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Film / Maniac (1934)

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"Tonight, my dear Maxwell, I'm ready to try my experiment on a human!"

Maniac is a 1934 American exploitation horror film directed by Dwain Esper and partly adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's story The Black Cat.

Former vaudevillian Don Maxwell did something bad at some point in the past, leading him to hide out in the laboratory of deranged psychiatrist Dr. Meirschultz, working as his assistant. Meirschultz is your garden variety Mad Scientist who believes that he can revive the dead with shots of "super-adrenaline". After Don and the doctor steal the corpse of a young woman who killed herself by carbon monoxide, they successfully revive her, although only for a given definition of "successfully" as she is left in a zombie-like state.

However, the mad doctor isn't satisfied. He has a human heart beating away in a jar, and he wants a corpse with a destroyed heart to transplant his heart into. He gets a bright idea, hands Don a gun, and suggests Don shoot himself through the heart so Meirschultz can use him as an experimental corpse that he will revive with the donor heart. Don does the entirely logical thing and shoots Meirschultz to death instead. Unfortunately, for Don the act of murder sends him descending into madness. Cats are strangled, eyeballs are eaten, bodies are hidden, women lounge around in their underwear and there is a literal and metaphorical Cat Fight.

So, Fred Astaire this is not.

No connection to the similarly bizarre 1980 slasher film Maniac.


