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Maniac (1934)

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Posted 6th August 2010 at 06:32 PM by the blob
Updated 6th August 2010 at 08:38 PM by the blob

No retrospective of the classics of the '30's and '40's would be complete without a mention of Dwain Esper's 'Maniac'. Esper is a legend in what can be termed as the 'Educational' movie. In actual fact, he was just a master at cheap exploitation, preying on people's paranoia of drugs, sex and whatever else he could potentially make a bit of cash from. You can achieve a small insight into the man from just the titles alone. 'Marihuana' (aka Marihuana, the Devils' Weed), 'How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband' and 'Will It Happen Again' (aka Hitler's Strange Love Life) are just a few of his colourfully-named pieces. Some of his shorts and features are hard to find and I'm determined to sit through his full works one way or another but even without the full pleasure, I think I can safely assume that 'Maniac' is his piece de resistance. What follows is most definitely not a fake review.
Regarded as one of the worst horror films of all-time, 1934's Maniac is thinly veiled as an educational piece on mental diseases, made apparent by the frequent use of title-cards explaining the symptoms and characteristics of 'Dementia Praecox', 'Paresis' and 'Manic-Depressive Psychoses' among others.
For want of a better word, the 'story' centres around a down-on-his luck Vaudeville impersonator/actor, Don Maxwell, played by William Woods in seemingly his only acting turn before becoming a make-up artist. His mentor and saviour, the crazed Dr Meirschultz has discovered a formula to bring the dead back to life. Maxwell uses his acting prowess to impersonate the local Coroner and gain access to the mortuary where the mad doctor can test his theory, injecting a female corpse and stealing the body. Next on the doctor's agenda is to transplant the living heart he has created into another corpse. Maxwell is forced to search the local undertaker's premises but fails dismally and Dr Meirschultz, becoming increasingly more crazed, orders Maxwell to shoot himself and become his next subject. Obviously. Maxwell freaks out at the prospect and, with gun already in hand, decides to shoot the lunatic doctor instead. What's he going to do now??? Wait! He's an impersonator. He takes the none-too-wise choice of taking on the doctor's persona and things just go downhill...
From here on you will see bare-breasted women being molested by Maxwell and a psychotic patient whom he accidentally injects with 'Super-Adrenalin', a lunatic basement fight between two women with baseball bats tearing at each other's clothes, various exhibitions of cats and dogs fighting and one memorable scene where Maxwell rips the eye out of a cat and proceeds to eat it! All this in 1934!
Make no mistake, Maniac is bad. There is no discernible rhyme or reason to the goings on here. It's also not helped by some truly atrocious acting. From the melodramatic over-zealous crazed ranting and shouting of Horace B. Carpenter as Dr Meirschultz, to the barely comprehensible Mortuary Assistant and his colleague glazing at the camera like a deer in headlights, while delivering his lines as if he were a 5-year-old in his first reading lesson, the acting stinks. Perhaps the worst turn is where, completely out of nowhere, we discover Maxwell has a wife. Where was she when his luck was down, eh? We are thrown into a scene where the mysterious Mrs Maniac is jollying it up at home with three of her girlfriends, all in various stages of gratuitous undress. Here you will find a brief acting performance from what I can only assume is the world's first and only Human Chipmunk.
Yet, despite the diabolical acting, rancid dialogue and truly awful (lack-of)directing skills on offer, Maniac is utterly compelling. I mean that in all sincerity. You really can't take your eyes off it for a minute. Taking into account it's age, the bizarreness on show here is amazing. Who needs a story or even entry-level acting? 'Plan 9' or other recognised Turkeys of it's ilk are fun to watch in a quaint 'so bad it's good' way as you laugh at the poor directing, ridiculous plots and appalling special effects. There's no such charm here. Maniac is just one scene after another of pure exploitation and it's a marvel to watch. It only takes up 51 minutes of your time and I would encourage you to see it at least once. I would actually go as far to say that it's a 'Must See'. Extremely highly recommended!
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