Maniac! (1934)





Howdy folkses. Things are getting curiouser and curiouser here at Million Monkey Theater, as our little in-house mystery seems to be deepening by the day. When we last left you Intern Sparky and I had dispatched private investigator Tizwin to track former CEO/Grand Poobah Nate and former Intern Kelby in hopes of recovering the operating funds and swear money they'd swiped on their way out of the corporate offices in September.


Tizwin "investigating."

After an abortive search in Canada shortly after the theft, Sparky and I had traced the miscreants to Italy. Tizwin had arrived in Rome on October 18th and I'd been anxiously awaiting word from him ever since. I was at home in Lancaster, PA, constantly pacing, muttering every foul word I could dredge up from the cesspool that is my syntactical memory, grazing through sparse meals of hummus, crackers and broken dreams and generally being an intolerable nuisance to my family and friends.

I could stand the tension no longer. I needed to take some kind of action, to at least feel that I was doing something, anything to help solve the mystery at hand, so I hastily arranged to have my mail forwarded, hopped on a flight to Indianapolis, took up residence in the corporate suites at Million Monkey Towers and began scouring the place for clues. I might not find anything useful, I reasoned, but at least I'd be sparing my wife the agony of living with an irritable, anxious and distracted spouse.

I hadn't been there more than two days when a package arrived from Rome. It contained Tizwin's daily logs and expense reports, three bootleg DVDs of Italian rip-offs of Hollywood blockbusters and this rather intriguing photo from a crowded wine bar near Vatican City:



I'd recognize that cat anywhere.

There was no mistaking Kelby, and although the man's back was to the camera I instantly recognized the coat and fedora he was wearing as belonging to Nate. I was crushed. Some part of me had been holding out a faint hope that this was all Kelby's doing and that Nate would somehow be exonerated, but here in black and white was undeniable visual proof of his guilt.

As I stared grimly at the irrefutable evidence of the photo, I paced back and forth before the hoary oaken door that leads to the Million Monkey Theater wine cellar and man-cave. That's when I noticed a strange, faint sound, barely audible yet distinct, and coming from behind that door. It was the unmistakable rhythm and cadence of old, stilted movie dialog mixed with the hysterical laughter of a live human being with an unbalanced mind.

The door was locked but the heavy key lay on the floor in front of it. As quietly as I could I unlocked and opened it. A dense, sickly-sweet aroma hit me in the face like the warm, treacly breath of a gluttonous fruit bat. I took a deep whiff of it...mangoes and star fruits? Lychees and rambutans perhaps? The scents were muddled together and it was impossible to say. I silently crept down the ancient stone stairway and as I rounded the corner at its base I saw a sight that shall haunt my nightmares until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil and into the big shitty-movie house in the sky.

It was Nate, wild-eyed, filthy and surrounded by a crumb-speckled halo of discarded peanut wrappers, half-empty preserved fruit jars and spent bottles of vintage wines. On the wall-mounted TV an old black and white film was playing and Nate--poor, broken Nate--was laughing and gibbering at the screen like a man possessed, flailing his arms and shaking his head, oblivious to everything but the seductive rhythm of the bizarre and nonsensical ranting onscreen. I shouted out to him but he did not seem to hear. I walked directly between him and the screen but he did not seem to see. There was an empty DVD case for a film called Maniac sitting on the coffee table. I grabbed the case, ejected the disc and put it inside, noticing as I did so that the player had been set to repeat the film in an endless loop. Nate suddenly fell quiet, his shoulders sank and he looked up towards me with a mix of exhaustion, wonder and disbelief.

"B...B...Bradley? Is it you?"

"Yes, Nate. It's me. Everything is going to be okay. You're safe now," I replied.

I reached out my hand, led him out of the cellar and into the bright morning light.

Nate is currently recuperating at home under heavy sedation, so it may be some time before we know what happened down there. So many questions! How did he end up locked in the cellar? Who is the mysterious man in Rome wearing his clothes? Wouldn't a steady diet of peanuts, fruit and wine give you some wicked shits? How many times did he watch that accursed movie?

As I pondered these and other conundrums I began to feel an eerie compulsion to see Maniac for myself. It began as an absurd, fleeting notion in the back of my brain, little more than a tickle or an itch, but day by day, hour by hour it grew stronger and stronger and stronger. I tried desperately to resist but it nagged and tugged and whispered, relentlessly pulling me down, down, down to that stinking wine cellar/man cave where Nate had found his undoing (and boy-howdy did it ever stink, which I guess kind of answers that question about Nate's diet above). I was sinking as surely as if I'd been in at the deep end of a swimming pool and wearing a pair of those weighted boots deep sea divers use so they can walk about underwater without floating up into an awkward horizontal position parallel to the seabed. Maybe you've worn them yourself. In Greece or Barbados, perhaps. Or not. Sorry, that simile kind of got away from me there.

"Dare I?" I thought. "Dare I watch the movie that drove Nate mad?"

Yeah, what the hell. It only runs 51 minutes. With a little luck I'll be both stark and raving by lunchtime.


The original hand-drawn title card as taken from the trailer.

Maniac is a very strange film, made by a very strange man at a very strange, transitional time in the history of cinema. It's not a good film by any stretch, but the tone, timing and content of it constitute a huge kick in the fork to mainstream moviemaking and the standards of moral decency prevalent at the time at which is was made.

