One of the most exciting things about schlock cinema as an art form is the experimentation that comes with filmmakers working under financial pressure. I’m especially fascinated by old horror cheapies that attempt to incorporate footage or sets from other films produced by the same studio in order to pad out runtimes or increase production value. Sometimes, this can lead to interesting results, like with Peter Bogdanovich’s footage cannibalizing debut feature Targets. It can also lead to complete disaster, as with the set-repurposing Roger Corman production The Raven, which is, objectively speaking, an incomprehensible mess (and, oddly enough, one of the films pilfered for Targets). The Last Horror Film is a proud contribution to this frugal tradition of recycled cinema, an early 80s horror that goes above & beyond in its milking production value out of better-funded films that came before it. It even goes a step beyond the Roger Corman recycling model by including imagery from better-funded horror films’ advertising to boost its own allure. It may not be a formally slick or thematically ambitious horror pic, but the way it gets by using financial shortcuts is honestly nothing short of inspiring.
Narratively speaking, The Last Horror Film doesn’t amount to much more than Taxi Driver Goes Giallo. A Travis Bickle-type obsesses over an actress known to the world as the undisputed Queen of Horror Films. Aspiring to leave his service industry life behind & claim his true destiny as a celebrated filmmaker, the sweaty creep follows his beloved scream queen across the ocean to the Cannes Film Festival in France. He films her there in secret, both at public press junkets and in private, voyeuristic settings. Meanwhile, friends & colleagues of the actress are violently killed under extreme, giallo-type lights, with the killer’s face entirely obscured, but heavily indicated to be the weirdo taxi driver. What’s partly so great about The Last Horror Film is that it makes absolutely no attempt to hide its giallo/Scorsese genre mashup. The film namechecks both Taxi Driver & Jodie Foster in the script to clue the audience in on its sense of self-awareness. The giallo-inspired kills include multiple close-up shots of straight razors to drive that point home as well. The film has very little use for subtlety & nuance, but instead focuses on squeezing as much entertainment value as possible out of its extremely limited resources.
Besides the aforementioned inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching. It’s in those stretches where The Last Horror Film goes from surprisingly entertaining to nearly invaluable, especially when it takes notice of the film industry weirdos mixing it up with the locals at the discos surrounding the fest. The Last Horror Film set out to make a watchable horror picture armed only with an interesting location and clips from other, better funded works and it did a kind of amazing job of it, fully committing to its blatant acts of tourism and grimy modes of meta film commentary.
There’s an A Night to Dismember quality to this film, especially in its feeling of hastily edited collage, but The Last Horror Film deviates from that Doris WIshman classic in its unexpected success in building a cohesive narrative out of its loosely gathered scraps. Much like the Wishman picture, this giallo pastiche attempts to deliver the goods in terms of cheap gore-for-gore’s-sake thrills: electrocutions, decapitations, melted faces, etc. These blatant, bloody bread & circuses moments are held together by legitimately artful, almost Fellini-esque dream sequences in which our crazed cabbie desperately clutches his make-believe Oscar while his scream queen deity (Hammer horror vet Carolyn Munro) coos at him in encouragement. While it never really reaches the heights of meta-commentary in similarly-minded works like Demons, the film also makes attempts to put its film industry setting to thematic use. There’s especially noteworthy scenes in which the famed horror actress is being hunted down in public, but everyone at Cannes, including the police, brush off her terror as a tasteless publicity stunt.
While maybe not masterful filmmaking in an arthouse sense, The Last Horror Film is a triumph in schlocky alchemy. Its blatant tourism of 1981 Cannes somehow makes a film that would otherwise be a (literal) cut & paste knockoff without it into an invaluable historical document. It’s the kind of scrappy, make-do filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated for its minor successes, even if they’re only employed for cheap horror film shocks & chills. In some ways, it’s miraculous that the film is even watchable at all.