  • Alternate DVD Commentary: Targeted by RiffTrax in 2009.
  • Bathtub Scene: A little more fanservice with Maizie, who is taking a bath when she first appears onscreen.
    Maizie: I might not be decent, but I'm going to be clean!
  • Big Bad: Don Maxwell, an actor who murders and replaces a Mad Doctor.
  • Bridal Carry: Not very often you see this played out with a man who's been turned into a screeching wild-eyed psycho carrying a woman who's been brought back from the dead.
  • Came Back Wrong: Meirschultz clearly hasn't worked out all the kinks in his whole "reviving the dead" method; the woman he and Maxwell bring back to life is little more than a mindless zombie wandering around the lab.
  • Cat Fight: There'a an actual fight between cats. But the more interesting Cat Fight comes at the end and is the last bit of Fanservice. Don has figured out that Maizie intends to murder him and take his inheritance. Mrs. Buckley for her part is blackmailing Don. So he maneuvers both of them into the basement, each of them with hypodermics to use on the other. After each manages to smack the hypodermic out of the other's hand, they have a quite violent Cat Fight that involves not only the usual hair-pulling and torn clothing to reveal sexy underwear, but also includes Maizie and Mrs. Buckley trying to cave each other's heads in with baseball bats and shelves.
  • Cat Scare: Two cats who get into a literal Cat Fight at the morgue, causing Don to flee in terror. This one is more plot-relevant from most because Don's failure to retrieve the corpse of the gangster who was shot to death leads to Dr. Meirschultz deciding that Don can be the dead body, which sets the rest of the story in motion.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Satan the cat gets walled up along with his master's corpse. This leads to the cops discovering the body when they hear the cat meowing from behind the wall, just as in Poe's "The Black Cat".
  • Chewing the Scenery: Intentionally invoked, for once. Since Don is a vaudevillian actor and impressionist, he behaves waaaaaaaay over the top by normal standards because he's used to having to act so grand while performing on stage. The movie is unintentionally hilarious as a result of just how over the top he takes his assumed identity.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Don doesn't make a run for it after killing Dr. Meirschultz because...well if he did the movie would end. But when Mrs. Buckley comes to get help for her nutjob of a husband, Don realizes that Dr. Meirschultz will be missed. So he assumes the role of Dr. Meirschultz, using his old makeup kit to disguise himself.
  • Descent Into Madness: While Dr. Meirschultz is a lunatic from the start, Don isn't. Instead he starts to go insane after he kills Meirschultz, getting crazier and crazier over the course of the movie. The film is interspersed with blurbs from psychiatric journals describing in detail the stages of insanity that Don is going through: "Dementia praecox" (nowadays called schizophrenia), "paresis" (aka "general paresis of the insane", or syphillitic madness, paranoia (the stage where you eat cat eyeballs), manic-depressive disorder (aka bipolar, and the stage where you commit "sex crimes" in the manic phase), and finally "mania" (when you're just a complete loon who laughs like a hyena as bodies are falling out of the walls in your basement). The excerpts from psychiatry journals were intended to pass this sleazefest off as "educational", to ward off censors.
  • Dies Wide Open: Poor Dr. Meirschultz.
  • Dramatic Drop: Don, who is depressed at the start of the film but not yet insane, drops his tools in shock when Dr. Meirschultz tells him that they'll need the corpse of a "gassed suicide" for their revivification experiment.
  • Dull Surprise: Mrs. Buckley, in contrast to the other Large Ham players. She sees the real Dr. Meirschultz's dead body still lying on the floor and says (to Don) "Doctor, that looks like murder" as if she were saying "that looks like rain."
  • Exploitation Film: Dwain Esper was a merchant of lurid exploitation films shot on super-cheap budgets and exhibited as "road shows" in rented theaters. As such, they were not subject to The Hays Code and censorship. Thus this film, while not pornographynote , has way more nudity than any studio movie could have gotten away with even before the Hays Code was imposed, much less after.
  • Eye Scream: Satan the cat knocked over the jar containing the heart, and apparently ate the heart. Don, who had thought to revive Dr. Meirschultz with the heart (because actors can do heart transplants), flips out. He grabs the cat, and starts to strangle it, but then pokes out its eye instead, a plot element taken from Poe's "The Black Cat". (The good news is that they didn't actually poke the cat's eye out, but instead found a cat that already had a glass eye. The bad news is that the stunt cat was a tabby while Satan was a black cat.) After the cat goes scampering off with its newly impaired depth perception, Don sees the eye on the floor. He says “It’s not unlike an oyster, or a grape!” Then he eats the eye.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: A policeman interviews one of the doctor's neighbors. She makes a point of calling him a "queer" fellow (as in the word's original meaning of "odd" or "unusual"). She uses the word repeatedly to describe him and his doings and the people who come and go from his home. They're all so queer. They get queer in that house, and just keep doing queer things. The whole thing is just queer, really...
  • Idiot Ball: Dr. Meirschultz needs a corpse, Don's standing right there, the doctor has a gun. It would have made sense to shoot Don. But no, Dr. Meirschultz hands Don the gun and tells Don to shoot himself. Don does not comply.
  • Large Ham:
    • The actors playing Don and Dr. Meirschultz both chew the hell out of the scenery. They even lampshade it In-Universe when the doctor says "Once a ham...always a ham" to Don the former vaudevillian.
    • Then there's the actor playing Buckley, who is already crazy when he's brought into the office—he thinks he's the orangutan from "Murders in the Rue Morgue". When Don accidentally injects him with the super-adrenaline Buckley loses what's left of his mind, howling and screaming like an animal, but not before delivering one hell of a monologue.
    Buckley: Oh! Stealing through my body! Creeping though my veins! Pouring in my blood! Oh, DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN! STABBING ME! I CAN'T STAND IT! I WON'T!
  • Laughing Mad: Dr. Meirschultz does this a lot, cackling manaically when he talks about the "beating heart" that he's going to stick into a corpse, then cackling manaically again when he gets the bright idea to have Don shoot himself. Don starts doing this more and more in the latter portion of the film as he gets really crazy. He's laughing like a loon when the cops show up at the end.
  • Lingerie Scene: Hoo boy...
    • There's the zombie lady who only is wearing slip to begin with, and is wearing less after Buckley the feral animal rips it off, exposing her breasts.
    • Don's wife Maizie is introduced in a scene where Maizie and her girlfriends are just lounging around their apartment in their underwear. One of her roommates is dancing while wearing nothing but a bra and panties, because why not?
    • There's an even more egregious scene later. After one of the faux-scholarly title cards explains that the manic phase of manic depression is when the patient is liable to commit "sex crimes". This is followed by a scene where a woman is shown topless, undressing for what apparently is an examination by the doctor. Then we see her in lingerie lounging on a table as Don feels her up. To make it even weirder, the film for no apparent reason uses match cuts to bounce back and forth between Don in his Dr. Meirschultz disguise feeling the lady up, and Don without his disguise feeling her up.
  • Lost in Character: Part of Don's Descent Into Madness manifests as him starting to think that he actually is the doctor. That's why he has his insane breakdown and attacks Satan the cat after Satan smashes the jar containing the beating heart.
    Don: Not only do I look like Meirschultz, I am Meirschultz!
  • Mad Scientist: Well, all he's doing is stealing corpses and shooting them up with super-adrenaline in order to bring them back to life as zombies. That's all.
  • Match Cut: Don's transformation into Meirschultz is demonstrated via several Match Cuts showing Don gradually changing as makeup is applied.
  • Noodle Incident: Just what the heck did Don do to find himself hiding from the cops in the lab of an insane scientist?
  • Obvious Stunt Double: A stunt cat already missing its eye is substituted for Satan the cat during the scene where Don pokes Satan's eye out. Satan is a small black cat, and the stunt cat is a large tabby. They don't look remotely alike, and the movie doesn't even try to disguise the fact.
  • One-Word Title: Maniac.
  • Plot Hole: Not the most carefully written film.
    • Don supposedly is a fugitive from justice for some reason. Yet when he inherits a large sum the newspaper treats it as a mildly intriguing news story and doesn't mention anything about him being a wanted criminal. And how did the paper even know about his inheritance? And how did Maizie, who hadn't contacted Don for some time, know where to find him?
    • Then there's Mrs. Buckley's bizarre character shift. She brings her husband to "Dr. Meirschultz" expecting him to cure Buckley of his delusion. When Don accidentally gives Buckley the wrong injection and instead turns him into a feral howling lunatic, Mrs. Buckley turns on a dime, becoming Don's partner in evil, hoping to turn her husband into a zombie slave.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Just when Don's gotten into the groove of mangling cats and molesting patients, news arrives that an uncle in Australia has died and left him a large fortune. This is the plot excuse for getting Maizie to look her husband up.
  • Villain Protagonist: Don Maxwell, a fugitive actor who becomes a grave-robbing mad scientist's assistant, murders him, and then proceeds to murder more people to cover it up.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: There's a whole story in the newspaper about Don inheriting his uncle's money. This makes no sense but is how the story gets Maizie to look her husband up.