Hammer Suspense: Maniac (1963)

Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Michael Carreras
Starring Kerwin Matthews, Nadia Gray, Liliane Brousse
US Release Oct. 30, 1963
RT 86 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

hammer-sangster-maniac_poster_01

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

Maniac makes you long for the good old days… the early 1960s, when a “maniac” was simply a man locked away for a crime of revenge, not a violent serial killer. In fact, until the movie’s last third, we don’t even see or hear much about Georges at all, making me wonder what any type of “maniac” had to do with the story. When he appears, though, the movie delivers suspense and two big twists, one I saw coming a mile away and one that truly surprised me.

Maniac is one of Hammer’s “jazzy” thrillers filmed more like noir than horror; however, it doesn’t go as far in that direction as Hysteria did. I prefer this movie’s mix of elements and a conclusion that’s more in the subgenre of suspense than crime. It takes its time in the beginning establishing the characters and relationships, which, when done right, raises the emotional stakes at the end. This is a long way of saying you should be patient, because it pays off.

Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Matthews) is an American artist dumped at a bar in southern France by his girlfriend of one week, Grace (Justine Lord). He’s a ladies’ man who quickly gets over the breakup by dividing his romantic attention between Annette (Liliane Brousse) and her stepmother, Eve (Nadia Gray). He makes advances toward both of them, testing which one will bite, but you get the feeling he’d be just fine if they both nibbled.

Young, naïve Annette falls hard, while the jealous Eve frowns on their potential relationship, sabotages it, and takes him for herself. From the very beginning, though, Eve seems to have ulterior motives. It’s odd because she’s married, even though her husband has been committed to an asylum for killing the man who abducted Annette four years ago with a blowtorch in his garage. Sure enough, Eve manipulates Jeff into helping Georges escape from the asylum with the promise that he’ll get out of their lives forever.

Before long Jeff is telling Eve, “Darling I love you. You know that, don’t you?” Really? So little time has passed and he knows so little about her. We can see that she’s setting him up for something, but I guess if he realized that, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. They go through with their plan to meet Georges when he climbs over the asylum wall and drive him to the pier. “Have we done the right thing, Jeff?” Eve asks. “It’s too late to worry about that,” he replies.

The next day, as Inspector Etienne (George Pastell) begins asking questions, we learn that a second man escaped with Georges, a nurse who may have helped him. Ah, that’s probably the dead man whose arm plops out of the trunk of the car when Jeff goes to put groceries into it. They’ve got to get rid of the body and, when they do, Jeff reminds Eve, “This makes us as guilty as he is.” Meanwhile, there are signs that Georges has not sailed away as promised and may be poised to kill Jeff for messing around with his wife.

This is about the time Inspector Etienne continues to remind us what a dangerous man George is. (He’s spoken to his doctors, you know.) Arranging a means to get Eve and Annette out of the house, George traps Jeff in the garage with the dead body from the trunk and explains an elaborate scheme to fake his own death so he won’t have to look over his shoulder for the authorities for the rest of his life. Since he’s supposed to be mad, he’s going to recreate his original crime with the blowtorch.

In the next scene, Eve and Annette return to a burned-down garage and the twists start coming. Because I think they’re so well delivered by writer Jimmy Sangster and director Michael Carreras, I’m not going to reveal them here. With Maniac, Sangster wrote one of his most original stories, in terms of not using elements from his other thrillers. And it’s my favorite Carreras-directed movie, in the middle of his career before going nutty with Prehistoric Women and The Lost Continent.

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