Tuesday, July 24, 2018

MANIAC and the Wonder of Wilkie Cooper

I had seen Hammer's 1963 thriller MANIAC only once before, long enough ago to have seen it only on VHS. I remembered liking it more than I expected, without remembering exactly why. Last night, I found myself gravitating back to it, company producer Michael Carreras' directorial debut, now beautifully revived as part of Indicator's HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING! box set. Anamorphic black-and-white cinematography is one of my personal aphrodisiacs, and I found myself newly drawn in by Wilkie Cooper's Megascope cinematography in monochrome and its marvelously choreographed tendencies to mislead.

In the film's extras, someone on the film's camera crew remembers how Carreras and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was standing on location in a fabulously picturesque quarry one day, trying to figure out how in the hell to end the picture. A young new member of the crew dared to make a suggestion - getting himself fired in the process - and the suggestion was taken anyway. Knowing that this sort of thing happened on the set makes one wonder if either of them approached this film with anything like an idea of what they were going to do, because the storyline - such as it is - is constantly changing its direction mid-course, in a way that may have been clueless but could pass for sly. And one of the principal reasons why it could is Cooper's compelling photography.

As Jonathan Rigby points out in a supplement, the film opens with wild jazz and shots of tall grass, which is soon identified as the playing field where a middle-aged man rapes a 15 year-old girl. Before we see the man, we see an enormous close-up of his eye, and at first we may think this eye belongs to the film's star Kerwin Mathews, whose billing and close proximity to the title embeds in one's subconscious the possibility that our handsome leading man may turn out to be the story's well-concealed psychopath. As the rape is in progress, a boy of the girl's age notices the attack and pedals his bike away like the devil, returning as a passenger in someone's truck. We don't see the driver; all we see is a firm arm marching past the girl's fallen form to the man hitching up his drawers. He is presumably clubbed unconscious and taken back to a garage where his vengeful attacker (the girl's father) prepares him for more lasting revenge, masking himself behind a metal visor and turning on his skin the full blast of an oxyacetylene torch. We expect the story will guide us through the traditional details of a cover-up, consequences, something to follow... but instead, we jump ahead in time by several years.

The rape victim (Annette Beynat, played by Liliane Brousse) is now an attractive young woman, who lives with her still young and attractive stepmother, Eve (Nadia Gray), the two of them running a bar in the same small village in the south for France. Kerwin Mathews' character Jeff Farrell, a professional artist, is passing through town with his girlfriend when he stops for a drink. (You could stage a drinking game around Mathews' drinking and smoking in this role, as if he was aggressively hoping to counter his wholesome Sinbad screen image.) Owing to an argument whose details we never fully grasp, he starts taking things out of his car, what we presume to be her gear - but when she hops into the car and speeds off, we realize it's his own. The next half hour details Jeff's budding relationship with Annette, from ordering drinks to visiting the sites to jukebox twisting to a first kiss. Then the next half hour details Eve's knowledgeable derailing of the relationship with her own more immediate sexual access. The film's meticulous chronicling of Eve's seduction is masterful - not too eager, but when she finally comes across it is with the full heft of unmistakable, fur-bearing adult female authority. This being a thriller, this track-jumping romance is but a prelude to criminal mischief.

Considering how much importance is placed on the development of the original relationship in the film's first half hour, it is startling how little it matters in the second, but not as starting as the last half hour, which suddenly resolves in this initial relationship coming back together. In case you haven't seen the film, I'll not spoil the surprises of the twists and turns, but don't give up and miss out on the superbly cinematographic climax, which takes place in one of the most astonishing of film locations - a kind of cave-enclosed rock - or is it chalk? - quarry. (If you've ever been mystified as to the origins of that astounding still on the back cover of Re/Search's INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS book, this is that film.) It was while reveling in the almost geometric abstractions of this scenery that I realized that the story, such as it was, was as ridiculous as anything, and that the direction was such that much of the cast had to be revoiced in post, but that the film had kept me riveted throughout, subsisting almost entirely on the consistently scenic and psychological values of its camerawork.

In fact, Kerwin Mathews had not gained that much distance from his 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD days, since Wilkie Cooper had been behind the camera on that show, as well. In fact, though Collins' professional career dated back to 1936 and such films as Anthony Kibbins' MINE OWN EXECUTIONER, Alfred Hitchcock's STAGE FRIGHT, and Edward Dmytryk's THE END OF THE AFFAIR (as well as the noted Joseph Losey short "A Man on the Beach"), he has become principally remembered for the epic grandeur he brought to Ray Harryhausen's beloved middle period work, from 7th VOYAGE through Hammer's ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. In those films he proved himself a master accommodator of illusion; in MANIAC, he performs a different form of sleight of hand that, to certain eyes, will shine just as impressively.

MANIAC isn't a great film, I grant you, but it's more wildly cinematic than a good many films that are deemed great.

(c) 2018 buy Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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