Maniac (1934). 51 minutes. Directed by Dwain Esper. Starring Bill Woods (as Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (as Dr. Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (as Buckley), Phyllis Diller (as Mrs. Buckley), Thea Ramsey (as Alice Maxwell), Jenny Dark (as Maizie), Marvel Andre (as Marvel), Celia McCann (as Jo), and John P. Wade (as embalmer).
Maniac is spectacularly bad—pretentious, gross, offensive, and unbearably confusing. I became aware of it because of Michael Adams’s book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astrozombies, in which he details how he spent a year watching the worst movies ever made. To Adams, Maniac is one of the very worst that he screened and by far the worst film director Dwain Esper ever was involved in, even worse than his Reefer Madness (1936). Compared to Reefer Madness, which is a propaganda film, Maniac is not obviously on a mission to persuade us politically through preposterous means, and accordingly, it actually made my head hurt less. But at the same time, Maniac is more repulsive, more explicit, and more stomach-churning in its awful details than Reefer Madness. I recommend it as essential, public-domain viewing for those of you who love bad movies—it has to be one of the wildest and the worst of the 1930s.
The plot is sensational and unpleasant. Don Maxwell is a former vaudeville performer who when the movie opens is serving as a reluctant assistant to the medical researcher Dr. Meirschultz. Meirschultz is intent on revivifying corpses, and when Maxwell cannot bring himself to steal one for him, the doctor tells Maxwell to kill himself for use in the experiment. Maxwell refuses and kills Meirschultz instead, then decides to impersonate Meirschultz wearing elaborate makeup to cover up his crime. Maxwell begins to go insane.
The Buckleys come to see him for treatment, believing him to be Meirschultz, but Maxwell shoots Mr. Buckley up with adrenaline, turning him into a crazed fiend. Buckley seizes a revivified female from the lab, abducts her, and rapes her in a park. Meanwhile Mrs. Buckley discovers that Maxwell is a fraud and murderer. She blackmails him and asks him to turn Buckley into a zombie so she can control him. Instead, Maxwell brings his estranged wife Alice over, convinces her that Mrs. Buckley will try to kill her, arms both women with lethal syringes, and locks them in the basement where they have a shrieking cat fight. A neighbor calls the police, and Maxwell is arrested and placed in jail, where he proclaims that he is a great actor indeed.
Part of what makes Maniac so unbelievably awful is the way that it mingles its crass, low-budget impulses with bizarre literary pretensions. For all of its poverty of artistry, the movie nevertheless borrows heavily and brazenly from four Edgar Allan Poe stories: “The Black Cat,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and possibly “The Tell-tale Heart.” Yet its cheap impersonation of these tales only reminded me of how much I prefer Poe’s work to Esper’s. Whereas Poe coherently taps into some of the more cruel and gruesome aspects of human behavior while encouraging us to feel sorry for the tortured victims of his horrific conceits, Esper’s characters act in random deplorable ways to provide us with perverse and unfettered thrills. It is difficult to empathize with any of his creations because they are all underdeveloped and shallow, and there is no space made available for thoughtful reflection on any of the characters’ actions.
It becomes especially difficult to examine any of the movie’s activity with humane concern given its unnerving, gross-out material, which is both implicitly and explicitly conveyed. A chief example of this lies in Maniac’s constant use of cats engaged in disturbing behavior: cats preying on rats, cats being chased and endangered by humans, cats fighting each other, cats fighting dogs, etc. There is also the neighbor Goof who keeps cats in large chicken-wire structures in his backyard. At first we might think he keeps them because he is fond of them; we hear him comment to police that Meirschultz is catching them and using them in experiments, and he is distressed by this. But then we learn that Goof is raising the cats so that he can skin them. He also uses the cats to keep the rat population under control in a nonsensical way: the cats eat the rats, and then he feeds the cat corpses to the rats in a sickening circle of life to keep his business afloat. Mercifully, Maniac does not show us any of Goof’s repulsive practices, but the description of them was enough to make me feel ill.
A more explicit moment of fictional animal abuse sends Maniac right over the edge into gonzo territory and is probably the movie’s single worst moment. When the mad Maxwell is pestered by a black cat who has infiltrated his lab, he pounces on the cat in close-up, holds its head still, pulls out its eye, and then pops it into his mouth and eats it. It is both utterly disgusting and utterly unbelievable, particularly because when the camera cuts from the black cat Maxwell is chasing to the cat he is holding and from which he extracts the eye, the cat he holds is obviously a grey, eyeless cat, from whose already empty socket Maxwell is pulling something like a dark grape.
