Exploitation found its roots with Dwain Esper who produced many "forbidden" horror films under the guise of documentaries. Maniac (1934) embraces insanity, rape, murder and general mayhem in a ludicrous script that is bizarre and offensive, but for all that, this is entertaining nonsense at its very best.
The Missing Link Proudly Presents

Maniac (1934)

He menaced women with weird desires!


MANIAC (1934/Hollywood Producers/Roadshow Attractions Co.) 67mins. BW. US.
Credits: Dir. & Prod: Dwain Esper; Sc: Hildegarde Stadie; Ph: William Thompson; Ed: William Austin; A.Dir: J. Stuart Blackton. From a story by Hildegarde Stadie.
Cast: Bill Woods, Horace Carpenter, Ted Edwards, Phyllis Diller, Thea Ramsey, Jennie Dark, Andree Celia McGann, J.P. Wade, Marion Blackton.

Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934)Dwain Esper's infamous MANIAC can best be described as the first of the B-grade, sex and horror exploitation films found in the seamier cinemas of today. Again this is further proof that however a release is hyped and advertised there is very little that is actually "new".

In partnership with his wife, Esper was a shrewd businessman who managed to screen his low, low budget films to adult audiences under the pretext of educational entertainment. Such lurid titles as MARIHUANA, WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL (1937), and HOW TO DRESS IN FRONT OF YOUR HUSBAND (1937), along with his 25 year lease of MGM's Freaks that he took to the road, the paying public would watch this "forbidden" material disguised as "morality pictures" and provide Esper & Co. with a healthy profit from unhealthy films.

MANIAC is disguised as a study of mental illness accompanied by "authoritative" narration that aims to explain the varying degrees of mental decay while reasoning that "unhealthy thought creates warped attitudes which in turn create criminals and manias".
To illustrate this tenuous theory we are introduced to the seriously unstable Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter), whose particular obsession is to resurrect a corpse that died from a "shattered heart". His accomplice, a former vaudeville actor named Don Maxwell, (Bill Woods), returns from the morgue he was sent to empty handed and is offered the chance to take his own life as punishment by the benevolent doctor. The doctor insists that he will bring Don back to life, but not surprisingly the assistant, instead of turning the gun on himself, shoots his benefactor.
Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934)Now mentally suffering under his obsession to find the "gleam of life", Maxwell assumes the identity of the tousled-haired Dr. Meirschultz and undertakes the doctor's housecalls. His first visit is from Mrs. Buckley, whose husband, (Ted Edwards), believes himself to be an orangutan, but not just any orangutan, he is  the ape from Poe's story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". Accidentally injecting the man with water instead of a serum, Maxwell causes Mr. Buckley to scream in pain as the water courses through his veins in what has to be the most ridiculous piece of improvisation ever seen in the cinema.
In the meantime, Mrs. Buckley has discovered the discarded body of the real doctor Meirschultz to which Maxwell calmly explains that he intends to revive the doctor later.
Maxwell's mental condition is obviously deteriorating rapidly, when, during the preparations for the operation to revive the corpse, the doctor's black cat Satan appears. Maxwell grabs the animal, gouges out one of its eyes and remarks while chewing on the delicacy, "Why, it is not unlike an oyster or a grape, but the gleam is gone" followed by a hearty manic cackle.
Realising that his murderous deed might be discovered, he decides to wall up the doctor's corpse, but unknown to him, the cat has crept in with the body behind the wall.
Maxwell's estranged wife turns up at Meirschultz's sanatorium after she discovers that her husband is the sole heir to a rich uncle in Australia. Unrecognisable as the doctor, Maxwell asks for her assistance with a dangerous female patient in the cellar, a ruse that he also used on poor Mrs. Buckley. Supplying the two women with hypodermic needles, he locks them in the cellar where a violent fight breaks out. The police arrive and put pay to Maxwell's activities when they discover the bricked up body, leaving Maxwell behind bars to muse and cackle to himself about his greatest impersonation.Ted Edwards in Maniac (1934)

For all it's obvious flaws, there is a great deal of entertainment in MANIAC especially as it was made at a time when this sort of fare was completely unexpected. Although in many films it is a treat to spot the cast member who overacts, in this film every cast member adopts the most exaggerated performance.
Ted Edwards as Mr. Buckley stands out by providing a few minutes of the most ridiculous ravings imaginable which could not have encouraged any further offers of film work. Watch also for J.P. Wade as the morgue attendant who must have had a few swallows from his hip flask before facing the cameras and delivering his lines.

It is easy to dismiss MANIAC, but within its own context there is much to recommend. The lighting in particular is well designed to maintain the maximum effect of the proceedings, while footage from Dante's Inferno (1924) is cleverly superimposed to represent Maxwell's descent into madness.

Unnerving, disturbing, unsubtle, extremely offensive, but also beguiling, MANIAC can lay claim to being somewhat ahead of its time while lurking in the darkest quarters of Poverty Row Cinema.

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Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst