Thursday 8 April 2010

Maniac (1934)

Director: Dwain Esper
Star: Bill Woods

I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

There are exploitation films that surprise because of what they are or what they contain, and then there are exploitation films that continue to surprise so much that the most surprising thing of all is that they're not far more famous than they are. This little picture from Dwain Esper pulls out all the stops, with almost everything you could possibly imagine from exploitation cinema except garish colour, all stuffed into a mere 51 minute running time. What's more it was released in 1934, which seems unbelievable given some of the things that go on, though others are admittedly staples of thirties horror. Sourced primarily from Poe, it was ahead of Roger Corman by a quarter of a century. The eyeball eating scene feels like it should be in a Fulci movie half a century later. The personal take on zombies is a very modern one that writers are only now starting to get back to, three quarters of a century later. Talk about ahead of its time. Every 25 years someone catches up to something else in this film.

It establishes itself from moment one as a Dwain Esper picture. There's a cheap painted title card that only includes the single word 'Maniac', but includes a crazy guy's head sitting on top of the M and his hands reaching out of the bottom of it to grasp at us. Esper worked entirely independently of the studio system, making his films through his own production company, Roadshow Attractions, and distributing them on the road himself using the sort of tricks that would seem more appropriate for carnival hustlers. There are sections of 'educational material' slapped onto the screen, as if anyone's watching this to learn anything. Here they're supposed facts and quotations from some antique volume on criminal psychology. Really they're an opportunity for us to settle down at the beginning and catch our breath during the film and ask our neighbours, 'Hey, did you just see what I saw?'

So, I'll let you settle down with the suspect knowledge that the 'Chicago Crime Commission made a survey of 40,000 convicted criminals and found them all suffering from some mental disease,' and throw out the opinion of Wm S Sadler, MD, FACS, Director of the Chicago Institute of Research and Diagnosis, a man whose first name presumably had to be abbreviated because his credentials are too long, that 'it becomes the duty of every sane man and woman to establish quarantine against fear,' and then I'll tell you what I saw. You are sitting down, right? You should be. You are paying attention? If not I'll point out that the film was also known as Sex Maniac. Now you're paying attention, even though there's precisely no sex in the film, but hey, that's the sort of thing that Esper did to get his audiences to part with their hard earned cash. He'd tell you tht your grandmother did an orangutan in the movie just to get you to buy a ticket but he wouldn't be there when you came out again. By the way she doesn't, but there is an orangutan. Sort of.

Three years after Frankenstein, mad scientists were all the rage in Hollywood, so naturally we have one here. He's Dr Meirschultz, he's trying to bring the dead back to life and he's precisely what you might expect, with the requisite wild hair and beard, the large glasses and, of course, the de rigeur bad Bela Lugosi accent. He doesn't have much of a lab though, just a few test tubes and jars and twirly glass contraptions, but it's enough for him to be able to work miracles. All he needs now is a test subject and he tells his assistant, Don Maxwell, where they can find an ideal one, a 24 year old woman called Maria Altura, in pristine condition (other than being dead) because she killed herself with carbon monoxide gas. Meirschultz thinks that an injection of his magic serum and 24 hours of rest will bring her back to life.

He's right too but somehow we're not focusing on the fact that this particular mad scientist can raise the dead because we're more interested in the organised necrophilia that's obviously going on over at the morgue. As the mad doctor and his assistant, cunningly disguised as the coroner, steal Maria's body, a couple of embalmers start yakking it up in the next room. 'Say, did you see the beaut that come in today?' asks one. 'She's the one that's got the coroner doin' the night work.' Nudge nudge, wink wink. Thankfully we don't get to find out what the coroner and his wacky embalmer assistants get up to on their nights off because we're whipped straight back to Meirschultz's lab for him to raise Maria from the dead but get upset about his success because... well I dunno, maybe it was just too easy or something. 'There's always an element of doubt in such cases,' he tells Maxwell, after telling him earlier that she'd be an 'ideal specimen.'

Dr Meirschultz is of course outrageously confident in his abilities, something we can be sure of because he has a habit of cackling maniacally about them, but he needs to really stretch himself. So he needs another corpse, a challenging corpse, a corpse with a shattered heart so that he can transplant the one that he keeps beating in a jar in his back room into a demonstratively dead body. Unfortunately for him, Maxwell is a coward and really doesn't want to go wandering off into the morgue again. Sure, he's a true follower, a worshipper at the altar of Meirschultz the genius, but unlike every Igor there's ever been he's scared of corpses. 'It's horrible I tell you! Working on the dead! Trying to bring back life! It's not natural!' he cries and promptly fails utterly to acquire another body on his own because he gets interrupted by two cats fighting each other. Yeah. Oh, and they're tied together with string but I didn't notice that because the copy I'm watching is hardly in pristine condition.