To skirt these standards the movie adopts a pseudo-educational structure, a common technique amongst propaganda and exploitation films which continued until the abandonment of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1968. That code had been voluntarily adopted by the industry in 1930 to avoid having to navigate an expanding maze of state and regional censorship boards, each with its own standards and agendas, but it was only loosely enforced until June 13th, 1934, when an amendment created the Production Code Administration, led by Joseph Breen, to vigorously censor all films released on or after July 1st, 1934. Maniac was made in July and August by independent producer/director Dwain Esper, a former construction worker, carnival promoter and con-man-of-all-trades. He first exhibited it in September, making it one of the very first films to openly challenge the newly empowered censorship body, and in doing so he helped to create and define the code-era exploitation movement.


Esper had a set of balls like two cantaloupes in a burlap sack.

The film opens with a textual prologue explaining that the brain is like a musical instrument and that mental illnesses as we know them are the result of "fear-thought," the logic of which is predicated on the false notion that people suffering from mental illness could control their thoughts and actions if only they had the will, morals and intelligence to do so. I work in the mental health field, and sadly this is a notion and a stigma we are still fighting against today.

This text scroll turns out to be a quote from surgeon, self-taught psychiatrist and Seventh Day Adventist Dr. William S. Sadler, whose questionable theories on the connection between mental health and Christian spirituality enjoyed a certain vogue in the early decades of the 20th century. He advocated using prayer to combat mood disorders and once decided that a patient he was treating who claimed to be an extraterrestrial actually was an extraterrestrial.


Which brings to mind another surgeon and Seventh Day Adventist with a
religious fixation and a serious deficit
in the critical thinking department.

After the text crawl we open on a typical cramped b-movie laboratory, full of beakers, tubes and other equipment.


Featuring at least five mannequin heads, because science!

There's a young man adjusting a piece of equipment that emits a buzz when he flips a certain switch and an old man stirring chemicals in a glass beaker. The old man seems very pleased with whatever it is he's just concocted and he sucks it up into a huge syringe. This is Dr. Meirschultz, whose research we will discover to be a bit morbid and recherche.


His beard is also a bit morbid and recherche.

Dr. Meirschultz is played by veteran silent film actor Horace B. Carpenter, who according to imdb boasts nearly four hundred acting roles. Of course two thirds of them are "uncredited," but hey, it's nearly four hundred more acting roles than I have on imdb, so good on ya, mate.

Meirschultz announces that he is ready to try his experiments on a human body, and that a perfect specimen, a lethal gas suicide victim is waiting at the morgue just itching to be swiped and brought back to the lab. The young man, Maxwell, asks if the good doctor has made the necessary arrangements. Meirschultz says no, that Maxwell must find a way to get the body for him as a show of gratitude for the generosity and protection he has provided.


Maxwell seems a little high strung.

Maxwell is played by Bill Woods, a performer with a meager three acting roles to his name, and in solidarity with his costar exactly two-thirds of those appearances are also "uncredited." You do the math.

Maxwell claims that he is, indeed grateful for all Meirschultz has done for him, but that he's a bit wary of stealing a body from the morgue, being as it's a felony and all. He's done all that Meirschultz has asked of him, he says, having helped him with his unnatural experiments to bring the dead back to life, nursed dying dogs, even put up with "that miserable cat."


"Hey fuck you, too buddy!"

He did all of this, he complains, "for a measly roof and food, because you took me in when I was down and out..."

"Once a ham, always a ham," replies Meirschultz, and let me tell you folkses, this is the proverbial pot calling that proverbial kettle black because these two jokers give a couple of the stagiest, most melodramatic performances I've ever seen...and I've watched Nicolas Cage pretending to be a vampire. Let that sink in for a moment.

It seems Maxwell is a former vaudeville performer specializing in impressions, and Meirschultz challenges him to use his skills to make himself up as the coroner and talk their way into the morgue. Maxwell is still understandably resistant so Meirschultz hits him below the belt, hinting that he'll turn Maxwell over to the police if he refuses. It seems Maxwell isn't just any vaudeville impersonation artiste, he's a vaudeville impersonation artiste running from the law. You know...that old trope.

It seems Meirschultz's threat has done things up a treat, because Maxwell sheepishly agrees to go with him to fetch the corpse. As they walk out of frame Meirschultz says "In time you may become a great man."

Is that some kind of clunky attempt at foreshadowing? Let's just keep watching and we'll find out together.

We now cut to the morgue, where a skinny tabby cat is chasing a mouse across the flagstone floor. In pops Meirschultz and Maxwell, the latter of whom is now made up with a mustache and a monocle. Meirschultz immediately starts peeking at the bodies until he finds the pretty, long-haired brunette suicide victim who is the object of his quest.


She looks Hispanic, so I'm going to assume her name is Maria.

Maxwell-as-the-coroner reads the name from a tag on her arm.


Yep it is. Maria is the only female Hispanic name middle-class white folks could remember back in 1934.

Even though they're in a morgue and have specifically gone there to find this particular woman specifically because she is dead, Meirschultz feels the need to get out his stethoscope and place it on her chest, which may or may not be an excuse on his part to put his hand in her cleavage. At any rate he is mickle pleased at Maria's lack of cardiac activity and he's positively beaming as he injects her neck with the serum and begins to gingerly massage her collarbones. The good doctor is just a little bit touchy-feely for my tastes.


