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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Maniac (1934)

There are some movies from the past that when compared to movies made today, could be classified as a truly bad movie.  1934's "Maniac", directed by Dwain Esper, would certainly fall into that category. Having said that, however, when viewed as part of the evolution of the horror genre within cinema, this film could be considered a "classic".  The same can also be said of this film when viewed simply for amusement and a chuckle or two.

Don Maxwell- a vaudeville impersonator hiding from the police, becomes involved with Dr. Meirschultz and his plans to bring the dead back to life.  A gun shot and circumstances conspire to drag Maxwell into madness as those around him close in on the truth...

Dr. Meirschultz is portrayed by Horace B. Carpenter, who was a silent film producer/director/actor during the silent film era.  Once talking movies took over, he portrayed white haired characters in westerns.  Marian Blackton is often mistakenly reported as playing the "cat farmer" by wearing male drag, when in fact she played the female neighbour questioned by police.

"Maniac" is not a film to be taken seriously- but is enjoyable none the less.

This film was made during the relatively early transition from silent to taking movies- and shows elements of both.  The acting is exaggerated and theatrically large movements- which is characteristic of silent films... though it could also simply be indicative of bad acting  Another element of the silent film era used is title cards adding exposition about mental illness.  It has been claimed, however, that the title cards were to add an "educational" angle to the film... in case there were complaints about the more exploitative segments.

Personally, I found the acting charming, if silly.  I really liked the contrast between Bill Wood's rather ludicrous portrayal of Don Maxwell, and that of the rest of the cast.  I also quite enjoyed Ted Edwards' role as Buckley.  They are both good for a laugh, and Bill Wood's gives an excellent demonstration of  "crazy eyes" .  Another fun character was the "cat farmer"- his scene with the police detective is definately one that brought a smile to my lips.

There is also some decent camera work in this film, showing some innovation away from the standard locked in one position style of silent films.  The superimposing of scenes from the Swedish film, "Witchcraft" (1920), "Through the Ages" (1922), and Fritz Lang's "Siegfried" (1923) illustrating Maxwell's descent into madness were good- especially the images of the large hands grasping at his head.

The story, however is rather simplistic and just barely serves to hold things together.  It is more of an excuse to show scenes that- for the time period, would've been considered shocking.  "Maniac" is acknowledged as one of the earliest exploitation films with it's use of gratuitous scenes of women fighting, hints of necrophilia, cat eyeball eating (an actually convincingly done scene), and female flesh.  One scene even shows four women lounging around in their frillies!  Scandalous!

If you're a casual viewer of horror films, this film probably wouldn't interest you.  If you're a student of horror film evolution, and want to see where the more exploitative elements of modern horror movies started- this film is definately worth a see... and worth a chuckle.

It's a bad film, but still enjoyable for what it is, so I'm going to give this a spot in "The Bad".