After the found footage craze that followed the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the British film The Last Horror Movie (2003) never received the attention it deserved. Even today, finding it on any major streaming service remains difficult. Yet, it’s one of the most interesting found footage films from the 2000s, offering a smart and unsettling commentary on spectatorship and violence. Directed by Julian Richards and written by James Handel, The Last Horror Movie disturbs today as much as it did in 2003. It documents a serial killer who tries to justify his murders by making the audience question their motives and engagement through spectatorship. Think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) meets Man Bites Dog (1992) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990).
Meet Max the Serial Killer
The opening 10 minutes contains a head fake, triggering the premise. A waitress is alone at a diner, cleaning up before close. The telephone rings. She hears a man breathing heavily. After finding a skull mask, a killer appears behind her, about to stab her. We’ve seen this slasher film countless times. Cue Max (Kevin Howarth), a wedding videographer making a grisly documentary about his murders. Speaking directly to the audience, he explains that he recorded over video rentals, including the generic slasher the audience thinks it was watching before Max took over.
Max then cuts away to a scene of a murder in a bathroom. The rest of the film includes dozens of his kills captured on tape and philosophical reasoning behind them. After exposing the audience to the first murder, he says, “Well, you hired a horror movie, didn’t you? So you wanted to see something scary, right?” This is the first time that Max makes the audience question their expectations and love of the genre.
Shortly after, the audience learns some of Max’s backstory, namely how he got started as a serial killer. He confesses that he pulled someone from a river after they jumped from a bridge. Yet, after Max stopped their suicide attempt, the person was still miserable. Eventually, after a second encounter, Max pushed the person over a balcony. He tries to justify this to the audience by explaining he did the man a service by saving him from his own depression. This is the sort of warped logic that Max lays on the viewer throughout the film’s runtime, which clocks in at little over an hour.
Max’s Disdain for a Middle-Class Lifestyle and Comfort
Encounters with Max’s family are sprinkled throughout the movie. His sister, Sam (Christabel Muir), features the most. Sam often questions Max about his job, money, and ambitions. Max counters this by asking his sister, “All this, the house, the husband, the kids, is it really satisfying?”
Later in the film, when Max and his unnamed assistant (Mark Stevenson) meet Max’s grandmother, she expresses the same type of disdain towards her grandson’s lack of career. She presses him about his job and how much money he makes as a wedding videographer. Grandma adds that Max’s father was the same and “never could settle on anything.” When Max asks grandma if she thinks it’s a family trait, she responds that it didn’t come from her side of the family.
Despite the pressure from his family, Max doesn’t conform. He refuses to settle down with anyone. He did have a love interest at one time, Petra (Antonia Beamish), but he explains they’re better as friends. Further, Max remains convinced that his sister isn’t happy. It bothers Sam, according to Max, that she’s “not with the program.” He fully believes that she regrets marrying her husband and living a middle-class lifestyle. Whether or not that’s true is anyone’s guess. The Last Horror Movie is solely Max’s POV. He’s the only one who speaks directly to the audience, thus skewing the narrative.
The Purpose of Max’s “Film”
At one point, Max says he’s creating the film to make a statement. This feels generic, and he fleshes it out within the last 30 minutes or so. In a gym scene, he adds that he didn’t want to make a film just about himself but rather about life in general. He questions why some people are lions and others are wildebeests. Who decides that? This again underscores Max’s obsession with class and follows documented scenes in which his family pressures him to start earning money and settle down.
Yet, there’s something deeper going on with the film. Max’s primary intent is to question the audience, to make them feel uncomfortable and even complicit. Max flat out asks the audience, “How much is a single life worth compared to doing something that hasn’t been done before?” He then disrupts the audience’s comfort and privilege, telling them that they could sell their TV to help save someone in Africa, but the truth is, they won’t sell their televisions. They won’t dismount a perch of privilege.
He follows that up by asking the audience if they’d sell their TV to save a woman he just stabbed to death. If the audience answers no, then how can they judge Max? Aren’t they complicit? In a following scene, he cuts away from a kill and then speaks directly to the audience. He asks if they want to see the entirety of the brutality on screen. If they didn’t want to see the full kill, then why keep watching? Repeatedly, Max jabs at an audience’s thirst for blood and violence. The point of Max’s film is to shock and make an audience question why they tune in.
An important breaking point occurs when Max’s unnamed assistant quits, and Max solely controls the narrative and camera. The assistant steps away because he refuses Max’s “promotion” and won’t kill someone on camera. Max talks about the killing having ethical responsibility, after they kidnap a woman in a park and tie her up. Crying, the assistant says, “I thought I could, but I can’t.”
Of note, the assistant also says that when he was filming, it didn’t feel real. This again questions spectatorship. Once the assistant steps away from the camera and becomes a subject, he can’t murder. He’d rather watch, just like the blood-crazed audience Max taunts. Eventually, Max murders the assistant and gives his backstory. He says the assistant had been homeless for at least three years and hasn’t seen his family in at least five. No one will miss him, according to Max. Again, however, this story is colored by Max’s perspective. His statements on the assistant further underscore his disregard for life, too. He thinks nothing of murdering the assistant because he assumes no one will miss him; therefore, his death will not matter that much. Talk about sick logic.
The Last Horror Movie (Get It?)
The Last Horror Movie contains one of the most unnerving endings I’ve seen in some time. Max talks directly to the audience one more time. He said he recorded over horror rentals because if people could watch snuff films without Max standing over their shoulder, then a real conversation could happen. The audience could draw their own conclusions. Is Max evil or not? Is the audience also at fault?
He then asks the audience if they have something to say, before adding that he and the audience have endangered each other. Max asks the audience where they are now and surmises maybe they’re standing by their window. He concludes by stating that maybe he’s already broken into their house. Thus, Max makes it seem like he’ll kill the audience and so it will indeed be their very last horror movie. Get it?
The Last Horror Movie reminded me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It has that same level of intimacy, brutality, and oddly normal killers. Both Henry (Michael Rooker) and Max do heinous things, and yet, it’s hard to hate them. Max even asks the audience how they can label him evil when they keep watching. Both movies offer smart commentary on voyeurism. Why are humans drawn to on-screen violence? Is it, as other horror theorists say, because the genre allows us to play with death from a safe distance? Even Max’s assistant admits that it’s different when he steps out from behind the camera. He can’t kill, but he can film Max’s crimes no problem. They don’t seem real when the camera rolls.
The Last Horror Movie is barely mentioned when we look back on the found footage craze that dominated the 2000s, following Blair Witch. Yet, it deserves to be seen. Maybe, in time, it will find its audience.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.