Hailed today as the forbear of modern exploitation horror, MANIAC presents its sordid tale of madness and murder as an educational essay on mental illness, with title cards explaining the various dementia dramatized in the narrative strewn throughout the film. Shot in and around director
Dwain Esper's house on Willoughby Avenue in Hollywood, MANIAC is the preposterous and frequently confusing saga of Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), a washed-up vaudeville impersonator who falls in with Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter), a mad scientist experimenting with bringing the dead back to life.
During an argument, Maxwell accidentally kills the doctor and, fearing a prison sentence, assumes the dead man's identity, using his skills as a makeup man and impersonator. As the plot thickens, Maxwell goes mad and commits several crimes in an attempt to cover up his murder of Meirschultz. In
the end, the police uncover the evil deed and Maxwell is imprisoned. A truly wretched production on all levels, MANIAC remains today a captivating example of early exploitation. Although Esper's films weren't booked in quality theaters, his work traveled the roadshow circuit and was screened in
burlesque houses and tents. During the scant 52 minutes of MANIAC, Esper treats viewers to attempted body snatching, uncontrollable lust, female nudity, graphic rape, the gouging of a cat's eye and its subsequent consumption by Maxwell ("It is not unlike an oyster," he cackles as he swallows the
bloody eyeball), and a fight between two women who tear at each other's clothes while wielding hypodermic needles. Included throughout this opus are laughable "scientific" explanations of the psychoses supposedly experienced by Maxwell. In addition to its exhilarated indulgence in Breen Code
taboos, the most amusing aspect of MANIAC is its beautifully inept realization. Esper's dialog is hilariously pretentious and his actors are total hams. Horace Carpenter, who plays Dr. Meirschultz, was a member of Cecil B. DeMille's respected stock company during the silent era. Having fallen on
hard times, the former star appeared in cheap exploitation productions to pay the bills, starting a trend that actors like Bela Lugosi and John Carradine would later turn into an art form. Esper also makes allusions to Edgar Allan Poe throughout MANIAC, and superimposes film clips from Fritz
Lang's SIEGFRIED (1924) and Benjamin Christensen's WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922) over Maxwell's face to symbolize madness. Still, despite the crude production, replete with blown takes that were printed and used, bad camerawork, and dozens of jump cuts, there is an oddly compelling quality to
MANIAC that makes it surprisingly watchable. Esper was a genuine auteur who could translate his own warped personal vision into truly imaginative and frequently inventive little movies. MANIAC has its own twisted logic and is, in its own way, a perfectly acceptable cinematic portrayal of madness.
It remains the masterpiece of Esper's known work.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Hailed today as the forbear of modern exploitation horror, MANIAC presents its sordid tale of madness and murder as an educational essay on mental illness, with title cards explaining the various dementia dramatized in the narrative strewn throughout the f… (more)