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It Came From the Cult-o-Sphere: The Transgressive ’30s Thrills of ‘Maniac’

There’s no shortage of movies titled ‘Maniac,’ but the most maniacal of them all, the one that looks like it might have been filmed by a real-life maniac, is the oldest one of them all: Dwain Esper’s 1934 surreal achievement in cinema, ‘Maniac.’

Based on a script by his wife Hildegarde, and filmed on less than a shoestring budget, ‘Maniac’ is the sort of movie that sneaks up on you. At first, it starts out like your standard mad-scientist tale: Dr. Meirschultz and his assistant, failed actor Don Maxwell, sneak into a morgue and use Meirschultz’s experimental chemicals to revive the corpse of a young woman.

So far, so good. But before long, Maxwell has killed Meirschultz (admittedly, in self defense) and assumed his identity. And then you begin to notice that, unlike the big-studio horror movies of the same era, ‘Maniac’ isn’t just creepy in the center of the story, where the revived corpses and mad scientist lurk; the creepiness of ‘Maniac’ seeps into every single frame of film, deep into the dark, murky corners. In fact, that’s where it gets really creepy.

Need proof? Consider all the animal-fueled violence in this movie. In various scenes, two cats fight, a cat fights a dog and a cat kills a mouse. (None of these, I stress, seems faked in any way). And, in what might be the most notorious scene in the movie, Maxwell (as Meirschultz) takes a shot of “super adrenaline,” goes nuts and — brace yourself — grabs the lab cat, pops its eye out and eats it, declaring, “Why, it’s not unlike an oyster — or a grape!” The fact that the scene is crudely faked, using a marble and a one-eyed cat, somehow makes it even more disturbing.

But not, believe it or not, as disturbing as a later scene involving two other characters. A detective looking for the missing Meirschultz calls up on the good doctor’s neighbor, who proudly shows off his money-making operation: He’s in “the fur business” and explains that inspiration came when he realized rats breed faster than cats. So, as he says, “Cats eat rats, and rats eat raw meat. That is, they eat the carcasses of the cats. So, the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats and I get the skins!” To which our impressed detective says “Why, rats eating cats! That is news!”

Film critic Bret Wood, who has studied ‘Maniac’ like some scholars study the Talmud, points out that this scene becomes more unnerving the more you think about it. Esper, remember, was working on a tiny budget. There’s no way he built the elaborate rat-cat enclosure for a short scene with two minor characters. Which means it wasn’t made for the movie. Which means, well, you get the idea. It was the Depression, after all. People were starving. You did whatever you could to put food on the table.

‘Maniac’ is full of moments like that — strange little accidental glimpses into the weird world of exploitation cinema. It was never meant to be seen in normal, studio-owned theaters by decent, family audiences, which means Esper could really deliver the goods. There are cat fights (both human and feline), long scenes of women in their skivvies talking about nothing in particular, two (actually) drunken morgue assistants leering over a corpse, hellish clips from the silent film ‘Maciste in Hell’ (which I doubt Esper obtained the rights to) and, just to spice things up a big, a pause in an abduction scene when a crazed lunatic stops to slip the negligee off the chest of that revived female corpse.

Esper, who by all accounts broke every law he could and cheated every man he met, milked ‘Maniac’ for all it was worth, showing prints in small towns and out-of-the-way villages all over this great land of ours. Then, when that well dried up, he did what any smart exploitation producer did: He spent a few bucks retitling the film ‘Sex Maniac’ and started the whole ball rolling again. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all …

Long a staple of low-budget, public-domain video releases (which seems fitting somehow), ‘Maniac’ is easy to find on DVD. The best version is the Kino Video DVD, which features commentary from Bret Wood and a second Esper feature, the almost-as-weird ‘Narcotic.’ Or, if that’s too much trouble, here’s the complete movie. Enjoy?

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