It’s a shame when otherwise capable performers fail to get their due. No, not like Anvil, who have spent the last 35 years rocking in the free world of undeniable talent and missed opportunities, or Jeffrey Combs would could definitely defend himself against the A-list big boys but continues to wile away in low budget b-movies. In this case, the conversation turns to one Joe Spinell. Recognize the name? If you are a sleazoid horror fan, you probably remember the imposing actor’s turn in the classic ‘80s slasher epic Maniac. Or maybe you’ve seen him trading paisans with fellow Italians Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro in Rocky, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver respectively.
Yet ever since the tough guy archetype passed away under mysterious circumstances in 1989 at age 53, his celebrity has been subverted, replaced by a reputation based solely on an exploitation-like effort and an inability to step out and defend himself. Home video has a habit of turning journeymen into jokes, emphasizing one or two titles without putting a specific performer into a realized perspective. Spinell was much more than his frequent freak show parts. He was an accomplished stage actor, parlaying his size and outward ethnicity into a stint alongside some of the great post-modern filmmakers of the ‘70s. He worked with Coppola, Scorsese, and Friedkin - he even lost a part in Jaws thanks to a friend’s ongoing relationship issues.
Seen today, Spinell is indeed special. His work resonates with a kind of unhinged power, an unpredictability that comes from being expertly schooled in your craft. A brief YouTube trek bears this out. From small time scenes in Driver
to a full blown supporting part in Nighthawks
(where he puts a verbal smackdown on Sly), Spinell more than holds his own. He grabs the audience’s attention, demanding they watch as his characters move between moods with intensity and intrigue. Maniac
may be his best remembered turn, but such splatter film histrionics don’t truly illustrate his abilities. No, if you really want to see Spinell unravel right before your eyes, you need to check out an early ‘80s sleeper entitled The Last Horror Film
(also known as Fanatic
. As wannabe auteur Vinny Durand, delusional and obsessed with actress Jana Bates (Caroline Munro), Spinell puts out a tour de force performance that few in his peer group can match.
The set-up here is key to understanding what he accomplishes. Vinny is a Momma’s boy in the worst kind of way. Middle aged, disheveled, and resembling a porn star gone to seed, we first see Spinell interacting with said matriarch, a mousy Italian widow who plays her part in a perfect combination of disconnect and dictator. She loves her son, but thinks he’s a bum. He reacts by going into fits of bug-eyed rage that have to be seen to be understood. Vinny is not necessarily crazy, just insanely committed to the belief that he’s a great filmmaker. He even travels to Cannes to catch up with Ms. Bates, hoping to convince her that his script for a new Dracula tale is the ‘last horror film’ she will ever have to do. In between psychotic episodes, various members of the visiting Hollywood elite are picked off by an unseen killer.
Of course, the narrative presumes that Vinny is the murderer, and all throughout The Last Horror Film, Spinell is portrayed as being just fringe enough to be capable of slaughter. Applying the kind of dense dream logic that makes David Lynch a genius and shifting wildly between reality and motion picture make-believe, director David Winters definitely keeps us guessing. Even as the blood flows and the organs fly, we are never quite convinced if what we are seeing is truth, falsehood, or a complete fabrication in Vinny’s mind. Spinell is given a chance to confuse matters further by going full bore bonkers in several supposed fantasy scenes. He even confronts himself, Spinell #1 choking Spinell #2 in amazing meta style.
Indeed, it’s safe to say that every moment that this actor is onscreen during The Last Horror Film is sensational. Spinell doesn’t just steal that movie from his various well equipped co-stars: he’s like a cinematic terrorist. He holds the audience hostage and demands they come around to his way of thinking before he even considers setting them free. Nerded up in uncomfortable clothes and greasy hair, he’s like a more tainted Toby Radloff, a savant reduced to savagery by a society that doesn’t understand his hopelessly hidden talents. And when he breaks down, when the truth tears apart his fragile false reality, he dissolves into pools of despair so massive they threaten to swallow up everything in the frame.
Some might call it over the top. Others could confuse it with some manner of amateurish incompetence. But both would be missing the bigger picture. Spinell’s intensity is not a burden, but a shiny badge of indie honor. He was willing to take any part and make it a full blown cinematic experience. As he did in Maniac, Spinell found the evil inherit in all men and made it flesh. He also discovered their nobility, their need, their all consuming passions and their implausible relationships with others. Spinell’s mother also elicits nothing but smiles, her pinched faced fierceness matched only by her complete lack of affectation. She’s just like her son. Both are genuine. He’s just more skilled at applying said sincerity to any and all situations.
That’s why it’s such a shame that Spinell died when he did. Now, in the glare of DVD’s redefining laser light, he could become the celebrated superstar his work ethic demanded. He’d be first on the list for any homage heavy filmmaker, from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson while continuing to find favor with previous collaborators from the ‘70s and ‘80s. He might be a little slower and a lot older (he’d be 73 this year), but his powers would not be dampened by age or physical limits. When he commanded a role, no one was as domineering as Joe Spinell. He stands as a forgotten giant in an arena which barely acknowledges its current crop of talent. Here’s hoping that, as time goes on, he’s rediscovered by a messageboard nation ripe to turn him into an obsession. His legacy deserves it.