Maniac / The Maniac (1963) ****

Such an ingenious thriller you just have to applaud. Opening with a close-up of a predatory eye, this scarcely draws breath as it dashes through a latter-day film noir maze, spawning out auditory and visual cues, beautiful woman luring dupe, twisting the expected narrative round her little finger.

Artist Jeff (Kerwin Mathews) setting up his easel in the Camargue, hardly one of the most tourist-friendly spots in France, eyes up Annette (Liliane Brousse), the daughter of a hotelier Eve (Nadia Gray), but, in extremely opportunistic style, settles for the mother. In true noir fashion she is using him, seducing him into a scheme to free her husband George (Donald Houston), incarcerated in a mental asylum for torturing and killing with a blowtorch the aforementioned predator who raped Annette four years before.

Eve convinces Jeff that in return for his freedom the madman will effectively give his blessing to their affair. It’s a deal only a besotted dupe would fall for. George has an ally inside the asylum, assisting his escape, but when George turns up, and Jeff drives him to Marseilles, he leaves behind the corpse of his criminal associate in the boot. Jeff dumps the body in the river.

Cue the start of a series of strange events. A fired-up blowtorch is discovered in the garage where Georges committed his initial crime. Annette, jealous of her mother’s relationship with Jeff, plans to leave and go with her father.  

And I’m sorry to say that in order to explain the attraction of this neat little picture I’m going to delve into SPOILER ALERT territory.  

All the while of course you are wondering whether George will keep to his side of the bargain, especially as Eve starts to get antsy with Jeff, and the investigating police inspector seems overly suspicious. And it being this kind of picture you expect a twist.

But not one this clever.

George, blowtorch at the ready, traps Jeff in the garage. He has fished the corpse out of the river. He plans to burn the garage to the ground, leaving behind two dead bodies, assuming the police will imagine that in a further bout of psychotic behavior the murderer gave in to his desires and killed again, but in the process accidentally killed himself.

But that’s not the final twist.

One of the victims survives. But which one? He is so badly mutilated as to be rendered unrecognisable and lies in a hospital bed covered head to foot in bandages. Has Eve’s plan backfired? Has she accidentally killed her lover?

But that’s not the final twist.

Eve knows who the man in the bed is. It’s not her lover. Because Jeff is just the dupe. The body dumped in the river was George. All the time Eve was visiting her husband in the mental asylum she was carrying on an affair with one of the guards. The guard killed George after the escape, retrieved the body from the river, left it in the garage and planned to kill off his competition at the same time.  If you’re going to be tabbed a maniac, you better behave like one.

It’s a shame you can’t see the shock on the face of poor Jeff because he is encased in bandages. And this isn’t just the clever villain unable to stop herself boasting about how clever she has been. This is Eve getting into the murder racket. She switches off his oxygen.

But that’s not the final twist.

Jeff ain’t dead. He wasn’t even on a life-support machine. He was just trussed up to tempt Eve in revealing herself. He had escaped the garage inferno and told the police what was going on. So you can guess the rest, but even then there’s one other ironic twist. Just like Jeff, the imposter George is as taken with the daughter as the mother.

The twists are so well done, the narrative so compelling, that would be enough to make a convincing case for entry into the category of cult. What makes an undeniable case is the directorial style. Sights and sounds drive the story as much as anything. The eerie bright light in the garage, the sound of blood dripping on the floor, the bold close-up of the eye, the advancing blow torch, setting it in a bleak rather than scenic area of France, are cinematic notions belonging to classic movies, not to a tawdry B-picture.

Although The Devil Rides Out (1968) is generally considered the top Hammer picture of the decade, I would argue this runs it a close second, and possibly even tops it.  Taking time off from his studio job Michael Carreras (The Lost Continent, 1968), later Hammer’s managing director, delivers a little masterpiece working to an effortlessly clever original screenplay by future director Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein, 1970).

It’s enough that Kerwin Mathews (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, 1960) is playing against his screen persona as upright hero. The biggest advantage in casting Nadia Gray  (The Naked Runner, 1967) was that she was unknown and didn’t have the kind of onscreen presence that might have you doubting her motives from the start.  Liliane Brousse (Paranoic, 1963), in her penultimate movie, is initially too much all-arched-eyebrow and pout, only coming into her own when she becomes dutiful daughter rather than wannabe seducer. The pretend George, real name Henri, Donald Houston (A Study in Terror, 1965), hidden beneath dark glasses most of the time, is a dab hand at a pretend psychopath.

Surprisingly effective little gem.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.