Friday, December 16, 2011

Maniac - 1934


Director:                 Dwain Esper
Writer:                     Hildegarde Stadie
Asst.Director:        J.Stuart Blackton, Jr.
Photographer:       William Thompson
Editor:                    William Austin

Don Maxwell             Bill Woods
Dr. Meirschultz          Horace Carpenter
Buckley                      Ted Edwards
Mrs. Buckley             Phyllis Diller  (no, not the comedienne)
Alice Maxwell            Theo Ramsey
Maizie                       Jenny Dark
Marvel                        Marvel Andre
Jo                               Celia McCann
Embalmer                 J.P. Wade

no kisses!

This might possibly be the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen, not to mention one of the worst.  And that’s saying something.  I can appreciate a poorly made film that is entertaining in spite of itself, especially if it feels as if some sincere effort to make a good movie was behind it.  But not “Maniac”; from the first shot of the title it has the scent of incompetence.  Additionally, it is so distasteful, so perverse, so joyless, so skin-crawlingly creepy in a sick way that I just can’t give it any credit for entertainment.  Throw in exploitative misogyny and misanthropy with a misconceived mise en scene, and you have a bad movie.  Not to mention a lot of words that start with ‘mis’. 

The acting is laughable.  The direction and editing stink (let’s not mince words here).  The continuity is non-existent.  The sound and photography are poor and not synched properly.   The story is ridiculous and the script is so absurd and filled with non sequiturs that it’s hard to believe it was written by a human.  The only good thing you can say about the dialogue is that between the mush-mouthed actors and the bad recording it's hard to hear.  Production values must have been considered mythological, sort of like unicorns.  (Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?)

“Maniac” uses the unique device of intertitle cards with simple and usually incorrect meanings of psycho-medical terms such as ‘paranoia’ or “dementia”.  This is supposed to fill us in on the medical explanation of the psychopathy we are witnessing on screen, as if we are watching a dramatic recreation of a case history.   For example:

These cards are shown over sentimental music which starts and stops abruptly and would be more suitable for a scene of kittens playing with a ball of wool than discussions of violent abnormal psychology.

I will now indulge myself while trying your patience at the same time. The use of that same limp device in this review will surely help you in understanding the abnormal cinematic-pathology I am describing.  Sorry, no music.

                Exploitation - treatment of someone, or the use of a situation in a way
                 that is wrong, in order to get some benefit for oneself.  Or, the process
                of making use of something so that you gain as much as possible
                from it.
                Macmillan Dictionary, 2009

“Maniac”, made by the husband and wife team of Dwain Esper and Hildegarde Stadie, is one of the little known but classic exploitation movies of the 1930’s, a decade rife with exploitation.  You might say it was a golden age – if such a phrase is appropriate to describe such a phenomenon.  It can be mentioned in the same breath as beauties such as “Child Bride” “Marijuana”, “Delinquent Daughters”, “The Road to Ruin”, “Mad Youth”, and probably the best known of this ilk, “Reefer Madness”.

All of these movies were made behind the front of being “educational”.  This misnomer is the mother of all phony-baloney covers.  It was merely an excuse to pander to the lowest common denominator which exists in us all, whether we like to admit it or not.  It was an excuse to show the audience wild parties, marijuana use, drinking, nudity, sex, young innocent girls in the throws of abandoning their morals, and boys more than willing to help them out with that, not to mention the satisfying sight of the morning after hangovers and regrets.

Exploitation films – films made with little or no attention to quality
 or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure
sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect
 of the product.
The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz.  1979.

We are shown the depths to which young people are dragged by the above vices.  Of course, we first get to enjoy the sight of them enjoying the vices.  In order to create some sort of “story” violence, greed, lust ( and let’s throw in gluttony, sloth, envy and pride as well), are all coated with thin layers of lame plots which purport to warn the audience of some vile social threat of which we must all be made aware.  For example, “Reefer Madness” ostensibly existed to warn parents of the dangers of that “narcotic” marijuana.  Its original title was “Tell Your Children” – that could have been the title to any of these flicks.
In order to get around local moral restrictions as well as the film industry Production Code, these movies included “educational speeches”, or at the very least absurd plot devices intended to mete out the harshest possible life lessons for the teens in the story.  They all included at least one violent death, and usually a few prison sentences for the survivors at the finale.   