I should point out that if Karloff and Barrymore and all the rest of the thirties icons of horror played mad scientists, actor Horace B Carpenter here plays a completely batshit scientist. He starts beating his chest and strutting up and down his lab cackling wildly, finally coming to the conclusion that if his cowardly assistant can't get him a suitable corpse, he can just kill his cowardly assistant and use him instead. Good plan, right? So he gives him a gun. Let me repeat that in case the full meaning of that sentence didn't sink in. He gives his assistant a gun and asks him to kill himself, so that he can bring him back to life through use of his magic serum with its secret formula. His cowardly assistant. Guess what happens next. Go on, guess. Yes, Maxwell kills Meirschultz instead. Can you believe it?

Maxwell is already some sort of criminal, naturally wanted by the police because all self respecting assistants to mad scientists had to be in thirties horror movies, but he's a vaudeville impersonator too, thus explaining how he can disguise himself as the coroner. 'Once a ham, always a ham!' goads Meirschultz before giving him the gun. At least he's a live ham, while Meirschultz is about to become a very dead ham. And of course Maxwell is thrust right into a further deception because the doorbell promptly rings and the idiot answers it. Like you do when you've just killed your boss who anyone ringing the doorbell has come to see, right? Wouldn't you? And sure enough, Mrs Buckley has urgent need of the doctor's assistance, so there's only one thing for it. 'Meirschultz would be missed,' he orates to the cheap seats. 'Maxwell never would.'

Yes, Maxwell decides to hide his crime and his real identity all at once by simply becoming the doctor, cutting his hair and setting up his disguise, wearing the doctor's clothes and his beard, taking over his job and his flamboyant arm gestures and, of course, going completely batshit. 'Not only do I look like Meirschultz,' he cries. 'I am Meirschultz!' Fortunately he has time to come up with all this because Mrs Buckley doesn't have a real emergency, like a husband who has been having the most 'positive alarming hallucinations,' who 'thinks he's the orangutan murderer from Poe's Murders of the Rue Morgue.' No, wait, that's precisely what she has, so naturally she just leaves him on his own in the car while Maxwell turns into Meirschultz. 'How terrible!' she cries. 'It's so very urgent!'

And if that wasn't bad enough, Maxwell promptly injects him with super adrenaline, whatever the heck that is, which almost immediately turns him into a bad version of Dwight Frye, complete with a running commentary on his condition. He flails and contorts, even snorts at us. 'Oh! Stealing through my body!' he wails. 'Creeping through my veins! Pouring in my blood! Darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me!' If you haven't worked out what this lyrical description feels like, he continues. 'Agony! I can't stand this torture! This torment! I can't stand it! I won't! I won't! Agony! Agony!' He throws his wife into the room with Meirschultz's corpse, then picks up the zombie body of Maria Altura, who through the awesome power of coincidence chooses that precise moment to shuffle into the room in a daze, and runs off with her.

Now, I thought that was King Kong not Poe's orangutan but then this steals from everything. Because it's a Dwain Esper movie, he has to go a little further. King Kong had the legendary scene where the giant ape starts to peel off Fay Wray's clothing like a banana, but that's too tame for Esper and his wife Hildegarde Stadie, who wrote the script. Here, this poor young lady has already committed suicide, been stolen from a morgue and turned into a zombie, but now she's whisked away by a mad orangutan impersonator on super adrenaline to a field to be stripped and presumably raped and murdered, if an orangutan can murder a zombie. We're into whole new levels of supernatural etiquette here and we're so stunned that there was actual nudity in a 1934 movie to realise that the girl isn't Maria Altura any more. Presumably the actress wouldn't do nude scenes so Esper just threw the next available female in there instead.

What's truly scary is that this is only the beginning and things promptly flail off in every direction at once. There are more scenes of blurry cats fighting each other, or cats and rats or cats and dogs or whatever they are. That's the one problem with really bad condition public domain prints, you can never see precisely what idiocy is going on in a dark room. We get more quotes from medical textbooks about things like 'dementia praecox' and 'paresis' and 'manic depressive neuroses', not that we can be bothered to read them but perhaps they're really markers on the road Maxwell is taking to the next level beyond batshit. There's even utterly unrelated footage of demons and hellspawn from silent European movies like Häxan superimposed onto the screen as if to highlight Maxwell's mental descent. There are strange quotes, like 'Doctors of science often have queer things on their minds,' that mean precisely nothing and make us wonder why we're even listening to them.

And that's just the basic stuff. Mrs Buckley, who is played by Phyllis Diller (but not that one) can't help but notice the corpse of the real Dr Meirschultz and so decides to blackmail Maxwell. 'I've often heard of your uncanny experiments,' she tells him, explaining how she wants her husband brought back as a zombie to do whatever she directs. Hints at necrophilia, rape and zombie abuse in the same movie! Whatever next? Animal abuse? Oh yeah, those uncanny experiments were all on cats, because Meirschultz's neighbour has thousands of them in his back yard. He tells us so. I say 'his', but in a quirk befitting this movie, the male neighbour is apparently played in drag by the assistant director's sister, Marian Constance Blackton. If that's true, she's by far the best actor in this film, even if her character is rather strange. This neighbour breeds cats for their fur.

