Maniac (1934)


(director/producer: Dwain Esper; screenwriter: Hildegarde Stadie/based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”; cinematographer: William C Thompson; editor: William Austin; cast: Bill Woods (Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (Dr. Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (Buckley), Phyllis Diller (Mrs. Buckley), Thea Ramsey (Alice Maxwell), Marian Blackton (Female in Male Drag); Runtime: 67; MPAA Rating: NR; Sinister Cinema; 1934)
“It’s a campy shocker that is so bad that it might just appeal for that very undeniable reason.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The exploitation Z-film husband and wife team of director Dwain Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie, who presented the world with the lasting cult fave Reefer Madness, are up to their old Ed Wood tricks again in the obscure Maniac, a film that fell through the cracks of cult classics and hasn’t been talked about as much as it should as a bad but entertaining film. It misuses some themes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” story it is loosely based on. It’s a campy shocker that is so bad that it might just appeal for that very undeniable reason. It’s about a maniac doctor, Dr. Mierschultz (Horace B. Carpenter), and his maniac failed vaudeville actor assistant, Maxwell (Bill Woods), specializing in impersonations, who perform bizarre operations on the dead to reanimate them. When the assistant kills the doctor, he uses his makeup and acting skills to become the doctor. It is filmed almost entirely in a rat-infested basement, that is supposed to pass for a laboratory. Maniac has nudity (which goes against the Hays Code enforced for the big studios at the time), necrophilia, a catfight between two ladies with hypo needles, the pulling out of a cat’s eye and eating it (it tastes like a grape says the protagonist), a cat farm where cats are custom made into fur coats, and a running educational commentary explaining what madness is from a medical perspective. What more do you want in an exploitation film? In the good name of experimental film, since there’s not much of a risk of ruining this beauty with something untested, Esper uses techniques to mimic insanity by presenting disturbing imagery.

Dr. Meirschultz before he was shot had handed his assistant a pistol and asked him to commit suicide so he could replace his heart with one from the body brought in from the morgue, as he had been attempting to bring dead tissue to life. His assistant after resisting doc’s tempting strong suggestion takes over his mentor’s identity and his scientific notes, and walls up the dead doc in the basement. The assistant’s increasing madness as he now carries on doc’s work is shown in background inserts from classy silent films such as Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages and Fritz Lang’s Siegfried.

Despite all the hammy acting, the insane script, and all the pseudo science tossed about so that this film could appear educational, this lurid film could be a screamer to the right viewer. Though, I must admit, I’m not that right viewer.