Maniac/Sex Maniac (1934) -***½
Chances are, you have certain expectations and preconceptions regarding 1930’s horror films. When you hear that phrase, you think Karloff, you think Lugosi, you think castles and cobwebs and bats on strings. You also probably expect a certain amount of prudery, at least by modern standards, although if you’re a serious movie nerd, you might qualify that expectation by drawing a distinction between the pre- and post-Code halves of the decade. But even so, there are certain things you know you’re not going to see. Well, Dwain Esper’s Maniac/Sex Maniac is a movie that takes all of those expectations and preconceptions, packs them neatly into a large cardboard box, and proceeds to jump up and down on said box until all it contains is shards and splinters.
Esper, you see, was the arch-huckster behind such notable 30’s drug-panic flicks as Marihuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell and Narcotic. He also made a bunch of primitive sexploitation movies like How to Undress for Your Husband and Sex Madness. In other words, Esper was a man who simply did not give a fuck what Joseph Breen and the rest of the Hays Office thought, and who was going to make whatever damn movie he pleased, any way he could find to get away with it. His greatest advantage was the double standard whereby films that presented themselves as being educational could show things that were strictly forbidden in a conventional drama. In Maniac, Esper exploited that double standard to the hilt, concocting a mad doctor movie full of topless women and cat fights both figurative and literal, along with Esper’s usual outrageous overacting and dope imagery, which purports to be both a serious dramatization of some of the more burdensome mental illnesses and an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” It’s a more mind-altering experience than any drug I’ve ever taken.
Let’s start with the mad doctor, shall we? His name is Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter, who played characters with names like “Rancher” or “Bartender” in seemingly every two-bit Western made in the US between 1930 and 1945), and like most of his ilk, he’s hard at work on a means of resurrecting the dead. Evidently his research grant from the Mad Science department of the WPA isn’t very big, because instead of the standard hunchback, he has an out-of-work Vaudevillian for an assistant. This man, Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), isn’t much good as a lab monkey, but since impersonation was his gig back in his Vaudeville days, he is at least able to do things like sneak his boss into the local morgue by passing himself off as the coroner and claiming that Meirschultz is a medical examiner he’s called in to help him on an especially difficult case. What they really do then, of course, is steal the body of a pretty girl who killed herself via carbon monoxide poisoning right out from under the noses of the morgue attendants.
The girl’s resurrection is a smashing success (she seems to come out a little bit on the mindless side, but maybe she was like that when she was alive, too), but Meirschultz isn’t satisfied with that. He’s also got a preserved heart in a jar on his desk, and he’s itching to try his resuscitation technique on a body after transplanting in that foreign organ. Maxwell is unsuccessful in his grave-robbing venture the next night, however (perversely, he seems to get frightened off by a pair of dueling cats!), and Meirschultz is distraught when he learns that he will be unable to continue his experiments for the moment. Then suddenly it hits him. He’s already established his capacity to raise the dead, right? So what reason would Maxwell have to complain if the doctor asked him to shoot himself through the heart and thereby become an experimental subject himself? Don can think of a bunch of reasons, as a matter of fact, and he shoots his boss instead.
The trouble is, Meirschultz was a practicing psychiatrist in addition to a would-be Frankenstein, and he’s got patients coming over the following morning. It catches Maxwell totally off his guard when a Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller— who, I can state with some confidence, is not the woman most people associate with that name) shows up with her husband (Polygamy’s Ted Edwards) and asks to see the doctor, and Don has to scramble to find a way out of his fix. What he does is send the Buckleys away with a story that Meirschultz is out of town, but will return that evening at 8:00, thereby buying himself enough time not to escape and dispose of the body like any halfway sensible murderer would, but to perfect an impersonation of his late employer instead.
Remember how I said Maniac wants us all (or at least the Hays Office) to think it’s an educational film exposing the inner workings of mental illness? Well right when Maxwell starts dolling himself up as Meirschultz— and again on each of the occasions when some palpably crazy character wanders into the film— the story is interrupted by an intertitle explaining a particular mental disturbance. Paranoia, paresis, dementia praecox… whatever affliction the next scene’s pivotal character is supposed to suffer from, that’s what will be described for us by means of various bogus quotes from various bogus books by various bogus psychiatrists. And as if that weren’t disruptive enough, those intertitles— but not the main action of the movie— are accompanied by rather distracting and not particularly appropriate music. Even worse, there’s no apparent rhyme or reason behind the precise placement of the intertiles. They might pop up at an obvious point of transition, or they might just as well insinuate themselves into the middle of a scene, or indeed even between lines of dialogue in a single conversation!
Anyway, the first time that business with the intertitles happens is when Maxwell first dons his Meirschultz disguise, with the second being upon the return of the Buckleys. Mr. Buckley has apparently been in the doctor’s care for some time, and he’s quite completely insane, believing himself to be the killer orangutan from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Maxwell naturally doesn’t know what to do with him, so he tries to keep up appearances by giving the man what he claims is an injection of sedatives, but which is really just a hypo full of water. Unfortunately, Maxwell gets his hypos mixed up, and injects his patient not with the water syringe, but with another which the real Meirschultz had previously filled up with “super-adrenaline.” Buckley, unsurprisingly, goes absolutely apeshit after giving a soliloquy fully the equal of any drug freakout scene Esper ever filmed. Then, when the reanimated dead girl comes wandering into the room (or, at any rate, I assume that’s who she’s supposed to be— it isn’t the same actress as in the previous scene!), Buckley grabs her and carries her off after stampeding his way past his wife and his ersatz doctor. We have now reached a point in the film at which it is advisable to have your hands at the ready to catch your jaw, because left to its own devices, it’s going to fall straight to the goddamned floor— and you don’t want to have to spend the next week with a big, unsightly bruise on your chin, right? Buckley rips his undead victim’s blouse off in full view of the camera and slings her over his shoulder in such a way that her bare breasts are sure to remain the center of attention as he goes loping off into the woods. So what do you say to that, Mr. Breen? You like that, do you? Do you and your pals from the Legion of Decency approve? Well, do you?!?! I sure hope so, ‘cause those aren’t the last naked tits we’re going to see before this is all over with, either.
