65. MANIAC (1934)

AKA Sex Maniac

“Unless you regularly do mushrooms and go to Lady Gaga concerts with your good friend Crispin Glover, then watching Maniac is guaranteed to be the weirdest experience you have ever had.”–ad copy for the Rifftrax version of Maniac

DIRECTED BY: Dwain Esper

FEATURING: Bill Woods

PLOT:  An on-the-lam vaudevillian kills and impersonates his mad scientist employer, driving himself mad in the process.

Maniac (1934)


BACKGROUND:

  • Dwain Esper was a successful building contractor who, it is rumored, only got into the movie business when he came into possession of a cache of filmmaking equipment that was abandoned in a foreclosed property.  He worked outside the film distribution system, taking his exploitation movies on the road and showing them in rented venues, accompanied by lurid advertisements promising forbidden fruit for “adults only.”  Esper obtained the rights to Tod Browning’s Freaks from MGM for a song, and took the movie on the road with his other exploitation hits.  Other films he directed or produced had titles such as Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband.
  • Made outside of the Hollywood system, Maniac was not subject to the Hays Production Code, although it probably ran afoul of most local censorship laws.  Audacious directors like Esper deliberately put racy material into their films that the major studios could not touch.  Maniac contains a scandalous amount of nudity, which had been extremely rare in motion pictures up until that time and was banned outright when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1934.
  • The film incorporates (steals) footage from Maciste in Hell (1925), and reportedly also from Häxan (1920) and Fritz Lang‘s Sigfried (1923), for its delirium sequences.
  • Named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie Movie Guide.
  • One gruesome scene involving a cat’s eyeball appears to be a real case of animal abuse, but is almost certainly a convincing illusion.
  • The movie’s ending rips off the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The Black Cat.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are lots of strange, unexpected sights to be seen in this time capsule of man’s freakish desires, but you won’t forget the cat’s eyeball.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDManiac promises to show us the life of a madman as a shameless


Scene from Maniac

pretext for delivering multiple shock scenes in an “educational” context, but the final product is so disjointed, feverish and crazily assembled that it seems to be the work of an actual madman.

COMMENTS: Most bad movies are just bad.  A rare breed are so bad they’re “unintentionally” entertaining (famously, Ed Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space).  Another rare breed are so bad—so cluelessly revealing of their auteurs skewed worldviews—that they assume a mantle of weirdness (see List entries Horrors of Spider Island and The Beast of Yucca Flats).  But probably no film in history has been as simultaneously bad, weird, and entertaining as the unique Maniac.  Aside from Esper’s exploitation masterpiece, perhaps only Wood’s Glen or Glenda? could be considered as having completed this unholy hat trick; but that 1950s pro-transvestite pseudo-documentary contained dry passages that thrill bad movie enthusiasts highly attuned to continuity errors and strangled prose but alienate regular folk, whereas Maniac is packed with wall-to-wall jaw-droppingness that cannot fail to stun and impress the most straight-laced viewer.

The claim that Maniac is weird, entertaining, and bad brings to mind that old metaphysical conundrum about bad movies: if a movie is entertaining, then can it also be bad?  Movies are generally meant to entertain, after all, so isn’t an “entertaining bad movie” an oxymoron?  Maniac is one of those oddities that obliterates the distinction between “good” and “bad”: it carves out its own insane realm where deranged overacting, insane plot twists, and superimposed Satanic stock footage converge to create a self-contained universe of consistent absurdity.  Abominable acting and illogical story aside, if we consider the way in which the director realized his intended vision as the standard for a “good” film, then Maniac is a masterpiece.  Esper created exactly the shocking, impossible-to-turn-away-from movie he set out to make.  He was almost certainly as pleased to see the final product—which made him a mint on the roadshow circuit—as lovers of deranged cinema are to view this maniacal curio.

The one feature of Maniac that is unquestionably bad, but in a fun way, is the acting.  Early in the film, our hero’s mad scientist benefactor utters—in his bad German accent, drawing out every syllable as if he’s being paid per second of dialogue—the immortal, unintentionally ironic words, “Once a ham… alvays a ham.  You… an actor?”  He’s addressing the main character, but the charge could be leveled at anyone in the cast.  The movie is a grand tour through all the pre-war styles of over- and under-acting.  Starring as a vaudevillian with a legally spotty past indentured to a man trying to bring the dead back to life, Bill Woods seems to think he’s in a Shakespearean tragedy.  He enunciates, and conveys immense psychic distress via his eyebrows.  (Woods does deserve credit for mimicking the deceased doctor’s ostentatious accent almost perfectly when he impersonates his ex-boss).  One character, Mrs. Buckley, is uncannily calm and levelheaded when, just after her husband absconds with a zombie girl, she uncovers a murder.  She delivers the lines “Doctor, what have you done? This looks like murder!” in a tone reminiscent of a bad actress scolding a naughty child.  Minor characters seem to have been grabbed from a rest homes or dancing halls and given their lines to learn five minutes before filming starts.  There’s the cat-raising imbecile next door (known in the script as “Goof”), who thinks he’s auditioning for a role as the slow-witted Dead End Kid, despite the fact that he’s in his forties.  There are the four women chosen mainly for their willingness to act their scene in lingerie, including one with an improbable chipmunk voice that sounds like Betty Boob with a lungful of helium.  Even the woman hired to play a corpse isn’t convincing.  And of course there’s the incredible “transformation” performance (see clip above), which might actually be good acting: although it looks like Shemp Howard struggling to complete a monologue from Tennessee Williams while undergoing an epileptic fit, for all anyone knows, this is exactly how a man who believes he orangutan acts when accidentally shot up with an overdose of superadrenaline.

