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In the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's phenomenally successful Psycho (1960), several studios attempted to mimic the success of the Universal box office hit by rushing into production numerous psychological thrillers with warped, aberrant characters driving the narrative. Hammer Film Studios was probably the most prolific of the lot, churning out such memorable titles as Scream of Fear (1961, aka Taste of Fear in the U.K.), Paranoiac (1963) and Hysteria (1965). While none of these matched the success or quality of Psycho, some of these Hammer concoctions were still stylish genre exercises and Maniac (1963) was one of their better efforts.
Set in the South of France, the story focuses on American artist Geoffrey Farrell (Kerwin Mathews) who is down on his luck and drifting around the country. He soon meets and becomes romantically involved with Eve Beynat (Nadia Gray), who lives with her stepdaughter Annette (Liliane Brousse). Eve's husband, George Beynat, is currently under lock and key in a mental institution for the murder of his daughter's rapist four years earlier. After a visit to see her husband at the asylum, Eve reveals that George will agree to divorce her so she can marry Geoffrey if they both help him escape from his confinement. With the aid of a male nurse at the asylum, Eve and Geoffrey successfully spring George and transport him to the Marseilles pier where he makes his getaway....or does he? After Geoffrey discovers the body of the murdered male nurse in the car trunk, other strange occurrences and sinister incidents indicate that George is still lurking about and that he is not only dangerously unstable but that he may be planning to murder Geoffrey and his unfaithful wife.
Written and produced by Jimmy Sangster, Maniac was the second Hammer feature to be directed by Michael Carreras, whose father James founded Hammer Films. Michael, who would go on to direct The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb , Prehistoric Women [1967, aka Slave Girls] and The Lost Continent , boasted in an interview at the time that Maniac is "a thriller of thrillers, so ingeniously constructed, so packed with surprises, that we defy anyone to predict correctly what's coming next or to anticipate the startling and unexpected climax."
For the cast, Carreras assembled American actor Kerwin Mathews, who was best known as the title hero of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad  and had recently appeared in the Hammer costume adventure Pirates of Blood River ; Hungarian native and international star Nadia Gray who created quite a stir with her striptease in the decadent jet-set party scene of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita ; French ingnue Liliane Brousse, who abandoned her film career after only one more movie, the still unreleased 1964 feature, The Parisienne and the Prudes; and two prolific English character actors Norman Bird and Donald Houston, whose total screen credits together almost exceed 300 movies!
Maniac was filmed on location in the Camargue region of Southern France with Bac du Sauvage being used for the exterior caf scenes and Les Baux utilized for the finale in the caves. The interior scenes were shot at the MGM Studios location at Borehamwood, England.
Recalling the filming of Maniac, Kerwin Mathews told interviewers Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (in Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography), "This was my first extended stay in France, particularly in the South. I've lived there occasionally since then. I'm a blatant Francophile because of Maniac! Michael Carreras was just breaking through my shield of insecurities on Maniac , and I always wished we could have had another chance on another film as he found his way as a director and I matured as an actor. I loved working with him and also working without a sword in my hand! Because of the short schedules on Hammer films (and others I've done), I became super-organized. The quick filming didn't bother me at all. I was inclined to be very impatient and critical of film people, but not those at Hammer. I was so serious about acting as a craft I could be proud of and, acting in low budget films, hanging on to those ideals could be very often an insurmountable challenge! Believe it or not, I've never seen Maniac - or many of my pictures. I was usually making another one on the other side of the world when the last one came out!"
Donald Houston, who gives a perfectly chilling performance as the title character, admitted that he "found his role so frightening that it kept him awake at night." Producer Jimmy Sangster, on the other hand, was slightly perturbed by Nadia Gray's request that a friend be allowed to visit her on the set and after reluctantly granting that permission, discovered the unexpected guest was Orson Welles! Co-star Norman Bird had a surprise in store for himself as well on the production: "I remember that when I was offered the part, I was told it was not one of their usual horror films. On receiving the script, I was intrigued to see that it started with a girl pursued through the woods by her rapist who then had his head burned off by her vengeful father with an oxyacetylene blowtorch! I was, rightly, rather worried about the quality of my French accent. But, when I saw the finished film, I was surprised to hear how good it was. After a few minutes, I realized my voice had been exceptionally well dubbed! It was the only time this had ever happened, and I must say it improved my performance considerably!"
When Maniac went into theatrical release, the reviews were more positive than usual for this type of genre thriller. The Time magazine critic called it "a lethal little thriller that succeeds in spite of itself...the picture has an ingenious, neatly reticulated plot that packs some walloping surprises...Maniac is good clean sadism that seldom falters until the final frames, when the fun is diluted in a 3.2 Hitchcock solution." Robert Salmaggi of The N.Y. Herald Tribune wrote that Maniac was "a modest, nicely written suspense drama" and "well directed by Michael Carreras" and Howard Thompson of The New York Times exclaimed "Maniac has one thing and has it in spades - a plot of extraordinary cunning....The cat-and-mouse nightmare packs three tingling surprises plus a dazzling denouement we defy anyone to predict."
One last bit of trivia: The Research publication Incredibly Strange Films features a still on its back cover that was labeled as "film unknown" on the flyleaf page but is actually a scene from Maniac's climax where Annette is menaced by the title character.
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Director: Michael Carreras
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Edward Carrick
Music: Stanley Black
Film Editing: Tom Simpson
Cast: Kerwin Mathews (Paul Farrell), Nadia Gray (Eve Beynat), Norman Bird (Salon), Liliane Brousse (Annette Beynat), Arnold Diamond (Janiello), Donald Houston (George).
by Jeff Stafford
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson & Deborah Del Vecchio
Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years by Wayne Kinsey