Skip to content

Plot: thirty-something girl anxiously awaits her date… or is she?

Spain has always been fertile ground for fantastic – and horror cinema. With several decades of history to draw from and the old masters rightly enshrined as the innovators that they were Spain never really stopped producing horror or weird cinema. Over the last twenty years Álex de la Iglesia and Jaume Balagueró have been the prime names associated with Iberian terror and suspense and the country continues to produce horror at a steady pace. Over the past several years Norberto Ramos del Val has been producing low budget horror and terror. Lucero is our first exposure to his work and since then he has directed, among others, Heaven In Hell (2016) and Killing Time (2022). It’s impossible to gauge how important he will become to Spanish fantaterror, but new blood is never bad. Whether he is the de la Iglesia or Balagueró for this generation only time will tell.

In the Lucero barrio (neighborhood) of Madrid 34-year old Eva (Claudia Molina) attends the Sacrament of Penance during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession. After returning to her apartment it becomes clear that Eva is mentally unstable and deeply unwell. She is interested in witchcraft and has the literature to prove it. On top of that, she’s probably neurotic, is constantly itchy, and possibly suffers from OCD. Her boyfriend Angel (Edgar Calot) has left her – and she’s understandably saddened and frustrated with the whole situation. Tonight she has a date with Lucas (Jaime Adalid) and she’s fighting against the hours for him to arrive. As the shades of night descend it dawns on Eva that her date might not be coming tonight or at all. This triggers her anxiety even further and as memories of her time with Angel wash over her she sinks deeper into depression and loneliness. As Eva is consumed by paranoia and explores the deepest chasms of her soul a terrifying secret is bound to surface…

The opening montage with all the footage from Madrid and Claudia Molina in high couture sort of gives off the vibes that this might turn into a modern day giallo but once Lucero settles on the apartment as its one and only location any such pretensions or ambitions are, sadly, instantly abandoned. At a brisk 68 minutes it still takes forever for something nothing substantial to happen – and when it does, it happens oh so very, very slowly. For a good 53 minutes Lucero sort of flows glacially (or serenely, whichever you prefer) with no apparent direction or specific destination in mind until it suddenly explodes into a phantasmagoria of Satanic covens and full frontal situational nudity. The only novelty (if it can be called that) that Norberto Ramos del Val introduces is that Lucero has no dialogue whatsoever. None. Not a single line is uttered. It might seem like an odd creative choice at first but on second glance it seems perfectly logical.

And then there’s the title itself, Lucero, that can refer to any number of things. For starters, there’s Venus, the morningstar. Second, it’s also another name for Lucifer, which probably goes a long way explaining the skeletally thin Satanic cult subplot that really begged further exploring as well as the international market title Fallen Angel that this has gotten in some territories. If Lucero accomplishes anything it’s making us wanting to see more of Claudia Molina. Molina wonderfully succeeds in carrying what little story there is all by her lonesome. This being Spanish the bathtub scene (and the fact that Eva doesn’t utter a single syllabel for about 68 minutes) suggests that Ramos del Val probably has seen Female Vampire (1973). The solitary kill scene is effective in its brevity and functional minimal gore. It sort of echoes She Killed In Ecstasy (1971) passively and the coven scene indicates that Ramos del Val has seen his fair share of either Jean Rollin or any early seventies Meditterranean horror of your preference. Sadly, this is also where Lucero wastes most, if not all, of its potential. There’s so much here and so very little is done with it. Hopefully one day Ramos del Val will make the Satanic coven and witchcraft (lesbian or otherwise) movie that’s alluded to here.

