It's contagious... madness reigns in Dwain Esper's deliriously entertaining Maniac (1934)
The 1930's exploitation market is still a treasure trove of undiscovered gems, and best of the bunch is this delirious horror from Dwain Esper, the director/producer most famous for redistributing Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) to the 70's grindhouse crowd under the shameless title of Nature's Mistakes. Esper was always one for boundary pushing and deserves much more credit that he currently receives, both as a promoter of bad taste and a semi-surrealist with touches of Lynch to his tales, 43 years before Lynch's seminal Eraserhead (1977) forever redefined our understanding of surrealism. After all, there's even a scene in Maniac where a creepy suburban neighbor discusses the business of rats eating cats and vice versa, for the profit of their fur. It could be a deleted scene from Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1984).
Maniac tells the Lovecraftian tale of an ex-vaudeville actor who, after killing a mad scientist obsessed with reanimating dead corpses, assumes the position of his old mentor and falls deeper into a pit of psychological dementia. So yeah, it's an interesting precursor to Re-Animator, properly adapted in 1985 by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, but in many ways this film is just as macabre, deranged and shocking as that hilarious splatter classic. For example, a scene where Maxwell (William Woods) throttles a cat, squeezing its head until its eyeball shoots out - not exactly what you expect to find in 30's cinema, is it? Nor do you expect to find intense portrayals of insanity and unashamed female nudity (there are two shots of exposed breasts in the film; wholly and unnecessarily exploitative), yet here they both are...
I certainly can't vouch for Maniac as some kind of forgotten masterpiece; the acting is woefully bad, with Horace Carpenter (as the mad Dr. Meirschultz) slurring between seemingly French and Irish accents, always shouting and with odd, sub-Christopher Walken pauses between his words. It's a completely OTT performance which at one point declares; "Once a ham, always a ham!" Indeed, Mr. Carpenter. But honestly the actors are not served well by the screenplay. One scene finds a high-pitched woman spring into action after talk of the national press; "Press? That reminds me, I have pressing business!" It would be embarrassing if it weren't so funny, but these scenes only make Esper's 50-minute spectacular all the more entertaining.
There are some really strange moments in the film, most notably concerning the symbolism that goes along with Maxwell's psychosis; Faustian hallucinations of clawed fingers, rising mist, devilish figures and fire-breathing dragons. It's really peculiar, but certainly interesting - and the effects are extremely impressive for the time. I have to praise the makeup effects too - Maxwell's transition to becoming Dr. Meirschultz is brilliantly handled and quite believable. Maniac's tale about the dangers of science may be underdeveloped but it's fascinating to see a Re-Animator style story in Pre-Code Hollywood, packed with screamingly mad performances, violence and nudity, some alarmingly shoddy dialogue and acting which would make Tommy Wiseau blush. Trust me: masterpiece or no masterpiece, you have to see Maniac... you just have to!
For an Elstree Hill release the picture is actually pretty good here; nothing great, but certainly worth the £3.99 asking price at HMV; mere pennies for such an important slice of cinema history. What's really saddening is the lack of extras, for there's nothing on display... not even some notes, or the original trailer.