Saturday, 8 August 2015
Maniac (1963, Michael Carreras)
Another entry in Hammer Films' series of monochrome thriller psychodramas, following on the heels of Seth Holt's masterly Scream of Fear (aka A Taste of Fear, 1961) and Freddie Francis' powerful Paranoiac (1963). As with both of those films - as well as the following year's offering Nightmare - the screenplay duties were handled by Hammer stalwart mainstay Jimmy Sangster, proving that his talents lay elsewhere than the Penny Dreadful grand guignol of the Hammer Gothics with which he had made his name. The director's chair this time on the mondo merry-go-round was occupied by Michael Carreras, Hammer scion (son of Sir James Carreras, and grandson of Hammer Films' co-founder Enrique Carreras) and long-serving producer and executive producer. Carreras had cut his directing teeth on a low budget triptych of war movie, thriller and western (The Steel Bayonet , Passport to China  and The Savage Guns  respectively) and would go on to helm Hammer's Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) and The Lost Continent (1968) but little else which is a shame considering the aptitude and deftness he displays here handling Sangster's tense tale.
We open this gritty B&W bit of baroque with a caption setting our scenario in the South of France: 'The Camargue - a remote area of southern France, where bulls are bred and violence is never far away', invoking the Classical Minotaur myth, with the bull as the symbol of man's innate ferocity and carnal violence. And we don't have to wait long for an example thereof, as an elderly farmer sits in his pick-up truck in a country lane watching a beautiful young girl, Annette (Liliane Brousse) say good bye to her schoolfriends as they are dropped off by the bus, and make her way home alone through this suddenly-threatening countryside
A rather tense scene of this Pyrenean predator asking the girl if she wants a lift home, and leading to a (thankfully implied rather than explicit, but still very clear) sexual assault in the midst of this pastoral landscape is quickly followed up by the girl's father discovering this, and carting the rapist off into the family barn for a tete-a-tete involving a beating, a welding mask and torture and death via an oxy-acetylene blowtorch. And all this, a kind of mashup of James Glickenhaus' grueling revenge tragedy The Exterminator (1980) and Abel Ferrara's bleak nasty The Driller Killer (1979) but made by Hammer in beautiful monochrome cinematography in 1963, before the opening credits. Talk about setting a tone.
And so we begin our tale proper by meeting Jeff Farrell (played by Kerwin Matthews of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion epics The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad , The Three Worlds of Gulliver  and Jack the Giant Killer , but also later star of the craptastic The Boy Who Cried Werewolf ), an itinerant American painter stranded in this small town of malice after dumping his girlfriend (Justine Lord) who drives off in the car leaving him alone with his suitcase and easel and craving for Cognac. Jeff rents a room at the local tavern, run by Eve Beynat (Nadia Gray) and her daughter: who is of course Annette.
Jeff is soon caught up in a Nabokovian triangle with both French fancies - a situation that would be complicated enough for anyone to handle, even without the news that Eve's husband and Annette's father, the blowtorch avenger Georges, is in the process of escaping from the asylum to which he has been confined since his wild welding spree three years before.
Featuring a tense atmosphere, strong direction, nice character interplay and appearances from George Pastell (Bond films, 'The Tomb of the Cybermen, Hammer's The Mummy  and loads of other stuff) and Norman Bird (Cash On Demand , Night of the Eagle ) as Marseilles police inspector and local gendarme respectively, this slice of thriller is more than filler. All this and enough plot twists at the end to make Hitchcock crick his neck.