If you were feeling charitable perhaps Lucero could be described as a Spanish take on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) but truthfully this is closer to Pål Sletaune’s hugely atmospheric and occassionally gripping Next Door (2005). Except that that had actual characters and story – and this not necessarily does. There’s only so much a naked Molina in the third act and a sufficiently ethereal ambient score (that could have come from Simon Boswell or Michael Stearns) can possibly redeem. The problem isn’t so much what Lucero is but what it could have been. Some dialogue would have worked wonders here. As much as the non-verbal route allows the viewer to project whatever they want onto what they see informed by their own experiences, it also makes the entire thing inconsequential on its face. An entire Jean Rollin or Paul Naschy type fantastique could be extracted from the coven and witchcraft scenes. For most of the time Lucero is closer to the oeuvre of Rene Perez than to Paul Naschy. Much more of a moodpiece rather than a character study Lucero is style over substance.

Plot: psychotic loner terrorizes New York City with nightly killing sprees.

Amidst the deluge of cheap (and often, infuriatingly irritating) slashers it’s easy to forget that the subgenre could occasionally conjure up something halfway interesting when it traded the regressive for the psychological. Maniac is one such example. For once an absolute dearth of story actually serves to intensify the feeling of unease, filth and degeneracy. Savaged by critics upon release and the poster child of the Video Nasty panic that engulfed the United Kingdom in the early eighties; Maniac has garnered something of a bad reputation over the years for being one of the sleazier entries of the subgenre. While that may not be entirely untrue Maniac is also one of the most depressing of the form. On top of that, it manages to pack quite a punch with what is, by all means, very little. Envisioned by just one man and pretty much a labor of love for all involved Maniac is a misunderstood (and often misinterpreted) masterpiece in terror.

The man behind Maniac was beloved character actor Joe Spinell. To the average moviegoer he’ll be known for his bit parts in, among others, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1976) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) but to rabid consumers of the weird and obscure he’s known as a pillar in exploitation cinema. In the early-to-mid 1970s Spinell befriended (and mentored) a young fellow Italian-American by the name of Sylvester Stallone. His protégé had starred in everything from low-rent porn to grindhouse gunk as Death Race 2000 (1975). By the time Spinell had started pre-production on Maniac, Stallone was just two years away from making it big with Rambo: First Blood (1982) and establishing himself as the new, larger-than-life American action hero. The paths of the two men, understandably, parted. That Maniac owes its existence in no small part to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is uncontested. Just like Three On A Meathook (1972), Deranged (1974) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) before it Maniac was loosely based on the life of Ed Gein, that night ghoul of the graveyards or, as he’s better known, the Butcher of Plainfield. If you were to look at the origins of Maniac the most logical place to start would be Luigi Cozzi’s candy-colored, psychotronic exercise in excess, the delirious space peplum StarCrash (1979).

Originally Dario Argento was supposed to co-produce, his wife Daria Nicolodi was to play the lead and Goblin was contracted to provide the score. Unforeseen circumstances forced Argento to remain in Italy to complete filming on his Inferno (1980). Understandably, the agreement collapsed with Argento taking with him not only his money but, more importantly, Nicolodi and Goblin. When British producer Judd Hamilton got wind of the situation he offered to help finance the project if his then-wife Caroline Munro was cast as the lead. It made sense from a personal – and logistical standpoint. Spinell, Hamilton and Munro all had worked together on StarCrash (1979) and obviously there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the three. Caroline had worked with the British house of Hammer in the early 1970s and after her brief detour into Italian pulp the next logical destination would be America. To helm Spinell’s script producer Andrew W. Garroni recruited director William Lustig, cinematographer Robert Lindsay (both whom had experience from shooting porn), composer Jay Chattaway and special effects wizard Tom Savini. Savini had made a name for himself with George A. Romero’s Martin (1976) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) as well as Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Savini had a protégé of his own and that was the talented Rob Bottin. Maniac employed no name-stars unless Rita Montone and Carol Henry from Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) qualify as such. Abigail Clayton and Sharon Mitchell came from porn. It was filmed guerrilla style in New York over 26 consecutive days on an estimated budget of $350,000. Suffice to say, there’s something to admire about the tenacity of Joe Spinell to practically will this one into existence in face of all difficulties and tribulations. Spinell and Munro would reunite for the third and last time in The Last Horror Film (1982).

Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight, badly dressed, chronically unemployed forty-something Italian-American living in a claustrophobic, overstuffed dump of an apartment in New York. As a child Zito suffered abuse at the hands of his now deceased prostitute mother (Nelia Bacmeister) and in his studio he has a candlelit shrine dedicated to her memory. Strolling aimlessly through Central Park one day he’s captured by the camera of photographer Anna D'Antoni (Caroline Munro). He musters up the courage to talk to her and the two become friends. Anna in turn introduces Frank to her model friend Rita (Abigail Clayton, as Gail Lawrence). Striking fear in the hearts of all New Yorkers are the headlines in the newspaper screaming of an unidentified maniac on the loose. What Anna and Rita don’t know is that Frank, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, succumbs to his homicidal psychosis In the throes of said psychosis he spends those silent hours on the cold, uncaring city streets indiscriminately preying upon, killing, and scalping young women of all walks of life. He brings the scalps home and dresses the store dummies in his clogged apartment in the clothes of his victims. In doing so he hopes to grieve the loss of his mother and, if possible, reform her evil ways.

With so little in the way of story it’s understandable that Maniac is - perhaps unjustly and more for the sake of both convenience and easy classification – bundled together with the slasher explosion in the wake of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). While it uses some of its conventions this first and foremost is a character study and one hell of a slowburn. This is about as far away from the formulaic slasher as you can get. And the most depressing thing is, forty years later men like Frank Zito more commonplace than ever having their own social circles and attendant cultures. Killing sprees like Zito’s have become scarily frequent, almost weekly events, bordering on the mundane. In the intervening four decades professional help for the mentally unstable, the unhinged and the certifiably insane has not materially improved (at least not in the US). It might very well be in a worse state than when Maniac first premiered. You can sort of see where Savini came from and where he was going. For starters, Maniac is custodian to a legendary head explosion that was recycled (and markedly improved upon) from Dawn of the Dead (1978). Secondly, the concluding zombie evisceration looks like a test-run for the undead make-up and bouts of bodily dismemberment that featured prominently in Day Of the Dead (1985) five years later. That Savini almost immediately distanced himself from Maniac because of the unsavory reputation it had quickly garnered speaks volumes of the efficacy of his handiwork.

Maniac grossed an impressive $10 million at the international box office and was unavoidable in chain video rental stores. It’s unfortunate that Spinell lived not long enough to see Maniac get its due reappraisal many years later and become enshrined as the American horror classic that it truly is. Only the equally chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) would come close in matching the downtrodden nihility of Maniac. William Lustig went on to direct the Maniac Cop (1988-1992) series as well as the enjoyable but futile slasher Uncle Sam (1996). In the years since he has been primarily active as a producer of (horror) cinema documentaries and took an active role in the inevitable (but entirely pointless) remake of Maniac in 2012. With a Maniac Cop remake currently in the works he’s involved as a producer with that as well.

As a producer Garroni frequently worked with director Gregory Dark keeping actresses like Shannon Whirry, Julie Strain, Monique Parent and Melissa Moore employed in mind killing direct-to-video and late night cable softcore dross and occasional low budget action. It was famously sampled by New York/Las Vegas death metal ingrates Mortician on their second, and arguably only worth checking out, 1996 “Hacked Up For Barbecue” album. Mortician might always have been irrelevant from a musical standpoint, and the fact that they have not released any new music since 2004 (going on 20 years for those keeping count) their inherent obsoletism probably at long last dawned upon the undynamic duo. Mortician might have faded into obscurity and irrelevance (if they were even relevant to begin with, which is another can of worms) yet Maniac remains as iconic and an undisputed genre classic that continues to live on in the hearts of horror fans everywhere. Joe Spinell would be proud.