Posthumous fame and respect are not the worst kind, but they might as well be. Nothing destroys an artist inside faster than realizing they will never be appreciated in their own lifetime. While it may seem illogical or incongruous, you can just tell that certain people understand that the present cultural climate just won't accept their talent, or take on same. It takes time, and the reconfigured perspective that comes from its passage, to truly earn one's due. This is especially true for an unsung actor named Joe Spinell. While many know him from his work on the William Lustig slice and dice masterwork Maniac, he was performing long before he became a fright film icon. Unfortunately, he died before he could truly be cherished, leaving behind a substantive body of work that few have even recognized, let alone seen. Thankfully, companies like Troma are determined to salvage the man's meandering legacy. The latest release in their Tromasterpiece Collection, The Last Horror Film, is a brilliant distillation of what made Spinell special - and why he is barely remembered today.
Vinny Durand is dead convinced that his new script is the perfect match for horror scream queen Jenna Bates, so he decides to travel to the Cannes Film Festival and confront her over the project. Of course, his mother laughs at him. After all, how can a lowly cab driver from New York with delusions of directorial grandeur get a famous star to speak to him, let alone star in some imaginary movie? Nonplused, Vinny flies to France and takes a room off the red carpet. It's not long before he's a scandal, showing up unannounced and literally stalking the marquee name. Soon, many in Jenna's party - her ex-husband producer, a filmmaker hoping to work with her, a confrontation talent agent - all wind up dead. Seems a serial killer is on the loose, turning the festival into his own personal bloodbath...and guess who's Number One on the list of likely suspects?
Joe Spinell should be more famous. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and any other major award winning Italian American actor of the last 40 years. He was good friends with such '70s heavyweights as Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Frances Ford Coppolla, and appeared in such seminal films as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Rocky. Throughout his far too short time as a celebrity, he appeared on stage, in series television, and in many major supporting roles. A brief look at his IMDb resume suggests a career well ensconced in the limelight. Yet by the time he starred as the insane scalping psycho in Lustig's seminal 1980 splatter fest, he was already falling outside the fringes of fame. He rapidly became a caricature, stuck playing unctuous outsiders unless his former pals (like Sylvester Stallone) threw him more legitimate work (check out his turn in Nighthawks). The Last Horror Film represents one of those downward spiral efforts, an amazing movie lost in Spinell's special kind of forced obscurity. Once you see it, you'll immediately sympathize with the man's meager mythos.
Spinell is amazing in The Last Horror Film, giving the kind of complete, unaffected performance that modern day movie stars can only pray to provide. He's thoughtful and articulate, crazed and committed, often bordering between the unbelievable and the unwatchable. But it's the very fact of his brazenness, his desire to dig deep within Vinny Durand's desperation that we witness a truly spellbinding bit of bravura. This is a no holds barred kind of commitment, Spinell allowing us to see his character is all manner of freak show facades. There is more to Durand than just nutjob histrionics. We see him as an egotistical director, a suave lothario seducing his dream actress Jenna Bates (Caroline Munroe, quite good here) with promises and false praise. There's also the hurt Momma's boy who can't take rejection from his domineering parent. Between the real life location of the Cannes Film Festival, the Stunt Man like set-up with the storyline, the decent gore, and the expert direction from choreographer turned filmmaker David Winters, this is a movie that should be considered one of the genre's greats.
So this begs the question - why isn't it? And further more, why is Spinell all but forgotten as well? Of course, the movie suffered from the same fate as many new to the format home video nasties. Sold and resold, re-titled (to the more "familiar" sounding Fanatic) and dumped onto VHS with little reverence or fanfare, it got lost in the post-Maniac world of pundit denouncements and overriding fan ennui. As for Spinell, he was clearly the victim of his own raging internal demons. A drug and alcohol abuser, he slowly sunk into a professional quagmire which saw his best work remaining far away in the past. Like Bela Lugosi, some saw him as a ridiculous caricature of his former greatness. In today's tendency toward web-based marginalizing, he's more mocked than esteemed. But all bad conclusions cannot take away from how great Spinell is in The Last Horror Film. He doesn't just make the movie - he grabs it by the collar, spits in its cinematic eye, and dares it to meet his level of determination and dedication. That it does is a testament to everyone involved. Some might see it as nothing more than a surreal slice of acting self-indulgence. Clearly, they need to be looking with better eyes. Indeed.
So far, the Tromasterpiece Collection has done a bang up job when it comes to the tech specs of their titles. If there is one flaw here, albeit not a necessarily fatal one, it's the lackluster transfer that had to be tracked down in order to deliver the film "uncut." The opening shots are probably the worst, with an overly red backdrop drowning out the death of a pert babe with some plastic surgery disaster "attributes". The rest of the movie looks much better, the 1.33:1 full screen image capturing Winters' creative compositions and framing quite well. It's impossible to tell if this is an open matte image or a film that was always intended for the 4x3 format. It's clear from what we have here that this presentation perfectly captures the director's desires and designs.
On the sound side of things, Troma also treats The Last Horror Film with lots of sonic respect. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 captures the crazy '80s electro-pop soundtrack with the right amount of Casio Keyboard care, and the dialogue is always easily discernible and understandable. Spinell is especially effective within the mix, his line readings resonating with authority and anguish.
As they have in the past, the Tromasterpiece Collection really excels in the fleshing out of their rare, exclusive titles, and The Last Horror Film is no different. We are treated to a wealth of wonderful material, including the standard Lloyd Kaufman intro (featuring his stirring song and dance rendition of "When You're a Jet" from West Side Story), a slew of company extras, and the original trailers and TV spots for this particularly movie. The best bonus features come with the arrival of "My Best Maniac", a stirring tribute to Spinell from his best buddy Luke Walter. It's a wonderfully insightful and ultimately very moving interview with a man who knew the actor all too well. There is also an audio commentary with Walter, moderated by Troma Team DVD titan Evan Husney, that's not to be missed. It really clarifies many of the reasons the movie was made. Finally, there's an intriguing bit of history called Mr. Robbie - aka Maniac 2. A short film by Combat Shock's Buddy Giovinazzo, it is made up of material shot with Spinell for a supposed sequel. Like anyone's last known photo, it's as strange as it is sad. All together, you have a package more than worthy of a Tromasterpiece tag.
Had he lived to see the dawning of the Internet, Joe Spinell would most likely have multiple fan pages dedicated to his brilliance, message boards focused on finding ways of getting his name out among the new breed, and an official website that commemorates his legacy as it continues to manufacture his myth. With little of that around as of now, he's nothing more than a relic of a twisted time in movie macabre. For this reason, for the amazing performance given here, and the stellar package Troma has put together as a document to his undying spirit. The Last Horror Film easily earns a DVD Talk Collector's Series tag. Argue all you want about the superiority (or lack thereof) when it comes to the print. Preach all you need to about how a marginal scary movie from almost 30 years ago doesn't deserve such an honor. One thing's for sure - the minute you see Joe Spinell is this career defining performance, you'll be looking for ways to celebrate, not marginalize, his talent. He was always much more than Maniac. The Last Horror Film is clear proof of his endearing excellence.