Saturday, January 2, 2010


Last year I was working for Troma producing their DVD releases. A close friend of mine had suggested that we reissue a classic, forgotten slasher film buried in the Troma library. This film was The Last Horror Film (also known as Fanatic), which stars the late, brilliant Joe Spinell. He was a character actor commonly type-casted in small roles because of his rugged appearance (Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part 1, 2, Rocky 1, 2, The Sorcerer, Cruising, The Ninth Configuration, etc). Spinell is most remembered for his unforgettable starring performance as the depraved, psychotic serial killer in Maniac.



The Last Horror Film was a decent effort attempting to cash in on the success of Maniac. The film takes place during the Cannes Film Festival where Spinell plays a disturbed fanatic stalking a beautiful actress played by Caroline Munro (who also co-stars in Maniac). I began working on the DVD extras for the The Last Horror Film by interviewing Maniac director William Lustig. He had told me that if I wanted a wealth of incredible onset stories, I had to get in touch with Luke Walter who was Spinell's closest friend. 

I phoned Luke, and he agreed to be interviewed for the disc. I remembered Luke as he was heavily featured in the Joe Spinell Story documentary available on the Maniac DVD.


I met Luke at a rundown strip club in Queens where he had frequented with Spinell in the 80s. Luke was with Spinell the night before he died at this very strip club. Spinell slipped in the shower, injured himself and bled to death -- he was a hemophiliac. Luke hadn't been back to this strip club until we shot him for the DVD.

Luke had always been at Spinell's side. When Spinell auditioned for Taxi Driver, Luke was there. In fact, Spinell recommended to Scorsese that Luke screen test for the Secret Service bodyguard character on the basis that Luke was shot several times with an Uzi while working security at a bank in New York. Intrigued, Scorsese agreed, but sadly Luke didn't get the part. 


Luke was also present during the filming of Maniac. The car used in the infamous scene where Spinell blows a victim's head off with shotgun pointblank through a windshield was Luke's old car! Luke also shot scenes in Maniac with Spinell on his own, which are arguably some of the greatest segments in the film. In particular, the scene where Spinell is seen peering into storefront windows, panting, and oogling at mannequins. The shots were fuzzy, disconnected, raw, and unconventional for a horror film. It gave Maniac a meandering feel. Observing sequences like these, added a sympathetic complexity to the nature of Spinell's creepy character. These interludes help make Maniac the definitive horrid plunge into the mind of a serial killer.


Luke had an appreciation for experimentation and art which thoroughly showed in his contributions to Maniac and hearing him speak about acting and filmmaking. Luke is quite the character, he has Brooklyn running through his veins. Luke was part of a theater troupe in Europe in the 60s comprised only of ex cons. Luke wasn't a criminal, but they let him join because he always carried a gun. The troupe performed plays loosely based on the crimes they committed in the past. 

When Luke showed up to the strip club, he was instantly very outspoken about his personal life as if we had known him for 25 years. I was immediately compelled. He told us jaw-dropping stories during the Last Horror Film production where he and Spinell ditched a hotel in France for $25,000, stumbled in the streets drunk throwing bottles at cars, and Spinell's fascination with wearing woman's clothes or nothing at all in public. Luke also told us about impromptu sequences he shot for The Last Horror Film, including a scene with Spinell and Karen Black in a bathtub (sadly didn't make the final cut)! This fascinated me and from that period onward, I knew I wanted to make a film with Luke. Luke might be 72 years old, but he has an undeniable youthful energy and spirit. 



I had said to a friend of mine, 'we need to make a film this weekend, I don't care what it is we just need to do something." The concept began as being a 'rugged' film starring Luke. I imagined an image for the film where Luke was standing on top of a truck wielding a sledgehammer into the car's windshield -- and the film would be titled: SLEDGEHAMMER

I phoned Luke the next day and asked him if he would be interested in starring in a film this weekend where he would be wielding a sledgehammer through Queens. He laughed and agreed. 

The idea started as a comedy, but became a study of a 72 year old man's grim decent into uncontrollable anger. The story was about a man who had recently gone though his third divorce, and is now living alone for the first time in 50 years in a shithole Queens apartment. He is a mad as hell how much New York has changed. Old friends have passed on, and familiar hangouts have closed. He still has ambition to be something great, and fears dying alone. So he hits the streets to desperately find something -- work, women, old friends. He then finds a sledgehammer in an alleyway. Hammer in hand, he threatens to beat the shit out of the next door neighbors he hates who plays loud music. ANGER. Fascination with destroying things and venting anger with use of the sledgehammer progress uncontrollably leading him to petty crime, possibly murder.

That's all we had developed (if even that much), before we began shooting. It seemed like an interesting exercise in improvisation, which Luke was keen on. I wanted to see how Luke would channel anger into this character.

Spinell also had a knack for improvisation and experimentation. Shortly before Spinell's death, he hooked up with Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock) in 1989 to make the unofficial sequel to Maniac titled Mr. Robbie. Spinell's idea was to play a kiddie talk show host that would seek murderous revenge on abusive parents (a loose remake of The Psychopath). Buddy got together with Spinell for a few creative sessions, but ultimately began shooting with no financing, a very small crew, an unfinished script, and a cast comprised of Spinell's friends and people he had met the bar the night before. Sadly, Spinell had passed before they finished shooting. However, the result of what they were able to accomplish is fascinating. Its  revoltingly gory, the locations are gritty, the sound design is ominous, and Spinell is completely convincing. I had seen the Mr. Robbie footage prior to filming Sledgehammer, and it heavily influenced me to go out and shoot a film with the tools I had at hand.



Luke met us promptly at 8am at a Brooklyn breakfast spot where we discussed the filming details. Luke pulled up in his Suburban blasting Lord Buckley, an eccentric spoken word artists from the 40s who was once Al Capone's protege. Luke knew every word to the Buckley piece complete with authentic hand gestures. I actually joked about having a scene, which now seems like a great idea: Luke's character looking at himself in the bathroom mirror rehearsing his outlandish Lord Buckley performance which he would then shop the routine around clubs and bars in a 2009 New York.

We arrived at my apartment a few hours later. We begin to set up the camera and audio equipment (a microphone stuck in a shoe), in the living room of my then apartment in Queens. The dusty living room was empty besides a chewed up ugly white couch, a crappy coffee table and rocking chair. Coincidentally (on a Maniac level), I had a green mannequin torso in my living room at the time. Luke immediately zeroed in on it, and before we could even set up the equipment properly or any direction was given, he was on my floor, weeping and holding it tightly. Rolling back and forth on his back clutching the mannequin he began to cry out, "why did I do this to you?"

I quickly turned the camera on and began rolling. Luke delivered a 13 minute take. Luke caresses the breasts of the mannequin. He stood up. Peered out the windows, plotting. Screams. Shouts. Crys. Hides underneath the coffee table for minutes. Ravages through the house to find the sledgehammer. Kisses it. Wields it.

"Ok, cut." Luke says. Dumbfounded, I cut the camera and walk up to Luke who is on his way to my patio for a smoke. Luke turns to me after he centers himself. 

"I think I found my character's motivation."

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

"You see this mannequin over here? This represents a woman I used to love. I cut her body up into a thousand pieces. I'm sitting here on this couch, dreaming. I'm imaging a wasteland. There I am. I am smashing through things trying find where I had hidden her body parts."

Luke had found something real in this scenario. We decided to keep filming with this concept in mind.

After shooting in the apartment, we went over to a friend's junkyard in Queens where we had access to copious amounts of bathtubs, toilets, sheets of glass, cabinets, etc to smash with the sledgehammer.  

I shot some exteriors while Luke was shopping for things to break. Luke came to me with the idea that he was going to begin rummaging through a large industrial dumpster, smashing things and throwing objects out of it. I had never seen a 72 year-old man this agile. After smashing pieces of wood and throwing a microwave, Luke screams 'WHERE ARE YOU!?' and jumps down from the dumpster to annihilate a toilet  and a sheet of glass. Luke lies on the ground, rain pouring. He screams again. Luke enters the frame, crying, yelling. He sees a wooden cabinet. He studies and it and then smashes it to bits.


We took a walk around the junkyard looking for locations. Tucked away behind the facility was an abandoned truck. Luke asked me if I wanted I to get the shot I had envisioned: Luke standing on top of a truck, smashing the truck's windshield. I could not resist. We shot the scene and ran. 

Luke's next moment of inspiration is that he wanted to bring in a refrigerator from the junkyard warehouse. As his character walks up to it to break it, he stops and looks inside. Inside the refrigerator would be the head of the girl he had brutally murdered. I explained to Luke that we have filmed a lot today and we can come back another time and shoot that.

Luke drove us home. He recalled the time we shot his interview for The Last Horror Film -- combining that experience and what he had just filmed for SLEDGEHAMMER had helped him "keep Spinell alive." After viewing the footage, it was clear to me that Luke was channeling Spinell. This was awe-inspiring to me. Luke genuinely loved Spinell.

During the following months I wasn't confident in this footage. We sadly have not resumed shooting since this day. However, this experience was cathartic for Luke and for myself. At the time, I wasn't sure if the direction Luke wanted to go with the character interested me, but in hindsight, I should have continued filming the following weekend and rolled with the punches as this was an experiment from the beginning.

Recently, I've been eager to continue this project with Luke's ideas intact. Perhaps I'll give Luke a call one of these days.

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