overseas in late 1982, effectively “disappeared,” failing to show up in the crucial, lucrative U.S. theatrical market, before it was 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, you just glazed right over it). 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 a TV was matched by the illicit, gamey thrill of seeing things — gory beheadings, disembowelments, naked women, etc. — we 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 “cult classics” accessible by anyone). From what this reviewer can gather, 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) 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 movie wrapped in a chaotic fashion. Premiering at Spain’s Sitges Film Festival in October, 1982, THE LAST HORROR FILM then just...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, 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 1981-2. 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 movie 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 in THE LAST HORROR FILM (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 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.
Ironically, that cheapjack necessity of stealing shots on the fly with unsuspecting passerbys 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 1980s, reading the weekly Variety at your local library, looking at the garish ads for proposed movies being flogged at Cannes, 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 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 astonished passerbys 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. SPOILER 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.
After a little bit of pre-screening research, I discovered that THE LAST HORROR FILM had several prior compromised DVD releases, so I quit reading; being new to the movie, I wanted to judge the A/V just as I was experiencing it, rather than trying to compare it to other transfers I hadn’t actually seen. That being said...the only solid info Troma provides about the transfer comes on the back of the keepcase, where they state it’s “newly restored” (they don’t even list the most basic tech specs...or even if it’s in widescreen, which is dumb from a sales standpoint considering their 2009 fullscreen release of the movie). Is this just the restored 88 Films UK version from 2014? Possible. There’s no warning title card, though, indicating the best possible sources were used for the previously cut material, so.... The 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen image is surprisingly sharp — when a scene is properly lit...which doesn’t happen very often during the movie (the beach scenes look a little blown out contrast-wise, but they’re the sharpest, most fine-detailed ones to be found here). The rest of the movie’s lighting looks haphazard and jiggered, at best, so the image detail and grain structure suffer accordingly during the darker scenes and the ones caught on the fly. Colors look a bit washed out and off, tending to green, but again, that may be a result of the original cinematography. Lots of white scratches and dirt, though. The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix doesn’t spread out a whole lot, although levels are decent, and bass is strongish (lots of pops and crackles, though, due to the original elements). No subtitles available.
A new intro by Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman opens the disc (I assume it’s new because he references Hillary Clinton, drag queens, the Pope and that civil servant down in Kentucky with the marriage licenses). As with most bits Kaufman tries, it goes on too long. The commentary track moderated by Troma Team’s Evan Husney and featuring Spinell’s pal Walter, is ported over from the 2009 disc (maybe that’s why Troma doesn’t indicate on the keepcase who, exactly, is featured on the track). He’s pretty funny, but a lot more information needed to come out of him concerning the actual production and the ultimate fate of the movie, and unfortunately, Husney’s energy peters out by the final reel. The best observation by Walter? After stating any guy would have sexual fantasies about Caroline Munro (true), he affirms that she was so charming and sweet during their first meeting, he never even thought of having sex with her. Classic. Next up is the "Mr. Robbie" promotional reel (8:04) that Spinell produced as a marketing tool to finance a MANIAC sequel (this was also on the 2009 release). Next, an “original trailer” for THE LAST HORROR FILM is included (1:15)...which looks and sounds more like a Troma-produced trailer from 2009. Last and certainly least: some unrelated — and unwanted —Troma self-promotion. "Highlights from the 2015 Troma Dance Film Festival" (5:21 minutes of “who cares”), a full episode of Troma’s latest web series "Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner" (9:44), a dire chat show with Kaufman, Kabukiman, tattooist Paul Booth, actor Martin Quinette, the band twelve a.m. flowers, and actress Catherine Corcoran (now we’re talking...), and, at an interminable 4:48, the return of one of “Troma’s most beloved characters,” Dolphin-Man. Junk all of this and put back the 2009 Luke Walter and Caroline Munro interviews missing from this Blu disc. Some Troma trailers finish out the extras: RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOL. 1, THE TOXIC AVENGER (the last time Troma was truly funny), TROMA’S WAR (still trying to get their money back on that one), and PRO-WRESTLERS VS. ZOMBIES. (Paul Mavis)
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