Before Roger Corman, before Ed Wood, there was Dwain Esper & his scriptwriting wife Hildegarde Stadie, the dad & mom of all sensationalizing Z-horror filmmakers to follow.
Maniac is an early exploitation film full of vim & imagination & ultra cheeziness. In its own warped & silly way it's a brilliant classic of no-budget seediness, advanced for its time or of its kind, truly witty & bizarre, with extravagantly bad performances that would take true genius to duplicate.
There's a long sequence of the vaudevillian character-impersonator (Bill Woods) having adapted the persona of the mad doctor, walling up the corpse of the actual mad doctor (Horace B. Carpenter). Satan the cat gets in the wall, & his yowling will reveal the corpse at a critical moment later on
From this & a few other moments it's obvious Maniac was ever so slightly inspired by elements from Poe's "The Black Cat" & "The Tell Tail Heart." But in greater part, it's a facetious experimental film that purports to be a "study" of various forms of insanity.
By pretending to be educational, the film could get away with stuff that in 1934 might otherwise have gotten somebody arrested. Educational text cards are inserted here & there, as in silent films, quoting sundry medical texts on varioius aspects of madness.
The loony character-impersonator (who takes over a mad scientist's research as well as his identity, after shooting him in a wonderfully funny murder scene) represents several stages of madness. When our anti-hero is hallucinating, wild supernatural images swiped from foreign silent fantasy film footage are superimposed over the madman.
A wacky interlude barely related to the rest of the film amounts to an interview with a fur farmer whose fur animals are cats. This views like an astounding satire as the farmer discusses the skinning of cats & feeding the meat to rats & then feeding the rats to cats who'll be skinned & fed to rats, ad infinitum, all outllined as we watch his "stock" at play.
There's also a sequence in which the fake doctor pursues a cat around the house as it is repeatedly tossed in front the camera in a failed attempt to make it look like it's running about wildly. When he catches it, he squeezes its head & out pops one of its eyes. He remarks that the slimy eyeball looks like a grape, then gobbles it down.
Until this scene I wasn't sure the filmmakers & actors knew they were in a comedy. But soon the comic bits are being laid on so thick that it's pretty clear everyone was having a wonderful time making this thing.
The cat skinner is tenuously tied to the main story by a brief scene in which he visits the impersonated mad doctor believing the doc has been stealing cats for his appalling scientific experiments. Our madman insists, "I think too much of Satan to use cats in an experiment!" A jarring assertion if you didn't remember the lab cat, eventually sealed in the wall, is named Satan.
Satan's best scene is when he eats the living pulsating heart before the mad scientist can complete his heart transplant to bring the real mad scientist back to life.
There's another plot thread to do with a different madman (Ted Edwards) who believes he is an orangutan. This actor was once an actual vaudeville comedian & in the silent film era this same actor was in a couple Fatty Arbuckle comedies. He's simply hysterical doing his were-orangutan "transformation." The transformation FX amount to his turning around for a second, mussing up his own hair, & slipping in a set of plastic teeth.
Continuing the film's comic homage to Poe, this nut believes he is not just any orangutan, but the very ape from "Murder in the Rue Morgue." The tousle-haired man-ape kidnaps a reanimated dead girl (Marvelle Andre) & dashes about the countryside hopping & grunting & carrying the girl's nude body off to we're never told where. Such nudity was banned by the Hayes Code, but censors were probably never even asked their opinion of this one!
The mad impersonator of the mad scientist befriends the oragutan's not entirely sane wife (Phyllis Diller -- no, not the Phyllis Diller though she'd've been good at it too). She figures out the doctor is a killer, & so quite naturally wants to solicite his aid in murdering her crazy husband. At first he thinks he can trust her with his secrets, but then he becomes convinced she intends to kill him & so locks her in the basement.
There's an additional piece of the story featuring four burlesque girls sharing an apartment. These girls are cute as buttons performing comic shtick for the camera. Like the cat skinner, they seem scarsely related to the main story, but turns out they are vaudeville gals & one of them is still married to the character impersonator, who has just inherited a fortune. So one of the girls decides to track down her estranged (& strange) husband for the sake of an inheritance he has not yet heard about.
As paranoia overtakes our fake doc, he decides to trick the orangutan's wife & his own newly un-extranged wife (Thea Ramsey) into killing each other, each believing the other is dangerously insane. Their "cat fight" is a hoot as they role about in the rat & frog-infested basement. Frog-infested basement? Criminy. I just can't praise this film enough.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl