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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Matt's Movie Mortuary: The Gruesome Splatter Films of Joe Spinell

A True "What If?" Story

By Matt Wintz

This edition of Matt's Movie Mortuary takes a look at two horror films starring Joe Spinell, who also had roles in more mainstream fare such as the first two "Rocky" and "Godfather" pictures.


Any movie that kicks off with blaring 1980s music and a montage of women working out intercut with a blurry female-led rock band as opening credits can't be all bad, right? How could a horror movie with jazzercise suck? Well, I was going to make sure to find out, and the fact is, it can do a little bit of sucking. Joe Spinell, who worked as a character actor and found a part in "Rocky" along with "Godfather" and "Godfather Part II" became well known to horror fans as the maniac in, well, Joe Lustig's "Maniac." Here in the film "Undertaker," we find him as an undertaker by the name of "Uncle" Roscoe but his murderous tendencies haven't exactly died off like the people whom he's hired to care for.

The story is pretty cookie-cutter in the aspect of Roscoe is a murdering undertaker bothered by voices in his head, and he spends a lot of time stalking women and watching "The Corpse Vanishes." From the get-go of the movie, I noticed that there might be more time spent to women working out then to the actual violence on screen, and this is a fact that definitely plagued the movie. For fans of women jazzercising, this movie could be your cup of tea, as there's no less than two nearly full routine workouts plus women jogging in the first forty-three minutes. In comparison, there are only three on-screen kills in the first forty-three minutes.

Character-wise, we have Spinell as Roscoe, the murdering undertaker. Rebeca Yaron plays Miss Pam Hayes, the teacher of Roscoe's nephew Nick who does seem to have this awkward hots for her while trying to show her Roscoe's parlor and that he might be keeping some of the bodies for some extra lovin'. What brings this about is Miss Hayes seems that teaching about necrophilia in a college course is acceptable, and this immediately makes Nick believe his Uncle is bumping uglies with the recently deceased.

Story-wise, the movie runs a little thin. While I can respect a film that is trying to be no-nonsense, the sad thing to this movie is the pacing is very slow. And not in a slow-burn, intensity building sort of way. It just seems to be a movie that is trying to hit certain points, but is crawling to get there. For the most part, editing is a series of cuts between shots that don't seem to fit well and there are several times where there are different scenes intercut. While this might be to try and show what's happening in two places at the same time, it kills the intensity of the scene when you go from a kill, cut to a couple in bed, back to kill, back to couple, back to aftermath of kill, back to talking, then cut to a scene that seems to be set a day later.

There were also decisions in this movie that I could see might have been made from a budgeting perspective, but made me laugh (unintentionally). For instance, it seems that a lot of people enjoyed public domain programming in the 1980s, as "The Corpse Vanishes" makes almost twenty percent of the films running time, along with clips from "The Terror", an Abbott and Costello piece, and Ronald Reagan hugging a monkey. I also noticed that in Roscoe's first onscreen abduction attempt, when he uses the syringe on the female victim, there's no contact with the needle on the victim. It seems like a good idea that when creating a scene like this, make sure the scene doesn't pick up the reflection of the whole needle in the light.

The film is noted as being Joe Spinell's final starring role, as he would die in 1989, and it's also written on the back that it was unfinished. From how the film ends, I was wondering if there was more to be done bet it never got a chance to be completed. Either way, while I respect the filmmakers giving Spinell another leading role and the attempt (possibly) to recapture the feeling of "Maniac," the film falls very short in both the movie's disturbing tones and onscreen violence.


I will also take this time to bring this writing to a little bit of a side-note, and that is Joe Spinell and "Maniac" and why I have always seen that movie in a good light among horror fans. "Maniac" was co-written by Spinell, who played the main character Frank Zito, and the movie was directed by William Lustig, who also has directed the entire "Maniac Cop" trilogy. "Maniac" tells the story of Zito who lives in a small apartment, surrounding himself with mannequins, and during the night drives through the New York City area murdering and scalping women, putting his newly acquired trophies on the mannequins. The movie marries the amazing special effects of Tom Savini, coming off movies like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Friday the 13th," with the gruesome scalpings and Savini himself having his head blown off by a shotgun, with a disturbed story of a man who stalks a woman who he gets to know and how his underlying mommy-issues drive him to brutal attacks. The movie, a cult classic and having one of the best posters in horror movie history, was actually remade with Elijah Wood as the killer Zito.

The movie was put out on DVD by Code Red in 2010, and along with the movie there is a short interview with actor Robert Forster, and then his daughter Kathrine, that briefly touches upon their thoughts of Spinell. "Remembering Joe" is only a few minutes and the elder Forster talks about how Spinell was interesting and the only time he ever played a good guy was in "Hollywood Harry" with Robert and Kathrine Foster. Kathrine Foster then tells of a story from the rap party of "Hollywood Harry" involving Spinell, a Glad bag, and a swimming pool. Finally, trailers for Code Red releases of "Nightmare" (aka Nightmare in a Damaged Brain), "The Carrier," "The Visitor," "Slithis," and "Horror High" round out our special features.

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