Right now Torgo and the Master are sulking. Radiator Lady is in tears. And Glen/Glenda is stomping the hell out of his/her pumps. Because, I’m sorry to say, their movies were nowhere near this weird.
I want to make one thing clear before this goes any further: I am not recommending that you watch Maniac. But, if you do, you will have earned my profound respect. This movie will bore you. In fact, it might bore a hole right into your brain. It wants to steal your soul.
Actually, watching this film is, I suspect, akin to the experience of trepanation. Maniac violates the cherished cinematic logic of space and time so thoroughly that you begin to wonder whether you’ll ever be able to form a coherent thought again. The only defense viewers can muster against so insidious a threat is to laugh wildly and mindlessly. Herein lies the ironic beauty of Maniac: by the time it’s over, you yourself might very well qualify as the titular lunatic.
Shot on location in somebody’s dank basement, Esper’s exploitation flick tries hard to pass itself off as a dramatization of mental illness. In other words, brace yourself for scrolling pages of rambling mumbo-jumbo about psychoses inserted without warning in between scenes.
The plot, and I do use the word loosely, resists dignity in any form. Don Maxwell, a down-and-out vaudeville actor, now assists the deranged Dr. Meirschultz in his experiments—raising the dead, naturally. (See, kids? This is why you don’t major in theater. Or film for that matter. Why, I had to join a firm of grave-robbers for two years to pay off my college loans… but I digress.)
Squeamish Maxwell doesn’t exactly love the sordid errands that the doctor forces him to carry out. Still, on the bright side, he gets to revive the corpses of pretty suicide victims with vigorous massages.
However, when Meirschultz suggests that Maxwell kill himself to serve as a subject for the reanimation process, the lackey shoots Meirschultz instead. Realizing that his boss would be missed but he never would, Maxwell assumes his identity.
No sooner does Maxwell don an imitation of Meirschultz’s bushy Santa Claus beard and mimic his off-brand Bela Lugosi accent than the former ham actor slips into madness and believes that he is Meirschultz.
“I vill be a great man!” He bellows, vowing to continue the doctor’s work. Apparently, this entails turning a patient into a sex-crazed zombie by injecting him with a glandular serum and performing sleazy examinations on scantily-clad young ladies.
Sadly, busybodies constantly interrupt Maxwell’s Nobel-worthy research. When a blackmailing widow and Maxwell’s own estranged wife show up around the same time, Maxwell decides simply to lock them in the basement and return to his regularly scheduled program of animal torture and hallucinations. Finally, the cops come to nab Meirschultz, break up the ladies’ wrestling match in the cellar, and discover the real doctor hidden in the wall.
In a ludicrous, yet eerie epilogue (foreshadowing Norman Bates’s “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene), Maxwell addresses the audience from behind bars. Sobbing, the poor misunderstood multiple murderer confides that he only ever dreamed of being an actor. “I only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” He pleads. “But here I am. Spent my life perfecting an art that no one wanted, no one appreciated. But I showed them… Dr. Meirschultz—my supreme impersonation!”
Um, Maxwell, if it’s any consolation, you certainly amuse me.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that horror and humor complement each other, and the funniest parts of Maniac unsurprisingly emerge from its most unsettling scenes.
Consider Maniac’s best-known moment, a highly disturbing shot of a cat’s eyeball being removed. (Trigger warning! You should know, however, that no animal was maimed for the purposes of this scene. A one-eyed cat with a glass eye was used.) While entombing Dr. Meirschultz behind a wall, Maxwell notices the doctor’s black cat looking at him. The unhinged actor, convinced that the feline is Satan, accuses the animal of standing between him and salvation. After a few disjointed shots of Maxwell chasing the cat, Esper provides this shot of an eyeball popping out of its socket.
“It’s not unlike an oyster or a crepe!” Maxwell-as-Meirschultz exclaims. Cackling, he drops the eye into his mouth.
Okay, so how do I even begin to react to this?
At first, I laugh. Bad acting and a wannabe Poe monologue about an evil cat = comedy gold.
Then I get creeped out. A spooky high-angle shot of Maxwell crawling out of a basement towards the camera fills me with dread.