"I can't believe I'm getting paid for this!"

Is it me or has the Hispanic, long-haired brunette Maria suddenly become a fair-skinned blonde with a wavy bob cut?

In another part of the morgue two skeevy-looking workers are boxing up another body in a coffin. One complains "them stiffs are getting heavier and more of them every day."

The other agrees, saying "Between the gangsters and the auto drivers we don't need another war to carry off the population."

"You didn't even mention suicides," the first complains, "even got the coroner working overtime."


Then these two model employees leeringly hint at their barely concealed necrophilic desire regarding Maria's corpse. Because of course they do.

Meanwhile Meirschultz and Maxwell-as-the-coroner are exercising blonde Maria's limbs, trying to circulate the serum throughout her body. We get a close-up of her face now and see that she's beginning to revive.


The drool is a rather peculiar detail.

Meirschultz is just pleased as a pancake now and tells Maxwell-as-the-coroner to open the side door so they can take her out unseen and cart her back to the lab.

We cut now to an office door marked "Bureau of Missing Persons." Inside a detective is speaking with the real coroner and the bald creepy orderly from the morgue. The coroner is shown mostly from behind to conceal that it's Bill Woods playing him, which seems a needless precaution considering that the orderly claims the coroner and the imposter are absolutely identical. Also when the coroner speaks it's clearly Bill Woods' voice, adding another layer of pointlessness to this attempt at obfuscation. The detective is particularly interested in the old man the orderly refers to as "Santy Claus." He asks the coroner if it could have been Doctor Meirschultz but the coroner considers the old scientist to be a completely ethical and respectable man and completely above suspicion. Apparently Meirschultz has been on his radar before, because the detective decides he'd like to make a few discreet inquiries about him anyway.

When the coroner and the orderly leave another detective comes in with a file about Maxwell, and the first detective calls down to a couple of plainclothesmen to make some inquiries about him as well.

Back at the lab Meirschultz confidently claims that after 24 hours rest Maria will have made a full recovery. Maxwell is stunned by the success of the serum and becomes darkly contemplative, saying "Think of it, life back in a body that sought oblivion. The possibilities terrify me!"


Maxwell appears to be experiencing some mild gastric distress. Perhaps he requires a Bromo-seltzer.

Meirschultz certainly isn't going to ease those fears. He now reveals that reviving Maria was just the first phase of his plans, and that he now needs another corpse, one with a "shattered heart" he can replace with the beating-heart-in-a-jar he's been keeping on his desk.


He looks like he's about to grab that thing and chew right through it.

Meirschultz rants and paces, laughing maniacally as he charges Maxwell with the task of procuring this second corpse. Maxwell points out that going back to the morgue would raise suspicions, but Meirschultz angrily declares that he doesn't care where the body comes from as long as he gets it. "The ends," he states, "will justify the means."

Maxwell recalls that there is an undertaker around the corner and somehow knows that a gangster who was shot earlier that day has been taken there. For some reason this murdered criminal seems to him a worthy candidate for a second chance at life. As Maxwell sets out on his mission Meirschultz watches expectantly after him like a two-year-old hoping daddy will bring him home some ice cream.


Meirschultz strikes me as a tuttsi-fruttsi man.

Over at the undertaker's a couple of cats are getting a bit fighty-bitey with each other, as cats are wont to do occasionally for any reason or no reason at all. Maxwell crawls through an old stone ventilation shaft and hops down to find the gangster. Just as he locates him the two cats fly out of another ventilation shaft across the room and it's obvious from their speed and trajectory someone off-camera must have thrown them onto the set one after the other. They run past Maxwell's legs, startling him, and he leaps up into the shaft like a hyper-caffeinated squirrel being chased by a rottweiler.


These two continue to go at it as Maxwell skeedaddles out of the mortuary and back to the lab.

As he bolts around a corner Maxwell passes another cat having another knock-down fight, this time with a dog. Damn, there sure are an awful lot of cats in this movie!

Maxwell returns to the lab to find Meirschultz panting and pacing, wringing his hands and barely able to contain himself with the maddening anticipation of having another cold, stiff cadaver to play with. Maxwell comes in with his tail between his legs to report that he has come back empty-handed.


Meirschultz takes it about as well as you'd expect.

The doctor has a complete breakdown now, crying and screaming, branding Maxwell as a coward and berating him for his failure to deliver the goods "in this, the greatest moment of my life!" It's really all or nothing with this guy. You'd think they could maybe try again tomorrow, perhaps put their heads together and come up with a slightly more airtight cadaver acquisition plan than "go up the street right now and steal a dead gangster," but apparently that's just not how they roll. Meirschultz wants his dead body and he wants it right now.

Meirschultz eats a little more scenery, cries and wails and tugs at his hair and beard, until finally his eyes fall on the beating-heart-in-a-jar. The sight of it initially seems to soothe him, then suddenly he emits the triumphant cackle of a man who has finally felt the warmth and seen the light of his own inner fire. He opens a drawer to reveal a loaded pistol.


Whatcha gonna do with that gun, grandpaw?

