(1934, Horror-Mad Science, b&w)
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett
Is this reanimation or shiatsu?
In a Nutshell:
A 1930s mad science softcore slasher disguised as a clinical study.
Maniac is a serious clinical film. You can tell by the way it stops the action for minutes at a time to scroll handwritten blocks of academic language at us.
What fills the film’s remaining running time could not be called cohesive, or even lucid. Ostensibly, it’s the tale of one Don Maxwell, a small time vaudeville impersonator forced by unspecified circumstances to assist the mad Dr. Meirschultz with his experiments to raise the dead. Why, you are now asking, would the mad doctor hire a vaudevillian instead of, say, a nurse or some other medical professional? The obvious (but unstated) reason is that he is mad. The reason they actually give us is that Don’s impersonation talents lend themselves particularly well to corpse theft. A bit of spirit gum and a stuffy manner, for instance, pass him off as a coroner, netting his boss a shapely young suicide victim.
The doctor revives her with a bit of mad massage therapy and some light fondling. She stirs and goes to sleep. They stash her in a back room or something, and the doctor demands another corpse. Someone with a bad heart this time, because he really wants to use the disembodied electrode heart he’s been working on in the years since they cast him out of the academy, where everyone laughed but they’ll all pay, etc., etc. Don tries, but can’t get a second body. The doctor hands him a gun and tells him to shoot himself in the heart so that he can revive the corpse. Don accepts the gun, but shoots Dr. Meirschultz instead. The wife of a patient arrives to demand treatment for her demented husband. In a panic, Don tells her to come back later. He puts on a lab coat and dons crepe hair to become the doctor himself.
Of course he screws it up almost immediately by giving something called “super adrenaline” to a man who thinks he’s a famous literary orangutan. (Yet another plot element I couldn’t make up if I tried). Orangutan man goes wild and kidnaps the semi-comatose formerly dead girl. He drags her away and starts to rip her clothes off in a field. Then the film loses interest and never shows either character again.
His wife is still hanging around, though. She stumbles over Dr. Meirschultz’s corpse and offers to keep quiet about it in exchange for, uh... I think she wants Don to kill and revive her husband, which will somehow make him obey her every command? Don agrees. He spends the next few montages fondling semi-nude girls, mutilating cats and capering madly. (This is the part when he famously ingests a, er, “recently harvested” feline eyeball.) Now Don’s wife (who no one bothered to mention until now) comes looking for him. Don bricks up his employer’s corpse behind the cellar fireplace with a live cat, then arranges for his wife and Orangutan man’s wife to come down and wrestle. He locks the cellar door behind them and dances around on it in girlish glee.
Meanwhile, the cannibal cat rancher (he raises cannibal cats) has tipped the police off to strange goings on up at the mad doctor’s place. The cops burst in to arrest Don, free the ladies and unbrick the corpse.
The text walls are an interesting tactic; the medical terminology on display works in the sense that it describes mental illness, purportedly the subject of the film. On the other hand, the film’s protagonist is only insane in the generic cinematic sense. In every instance he fails more or less completely to illustrate the specific mental illnesses described. My suspicion is that these informational interruptions weren’t meant for the audience—at least, not the paying audience. “We’re totally educational,” the film says to the potential censors of eighty years ago. “Please don’t ban us.”
Also, for a film from the thirties, Maniac shows an astonishing number of uncovered breasts. There are four, I think; reanimated suicide girl and fantasy montage fondle-ee come in at two each. (Quoth Bill, “I didn’t think boobs existed in 1934.”) Add in the girl-wrestling, the eye-popping and subsequent eye-chewing, the rancher of cannibal cats and orangutan man’s, er, “eccentric performance” and you’ve got a movie to which the word “gratuitous” can be applied as a whole. Had it been released in 2009—perhaps as Tom Green’s long-awaited follow-up to Freddy Got Fingered—it would have been rated R.
A few of my favorite comments: When the whacked-out orangutan man drags off the topless zombie girl, Kevin says, “What doesn’t kill us makes us squirmier.” When ludicrous shenanigans give way to even more medical text about the signs of mental illness, Mike notes, “This movie helped a lot of people.” When the cat rancher peeps at bricked-up corpse/girl wrestling scene, Bill notes, “Even the professional cat fur salesman thinks this is pretty weird.” The riffers have a good sense of when to mock something mercilessly and when to just sit back and marvel along with the rest of us at the hallucinatory strangeness. It’s a solid fifty minutes of funny.
(1934, Horror-Mad Science, b&w)