In its exploitation of animals and displays of cruel behavior, Maniac clearly intends to shock and disturb us, but it also does so through its crude sexual content. The zombie-like woman carried off by Buckley in his adrenaline rage—a suicide case whom Meirschultz has reanimated and in another movie we might actually pity—is not merely carried off by Buckley but grabbed and fondled on camera. He rips her clothes, exposing her breasts, and once outside drags her behind a bush where he presumably rapes her. There are more bare breasts elsewhere in the movie: Maxwell has a patient undress in one revealing scene, and there is jiggling, lingerie-encased flesh in Alice Maxwell’s dressing room, where one of her showgirl colleagues uses a vibrating exercise machine to stimulate her hips. Everywhere we turn, women are being undressed and exposed. This includes the final fight between Alice and Mrs. Buckley in the basement, where they pull at each other’s clothes and shriek. Even the pompous Mrs. Buckley’s furs go flying. Maniac is keen to reduce most of its characters to either semi-nude victims or raving nuts, but I’m not sure whose fate is worse.
The raving nuts part is where Maniac becomes really interesting to me. One thing that I have thus far neglected to mention is that the movie’s action is interspersed with title cards providing overly long, barely clinical lecture pieces on different types of mental illness. These profiles of psychiatric conditions are accompanied by grand statements about the relationship between reality and delusion, the real world versus the world of our inner perceptions and distortions. Bloviations and inept metaphors abound: the prologue tells us that the brain is like a musical instrument played by the mind—as if this helps us to understand anything. When the camera scrolls through these diatribes that describe the chief characteristics of diagnoses such as manic depression or what is now known as schizophrenia, cloying chamber music plays in the background, suggesting that we are watching another film about a different subject.
It is not clear to me that anyone in the film suffers from any of the conditions chronicled at length in the title cards; Maxwell’s unhinged state is a cartoonish mad-scientist malady, and Buckley’s insanity is manifested as an ape-like, criminal rage, inspired by adrenaline. In particular, in spite of the film’s title, no one exhibits a manic state. The overall effort of the film is to make what madness we see appear to be scary, monstrous, and evil. And yet in the title cards, the film pretends to be something more profound than it is, a serious treatment of psychiatric states, a movie rooted in science.
Of course, Maniac is not scientific in the least. The movie’s lab scenes are laughable, with lots of bubbling tubes, a beating heart pickled in a jar, oversized syringes, and corpse stealing. It is at its heart a good old body snatcher movie. And yet even the body snatching lacks coherence. For example, when Meirschultz resurrects the woman who died by suicide, he keeps her in a room in the lab, but she is shortly snatched up by Buckley and fled with. What was the point of the project to restore her? Her revivification must be one of the great all-time human achievements, but her successful return to life is hardly mentioned. And what happens to her after she is raped? She is discarded from the plot like so much refuse. And then there is the beating heart, which frequently is shown throbbing in close-up during the lab scenes. It seems to be used as a symbol for something: the power of science? Meirschultz’s mad pursuit of his unholy experiments? Or is it a pathetic echo of the Poe stories that Maniac lazily and ineptly draws inspiration from? It is eventually forgotten about. The science lab with its fantastic specimens, human and otherwise, ultimately just provides a sensationalistic background for exploitation.
As if mad scientists, insanity, corpse theft, animal torture, sexual assault, and murder were not enough, Maniac ices its bewildering cake of shock and repulsion with a bizarre satanic element. In many scenes when Maxwell is in his element, soliloquizing about his mad schemes alone in the lab, the movie projects shots of what I can only describe as witches’ hands with long, pointed fingers moving in silent incantations over his wild face. The shots of occult hands morph into shots of ancient satyrs (possibly devils?) laughing and carousing. The idea is presumably to convey the full range of Maxwell’s weirdo dementedness at these moments, but the images of witches and satyrs also graft a peculiar dimension of religious evil, the supernatural, and the otherworldly onto this story that it by no means can support on any intellectual level. It is just too much, and the satyr material in particular sends Maniac right over the edge into the full-blown outrageous.
One thing that I have to say for Maniac is that while it was no doubt made on the cheap, director Dwain Esper reserved some of his budget for effects such as the repulsive cat’s eye and the demonic satyr footage. In a very strange way that I do not fully understand, I have to kind of admire Esper for really pulling out all of the stops given his limited means. This is not a sensible, good-looking, admirable, ethical, or enjoyable movie. But it is a movie that is doing everything it can to try to convey a point of view. Part of the problem is that its point of view is utterly indeterminable. But in a movie like Reefer Madness, where the director’s perspective is all too clear, I also felt more bombarded at the end, more dejected about life. Perhaps part of what makes Maniac almost superior to Reefer Madness is that it cannot figure out what it is trying to do. Its only strength lies in the fact that it is an utter mess.