Monday, October 4, 2021

“If I Could Teach Him to Place His Tongue in the Right Way...” - Maniac Killer (1987) - Film #214

While most movies are dull and lifeless affairs, Maniac Killer (1987) was destined to be a classic from the start. Not only was it directed by the legendary Andrea Bianchi of Burial Ground (1985) fame, it stars a trio of peerless gentlemen: Chuck Connors, Bo Svenson, and Robert Ginty. With such creative forces at the proverbial helm and in the proverbial crew, how could Maniac Killer be anything less than fantastic?

Some reviewers mistakenly believe Maniac Killer is less than fantastic. For example, reviewer Mathis_Vogel sums up the film thusly: "Nothing happens." And stalwart reviewer BA_Harrison (before referring to the film as "bottom-of-the-barrel horror") writes, "It's hard to believe that director Andrea Bianchi and his cast were actually working from a script when making Maniac Killer, such is the general slipshod nature of the movie. It bears all the hallmarks of a film made at speed with very little preparation and on the tightest budget possible."

Read on for the truth about Andrea Bianchi's Maniac Killer...

The opening titles roll over the frozen image of a black cat’s eyes accompanied by the incongruous sound of footsteps, and then a woman’s scream. When the film proper begins, the woman’s scream is never mentioned. The film opens at a swinging party, where a man named Manny leaves with a prostitute, only to scold her about not having enough johns, slap her three times, and return to the party. She leaves the party and is followed by the sound of footsteps, not to mention some nice black dress shoes striding along the sidewalk. After a few moments, the man who owns the shoes, a large man who resembles Tor Johnson more than a little, chloroforms her and carries her away, though she drops a book in the grass.

Elsewhere, Chuck Connors, wearing a powder blue lab coat with a pink collared shirt underneath, inspects his scientific laboratory scattered with flasks and test tubes.

Still elsewhere, the Tor Johnsonesque man tortures the prostitute in a dungeon while a man in a red robe looks on.

In a tavern somewhere, four middle-aged acquaintances of various European backgrounds discuss the local goings-on and the disappearance of a local girl. “I wonder who would do such a thing…here in town,” the woman says.

“Come to think of it,” one of the three men says, “that tall fellow that lives in that house out by the cemetery, he moved in a few years ago, he came from, uh…”

“From California.”

“Yeah, right. From California. His name is Osborne. He’s a scientist. A bio something, huh? He had to leave because he was in trouble with the law. He did tests on women and something went wrong.” The man tells the riveting of story of when he delivered crates to Osborne’s house and saw computers, an operating table, and specks of blood on the floor.

“What kind of blood was it?” asks the woman.

“How the hell do I know what kind of blood it was? I mean, blood is blood.”

Another man says wisely, “Those scientists, they do all kinds of experiments on guinea pigs, mice, rats…”

“And women,” interjects the first man.

On this foreboding and sexist note, the film introduces another character, a Renfield-type man named Matthieu stalking the forest at night to kidnap cats and stuff them into bags.

The film cuts to Paris, for some reason, where Bo Svenson drives a Jeep with a woman and the Tor Johnsonesque torturer in the back seat. They drive out of Paris and into the country.

Elsewhere, Professor Chuck Connors is interviewed by two journalists. One asks, “You’ve been the leader in your field. You’re a contender for the Nobel Prize for biochemistry. And you leave California to come to this hole? Not even in Paris? Why? Have you been made to quit?”

“Scientific research is a secret until it’s published,” Professor Connors growls.

The film cuts to an elaborate party at a castle given by Count Bo Svenson, who is attended by two men who can only be called footmen.

Count Svenson confronts his wife, who is flirting with Robert Ginty, a man who intends to take her away. (Like all residents of rural France, everyone speaks English with American accents.) Count Svenson threatens Mr. Ginty and pushes him into a comfortable-looking armchair, then has his footmen escort the man out of the castle.

Following the party, it is time for another torture scene as a prostitute in the dungeon of the castle is burned with an iron poker at the behest of Mr. Ginty, now wearing a red inquisitor’s robe. “My mission is clear,” he says helpfully. “I shall be the executioner of sinners who do not recant and expiate.”

