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MANIAC (1962)

"You must have read about it, even in the American papers. They called it the ‘Acetylene Killing’...."

Director: Michael Carreras
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse, Donald Houston, George Pastell
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Synopsis: A teenaged girl, Annette Beynat (Liliane Brousse) is abducted and raped on her way home from school. A witness alerts the girl’s father, who reaches the scene in time to attack the rapist with a wrench. When the rapist regains consciousness, he finds his victim’s father advancing with an oxyacetylene torch.... Four years later, an American painter, Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Mathews), is stranded in the French countryside after an argument with his female companion. He decides to stay at the small inn run by Eve Beynat (Nadia Gray) and Annette, her stepdaughter. Jeff flirts with Annette, who is smitten by him, but begins to spend time with Eve. During a picnic, Eve tells Jeff about her husband, who is a patient in a hospital for the criminally insane. Eve and Jeff become lovers, to Annette’s great distress. After a visit to the hospital, Eve tells Jeff that her husband has made a deal with one of the male nurses at the hospital and is planning an escape; he will give Eve her freedom if she and Jeff help him. Although Eve is reluctant, Jeff argues that this will be best for all of them. As planned, the two have a car outside the hospital at night. At first it seems that something has gone wrong, but when Eve and Jeff return to the car after searching the area, they find her husband waiting for them. They take him to the docks, and he vanishes into the night. The next day, the police arrive to question Eve about her husband’s escape. Convinced that they have successfully diverted suspicion, Eve and Jeff go shopping at the local markets. Putting their purchases into their car, Jeff opens the trunk, only to discover a dead man’s body inside....

Comments: Following Taste Of Fear (1960), this was the second of Hammer’s "mini-Hitchcocks", a string of psycho-thrillers produced in the wake of Psycho (1960). Given the derivation of these films, the audience goes into them knowing full well that there’s a twist somewhere; that people and things are not quite who and what they seem. The fun, therefore, lies in trying to figure out exactly what the trick is. Maniac contains all the standard elements: murders, betrayals, disappearing/reappearing corpses, an impossibly convoluted storyline and more plot holes than you could poke a stick at. Nevertheless, this is probably the least successful - and most unpleasant - of the group of films. The script was written by longtime Hammerite Jimmy Sangster, who allowed his British prejudices to run riot in this story of a really dumb American being taken advantage of by a bunch of nasty French people, all set against the French Camargue where, as the opening titles helpfully inform us, "violence is never far away". The overall tone of the film is established in the opening sequence, when the credits play over the scene of Annette’s rape. This air of genuine unpleasantness is maintained throughout, particularly after the escape from the hospital, when the image of the lit blowtorch begins to predominate. The screenplay is an ugly piece of work, full of unlikeable people, and strange as it may seem, I must accuse it of not being complicated enough: it simply leaves the viewer far too much time to contemplate its myriad improbabilities. Worse, it insists on drawing your attention to them ("How did you know what method was going to be used to get rid of me?" rightly protests a near-victim after an extremely unlikely rescue). The grim proceedings are leavened only by a single flash of humour when the villain, like all megalomaniac bad guys, announces his plans before attempting to dispose of the hero: "I am supposed to be mad, so I recreate the same crime I committed four years ago. The police will nod their stupid heads and say, ‘It is a typical pathological pattern....’" Barely a minute later, a solemn policeman is nodding his head and announcing that the killer was "trying to recreate the crime he committed four years ago - a typical pathological pattern...." None of the actors are particularly effective, although Donald Houston is a menacing presence, and Nadia Gray’s somewhat feline eyes are effectively exploited; the best performance probably comes from George Pastell as the deadpan Inspector Etienne, who quite rightly refuses to believe a word any of these people say to him. The Camargue settings, though underused, give an unsettling sense of desolation to the story.

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