Well with anew year, it’s time for the return of honoring a horror icon or those individuals that gave a significant or lasting contribution to horror. Those familiar with my long-standing podcast show Baron’s Crypt know each week I honor someone who has advanced the horror genre.
Therefore, we honor Joseph J. Spagnulo of better known the horror and film cinema fans as Joe Spinell October 28, 1936 – January 13, 1989, who acted in several productions as a great character actor. Often, potential actors either forget or overlook these wonderful individual contributions of a movie, as the importance both in fame and financial success strives the top actors pinnacle position, however directors and casting departments know the significance of these incredible talents on any production. Joe often portrayed the ‘heavy’ in a film, namely the villainous characters, and some fight the stereotypes other embrace in fully, as he did, well-known for his role of a loan shark in Rocky (1976) and Rocky II; his legendary performances in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974). Now one might say what does this have to do with horror, quite a bit, first to look at an actor in one-dimension of horror roles this full body of the work strive him to take on characters others pass quickly on, just think of Lance Henriksen, a very versatile actor (ever look at the genres he’s done, and he’s considered by many a great character first.
His large frame often reminds horror fans as Robert Z’Dar (RIP) look with the imposing looks, lead him to corrupt roles, thuggish mannerism and pure criminals, gave way to a slew thrillers. A small role in Last Embrace (1979) a thriller film directed by Jonathan Demme, which starred Roy Scheider, and Christopher Walken, and became a small stepping stone to a supporting role in Cruising (1980) a crime thriller from famed writer and director William Friedkin, that starred Al Pacino. In two years he was already associating with named talents, and individuals well-known in the horror genre. 1980, would prove a popular year for him, as next up, he worked William Peter Blatty who directed the psychological drama The Ninth Configuration, before he become known in the cult cinema genre with just three horror films roles, and the countless thrillers giving support to his style on the screen.
The first horror film (officially), and likely the most popular of them, Maniac (1980) a psychological slasher (if there’s such a thing), the fans refer to that as a pure slasher, but he co-starred with Caroline Munro. Nevertheless, what makes the role for him even more important, he contributed with the duties of co-writing (many of the lines surrounding his character) and co-produced the production, on a highly limited budget, which William Lustig directed. A simple enough plot, a serial killer, Frank Zito roaming the streets of New York City murdering and scalping young women. The entire movie shot in a guerrilla style of quick pick-up shots and questionable authorization permission, all horror filmmakers well aware of these conditions. Over time, this flick garnished both love and respect of the cult and horror enthusiasts for the graphic artwork and film body. As previously mentioned Maniac his first official horror movie, however unofficial a TV Movie, (from writers Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll) which actually as entitled Vampire (1979), made for a never developed series, in which Joe had the role of Captain Desher, and Richard Lynch portrayed the title role, along with Jason Miller.
His second contribution to horror, came from the horror comedy The Last Horror Film, from David Winter and once again co-starred with Caroline Munro, completely done without any filming permits. Spinell starred as Vinny a New York City taxi driver obsessed with an international actress known as ‘queen of horror films’ Jana Bates (Munro) all while the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Both this movie and Maniac found themselves banned by the UK and ideally placed on the video nasties list, thereby solidifying their legacy. His final horror contribution entitled The Undertaker (1988), another slasher movie completed in November 1988 but never released not until later reedited and given long awaited distribution from Code Red.
On January 13, 1989 at the age of 52, Spinell died in his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, New York, in almost horror film style, sadly demise, it appeared he cut himself on glass shower door after slipping in the bathtub. Somehow he manages to make to the living and oddly fell asleep instead of calling for help and his hemophilia caused him to bleed to death. A 2001 a documentary titled “The Joe Spinell Story” had many individuals of the acting craft discussing Joe’s acting qualities and how they enhanced a film status. Therefore, looking back at his life and body of work, it’s both sad and bizarre how he passed on, buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens very near to his home.
A Famous Quote: I don’t even think of Maniac (1980) as a horror movie. The horrible thing is that people like this really exist. – Joe
Maniac (2012) Remake – Joe noted for original screenplay
The Undertaker (1988)
Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie (1986)
The Last Horror Film (1982)
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Vampire (1979 TV Movie) – pilot for never developed series