In the forest, the simple-minded Matthieu captures a rabbit and stuffs it into a sack, then carries it to Professor Chuck Connors’s laboratory, which features a truly impressive array of Olivetti computers and keyboards, though the monitors only show a screen saver.

Matthieu drops two mice and a hawk on the computers. “I try not to make them suffer,” Professor Connors explains, “but sometimes I have to because I want to cure people who are very ill, whose blood is poisoned. See, that’s why I need the animals. For their blood. New, fresh blood.”

When the apparently mute Matthieu starts interacting vocally with the computer’s voice synthesizer, Professor Connor finds it amazing, so he explains his observations to his housekeeper: “First, he’s afraid of people because he feels they’re superior to him. But he’s not afraid of machines. That much is very clear. And then there’s the linguistic aspect. Words to him are colliding sounds. You know, sentences we speak to him are to his ear and his brain kind of an indistinct continuous noise.” He adds, “Machine-produced words are isolated. Diphthongs. His brain recognizes those. Now if I could teach him to place his tongue in the right way, he might be able to reproduce them himself.” The professor decides to add this new project (which ambitiously conflates learning to speak and learning to read, for some reason) to his research on curing blood poison.

Time for another religious torture ceremony! Robert Ginty turns up the classic rock music in his dungeon while his protege, who is also apparently one of the reporters who interviewed Professor Connors, tortures a prostitute chained to a wall sporting a child’s painting of a snake.  

The next morning, the reporters visit Robert Ginty again in his stylish foyer adorned with a working pinball machine. They speak about Countess Silvano, Bo Svenson’s wife, whom they intend to kidnap. The thought of the countess causes Mr. Ginty to crush a glass bloodily in his bare hand.

Meanwhile, a group of townspeople approach Mr. Ginty’s house, having previously discovered a girlfriend’s purse on the lawn outside. They intend to save the girlfriend, who is still being tortured by Mr. Ginty and his Tor Johnsonesque friend. One of the townspeople confronts a well-dressed elderly butler. “Let me in. My girlfriend is inside. I’m telling you, you gotta let me in. Come on.” He pulls a gun on the faithful butler, then cold cocks the old man, but he is soon shot with the kind of shotgun that has the effect of splattering one’s shirt with red dye and black grease.

The firefight intensifies, with one of the townspeople firing a machine gun at the house and one of Mr. Ginty’s minions throwing a hand grenade to end the siege.

The bodies are dragged into Mr. Ginty’s dungeon, where his henchwoman continues whipping the original prostitute victim, still tied to a wall. 

Later, Mr. Ginty’s henchpeople kidnap the countess, Count Bo Svenson’s wife, who had been riding a horse and chasing Matthieu. In the next scene, the town mailman and his friend decide to finally find out what is going on at Professor Chuck Connors’s house because they saw the countess riding her horse through the cemetery toward the house (obviously an imposter countess, as the real one was kidnapped). The two men spy on Professor Connors, where they see Matthieu lugging a sack through the forest. 

At his castle, Count Bo Svenson, wearing a nice Members Only jacket with detachable sleeves, announces to his men that he wishes to call the police, so he strides through his house and picks up the phone and calls the police. They assure him they will look into his wife’s disappearance (though she, or her imposter, was clearly seen in town). When he hangs up, he tells his own henchmen, “This one we’ll have to handle ourselves. Get your weapons.”

Events transpire, as events are wont to do, and eventually the police arrive at Professor Connors’s house to ask him a few questions. His elderly housekeeper answers the door and refuses to let the four policemen in before checking with the professor. One of the policeman says (seriously) about the old woman, “Some bodyguard. He’s well protected. There must be a reason.”

She lets the detectives into the house. Professor Connors says, “If you’re going to search my home, you have a warrant. May I see it?”

“You’re not accused of anything. We’d just like to satisfy ourselves that there are not even grounds for suspicion.”

“You mind telling me what I could be suspected of?”

“This is a very serious matter, Mr. Osborne. Two women have disappeared in the last few days, a hostess in a nightclub and a rather prominent and wealthy woman.”

Ignoring the matter of a warrant, the police find blood on the floor. They arrest Professor Connors despite his protestation that he is only operating on non-human animals. As he leaves the room to get his coat so he can be arrested in comfort, the filmmakers pan to his housekeeper, who appears surprised to be on camera and does not know whether to grin or scowl.

