Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "MANIAC" (a/k/a "SEX MANIAC") (1934)

When the great horror movies of the 1930s are talked about, Maniac is nowhere in sight. This is an unfair omission. Not that Maniac is up there with Island of Lost Souls. Its budget was probably in the mid three-figures, its actors either incompetent or more over the top than Donald Trump's hair, and its dialogue written by someone under the influence of some particularly bad synthetic marijuana.

All of these supposed negatives, however, make Maniac disturbing on more levels than has Candy Crush. The work of self-styled auteur Dwain Esper, Maniac was shown exclusively in "adults only" grindhouses and, when those weren't available, tents set up outside of city limits. That's what nudity, insanity and animal abuse will do to a movie's distribution.

Maniac rips off Frankenstein and several Edgar Allan Poe stories while still managing to be altogether unique. Dr. Meirschultz, a mad scientist (is there any other kind?) is working on a technique to bring the dead back to life. His assistant, Don Maxwell, is a former vaudevillian on the run from the police for unknown reasons. It would seem, however, he's wanted for impersonating an actor, and rather badly at that.

Maxwell strikes a blow for every
overworked employee in America.
Meirschultz is able to revive a suicide victim, who now walks around his house like a negligee-clad zombie. But what he really wants is someone with a "shattered heart." (Like all mad scientists, he's got a fresh, beating heart inside a Mason jar on his table.) Meirschultz suggests Maxwell kill himself in order to be brought back to life. Maxwell counters this intriguing proposition by shooting him



"Hey, look what I found!"
Since Maxwell naturally keeps his stage make-up kit in the lab among the hypos and beating hearts, he's able to pass himself off as his late boss. But once he gives an insane patient named Buckley a shot of "super adrenaline" (launching the funniest/creepiest transformation scene in movie history), Maxwell realizes that there's more to being a mad scientist than powdered hair, spirit gum and a Bela Lugosi-accent. 

Buckley kidnaps the zombie femme and, in a sop to the more demanding audiences of 1934, shows his love by undressing her before grabbing her by the throat. We never learn what becomes of them, but I don't think it was a honeymoon in Bora Bora.

Toss in Maxwell's ex-wife, an inheritance, and a sloppy climactic fight between two women who think the other's insane, and you've got a 50-minute movie that stands the test of time, even while most people today can't stand it.

Remember the Republican debate?
Maniac attempts to be a serious take on mental health issues by occasionally describing the actions we're witnessing. Accompanied by queasy violins, these onscreen analyses are to make you feel less guilty for watching a tasteless melodrama aimed at ticket-buyers -- men, mostly -- who couldn't get their hands on porn. 


"Excuse me while I consult with
my colleagues."
If the audience found words like "dementia praecox" beyond their ken, however, they received visual cues whenever Meirschultz or Maxwell go on their insane rants. From out of nowhere, images of smoke, hypnotic hands and laughing devils (stolen from a silent movie) appear to let us know that something isn't right in Maniac Land. 


This is what drove grandpa wild back
in the day.
A brief scene featuring Maxwell's wife and her friends exists only as an excuse for a bunch of women (I hesitate to use the word "actresses") to parade around ungracefully in their underwear. In addition to being utterly inept, they all wear furry, high-heeled slippers, an item of clothing I've never seen anywhere except old exploitation movies like this. What was hot stuff in 1934 is just icky now.

An eye for an eye for a cat.
The ambient sounds on Maniac's soundtrack -- a noisy camera? air conditioner? -- can't hide the priceless dialogue, which reaches a peak in the movie's most notorious scene. Maxwell, by now in the depths of paranoia, is convinced that a black cat has the "gleam" of the devil in its eye. As the cat appears to be tossed across the set by an off-camera stagehand, Maxwell gives chase. Finally catching his prey, Maxwell squeezes out its left eye and, holding it to the light, proclaims, "It's not unlike an oyster or a grape!" before giddily chowing it down. 

To make the scene that much more realistic, a one-eyed stunt cat was used for the close-up. You can only picture the want-ad Esper put in the trades: "ONE-EYED CAT NEEDED. MUST NOT MIND HAVING GLASS EYE VIOLENTLY SQUEEZED OUT OF ITS SOCKET." That the two cats don't look a thing alike is secondary. Show it any CGI-drugged audience today and watch 'em gag.


Satisfied customers leave L.A.'s Gayety Theatre during
Maniac's original 1934 run. Note the added attraction
of onstage "SEX MODELS."
Even among fans of the strange or bizarre, Maniac is an acquired taste, despite playing the grindhouse circuit into the early 1970s. It's too weird to be simply sniffed at as "bad," too ugly to show to unprepared audiences, and way too politically incorrect to run at college film festivals. (I didn't even mention the brief subplot involving a guy who skins cats for a living.) Nobody actually enjoys Maniac in the accepted definition of the word. At best, most viewers sit there in slack-jawed disbelief, as if they're watching a living nightmare. 

Circulating prints, however, are in surprisingly good shape -- a little scratchy, but otherwise quite sharp for an indie movie over 80 years old. At least somebody cared to preserve it.

And it's educational, too. Thanks to one of the onscreen diagnoses -- "failure of memory, poor retention, and failure on the part of the patient to curb his primitive tendencies" -- I learned I had paresis. Thanks, doc!

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The original 1934 trailer for Maniac. If you can't watch it, go here. It will make thy blood to creep. Honest, it says so!





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