He says he has the perfect solution to their problems. He tells Maxwell "You know my powers...you have faith in me..." then hands Maxwell the gun with instructions to shoot himself! He says he'll revive him, of course, give him the spanking new beating-heart-in-a-jar he's been saving for his great experiment and that he'll not only be as good as new but also be part of the greatest triumph in the history of medical science. Oddly enough Maxwell isn't terribly keen on the idea of committing suicide just to bolster Meirschultz's ego, so he shoots him dead instead.


At that trajectory he'd be lucky to clip the doctor's pinky toe.

Meirschultz drops to the floor, and we drop into the first of our pseudo-educational scrolling text digressions:


Dementia praecox is an outmoded term denoting a broad range of symptoms that would eventually come to be called schizophrenia, and was used as a separate categorization from mood disorders such as depression, manic depression (now bipolar disorder) or mania (now considered a symptom rather than a disease in itself). Even as early as 1920 the accepted understanding of this diagnosis was being challenged, but the term was still in limited use as late as 1952.

Each of these texts is accompanied by the same piece of inappropriately sweet, schmaltzy music that cuts off abruptly when we return to the action of the film. It's not just a jarring transition from a technical standpoint, it's also a clumsy shift in mood that brings the forward momentum of the film to an awkward, screeching halt every time it's used.

Maxwell has a few little guilt pangs as he stands over the body of his former benefactor, regretting his action and the loss of a man who had "so much to give the world," but that sentiment doesn't last long. The "dementia praecox" is taking hold of him now and Maxwell begins to speak of the spark of life "that moves the maggot" being "the self-same spark that moves the man." He convinces himself that preserving that spark isn't important, it's what you do with it while you have it, and he still has it so that's what matters. It's as good a way as any to justify a cold-blooded murder, I suppose. As he gives this little unhinged soliloquy some weird footage of smoke, devils and demons is superimposed over him to represent his impending descent into madness.


The Baptists were right! Madness really is caused by demonic possession!

This footage is used several times during the film to illustrate Maxwell's deteriorating psyche, and it's been a nettlesome cause of confusion amongst cineastes who have sought to identify the source or sources from which it was taken. The most common films cited are Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922), Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen: Sigfried (1924) and L'inferno (1911) an early adaptation of Dante's famous poem directed by Guiseppi Di Ligouro, Adolfo Padovan and Francesco Bertolini, however none of the footage is from these films. It was taken instead from the visually dense and highly entertaining Maciste All' Inferno (1926), directed by Guido Brignone. It was the 25th of an eventual 56 films featuring the character Maciste, who had first appeared in Giovanni Pastrone's stunning and influential epic Cabiria in 1914.


Next time I'm watching a shitty Italian knock-off of a famous American blockbuster I'll try to remember that we stole their shit first.

Meanwhile, back in the vastly inferior movie I'm reviewing today, Maxwell has decided he might as well go through Meirschultz's papers and see if he can't find something he can use to his advantage. As he's snooping around, however the doorbell rings. He walks out through the laboratory and into the vestibule to answer it.


There's a dead guy you just shot in plain sight just inside that room you're leaving, dude. You might want to close the fucking door.

The visitor turns out to be Mrs. Buckley, a woman whose husband is one of Dr. Meirschultz's psychiatric patients. She's played by Phyllis Diller.


Not this Phyllis Diller...


...this Phyllis Diller. Also I think Maxwell may have been Tom Waits' grandfather.

It seems Mrs. Buckley's husband is having a psychotic episode and thinks he's the killer orangutan from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." It's an odd and oddly specific delusion. She wants to bring him in to see the doctor right away but Maxwell tells her he isn't there. This doesn't dissuade her, however and she says she'll be back with her husband shortly. Poor Maxwell is so tongue-tied she's already out the door and out of earshot before he can say anything to prevent her from returning. He wanders into the lab, trying desperately to think of a way out of his predicament when he looks down to see this:


Greasepaint, crepe hair and sweet salvation!

"Meirschultz would be missed," he reasons, "but Maxwell never would." Notice that he refers to himself in the third person as he starts to dissociate from himself and take on the identity of the dead doctor. It's a surprisingly understated detail in a film that's otherwise about as subtle as a fart in an elevator. We get a montage of Maxwell cutting and coloring his hair, applying age makeup and flase beard, and capping off the transformation by taking the glasses from Meirschultz's face and closing the dead man's eyes. He now proclaims "Not only do I look like Meirschultz, I am Meirschultz! I will be a great man!," and the most ham-handed attempt at foreshadowing ever committed to celluloid comes to fruition.


The great man himself.

Speaking of ham-handed, it's time for another "educational" text scroll!


Paresis is a medical term denoting weakness or partial paralysis of the muscles. The term general paresis or general paralysis of the insane, which is what they're actually discussing here, refers to some of the physical and mental symptoms of late-stage syphilis. It was originally considered a mental disorder but its causal relationship with syphillis, and its subsequent reclassification as a neurological disorder had already been accepted for at least fifteen years when the book from which this quote came was written. In other words that's some pretty biased and deceptive bullshit up there.

When we cut back to the film Maxwell-as-Meirschultz, whom we'll refer to as Maxschultz from here on out, is examining Mr. Buckley.


For a second there I thought he was gonna cut the guy's eyeball with a razor like in Un Chien Andalou (1929)...


...but he just looks at his eye and lets go.

