The early 1930s were an interesting time for filmmaking. Just as pictures were making the transition from silent films to talkies, some of these movies ran over a few road bumps on the path to glory through their broad acting and creaky camera movements. But there were some filmmakers who sought to overshadow these foibles with grand and sensational material. Director Dwain Esper was a talent in the pioneering days of sound films who knew the quickest way to an audience's heart: mindless and morally objectionable drivel pumped through their popcorn-greased veins. Good taste be damned! Morals? Bah! Dirty, cheap entertainment? More of that please! You know what kind of film you're in for when you witness a scene of young women parading around a bedroom in nothing but their lingerie. Masterpiece Theater this is not. These are qualities that make Maniac a melting pot of depraved delights.
Don Maxwell (William Woods) is not well at all. A former vaudeville performer (his acting sure shows it!), the mentally unstable lad finds himself assisting the even loonier scientist Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter). The crazy kraut is determined on perfecting his formula for reanimating dead tissue... but oh! how will they ever find a body? Cue Maxwell's brilliant powers of impersonation and the devious duo soon have a first class ticket to the town morgue that apparently highlights as a torture chamber on weekends.
Motivated by the success of his serum, Meirschultz tries to coax Maxwell into suicide so that he may use him in his experiments. The conversation goes something like "Oh, here. Kill yourself. No really, dude, it'll be awesome. I'll like revive you and stuff." Maxwell has a better idea: he guns down the doctor and then uses his Handy-Dandy Makeup Kit to complete his transformation into Meirschultz. What follows is a smorgasbord of insane antics that include homages to Poe, wrestling women, and a dramatically moving scene of a man eating a cat's eyeball.
Like Esper's other notorious cult feature Reefer Madness, Maniac attempts to "seriously" examine the nuances that create a disturbed mind. Fortunately (for the audience anyway), the filmmakers' desire lies more in the realm of highlighting all the dirty and juicy details of insanity rather than taking a sober look into the criminal brain. This invariably leads Esper & Co. to pepper the film with medical credentials and summations of what a maniac must think about that cause the audience to burst out in gleeful fits of laughter not unlike the crazies that occupy the movie. For instance, the opening to the film is a title card with a message that urges the audience to fight off any feelings of fear that they may have, fear being one of the leading cause of insanity. When one sees that this statement is approved by a licensed doctor, the tickling feeling that occurs in the stomach is quite hard to suppress.
There are also "mental illness intermissions" that occur throughout the film that inform the audience of what particular brain disease (Maxwell apparently has quite a few) that is to be portrayed in the following act. The trouble is, these intermissions like to come up right in the middle of a scene. In addition, the mad and surreal visions that Maxwell is assaulted with may seem like genuine examples of Esper's innovation. But that's until one realizes that the images come from Guido Brignone's Maciste in Hell and Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen.
The script by Hildegarde Stadie is also the source of many hysterical and just plain bizarre elements. In one of the beginning scenes, Maxwell and Meirschultz sneak into the town morgue to retrieve a specimen for the doctor's experiments. Meirschultz uncovers the cadaver of a young woman and, without any explanation whatsoever, takes out his stethoscope and checks the corpse's heart rate. The money for medical school was well spent. The film also includes a disturbing amount of animal fights, ranging from cats fighting dogs to canine on canine brutality. Somehow an actress in male drag who makes a living from skinning felines and rats that he/she raises on a backyard farm figures into the grand scheme of things.
But in perhaps the greatest scene of the entire film, Stadie's writing deficiencies reach their peak in a moment of deranged merriment. Maxwell, in the guise of Meirschultz, plans to dispose of an ill patient by injecting him with some water as a placebo. In a truly Looney Tunes moment, Maxwell accidentally grabs a hypodermic needle filled with SUPER-ADRENALINE and gives the bum a shot of the good stuff. The guy goes into a fit of diabolical acting and recites a bit of jam poetry before turning into a frothing monster. A girl wandering onto the wrong set finds the error of her ways when the horny maniac steals her into his scrawny arms and runs away with her into the night only to rip the dress off of a completely different actress.
If you found yourself grinning like an idiot during any of these descriptions, then you know this film is for you. The performances delivered by the actors are so tremendous that they would make any high school drama teacher cringe in torture. William Woods should be given the Shatner Overacting Award for his portrayal of Mad Maxwell and an honorable mention for Best Man vs. Cat Scene in a Motion Picture. Ted Edwards' brief but ever so memorable appearance as Mr. Buckley will undoubtedly be burned into the audience's memory for years to come.
The crown jewel of this production though is Mr. Horace B. Carpenter as Dr. Meirschultz. Never before has the screen been so impressed than with the image of a mad German Santa Claus giving the best maniacal laughter ever while gleefully holding a floating brain in a jar. His insane ravings and ramblings tickle the spine and make the flesh creep in a positively devilish manner. As Dr. Meirschultz most appropriately intones to Maxwell in the film's beginning: "Vonce a ham... alvays a ham!"
Maniac is an absolute delight for people who have tastes in things socially unacceptable. Time has not taken away one shred of the film's warped charisma and sleazy delight. The film itself is in the public domain so all it takes is the mere click of a button to resurrect it from its dusty sleep. One can only hope that an official DVD is released one day, complete with a commentary track from a licensed physician who backs up the film's credentials. If this sounds like your cup of super adrenaline, drink deep of all the side-splitting lunacy.