Maniac (1934) movie poster

(1934) dir. Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/04/07

Last year I watched a couple of documentaries about the Exploitation film (see: Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)) and was turned onto this little movie of which I had never heard before, Dwain Esper’s Maniac.  It’s an amazing little film.

An independently produced film, made to play in the traveling burlesque circuit, it didn’t really have to worry about the Production Code.  Esper was a non-professional filmmaker, which is hardly surprising from much of the quality of the filmmaking, though most evident in the acting and dialogue.  It’s a camp quality film with some highly bizarre and effective scenes, most notably, the cat that gets its eye popped out and then eaten by the titular Maniac.  A clever sequence in which a one-eyed feline and a glass eye makes for a pretty creepy little moment reckoning of Un chien andalou‘s (1929) notorious eye-slicing.

There are cats all over the place in this film, and a finale that is ripped out of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat.  One of the other totally hilarious and bizarre episodes is the neighbor cat farmer, who keeps cats for their pelts, describing his reasoning for keeping rats as well (something like: “rats eat raw meat–you know, cat carcasses…so the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”)  Cats fighting cats, cats fighting dogs, a brawling, clothes-rending, syringe-laden “cat fight”.  Does this movie have it all?

Yes.  Zombie resurrection, a great psychotic meltdown after a patient is injected with adrenaline instead of “water”, who then carries off the zombie woman and strips her and rapes her.  Yes, gratuitous nudity.  Was this film really made in the 1930’s?  It contains so much of what one would expect in the 1960’s in the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

One of the other great effects in the film is the transposition of scenes from the Finnish film, Maciste in Hell (1924), on the ranting ravings of Maxwell, the maniac.  These scenes are crazy sequences of devils romping and flying and tormenting, and then the groping hands…  I actually would love to see the original Maciste in Hell.  It looks brilliant itself.

What can I say more than this film, made initially with the intent of “informing the public” about the dangers and woes of mental illness, which are archaically described in strangely-timed intertitles “Dementia Praecox”, among others.  It’s a cultural milestone.  It is avant-garde.  It is trash cinema at its peak.