Although Maniac‘s acting is unquestionably terrible, the script’s awfulness is more ambiguous.  Managing to shoehorn in reanimation of the dead, a mad doctor, a murder, an orangutan man rapist, two topless scenes (so the adults-only audience gets their money’s worth), a one-eyed heart-eating cat named Satan, two scheming women, a subplot on the unexpected economics of cat skinning, a catfight with hypodermic needles, a protagonist serially suffering from three or four major psychiatric disorders, and an Edgar Allan Poe finale, all in under an hour, is no mean feat; it’s no surprise that logic had to be cut to make room.  Still, it’s remarkable that things flow together as well as they do: the mad doctor’s experiments lead to his murder, the murder leads to the Maxwell’s impersonation, which leads to his blackmail by Mrs. Buckley, which leads to his plan to dispose of her and to his eventual capture.  There is a dream/nightmare logic at work here.  It’s also hard to imagine that the screenwriter (Hildegarde Stadie, Esper’s wife) wasn’t at least partly aware of the absurdity of the script.  There’s a strand of what appears to be deliberate black humor at play, as when Maxwell examines a cat’s eyeball and proclaims (in full ham mode) “It’s not unlike an oyster, or a grape!”  It’s hard to imagine that even the most inept hack could type that line, or a speech like “The murderous Satan—the wretch that ate Meirschultz’s heart!  He still has the gleam…” without chuckling knowingly to herself.

Esper clearly can’t direct actors—unless he had a hidden genius for coaxing deliberately campy performances from them—but he does add some unique, memorable touches to the film.  Most notably, it was a stroke of demented genius to take the infernal footage from the old silent film Maciste in Hell and superimpose it over Maxwell’s face to show his descent into madness.  The effect is striking and incongruous in it’s juxtaposition of the ridiculous (Bill Wood’s spasming face) and the sublime (hazy imps and long-nailed warlocks).  Also, his cinematography is not as static and stagebound as some films of the era; rather than nailing the camera in one spot and filming the action, Esper changes the angles and makes the film visually tolerable.  A less successful directorial gambit, but one that also adds to the movie’s singular atmosphere, is his decision to interrupt the action with occasional intertitles describing dementia praecox, paresis, paranoia, and manic depression.  These tidbits serve as funny, blatantly insincere reminders of the educational value of the motion picture which we are watching unspool before us.

Maniac is a cautionary tale.  The prologue, by Wm. S. Sadler, M.D., F.A.C.S.,  warns of “the disastrous results of fear thought not only on the individual but on the nation” and reminds us that it is “the duty of every sane man and woman to establish quarantine against fear.”  Dr. Sadler also coins a snappy slogan that today would land him a gig as a syndicated TV psychologist: “fear thought is most dangerous when it parades as forethought.”  The movie’s message is obvious: if we give in to fear for even a moment, we will go insane, murder our employer, accidentally inject a patient with an experimental drug, and orchestrate a syringe duel between our wife and our blackmailer in a basement.  Either that, or Esper was looking for some flimsy moral/educational justification to show topless women and a guy eating an eyeball, as a defense in case of an obscenity prosecution.  Whichever the case, it’s the audience that benefits: Maniac is one of the wildest cinematic rides you’ll ever take, an experience not soon forgotten.  Thank God for Dwain Esper’s sleazy courage in bringing to light the timeless, titillating pitfalls of poor mental hygiene.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jaw-dropping weirdness, a real piece of showmanship history, and a must for genre aficionados.”–“VideoHound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics”

“Don’t pass up an opportunity to see this incredible old adults-only oddity… You won’t believe it.”–Michael Weldon, “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film”

“Even seeing it isn’t believing!”–Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Maniac (1934)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Maniac script – The complete Maniac script (including parts that weren’t filmed) as written by Hildegarde Stadie Esper, Dwain Esper’s wife

Maniac B-movie review – a hilarious synopsis, stills, audio clips and a snippet of film from Andrew Borntreger of badmovies.org

Maniac (1934) – Turner Classic Movie’s Page on the film contains a complete plot synopsis, but little else

DVD INFO: Maniac is in the public domain and can be watched or legally downloaded at the Internet Archive.  The best available DVD edition may be the Kino Dwain Esper double feature disc (buy), which contains both Maniac and the almost-as-wild Narcotic (1933); the print is supposedly the best available, and there are even extras including the unedited footage from Maciste in Hell and audio commentary by an exploitation movie expert. Alpha Video has put out a cheaper Maniac only edition with no extras (buy). The best deal, though not the best print, comes in Mill Creek’s 50 Horror Classics Movie Pack (buy), which also contains a copy of the Certified Weird Carnival of Souls along with other public domain classics like White Zombie, Metropolis (unrestored version), Night of the Living Dead, The Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu, and a host of truly awful movies.

Do not confuse this film with Joe Spinell’s 1980 slasher Maniac, which also has its share of fans.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Bruce,” who claimed “this movie is so weird that your lawn will die as you watch it.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “65. MANIAC (1934)”

  1. This is just one of my favorite weird or exploitation movies – it has it all. The nudity, the enormous leaps of logic, the hyper-overacting, the syringe duel… there’s a bizarre magic in the “darts of fire in my brain” monologue you linked to, and who could forget that “the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”

    I like your suggestion that some of the film’s humor is intentional. It’s so hard to imagine WHAT the Espers were thinking when they made this, what kind of audience they were going for, or how they thought the film would turn out. Especially because so many exploitation films are just molasses-paced, filler-stuffed, and boring, whereas Maniac jumps off the deep end to become a psychotic horror movie ne plus ultra, with only the most tentatively claims to any educational value.

    However and whyever it came about, it’s an unforgettable movie. And I’ve happily quoted that final, disjointed speech – “I only wanted to amuse, to entertain…” – more than once in casual conversation.

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