Michael Carreras, 1963
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse, Donald Houston
While traveling through France, American painter Jeff Farrell breaks up with his girlfriend and winds up staying in a countryside inn owned by a beautiful woman, Eve, and her equally lovely stepdaughter, Annette. Jeff has some trouble warming up the two women, because of a locally infamous event that keeps them isolated. Years before, Annette was raped by an area man and her father got violent revenge, killing him with a blowtorch. He has since been imprisoned in an asylum and — after Eve steals Jeff away from Annette and takes him as her lover — she convinces Jeff to help her break her estranged husband out of the hospital… but her intentions are not all that they seem.
Just one in a series of Hammer suspense films from their most consistent screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, The Maniac boasts some typically enjoyable twists and diverges from Hammer’s standard formula of colorful Gothic horror films set in Victorian times and chock full of vivid blood and plunging necklines. This more sedate, understated effort is in keeping with the other suspense films in Sangster’s series in the sense that it was shot in black and white and makes the most of a contemporary, seaside setting like almost all of Sangster’s curiously European-flavored crime thrillers from the ‘60s. This stands out a little because there are a number of French extras and side actors in the film, the opening sequence is shot entirely in French, and the two primary actresses have thick, appealing accents.
The Maniac’s director, Michael Carreras, was actually more often in the role of producer for Hammer and his few directorial efforts are a mixed bag, such as The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, with most falling under the fantasy/action umbrella rather than horror, such as The Lost Continent. I can’t say that The Maniac is one of the studio’s best films, particularly from a directorial standpoint, but it has a certain charm and makes use of a rural French setting with actual locations in southern France. Unlike the other films in the suspense series, it makes use of plenty of exploitation, horror, and film noir elements. There’s a particularly surprising opening sequence for Hammer, where a young girl is raped — albeit offscreen — and her father kills the perpetrator… with a blow-torch.
Like some of the earlier suspense films, this is clearly in the same tradition as the groundbreaking Psycho (1960), but even more so, Clouzot’s suspense masterpiece Les diaboliques (1955). Sangster seems to have been particularly absorbed by the latter — and why shouldn’t he, it’s amazing — and this has some of the same themes: a romantic threesome involving a violent husband, a weak and impressionable female character, and a dead body sunk into water that later reappears. Like Les diaboliques, the center twist revolves around one character telling another a series of facts that wind up not to be true, facts also readily absorbed by the audience. I’m going to avoid spoilers this time around, but the closing act’s strength lies in a number of tightly wound twists, most of which are unveiled in the last ten minutes. And, unlike most other Hammer films, the police have a surprisingly large role in the film’s series of deceptions, neatly sidestepping any need for concluding exposition.
Though Hammer’s major stars are absent from this production, there are some decent performances. Lead Kerwin Matthews has sort of a gruff, Americanized look in the same vein as Alain Delon — though of course nowhere near as ravishing — and at this point he was hoping to expand his career beyond The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Romanian actress Nadia Gray (La dolce vita) steals the film as Eve, the sultry stepmother who whisks Jeff away from her own stepdaughter, played by French actress Liliane Brousse. Though she barely had an acting career, she did appear in two Hammer films (this and Paranoiac), but is disappointingly flat as the innocent Annette. I’d like her to have at least tried to reach a more convincing depth of hysteria, as she is abused plenty throughout the film. She’s not even mad when her stepmother steals her boyfriend, which pretty much made all my sympathy for her go out the window. Hammer had something of a problem with these milquetoast damsels in distress who could do literally nothing for themselves other than squeal or seem mildly outraged.
I don’t know if I would recommend The Maniac, but it is definitely entertaining for suspense enthusiasts. You can find it on DVD in the Icons of Suspense collection alongside Stop Me Before I Kill!, Cash on Demand, The Snorkel, Never Take Candy from a Stranger, and These Are the Damned. The main problem with the film is that certain key sequences are missing — not in the sense that the film has been lost, but that they were simply never filmed in the first place — such as the scene where Eve’s husband escapes from jail and another where she and Jeff must dispose of a body. Granted I was a little tired while watching the film, but some quick cuts made it necessary for me to go back and watch two or three scenes so that I could be really sure of what happened. A little sloppy, but overall not a big deal if you’re looking for some stylish suspense popcorn.