Actually he breeds both cats and rats because he's cleverly self contained. 'Rats breed faster than cats,' he tells a journalist looking for Meirschultz. 'So the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats and I get the skins.' The journalist doesn't belong to the SPCA so is merely intrigued. 'A rat eating a cat?' he says. 'Why, that is news! By the way, did you hear a shot last night?' Maxwell has a cat too, inherited from Meirschultz, who well may have experimented on many of the creatures in his time but still kept one himself as a pet. With all the subtlety due this story it's named Satan, though we don't find that out until after Maxwell memorably tells the neighbour, 'I think too much of Satan to experiment on cats.' That's one of those lines you never thought you'd hear in a movie, but this film is full of that sort of thing.

Anyway, Maxwell's love of animals is about to change, for two very good reasons. One is he's been planning to resurrect Meirschultz as a zombie by transplanting that still beating heart, but Satan promptly eats it. In retaliation, get this, he chases the cat down then squeezes it until its eye pops out of its socket, picks up the offending object from the ground and swallows it whole. 'Why, it is not unlike an oyster, or a grape!' he cries. Like the zombie molestation scene, we're supposed to be stunned enough by what's happening to not notice that Satan has suddenly changed from being a black cat to a tabby cat with a missing eye, but perhaps Esper just didn't care. The second reason is that after resurrection is cruelly denied him, he walls the doctor up in the cellar instead and starts rabbiting on about 'the gleam' because Satan has snuck in there too.

Yes, this was sourced from Poe, in case you've forgotten, and the key story is The Black Cat, even though we've already touched on Murders in the Rue Morgue and started on The Tell-Tale Heart too. I don't remember zombie rape or super adrenaline in Poe's stories but then this is a very loose adaptation. Here's where I should point out that Esper and Stadie decided that there were too many men in this picture, so decided, two thirds of the way into the film, that there should be more women. 'Maxwell had forgotten all about his wife, and she him until...' reads the intertitle and we throw our hands up in despair. Well actually we don't, given that we're now watching four scantily clad young ladies flouncing around a room. Maizie's in the bath and the other three just like hanging around in their underwear to read books, press clothes, exercise on the vibrating machine or just squeak at us in dialogue.

One of them sounds squeakier than any cartoon character I've ever heard but we're supposed to be paying attention to Alice, who is the one trying to sound like Mae West. These girls read in the paper that Don Maxwell has inherited a fortune so she wonders if he still hangs around with the goofy professor and decides to wander over to our film to see if she can find out. What she finds is a mass of batshit lunacy, as Maxwell, as Meirschultz, hallucinates about naked patients and raves about 'the gleam' which is in everyone's eyes now. He sees a solution though, setting both Mrs Buckley and his wife up to believe the other is a homicidal lunatic hell bent on killing her, drugs them up and sets them at it. Now the cellar is a hotbed of animal activity, with hopping frogs, some sort of bird watching on and a vicious clothes ripping catfight between Mrs Buckley and Alice.

This is awesome stuff. 'The gleam!' Maxwell raves. 'The gleam!' as the cops come running. 'I only wanted to amuse, to entertain,' he tells us at the end from behind bars. 'No-one appreciates.' Oh, but we do, we do. How could we not? Sure, the best acting is horrendous, the sets are sparse, the dialogue delirious. The direction is sometimes capable but is often lost in a haze because of the poor quality of the print. This film really warrants a proper restoration job and a Criterion release but given the fact that it sucks royally, that so isn't going to happen. What it is though is unadulterated exploitation lunacy, bad beyond belief but magnetic because of the lengths it goes to, especially given the timeframe. This is batshit cinema at its finest and don't you forget it.


Andreas said...

This is an awesome review of a very awesome movie. He may have been a no-talent hack, but Esper was definitely a great showman, and I've probably watched Maniac 5-10 times. "Batshit insane" is probably the best way to describe it.

I'm not sure how you watched it, but my college recently obtained a double feature of Maniac and Narcotic released by Kino, complete with audio commentary by exploitation film historian Bret Wood.

Thanks a lot for reminding me what a fantastically off-the-wall movie Maniac truly is.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Many thanks for your comment, Andreas. The more I see Esper the more I think I need to see more Esper.

I have a few copies of Maniac in various public domain box sets, but I don't have Narcotic. I'll have to track it down. I'm sure Netflix have it.

Of his other films, I've only reviewed Marihuana at present, though Esper gets a namecheck in Reefer Madness too, not because he made it but because he's the one who took it on the road.


Anonymous said...

Just heard about this movie and, wanting to be an educated consumer, looked it up. After reading several reviews, must say yours is the best. Thanks, in fact for time you have put into your site. Now I'm going to have to hunt up many of the others you write about!

Somewhere near Buffalo, NY

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Carl!

If you enjoyed this review, you should enjoy the other Cinematic Hell reviews. I haven't reached the fifty I'm aiming at yet but I'm pretty close and the others should arrive in the next couple of months. Then I can settle down into turning them into book form.