About halfway through Maniac (also called Sex Maniac, for no reason), a minor character gets an accidental shot of adrenaline and performs a monologue that has to be seen to be believed: “Creeping through my veins! Pouring in my blood! Oh, dash the fire in my brain! Stabbing me! Agony!” It goes on and on. The magic of 1934’s Maniac is that, despite its fifty-minute runtime, this isn’t even the craziest scene.
Is the craziest scene when the suicide victim comes back to life, licks her lips, and then is instantly forgotten by the rest of the cast? How about the cat-breeding next-door neighbor (a man in drag) complaining in total deadpan that the scientist next door keeps doing “queer” things like making too much noise and bringing dogs back to life? Perhaps it’s the big ending, which shamelessly rips off an Edgar Allan Poe story for no reason whatsoever.
With a movie like this, it’s virtually impossible to think of a single highlight, because the entire thing is one, big highlight reel. From throbbing hearts in jars to way-too-many close-ups of random cats, Maniac virtually begs to be experienced in one feverish sitting.
Here the film, if you want to take a look for yourself.
Director Dwain Esper—known for exploitation films like Reefer Madness and Love Life of Adolph Hitler—is in fine form here. The plot, in short, is that an impressionist named Maxwell works for a mad scientist. The mad scientist goads Maxwell into shooting him. Maxwell uses his impressionism skills to take over the scientist’s life and personality, which not surprisingly drives him even more insane. The story also makes time for zombie resurrections, blackmail, sexual violence, and a parade of lingerie. When people claim that Maniac is a loose adaptation of Poe’s “The Black Cat,” they place a lot of emphasis on “loose.”
Perhaps the quaintest thing about the viewing experience is that Esper chooses to stop the film every few minutes to give a written medical definition for a different type of insanity: dementia, paranoia, a bunch more. Most directors would have these title cards be somehow connected to the story or to Maxwell’s deteriorating mental state. As I watched the film, I assumed this was the case. Looking back, though, it seems like the terms were randomly placed between scenes to pad out an already-short runtime.
Not surprisingly, overacting is on full display. It’s hard to tell who gives the hammier performance: the mad scientist, or the man pretending to be the mad scientist for no real reason. Probably the latter. Most everyone else in the cast is either wooden or manic. One of the actresses to fall in the former category is Celia McCann, the official Spanish-language voice for Minnie Mouse and the future grandmother of Valley Girl comedienne Julie Brown. I included this fact in hopes that this article will feel at least half as random as the film it’s about.
In short, Maniac is the rare exploitation film that can be watched without the aid of booze, illegal substances, or an MST3K soundtrack. It’s too jam-packed to have dull stretches and too bizarre to be predictable. If you’re curious about 30s horror films from studios other than Universal, there are better ways to spend fifty minutes than with a hammy doctor who buries people behind his basement walls. (Oh, did I forget to mention that part?)
Evan Purcell is a romance novelist living in the beautiful Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. A lifelong movie fan originally from LA, he also writes film criticism for various websites. You can read about his writing and travels at Evanpurcell.blogspot.