Maxschultz decides he's going to give the guy a shot, but not actually being a doctor he has no idea what to inject him with. He goes back in the lab and starts digging around in a medical bag, finding a syringe labeled "super adrenaline," because every doctor has one or two of those lying about and ready to go. He's at least smart enough to know that's not going to work for this particular case so he sets it on the table and decides to give the guy a syringe full of water instead. Unfortunately he's not quite smart enough not to mix up the syringes, so he shoots up Mr. Buckley with the super adrenaline and watches in dismay as things start heading south.

Mr. Buckley starts to wince, growl and contort, screaming of "darts of fire" in his brain, "stabbing...tormenting!" He claws at his arms and chest and twists his body into painful-looking, unnatural postures, all the while snorting and screeching like a beast in heat. This guy is an absolute hoot. It's an impressively awful, overheated, spittle-flecked shit show of a performance that very nearly makes the whole movie worth watching for its sheer, unfettered lunacy. I love this guy. His name is Ted Edwards and he has an impressive 52 appearances listed on imdb. Once again, however, closer inspection reveals that the majority of these are uncredited. This, then was undoubtedly the crowning achievement of his career. He's like the unholy love child of Dwight Fry and Shemp Howard.


Entertainment!

Mrs. Buckley says "He seems to be getting worse instead of better!" which is the single most obvious thing I have heard anyone say.

Mr. Buckley seems to revert to an animal state now, shoving his wife into the laboratory, the door to which is still standing wide open with Meirshultz's body still in plain view on the floor. He knocks Maxschultz to the floor and runs off into the next room.


Make a mental note of the dressing screen and table in the background. You'll be seeing them again soon.

Poor blonde Maria picks this moment to wander out from wherever she's been hiding and shuffles along slowly like a somnambulist in a dream-trance, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. Buckley grabs her and runs off.


So there are two identical rooms with identical furnishings located right next to each other? Who the hell designed this place?

Mrs. Buckley now discovers Meirschultz's body on the laboratory floor, but conveniently there is a seat cushion covering his face from a chair she knocked over in her fall. "He's dead!" she says, and now I must supercede my previous statement, because this is the most obvious thing I've ever heard anyone say. "Doctor! What have you done! This looks like murder!" Mrs. Buckley is nothing if not perceptive.

Maxschultz explains that his assistant shot himself, that he just found him that way and he swears and had nothing to do with it, scout's honor double pinky promise. Mrs. Buckley asks, "Why didn't you call the police?" She is so good at this "eliciting information" thing.

Maxschultz explains that he couldn't possibly call the police because he wants to experiment on him and bring him back to life. Mrs. Buckley ain't exactly buying it, but she ain't exactly running off to call the cops either.

Cut to Mr. Buckley carrying brunette Maria along a dirt path, snarling and screeching like the ape he thinks himself to be. He pauses just long enough to rip the front of her dress and expose her breasts before moving along. I'm fairly certain at this point this is not the same brunette Maria we saw on the coroner's slab at the beginning of the movie, but the lighting is murky so it's hard to tell. It may just be that this is the only actress Dwain Esper could find within his $7000 budget who was willing to get naked on camera.


Boobies! That's what the customers want!

Back in the lab Mrs. Buckley is surprisingly calm, claiming to have often heard of the doctor's uncanny experiments. She becomes rather chummy and conspiratorial now, saying that when the doctor brings the assistant back to life he will do as the doctor directs, but if he does the same to her husband then he will do as she directs. I'm not sussing out here why she's so sure that her husband is going to die and need to be re-animated, why she's so confident in Maxschultz's abilities as a re-animator, or how she thinks she can predict how a corpse would behave once it's been re-animated, but let's all just roll with it. The point is she's a-ok with whatever shady shit Maxschultz gets into so long as she gets to be in charge of her stupid husband. She walks out of the house to go find him, and we cut to him manhandling half-naked brunette Maria behind a bush.


More boobies! That's what the customers pay for!

Maxschultz starts to panic, afraid that Mrs. Buckley will change her mind and call the police. He decides he must bring Meirschultz back to life pronto, and to do this he will need to both find the reanimation formula and transplant the beating-heart-in-a-jar. I had no idea impersonation artistes were also trained in chemistry and surgery. 1930's vaudeville must have been one hell of a competitive field.

Outside a guy in a cloth golf cap is snooping around the front door calling "kitty, kitty, kitty!" Maxschultz comes out to investigate. The guy is their neighbor and tells Maxschultz that a couple of his cats got away and he wants to know if he saw them. The guy all but accuses him of using them for his experiments. Maxschultz denies that he would use cats in his work because "I think too much of Satan..." He's not discussing his abiding affection for the Prince of Lies here, but for the black cat from way back in the first scene, whom we now see sitting on his little cushion in the lab casting covetous glances at that rather tasty-looking beating-heart-in-a-jar.


Satan is peckish.

By the time Maxschultz gets back to the lab Satan has helped himself to a little snack.


I should market this shit. Turns out beating-heart-in-a-jar is mighty fine eatin'!

Maxschultz panics, imagining the police will be there to arrest him at any moment. Seeing there's no hope of reviving Meirschultz now that the heart has become kitty kibble he decides he must somehow quickly dispose of the body. He opts to drag it down into the basement and wall it up in an old chimney. As he begins to remove the bricks he turns to see Satan the cat watching his every move. He gets a crazed and manic look and says "Satan! The Gleam! Stand between me and salvation, would you?"

