Greetings, readers. Tonight, I would like to talk a little history with you. In the 1920s, Hollywood was an even bigger moral cesspool than it is today. The oral antics of the Hilton sisters and Lindsay Lohan’s various cocaine and “underpantsless” activities pale on comparison to Tallulah Bankhead’s cocaine-fueled parties, Lionel Atwill’s porno orgies, and while I have my doubts about whether Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle really raped Virginia Rappe with that wine bottle or not…Anyways. They liked to pretend they were less decadent than they actually were, and so the Hays Production Code went into effect to keep film sanitary. After all, didn’t want the madness of Hollywood affecting the general public, right? So rules were put into place to tell filmmakers what they could and could not spray into the film-goer’s eyeballs.
Three general principles were enumerated, as follows:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Naturally, as soon as there were rules, there were people looking for loopholes. And so the “educational” or “social hygiene” exploitation film came into existence. Under the guise of informing the audience, filmmakers could get away with showing drugs, sex, murder and more. Some of the strangest of these films featured footage of actual childbirth — imagine a spread, stretched vagina splayed across the silver screen! It really happened, people, under the guise of education. Which brings us to tonight’s film.
Sometimes shown under the alternate title SEX MANIAC, this film is the baby of Dwain Esper, the king of these films, who also gave us the drug-scare classic MARIHUANA and turned the semi-educational TELL YOUR CHILDREN into the hilarious REEFER MADNESS.
Anyways, history lessons aside, let’s take a look at this gutter-baby.
Dr. Meirschultz, with his gigantic Santa beard, round glasses and drawling German accent, has mastered the secrets of life and death and found a means to revive dead tissue. With the aid of his vaudevillian assistant Don Maxwell, master of disguise, he steals a woman’s corpse from the morgue and restores it to life. But merely reviving a perfect corpse isn’t enough for Meirschultz. No, he wants to transplant a revivified heart into a dead body next! That will be his crowning achievement!
So Meirschultz sends Maxwell down to the morgue to steal a corpse with a bad heart. Unfortunately, he gets spooked mid-heist by a pair of fighting cats, and dashes back to the lab without a corpse. Meirschultz is livid. He will not allow his genius to be delayed even a single night, and producing a pistol, orders Maxwell to commit suicide. After all, what does it matter? Meirschultz will just reanimate him! Maxwell isn’t too keen on that, and shoots Meirschultz instead.
At that moment, a patient of Dr. Meirschultz’s shows up — apparently our re-animator doctor is a psychiatrist on the side? — in the form of Mrs. Buckley. Her husband, it seems, thinks he’s the homicidal orangutan from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Maxwell is forced to put his impressionist skills to work, disguising himself as Meirschultz.
Through a comical mishap, he accidentally injects Mr. Buckley with super-adrenaline instead of a placebo-shot of water. Buckley goes berserk, throwing furniture and ripping the clothes off the previously-reanimated girl, carrying her off into the night. Mrs. Buckley quickly figures out what’s up, and makes a deal with Maxwell/Meirschultz to help him conceal the death of his “assistant” in exchange for his assistance in bumping off Mr. Buckley.
The deal made, Maxwell/Meirschultz drags the real Meirschultz’s body downstairs to hide. A cat gets in his way; he grabs the feline, gouging out one of its eyes with his thumb. “After all, it’s not unlike an oyster, or a grape” he mutters as he pops the eye into his mouth. He bricks the body into the wall, though doesn’t see the cat jump into the opening.
Meanwhile, across town, Maxwell’s gold-digger of a wife, Alice, is lounging around in her underwear with her friends Maizie, Marvel, and Jo. Jo, I should note, sounds like the lost Chippette — I didn’t know helium addiction was a problem in the 1930s. As they lounge, gossip, and fantasize about finding a rich husband, Alice notices an ad in the newspaper looking for Maxwell — seems he’s inherited a rather large fortune from an Australian uncle. Alice immediately sees how she could turn this to her advantage.
As an aside, I have to say, these are some of the most hilariously bubble-headed tramps I’ve ever seen in cinema. Maizie is lounging in the bath tub when she’s introduced, and in response to a request she give someone else a chance, says “I may not be decent, but I’ll be clean!” while a reference to the newspaper as “the Press” reminds Jo, “I have some pressing business!” and starts ironing her underwear. And what the hell is that exercise machine where you put a leather strap under your ass and it jiggles the fat away? I don’t get that at all as an exercise tool. Automatic booty-shaker, sure, but weight-loss?
Meanwhile, Maxwell/Meirschultz is going crazy from the strain of being two people at once. He becomes obsessed with “the gleam,” that look of madness he sees in others’ eyes — Meirschultz when he wanted him to commit suicide; Mrs. Buckley when she wanted her husband dead; and soon Alice when she’s after the money. As superimposed demons dance around his head, Maxwell/Meirschultz plots to pit Alice and Mrs. Buckley against one another, hoping they kill each other off, leaving him free…
Unfortunately for him, the police burst in just in time to catch him cheering on a pair of half-naked women pulling each others’ hair, ripping clothing, and bashing each other with improvised clubs. They’re separated, and Maxwell/Meirschultz carted off to the madhouse after a police officer hears the cat meowing behind the wall and, breaking down the bricks, discovers the corpse of the real Meirschultz.
Naked chicks, zombies, maniacs, mad scientists, impersonations, eyeball eating, satanic imagery, cats…MANIAC is a veritable smorgasbord of delight. And what, you may ask, makes this film a so-called “educational” one? Why, it’s an introductory primer on mental illness, readers! Scattered throughout the film are a series of intertitles quoting from various psychiatric texts, describing mental conditions such as dementia praecox (what we now know as schizophrenia), various manias, paranoia, etc. All in order to give “context” to what we’re seeing on the screen.
I think my favorite thing about the film (besides full-frontal female nudity) is the depiction of Maxwell’s descent into madness. Demons, witches, and at one point a dragon materialize in the air around him, floating diabolically as he rants and raves and mutters to himself about how eyeballs are just like grapes. This footage is taken from Swedish, German and Italian silent films, specifically HAXAN (aka WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES), DER NIBELUNGEN — SIEGFRIED (which I’ve watched — it’s the source of the dragon, Fafnir) and MACISTE ALL’INFERNO (aka MACISTE IN HELL). It’s a really surreal and entertaining effect.
All in all, MANIAC has everything. Violence and bloodshed, T&A, references to Satanism, hallucinations, and it’s even good for your brain. And best of all, it’s free to watch!