Then I laugh again, since we’re back in familiar territory. Jumpy cutting and pratfalls = bad movie = ha ha ha.
Then I want to cry. I don’t care if it was a one-eyed cat. Animal mutilation, even when simulated, always equates out to horror in my book.
And then, despite myself, I feel like I’m going to laugh again. Now Shakespeare could get away with calling an eye a “vile jelly,” but the comparison between an eyeball and a crepe wins the 1934 WTF Cup. Plus, how can I hold back a snigger over the fact that the black cat transforms into a light-colored feline right before that eye removal shot?
Snarky pleasure and pain attack the viewer without warning throughout Maniac. Esper delights us with the most awkward transformation scene in the history of cinema, only to freak us out with an unexpectedly violent nudity scene. He tries to tickle our comic relief sensibilities with a quirky minor character named Goof who runs a death camp for cats. But he seemingly expects us to respond with earnest curiosity to a protagonist who suffers from every mental illness in the book—and to his lengthy hallucinogenic monologues, complete with superimposed diabolic footage stolen from (much better) silent films.
You might be thinking, “What kind of nut would make a movie like this?” So, perhaps I ought to take a moment to introduce you to the life and times of Mr. Dwain Esper and his singular slot in film history. Okay, now, class, what’s significant about the year Maniac was made, 1934?
If you replied, “The pre-Code era ground to a halt and Hays Code censorship was enforced with new zeal”, gold star to you.
The shift back to family entertainment meant that audiences couldn’t depend on the titillation and gore they could once get from some Hollywood films. Exploitation filmmakers like Esper aimed to cash in on those forbidden desires. They’d produce often ridiculously choppy movies, but movies that nevertheless delivered the goods (or bads, rather) with scenes of drug use, kinky sex, and nudity.
Originally a building contractor, Esper launched his cinema career when he acquired a set of abandoned filmmaking equipment as part of a property foreclosure. Abetted by his wife Hildegarde Stadie Esper, a streetwise carnie raised by her opium-addicted huckster uncle, Esper toured from town to town with “adults only” films. He directed his own movies on meager budgets, but would also promote and screen any sensational movies he got his hands on, including Tod Browning’s Freaks and Reefer Madness.
Gaudy lobby advertising and gimmicky publicity stunts would compensate for the less-than-stellar product Esper often exhibited. Audiences seldom got what the posters promised, but they did get to gawk at stuff that no mainstream movie of the era would’ve shown.
Operating outside the confines of the studio system, Esper could thumb his nose at the censors. Hildegarde cheerfully recalled the outrage they caused in some quarters: “The Hays Office—they hated us. You see they couldn’t stop us and that made them awful mad…they didn’t like anything we were doing. The only reason we liked it so well was because it was making money for us.” If necessary, Esper would reedit his reels to appease local law enforcement, but, all in all, Dwain and Hildegarde Esper were the Bonnie and Clyde of onscreen taboo.
Although not Esper’s most profitable film, Maniac nevertheless delivers the most unintentional laughter through its sheer bizarreness. Amateurish exploitation films affect modern audiences powerfully, I would argue, because they offer such unanticipated forays into creative plot premises or avant-garde techniques.
Jump cuts, temporal leaps, massive continuity gaps, and all manner of experimental devices—stuff that might not startle us that much in, say, a Godard film—proves deeply unsettling in the context of a 1930s movie aiming for the aesthetic of a Universal horror film. These formal eccentricities not only make us laugh at the incompetence of the filmmaker, but they also fray at our nerves and jolt us into nervous laughter.
Similarly, nobody in this film acts like a human being—not the scheming widow who speaks in a monotone, not the gregarious cat-skin merchant, not the chorus girl dancing around her hotel room in her underwear for no reason. The magic of Hollywood acting resides in the fact that actors give us evenly stylized behavior and we accept it as reality. The black magic of Maniac gives us unevenly stylized behavior—that makes us feel like we’re watching any number of more famous horror movies through a distorting mirror. We behold a universe unthinkably out of kilter.
And then, because our short-circuiting minds can find no other appropriate response, we burst out laughing.
Maniac has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it right now. Do you dare?