Mr. Buckley is never seen again after that episode. Hey, who can keep track of a little thing like madman running loose with a half-naked zombie girl, hopped up on “super-adrenaline,” when you’ve got stuff like the Crazy Cat Guy to worry about? The Crazy Cat Guy is Dr. Meirschultz’s next door neighbor, and as you might have guessed, he owns literally hundreds of cats. As he explains to the detective who comes to talk to him about that body that went missing from the morgue (the detective having been tipped off by the morgue attendant that the man accompanying the phony coroner bore a considerable resemblance to Santa Claus, a description which the cop knows matches Meirschultz very well), the Crazy Cat Guy raises the cats for their fur. Evidently he figures that, with the Depression on, there’ll be a lot of demand for super-cheap fur coats. Anyway, the cops come around wanting to know if the Crazy Cat Guy has any idea what might have become of the AWOL stiff, and he mentions that Meirschultz next door has been getting up to some pretty weird stuff lately. Not that he’s seen any bodies around the place, mind you, but he wouldn’t be a bit surprised if there were.
Meanwhile, Esper has decided to deploy his other big claim to artistic legitimacy, the Poe angle. Apparently traumatized by what he has done to his old mentor, Maxwell goes more and more nuts. For example, he gets it into his head that he is somehow qualified to perform that heart transplant reanimation Meirschultz was planning, and thereby get himself out of his current jam. But the doctor’s old pet cat, Satan, has gone and eaten his owner’s spare heart, and when Maxwell sees that, he loses it completely and gouges the cat’s eye out with his thumb. You’re not going to believe the scene that leads up to this turn of events. Each leg of the chase around the house begins with somebody tossing the long-suffering cat into the frame from off-camera, followed by Maxwell storming in after it. This pattern repeats itself in every room of the house before Maxwell finally catches up with Satan and seizes him for the eyeball-gouging. And to their credit, the filmmakers did indeed find a genuine one-eyed cat to act as Satan’s stunt double. Trouble is, Satan is all black (as is only appropriate, given that this is a scene taken from Poe’s “The Black Cat”), but the one-eyed stunt kitty is a tabby, and is twice Satan’s size to boot! And since the whole point of having the stunt cat in the first place is to enable a closeup shot of Maxwell squishing a notably unconvincing false eye out of the hollow formed by its empty socket, there’s really no way to disguise the fact that the two animals don’t even dimly resemble each other! Once that’s over with, Maxwell gets enough of a handle on himself to devise a rather more sensible plan for dealing with the dead body in the laboratory, and he drags Meirschultz down to the cellar for entombment behind a brick wall. And just as in Poe’s story, Satan accidentally gets trapped behind the new brickwork when Maxwell finishes the job.
Then it’s back to that other movie we thought we were watching. It turns out that Maxwell is both married and possessed of rich relatives, and his estranged wife, Alice (Thea Ramsey), comes looking for him to tell him about the impending inheritance when one of those rich relatives kicks it. Thus she ends up blundering into the scene of her husband’s crime. And at the same time, Mrs. Buckley is trying her damnedest to blackmail Maxwell into helping her get rid of her vanished husband (which seems sort of pointless to me, given what he was up to when last we saw him), while the cops slowly close in on the basis of incriminating tales from the nosy neighbors. The denouement is much the same as that of “The Black Cat”— assuming, of course, that you live in some strange parallel universe where the ending of that story involves a couple of crazed women ripping each other’s clothes to shreds in a knock-down, drag-out brawl in front of the impromptu tomb in the cellar…
You know what I think may be the craziest thing of all about Maniac? It’s actually a much more honest adaptation of Poe’s “The Black Cat” than the “official” version released by Universal the same year! I’m sure the author would still have hung his head in shame had he lived to see it, mind you, but at least he’d have recognized a few scenes here and there as his own, which is more than you can say for Universal’s The Black Cat. Of course, it’s precisely the stuff that would have Poe hanging his head in shame that constitutes Maniac’s true siren-song, so let’s turn our attention there now.
First of all, I simply can’t get over the fact that we’re talking about a movie from 1934 that features actual nudity— and not that cheating, “shot from the side, underwater” nudity that caused such a ruckus in Tarzan and His Mate, either. Furthermore, one of Maniac’s two nude scenes exists for absolutely no other reason than to show off the non-actress’s body. There isn’t even the most minor or irrelevant plot point being served in it. Then there’s that bewildering business with the Crazy Cat Guy, a character whose sole apparent purpose— at least in the specific form he takes— is to provide an excuse for all the Mondo-ish footage of battling cats with which Esper peppers the movie as random padding. And I love the shorthand representation of insanity that Esper employs; whenever Maxwell or one of the other loonies is about to have a four-alarm wig-out, the screen fills with stock footage from Siegfried and Witchcraft Through the Ages, superimposed over the action by the magic of double exposure. You can tell Dwain Esper was already a veteran roadshow exploitationeer by the time he made Maniac. There isn’t a tawdry gimmick in the book that he doesn’t milk here for all it’s worth.