Okay, so this next scene is a little difficult, being as I'm an animal lover who dedicates a huge chunk of my life to rescuing cats, but I'm going to bite the bullet and push right though it because, dear readers, you deserve the truth...and the truth is there's some nasty, fucked up shit coming up in this movie.

Maxschultz chases Satan the cat upstairs and tries repeatedly to grab him. After several glancing attempts he finally manages to catch him and hold him down on the floor in a corner of the lab. He violently grasps the cat's head and plucks out one of his eyes with his thumbs.


They chose a stunt cat who looks absolutely nothing like Satan because this one had an eye missing and an empty socket they could stuff with a black marble.

The cat bolts out through a window and Maxschultz laughs as he looks at the eyeball sitting on the carpet.


Not a black marble. Also not a cat's eye.

He picks it up delicately to examine it saying, "Why, it's not unlike an oyster or a grape, but the gleam is gone!'


Then he pops it in his mouth and eats it.

Ok, so it's not very convincing, but it's still unusually violent and dark for the time in which the film was made. There's a depraved cruelty to Dwain Esper's sensibilities that's more akin to the gory, boundary-bashing grindhouse films of the 70's than the cheeky, code-flaunting propaganda films of the 30's, 40's and 50's.

After his little snack Maxschultz goes back into the basement to finish walling up Meirschultz's corpse, and we cut to the next of our inaccurate, outmoded "educational" intertitles.


Oh, boy. Where to begin? First of all paranoiac denotes a person experiencing paranoia, not a disease. Second paranoia is a symptom, not a diagnosis. Third it's not difficult to detect paranoia, especially if you have some training. It's a common sign of regression for many mental health issues and something we are always on the alert for at the center where I work. This "educational information" is getting more and more bogus and perfunctory as the film goes on.

Back in the basement Maxschultz is almost finished walling up Meirschultz, but he pauses to have another little episode where he gives us a bug-eyed stare and has some more ripped-off footage from Maciste All' Inferno projected all over his face. He's catatonic just long enough for Satan to covertly jump inside the wall with Meirschultz. It seems Maniac is actually an extremely loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 short story "The Black Cat" with a few little touches from "The Tell-Tale Heart" thrown in for good measure. Add that to the earler reference to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and I think we can confidently state that Dwain Esper was a fan.


There was a disused chimney like this in "The Black Cat," but I doubt it had such dramatic interior accent lighting.

We now cut to a house somewhere in southern California where a dowdy-looking woman is sweeping off her sidewalk. A plainclothes detective walks by and asks if she knows Dr. Meirschultz and his assistant Don Maxwell. She says of course she knows them. So much for Maxwell "hiding out." The woman talks of the "queer goin's on" up there, stating that they even brought a dead dog back to life once. First Mrs. Buckley had heard of the "uncanny experiments" and now this random neighbor lady knows all about the zombie dog. Apparently Meirschultz had been issuing regular bulletins on his progress as a mad scientist and re-animator at his neighborhood association's monthly meetings. The detective says he thinks the whole dead dog coming back to life thing sounds kind of remarkable, but the woman is patently unimaginative and unimpressed.


"To my notion those that monkeys with what they've got no business to gets queer sooner or later!" That might be the best description of underground amateur filmmaking I've ever heard.

The woman also tells the detective she had heard a shot up at Meirschultz's place the previous evening but didn't bother to report it because "that's their business, not mine!" She may not be a responsible citizen but at least she keeps her damned sidewalk clean.

The detective now walks over to speak with the neighbor we saw on Meirschultz's porch a few minutes ago. He has a yard full of cages with hundreds of cats in them and he's even holding a big fluffy one as he talks to the detective. The man seems a little peculiar, but with all of these cats he's taking care of he must surely be a compassionate animal lover, right?


Let's not be lulled into assuming that anyone in this film is decent or humane. This is a Dwain Esper production and there's no room for such liberal claptrap here.

The cat guy trash-talks Meirschultz for a moment then tells the detective all about his cats and his can't-fail, self-sustaining business model. He says he keeps both cats and rats. He feeds the rats to the cats, kills the cats, skins them, then feeds the stripped carcasses to the remaining rats and sells the cats' pelts to be made into inexpensive fur coats, stoles and accessories.

Sweet Jesus, people.

There's no way this whole array of cages was built for this cheap movie, so Esper either knew or found whoever had this setup and got permission from them to film there. I really want to believe that this was some good samaritan's personal cat sanctuary and that the whole cat-rat-fur business was just a product of Esper's warped and misanthropic imagination...or perhaps the invention of his wife Hildegard Stadie who wrote the screenplay. It haunts me that I will never be entirely sure.


This picture would break my heart even without the possibility that this beautiful kitty ended up as a pair of gloves for some shallow, middle-aged social-climber.

To make matters worse the scene and the character of the cat farmer are played as if they're supposed to be some sort of hilarious comic relief. No doubt coming up with new and creative ways to abuse animals was an endless source of mirth in the Esper household. Mercifully the scene is brief and this abomination is never mentioned again.

Now we take a turn so sharp that we suddenly feel we've been transported into an entirely different film...a much more whimsical and light-hearted film full of giggling gals and ladies' underwear.


It's a shitty, awkward transition, but at least it takes us away from Mr. Capitalist Cat Killer.

We cut to a spacious hotel room where a group of young women are lounging in their lingerie, clumsily dancing, trading friendly, humorless quips and shooting the snarky breeze.


