Hammer tried to add some variety to their output in the early 60s with a series of black-and-white psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. Some were pretty good, in fact some were very good indeed, but the series quickly ran out of steam. Maniac (also released as The Maniac) from 1963 was one of the lesser offerings.
This one was directed by Michael Carreras, probably Hammer’s least highly thought of director, and it shares the faults of most of his films.
It starts extremely well. The opening sequences show a young woman being stalked and assaulted by a creepy guy, and then we see her father’s grisly revenge on the perpetrator. Or rather we don’t actually see it but we see him lighting the blowtorch and we get the picture. It’s skillfully done, conveying a visceral shock without resorting to clumsy and obvious gore.
After that the pacing slows right down, as it does in most of Carreras’s movies. This is so much a feature of his movies that one suspects it was deliberate, an attempt to build suspense slowly but remorselessly. That’s a sound technique but unfortunately it’s one that Carreras never mastered. Instead of a slow burn we just get slowness.
A man arrives at a small hotel somewhere in the Camargue district of southern France. He has a fight with his woman companion, she leaves and he stays. We later find out that he’s a painter and was apparently the rich woman’s toyboy.
The man, Paul Farrell (played by Kerwin Mathews), takes a bit of a shine to the waitress, Annette (Liliane Brousse). She’s the young woman we saw in the opening sequence. Her stepmother Eve (Nadia Gray) seems to disapprove and we soon discover why. She’s interested in Paul, as well. She seems determined to get him, and she does. He’s a fairly weak-willed kind of guy and he’s prepared to go along with this but then he learns about her husband (the one with the blowtorch) who is now in a hospital for the criminally insane. Being weak-willed he allows himself to be drawn into a scheme to get her husband out of the asylum, and this proves to be a very bad idea on his part and events start spiralling out of control.
The major problem is not so much the slow pacing as the fact that the characters are poorly developed and they fail to engage us sufficiently for us to care what happens to them. Whether this is due to Carreras’s shortcomings as a director, or Sangster’s screenplay, or simply dull acting, is difficult to pinpoint. It seems to be a combination of all of the above.
There are compensations though. The locations are great and they’re well used. Carreras does manage to pull off a few fairly impressive visual set-pieces, such as the opening sequence already mentioned and several others. Carreras was not without ability but he had chronic problems pulling the various elements in his films together. The result is less than the sum of its component parts. It’s a movie that looks very good but the structure is too weak to make a really effective thriller although Sangster throws in the expected plot twists with a fair degree of success.
This movie is one of six Hammer black-and-white psycho-thrillers included in the Icons of Suspense boxed set, a generally excellent set that is well worth getting.
Even if Maniac is less than completely satisfying it’s still worth a look, if only for the unusual setting and the impressive photography.