Production Code – A self-regulatory code of ethics created in 1930
 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America
 and put into effect in 1934.  The code set forth general standards
 of “good taste” and specific do’s and don’ts concerning what
 could and could not be shown in American Movies.  Among
 the general principles of the code was the requirement that “no
 picture shall be produced which will lower the standards of those
 who see it”.  Its seal of approval was denied any film that did
 not meet its morality standards, a risk few producers dared take
The Film Encyclopedia, Ephraim Katz.  1979

The advertising and marketing are done in a shotgun manner.  Get the movie into a small town movie theater, market the hell out of it, show the movie, grab the money and get out of town quick.

“Maniac” achieves a weird one-up-manship over a movie like “Reefer Madness”.  Not only are the immorality and nudity ramped up, so are the violence and just plain goofiness. Any attempt at “acting” is purely accidental.  “Maniac” makes “Reefer Madness” look restrained, not to mention polished and professional.   

The story involves Don Maxwell, a former vaudeville performer who specialized in impersonations, and is now lab assistant to mad scientist Doctor Meirschultz.  The crazy doctor has developed a serum which, when injected into a dead body, will achieve re-animation.  Doctor Meirschultz has some sort of ‘goods’ on Maxwell, evidently the police would be interested in finding out where he is.  This forces Maxwell to assist the scientist in his nutty experiments.  When the doctor gets the inspired idea to have his assistant shoot himself so he can be re-animated, Maxwell turns the tables on the good doctor and shoots him instead.  When patients start showing up to see the doctor, Maxwell – remember, he can do impressions - is able to impersonate the loony doctor with ease.  A fake beard, a pair of glasses, whiten his hair and voila!
Phony doctor

With extraordinarily poor timing, Mrs. Buckley brings her husband to see Dr. Meirschultz.  Mr. Buckley has a delusion that he is “the orangutang murderer in Poe’s murderer in the rue morgue” (sic). This woman’s performance is so embarrassingly bad it would be worthwhile only if it came with a free coffee coupon. The character of the insane husband seems to exist solely to include a scene of a woman (the re-animated one) being abducted and attacked by him.  This actor gives what is probably the best performance in the film.  Seriously.  At least he’s trying.  Here he is transforming into the ape after the phony doctor has risked a possible malpractice suit by mistakenly injecting him with "hyper adrenaline".  You also get a taste of the wife’s performance. 

Another memorable performance is given by an actor un-named in the credits.    His character seems to  live next door to the doctor and runs some kind of cat ranch.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  He raises the cats in order to skin them, sell the pelts, feed the carcasses ….well, I’ll let him tell you as he explains it to a visiting detective.

This brings me to the subject of subtext.  ‘Cats’ seems to be a subtext in this film.  Not just cats, but inexplicable scenes of cats fighting with other cats, cats in cages, cats chasing mice, cats tripping Maxwell as he is about to steal a dead body from a mortuary,  Maxwell popping out a cat's eye and eating it, and a cat eating a human heart that the doctor had been keeping alive in a jar.  In other words, cats.

Subtext:  1.  an underlying theme in a piece of writing.
 2.  a message which is not stated directly but can be inferred.
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged
10th Edition.  2009

Subtext.  This image was not taken from the film.

Another important subtext to this film is ‘women’.  Specifically, women who are partly or completely undressed, women being fondled by the phony doctor, women who are being kidnapped and attacked by ape-men, women in the bathtub, women dancing around their bedroom in their skivvies, or women fighting and ripping each other’s clothes off. There is absolutely no reason for any of these scenes.  Wait a minute, there is absolutely no reason for ANY of the scenes in the movie.  So, I guess it really doesn’t matter.  Okay, there IS a reason for the ‘woman’ scenes.  Titillation of the audience. 
More subtext.  This image is from the movie.

On second thought, the word ‘subtext’ might be giving it too much dignity.       

The two mad scientists arrive at the morgue to steal a corpse for the re-animation deal.  In order to not look suspicious (!) Maxwell impersonates the coroner.  (Really, how could this guy not have made it in show biz?).  While they are reviving a corpse with the wonder fluid, two morgue attendants provide some running commentary on their jobs.  At least I think so.  It’s hard to tell since they both seem to have missed Elocution Day in acting school.  One of them sounds like Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade”.  However, he sounds like Sir John Gielgud compared to the other one who says something like…. “Buhtwin de gunsturs anthe awtodrivurs wedonneed anuthur warta carry offthe popalayshun.”  Sorry, that's the best I could do.