This is Alice. We know she's the leader because she's extra sassy.

To make conversation they discuss a newspaper story about a guy who found and returned a huge sum of money, only to lose his mind from the pressure of all the attention the good deed brought him, which no doubt makes about as much sense to you as it does to me. The consensus amongst the ladies seems to be "That's what you get for being honest, so fuck that guy," but one of them sympathises with the poor sap, saying:


"Wasn't there some guy in history who spent all his life looking for an honest man?"

Why yes, forgotten actress in a thankless role, there was a guy like that. His name was Diogenes of Sinope (ca. 404-323 BC), misanthrope, iconoclast and perhaps the first experimental performance artist. He once "did his act" at the Athenian equivalent of an open-mic night by lifting up his tunic and taking a dump on the stage. There are dozens of contemporary accounts of his many antisocial, provocative antics. Despite his open hostility to anyone who expressed a desire to learn more about him and his way of living, he eventually attracted an army of followers (which grew exponentially after his death) and inadvertantly founded an entire school of philosophical thought called classical cynicism.


Diogenes of Sinope. Your humble author of this crappy movie review is writing a novel about him.

So these ladies giggle and tease a bit more and we begin to wonder what the hell the point is to all of it beyond giving Esper an opportunity to show them lounging around in their underwear.

The conversation suddenly turns to Alice's poor choice of a husband. Yes, Alice is Maxwell's forgotten wife from the transitional intertitle above. A cute brunette with a squeaky voice asks Alice "Why don't you ditch that ham and get yourself a rich husband?"


This film was released on September 11th. Betty Boop's lawyers sent a cease and desist letter on November 1st.

At this point the young woman with the newspaper coincidentally finds an article about Maxwell...it seems a wealthy relative has left him a fortune and the executors of the will have been unable to locate him to let him know. Alice, it seems won't have to dump him to get a rich husband after all, she'll just have to find him. She wonders aloud "if he's still with that goofy professor..." I wonder aloud how the police could have lost him when absolutely everyone else in the movie seems to know where he is.

Now we cut to Alice telling Maxschultz about the inheritance. She asks that he doesn't let Maxwell in on it yet as she'd like to tell him about it herself. Maxschultz says Maxwell will be there at 8:00 pm...but now it's time for another "educational" interruption because narrative pacing means absolutely nothing to these people.


Manic Depression is now called Bipolar Disorder. The beginning of the description is accurate as far as it goes...


...but the sex offenses part is propagandistic bullshit. During manic or mixed phases a person with bipolar disorder may display hypersexuality and be more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, but there is no known correlation between having bipolar and committing sexual assault. The most common correlative traits for perpetrators of sexual offenses are paraphilia (uncontrollable sexual ideation) and having been prior victims of sexual abuse themselves, especially incest, particularly during childhood.

Speaking of awkward segues:


More boobies!

We now get a weird sequence where Maxschultz prepares a hypo for brunette Maria. At first she is half naked and half hidden behind a dressing screen, which is notably not the dressing screen blonde Maria stepped out from behind when Mr. Buckley was having his super adrenal freak-out and I am now 100% certain that this is not the actress whose face we first saw on the mortuary slab. Maxschultz walks around the back of the screen and Maria is suddenly clothed in a skimpy negligee and lounging sesuctively on an exam table.


He'd really love to give her an injection...if you know what I mean.

Maxschultz suddenly transforms into just plain old Maxwell and leans in to give the willing brunette Maria a passionate kiss.


Or possibly take a big bite out of her chin.

Before their lips meet Maxwell suddenly backs up and becomes Maxschultz again. He reaches over and begins to unbutton the front of brunette Maria's top.


"I can't believe I'm getting paid for this, either!"

Then he inexplicably stops and walks off without a word and without administering the hypo, leaving both brunette Maria and the audience wondering what the fuck just happened.

Now Maxschultz stares at the camera and has another little soliloquy about "the gleam." He says it was in Meirschultz's eyes when he wanted to murder him, in Mrs. Buckley's eyes when she wanted to murder her husband and in Alice's eyes when she came to find him.


Yeah, there's more of this double exposure bullshit, too.

Maxschultz determines that he must rid himself of Alice and decides that Mrs. Buckley will have to help.

Mrs. Buckley returns and says that Mr. Buckley has disappeared. Maxschultz agrees that they must get him back, but tells Mrs. Buckley that they must deal with Mrs. Maxwell first. He explains that she's insane, thinks he murdered Maxwell, and wants to turn him over to the police. He says they must keep her subdued until he can find Mr. Buckley. He suggests they put Mrs. Maxwell in a secret vault in the basement. He hands Mrs. Buckley a syringe and tells her to jab it in Alice's arm, then he can get Mr. Buckley and then they can do all that killing and re-animating and mind-controlling she was waxing poetic over the night before. "It seems alright to me," she says, but she also expresses that maybe Alice has the right idea. At that moment, though Maxschultz hears Alice coming. He shuffles Mrs. Buckley off into another room to wait until he needs her and she goes without further protest.


I'd say she's operating at or above Ben Carson level in terms of gullibility.

