While there have been plenty of trash movies that I’ve enjoyed, the sort that are “so bad they’re good”, there are some that are in a special class of entertaining atrociousness. Horror of the Blood Monsters, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, The Curse of Bigfoot: these are the movies that stand out in their pure camp. Another one to add to the list is Maniac.
Maniac is an old film, having come out in 1934 and definitely danced around the Production Code. It was directed by Dwain Esper, an early exploitation movie guy who operated far out of the studio system. The story is loosely based on Poe’s “The Black Cat”, with the emphasis on “loosely”. In fact, the word “story” might be a bit strong in itself, as the movie has some of the elements of a comprehensible plot without ever quite becoming coherent. This is what I believe happens:
A scientist with Frankenstein-like aspirations named Dr. Meirschultz has developed a serum that will bring the dead back to life. His assistant, Don Maxwell, is a former vaudevillian who is a master of disguise and is apparently hiding from the law. He isn’t doing a very good job, because everyone seems to know where he is but no one’s trying to arrest him. The scientist forces Maxwell to dress as the coroner, so they can steal the body of a recent suicide: a young woman dead by carbon monoxide poisoning. They succeed in their theft and sure enough, they bring the woman back to life, though in something of a zombie state. You’d think this would be a big triumph, but Meirschultz insists that he next perform a heart transplant (to me, this seems a bit of a step down, but what do I know? I’m no mad scientist). When Maxwell can’t come up with a new body, Meirschultz decides to volunteer Maxwell, but somehow, it’s the scientist who winds up dead on the floor with Maxwell holding the gun.
No problem. Maxwell assumes the guise of Meirschultz and is soon treating a patient. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what he’d doing and transforms the man into a raving lunatic. The madman kidnaps the zombie girl and runs off with her, apparently to rape and/or kill her. We will never know because we will see neither of them again. Maxwell does do some scheming with the madman’s wife, but it is obvious that he is becoming a maniac himself. You can tell, because he does a lot of maniacal laughter.
As it turns out, Maxwell has an estranged showgirl wife who likes to hang out in a state of undress with her scantily clad roommates. It also turns out that Maxwell has a wealthy uncle who has just died, so the wife tracks Maxwell down. Suspicious of both his wife and the madman’s wife, he pits them against each other. The police will intervene just in time and find Meirschultz’s body behind a brick wall, where a black cat has also been holed up (thus the Poe element). Maxwell is carted off to jail, laughing all the way.
Dwain Esper obviously worked on a miniscule budget. His no-name actors are barely worthy of the job title (the only supposed “name” is Phyllis Diller, but it’s not the Phyllis Diller). The film is grainy and sometimes almost impossible to make out. And the story has more holes than the proverbial Swiss cheese. What it does have, however, is occasional nudity and a “shock” scene where Maxwell pulls out a cat’s eye and eats it. Esper tried to give his film a veneer of respectability by intercutting some information about mental illness, but make no mistake…this is pure exploitation filmmaking. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Quality: 1/10, Fun: 7/10.