There is a distasteful hint of necrophilia when the attendants discuss the “beaut” that just came in.  They are referring to the corpse of a recently attractive young woman.  However, in this movie necrophilia might be considered a light and breezy plot point.  These two would probably creep out Leatherface. 

The movie not only mentions “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, but also cribs substantially from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”.  In order to hide the scientist’s corpse from the police, Maxwell walls it up in the basement.  Unbeknownst to him, the cat he hated has also been trapped behind the brick wall, and gives him away with its cries when a group of pretty lethargic police finally show up.  Poe receives no acknowledgment in the credits and I have the feeling that the Baltimore genius would be just fine with that. 

I forgot to mention that during the scenes in the laboratory there is an irritating noise which sounds like someone a few feet away using a typewriter.  Probably finishing the script for the next scene.  Seriously.

I will admit that there is one thing about this movie that is almost enjoyable.  The actor who plays Doctor Meirschultz is so over the top, so extravagantly weird, so bizarrely eccentric, that it is entertaining.  He is the only person I’ve ever heard in a movie who actually makes that laughing sound that you usually only hear the bad guys do in cartoons.  You know the one I mean:   “BWAAA-HAA-HAA-HAA-HAA-HAAAA!!!!”

I could go on and on with this movie; it is of an almost unbelievable badness.  I haven't even mentioned the inexplicable shot of the leaping bullfrog or the inane philosophical soliloquies. The first time I watched it was out of curiosity.  Then I watched it a second time because I couldn’t believe what I saw the first time.  Finally I had to force myself to watch it a third time to remind myself of some of its horrors so I could write this.  I feel like I should get a Purple Heart; something for going above and beyond the call of duty for a movie reviewer.

About the title - “Maniac” was also used as the title for an 1980 movie about a serial killer.  I haven’t seen that movie, but I’m going to take a wild guess that it is a little better than this one.  It is also the title to the song most closely associated with the movie “Flashdance”.

The song – “Maniac” by Michael Sambello.  Released in 1983,
 this was featured in the movie “Flashdance”, which starred
Jennifer Beals as a welder by day, dancer by night.

Sembello wrote this with his songwriting partner Dennis Matkosky,
 who got the idea when he saw the William Lustig 1980 movie
 “ Maniac”, which is about a serial killer who stalks his victims
 in New York City.
 Sembello: "He came up with the original kernel of inspiration and
 came to me with the basic idea and groove and I believe the temporary
 lyrics for the chorus he had were:
'He's a maniac, maniac that's for sure
     He will kill your cat and nail him to the door'

That direction obviously wasn't going to work at which point the genius
 of Phil Ramone, producer of the soundtrack who had the vision to
 see the potential of the song, asked us to change it to the present concept
 of a girl possessed with the passion of a gift for dance. Without Phil it
 would not have happened.  It was nominated for an academy award
 and was disqualified according to 'academy rules' because the song
 was changed from the original and was not originally written solely for
 the film, which pisses me off to this day."

(The song) was accidentally included on a tape of Sembello's songs his wife sent to Paramount for consideration in Flashdance. The
 studio loved it and used it in the movie.
(Also, it) was commonly used in aerobics classes, which was a big
trend at the time.

From the Website “Songfacts”

It’s too bad the song wasn’t around in time for our movie.  The original lyrics sound as if they could have been written for it
          'He's a maniac, maniac that's for sure
           He will kill your cat and nail him to the door'

Such a shame.  Seriously.

I think I will let Dr. Meirschultz have the last word, and I believe he speaks for us all.



  1. I bought a "wire bin" collection of ten "classic horror films" at Fred Meyers for five bucks ... I figured at 50 cents a film, how could I lose? Well, I found out ... this was one of two films in the collection so putrescent as to make me regret ever watching them (the other being "Piranha", a vomitously terrible - I don't even know how to begin - travelogue footage wildly intercut with pointless testosterone contests, with that suspicious "made-for-tv" aroma?)

    The only reason I found your review (which is, both sadly and hilariously, spot-on!) is because I couldn't believe the conniving hausfrau was Phyllis Diller -- and you were the first person to have done the homework to say "not her, the other one". In the process, I discovered your page, which is killer!.

    1. Dear Anonymous -
      Thank you so much for your comment and for the nice words. They are appreciated. The collection of "classic horror films" you mention might be the same one I have. I'll have to check to see if "Piranha" is included. If it is, as soon as I have steeled my nerves sufficiently I'll try to watch it.