We next see Alice and Maxschultz chatting away like old times, he in his regular Maxwell voice, talking about how he knew about the inheritance all along. After he finishes one little job, he says, they can leave together and travel anywhere they like and live happily ever after like a couple of wealthy jet-setters. He even goes so far as to say "no doubt you were surprised" at the disguise, but she just brushes it off, saying "I wouldn't be surprised at anything with you." At no point does she connect the costume he's wearing and the fact that she just fucking told him about the inheritance herself earlier that day and that he's obviously lying through his morbid and recherche false beard at her.

Maxschultz tells Alice that he needs her help. There's a crazy woman in the other room, one of Meirschultz's patients he's been trying to treat. He says she's dangerous and he needs Alice to help him get her into the basement and sedate her so he can run off and get help. He hands Alice a syringe and tells her to use it on the woman if she begins to act up.


Alice is even more gullible than Mrs. Buckley That's quite a feat.

So he leads Alice into the anteroom and calls Mrs. Buckley, saying they should go into the basement to his "special treatment room." Apparently neither of these women has ever seen a slasher film or a porno set in a doctor's office, because they go right down into the dank, creepy basement without hesitation or complaint. Maxschultz slams the door on them and the ladies scream! They drop their respective syringes and immediately start clawing and tearing at each other.


Catfight! This time with people!

Maxschultz starts dancing around and laughing hysterically, his madness now in full and terrible bloom.


He also attempts to recreate Diogenes of Sinope's ancient open-mic act, but he's eaten too much rice and too many bananas to perform it.

Unfortunately for Maxschultz, Mr. Capitalist Cat Killer is snooping around and looks in the window just in time to catch his wild, unhinged breakdown.

The two angry gals continue their fight as a big fat frog jumps around the perimeter of the basement, and as their fury grows they start to tear each other's clothes apart.


I suspect this was the first scene Esper thought of and that he had his wife write the rest of the screenplay around it.

Alice picks up a big stick and whacks Mrs. Buckley over the head as a trapped pigeon flaps wildly in a corner. Damn, it's like the National Geographic channel down there!

Maxschultz, meanwhile continues to have a grand old time with his pilfered Italian demons and his crazy dancing...that is until the fuzz shows up to ruin all his fun.


Not just any fuzz...stock footage fuzz. The very worst kind.

As the police question Maxschultz one of the women screams. Instead of running in the direction of the cry to try and help her the detective blandly asks Maxschultz "What's that?"


"It's a terrible movie called 'Maniac' I've got playing in an endless loop in my wine cellar/man cave! May I offer you some peanuts and preserved exotic fruits?"

Maxschultz tries to convince them it's just a couple of his patients having an argument, but despite the plausibility of that scenario the detective isn't quite convinced and wants to go see for himself. They drag the ranting Maxschultz to the basement and break up the fight between the two angry gals. Suddenly they are all stunned into silence when a cat's desperate meow rings out from inside the walled-up chimney.


Da fuq is dat?

As one of the officers begins to chip away at the mortar Maxschultz screams once again about "the gleam" and laughs like someone is reaching up under his labcoat and tickling his turnips. The ladies now huddle together, point at Maxschultz and say in unison: "Why, he's crazy!"

Ya think?

The officer pulls away the brickwork to reveal dead Meirschultz with poor, half-blind Satan on his shoulder. The cat hops down as Meirschultz's body falls to the floor.


The moral of this tale, dear readers: Never fuck with a cat named Satan.

Then we get one more of these fucking things:


Blah, blah, blah, blame the victim, blah, blah, blah.

We cut to Maxwell in his cell talking about that pesky "gleam" again and how it's everyone else's fault he did all those terrible things. "I only wanted to amuse, to entertain!" he says. If that's the case maybe you should have picked a different movie, buddy. He wraps up his little epilogue by telling us how he showed everyone his true genius with "Meirschultz! My supreme impersonation!" Yep, you sure showed 'em, skipper. I hope you like baloney on white bread because that's what you'll be eating in prison for the rest of your life.


Mercifully, The End.


Final Observations:

--Dwain Esper began producing movies in 1928 after acquiring a film lab and equipment as part of a court settlement. He and his wife made exploitation, narrative and documentary films for two decades. Their final project, a documentary called Hitler's Strange Love Life was released in 1948.

--Maniac was not a financial success in its initial release, so Esper rechristened it Sex Maniac under which title it became a hit on the underground exploitation circuit. Because most prints were struck after the title change the original hand-drawn title card was only preserved in the trailer.

--The Espers also found financial success in re-editing and distributing films from other sources including Reefer Madness (1936) and Tod Browning's horror masterpiece Freaks (1931) which had been banned in many legitimate markets due to its disturbing plot and imagery

--Many early filmmakers had no compunctions about exploring adult themes, depicting graphic violence or featuring onscreen nudity, but a 1915 Supreme Court decision, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio established that films were a product and did not fall under the auspices of protected speech, forcing the industry to engage in self-censorship for the next five decades. That decision was overturned in 1952, when a distributor of foreign films successfully sued to release a short film by Roberto Rossellini called The Miracle, which was part of an anthology called L'Amore (1948), but it was another 16 years before the Production Code Administration would be officially abolished.

--Despite the abandonment of the Motion Picture Code in 1968 and the establishment of the MPAA ratings system replacing it, the Maryland State Board of Censors continued to operate in a diminished capacity until 1981, making it the only regional censorship board to survive beyond the end of the code era.



As always, cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in November, 2018.



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