Of course, Professor Connors uses the opportunity to escape the house, though he unwisely leaves through the front door, where one of the policemen immediately whips out a machine gun and fires at the professor. Nevertheless, Professor Connors disappears into the forest, leaving the police confused and helpless, as they are unwilling to chase him for unexplained reasons.

Meanwhile, Count Bo Svenson, searching for his wife, drives to Robert Ginty’s castle. Count Svenson punches Mr. Ginty’s elderly butler, and then he and his two henchmen invade the castle, killing a few of Mr. Ginty’s own henchmen. After the count slaps some more henchmen, one of Mr. Ginty’s men gets the drop on him. “You wanted to visit our secret chambers? Now’s your chance. Right now.” He escorts the count down to the dungeon, where the countess is chained to a wall. Count Svenson is tied to a chair to watch Mr. Ginty’s group torture the countess.

Meanwhile, both Professor Connors and Matthieu stumble through the forest, but both eventually end up back at the professor’s house after the police have left. Professor Connors asks Matthieu where he buried the dog he brought in a burlap sack that the villagers mistook for a human body. Matthieu barks like a dog but Professor Connors knows he has learned enough language to respond, saying, “Don’t bar. You know how to say the name. Dog. D-O-guh.”

Matthieu pantomimes throwing the sack in the river, then uses the computer to animate a moving horse (a breakthrough in computer skills that Professor Connors doesn’t even acknowledge).

Matthieu further draws a woman and a Jeep on the computer screen with a few keystrokes, and Professor Connors finally understands that a woman was kidnapped. He tells Matthieu he will call the police, so he picks up the phone and says ominously, “This is Dr. Osborne. I’m home.” The police arrive seconds later. 

Gun drawn, the lead detective says, “Good, you’re back.” Professor Connors and his maid ask Matthieu to tell them what he saw. Instead of using the computer, Matthieu simply pantomimes various actions, forcing the police to play a game of charades to understand that Matthieu witnessed a bald man kidnapping the countess.

The police arrive at Robert Ginty’s castle, presumably on Matthieu’s tip, bringing the three stories together, while in the dungeon, the prisoners manage to untie themselves.

The police ask Mr. Ginty to look around his house, though unlike Professor Connors, Mr. Ginty does not ask about a warrant. The police say they are interested in checking out the cellar, leading to a massacre in the living room in which nearly every character is shot, some with machine guns. 

Mr. Ginty runs away to the dungeon, pursued by the two surviving policemen, though it is the prostitute from the opening that manages to kill Mr. Ginty, impaling him on a ceremonial halberd that was standing against the wall.

This prompts Matthieu to say his only sentence of the film: “Bad man dead! Good!”

The End

To the less discerning viewer, Maniac Killer might appear akin to an anthology film following three larger-than-life characters: the professor Chuck Connors, fresh out of California, who operates on dead animals in order to cure the scourge that is blood poison; the count Bo Svenson, who only wants to throw parties and avoid losing his wife; and the inquisitor Robert Ginty, who only wants to torture women until they admit they are possessed by Satan. One could watch the film as a straightforward drama as it follows these three men going about their usual routines, interrupted only when Mr. Ginty kidnaps and tortures Count Svenson's wife.

But Maniac Killer raises its own questions and offers its own delights to those willing to appreciate its rhythms. There is more to Andrea Bianchi's film than straightforward drama. For example, the opening sequence follows a vulnerable young woman leaving a party who is followed by an unseen stalker while being observed by a black cat. This sequence suggests the film could fall into the giallo or slasher genres, but there is no stalking or suspense in the rest of the film, and the black cat never appears again. Robert Ginty's religious motivations are never addressed, and neither is the question of why he has a pinball machine in his living room. Finally, the film Maniac Killer features no maniacs and no killers! While some characters die, they generally meet their ends on the wrong end of the machine guns carried by every police officer in this unspecified castle-laden European country. Like many films featured on Senseless Cinema, Maniac Killer is an enigma that can only be understood through repeat viewings, and perhaps through years of dedicated research into the body of work of Andrea Bianchi, a true legend of Italian horror...and whatever Maniac Killer is.