Wednesday, August 12, 2015

MANIAC (a/k/a SEX MANIAC) (1934)

When the great horror movies of the 1930s are talked about, Maniac is nowhere in sight. This is an unfair omission. Not that Maniac is up there with Island of Lost Souls. Its budget was probably in the mid three-figures, its actors either incompetent or more over the top than Donald Trump's hair, and its dialogue written by someone under the influence of some particularly bad synthetic marijuana.

All of these supposed negatives, however, make Maniac disturbing on more levels than has Candy Crush. The work of self-styled auteur Dwain Esper, Maniac was shown exclusively in "adults only" grindhouses and, when those weren't available, tents set up outside of city limits. That's what nudity, insanity and animal abuse will do to a movie's distribution.

Maniac rips off Frankenstein and several Edgar Allan Poe stories while still managing to be altogether unique. Dr. Meirschultz, a mad scientist (is there any other kind?) is working on a technique to bring the dead back to life. His assistant, Don Maxwell, is a former vaudevillian on the run from the police for unknown reasons. It would seem, however, he's wanted for impersonating a good actor.

Maxwell strikes a blow for every
overworked employee in America.
Meirschultz is able to revive a suicide victim, who now walks around his house like a negligee-clad zombie. But what he really wants is someone with a "shattered heart." (Like all mad scientists, he's got a fresh, beating heart inside a Mason jar on his table.) Meirschultz suggests Maxwell kill himself in order to be brought back to life. Maxwell counters this intriguing proposition by shooting him




"Hey, look what I found!"
Since Maxwell naturally keeps his stage make-up kit in the lab among the hypos and beating hearts, he's able to pass himself off as his late boss. But once he gives an insane patient named Buckley a shot of "super adrenaline" (launching the funniest/creepiest transformation scene in movie history), Maxwell realizes that there's more to being a mad scientist than powdered hair, spirit gum and a Bela Lugosi-accent. 

Buckley kidnaps the zombie femme and, in a sop to the more demanding audiences of 1934, shows his love by undressing her before grabbing her by the throat. We never learn what becomes of them, but I don't think it was a honeymoon in Bora Bora.

Toss in Maxwell's ex-wife, an inheritance, and a sloppy climactic fight between two women who think the other's insane, and you've got a 50-minute movie that stands the test of time, even while most people today can't stand it.

Remember the Republican debate?
Maniac attempts to be a serious take on mental health issues by occasionally describing the actions we're witnessing. Accompanied by queasy violins, these onscreen analyses are to make you feel less guilty for watching a tasteless melodrama aimed at ticket-buyers -- men, mostly -- who couldn't get their hands on porn. 








"Excuse me while I consult with
my colleagues."
If the audience found words like "dementia praecox" beyond their ken, however, they received visual cues whenever Meirschultz or Maxwell go on their insane rants. From out of nowhere, images of smoke, hypnotic hands and laughing devils (stolen from a silent movie) appear to let us know that something isn't right in Maniac Land. Next time your doctor starts giving a rundown of what's wrong with you, picture him or her like the guy on the left.


This is what drove grandpa wild back
in the day.
A brief scene featuring Maxwell's wife and her friends exists only as an excuse for a bunch of women (I hesitate to use the word "actresses") to parade around ungracefully in their underwear. In addition to being utterly inept, they all wear furry, high-heeled slippers, an item of clothing I've never seen anywhere except old exploitation movies like this. What was hot stuff in 1934 is just icky now.




An eye for an eye for a cat.
The ambient sounds on Maniac's soundtrack -- a noisy camera? air conditioner? -- can't hide the priceless dialogue, which reaches a peak in the movie's most notorious scene. Maxwell, by now in the depths of paranoia, is convinced that a black cat has the "gleam" of the devil in its eye. As the cat appears to be tossed across the set by an off-camera stagehand, Maxwell gives chase. Finally catching his prey, Maxwell squeezes out its left eye and, holding it to the light, proclaims, "It's not unlike an oyster or a grape!" before giddily chowing it down. 

To make the scene that much more realistic, a one-eyed stunt cat was used for the close-up. You can only picture the want-ad Esper put in the trades: "ONE-EYED CAT NEEDED. MUST NOT MIND HAVING GLASS EYE VIOLENTLY SQUEEZED OUT OF ITS SOCKET." That the two cats don't look a thing alike is secondary. Show it any CGI-drugged audience today and watch 'em gag.


Satisfied customers leave L.A.'s Gayety Theatre during
Maniac's original 1934 run. Note the added attraction
of onstage "SEX MODELS."
Even among fans of the strange or bizarre, Maniac is an acquired taste, despite playing the grindhouse circuit into the early 1970s. It's too weird to be simply sniffed at as "bad," too ugly to show to unprepared audiences, and way too politically incorrect to run at college film festivals. (I didn't even mention the brief subplot involving a guy who skins cats for a living.) Nobody actually enjoys Maniac in the accepted definition of the word. At best, most viewers sit there in slack-jawed disbelief, as if they're watching a living nightmare. 

Circulating prints, however, are in surprisingly good shape -- a little scratchy, but otherwise quite sharp for an indie movie over 80 years old. At least somebody cared to preserve it.

And it's educational, too. Thanks to one of the onscreen diagnoses -- "failure of memory, poor retention, and failure on the part of the patient to curb his primitive tendencies" -- I learned I had paresis. Thanks, doc!

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The original 1934 trailer for Maniac. If you can't watch it, go here. It will make thy blood to creep. Honest, it says so!





Thursday, August 6, 2015

THE DEVIL'S SLEEP (1949)

The Devil's Sleep is a good example of a grindhouse movie of its time. (I use the word "good" advisedly.) On its surface a "hard-hitting" drama about "the sleeping pill racket", it is, in reality, an exploitation picture taking advantage of its "adults only" warning by tossing around drug slang along with a couple of instances of nudity. 

I mean, look at that poster. One devil and two "teenage" girls in bikinis are the selling point. On the lower left is what looks like an Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water. Did anyone buy a ticket to The Devil's Sleep to get a serious discourse on drug abuse?

But there are lectures a-plenty, alright, from Judge Rosalind Ballentine, Inspector Darnell and Detective Sergeant Dave Kerrigan. It seems the local teens are downing bennies and goofies like Necco Wafers. While Judge Ballentine is rightfully appalled, she doesn't put the blame entirely on the kids: "The teenagers of the new generation grew up in a time of nerves: newspaper screaming headlines of race riots, revolution, earthquake -- back of it all, speed. Everyone rushing nowhere to get nowhere, and for no reason." Was this thing shot in 1949 or 2015?

If this guy spent as much time on
studying as his wardrobe, he
wouldn't still be in high school
at the age of 27.
Kerrigan convinces his girlfriend's younger brother, Bob, to rat out  his friends who seem to be riding on the Phenobarbital Express, eventually asking him to go undercover by getting a job in the drug ring. Sure, all cops put high-schoolers in physical danger in order to break a case. Police have better things to do than investigating crime themselves.

Kids these days, hunh?
Conveniently, Bob is currently dating Margie Ballentine, the Judge's daughter. While unwittingly attending a party at the pusher's house -- hey, it can happen! -- someone slips a goofie into Margie's drink, where she winds up falling naked into the swimming pool. Again, it can happen! 

A little more obvious than an iPhone.
One of the pusher's goons takes a compromising picture of Margie au naturel to blackmail the crusading judge. We're supposed to be aghast at this breach of morality, while being treated to a couple of juicy close-ups of the photo -- a typical grindhouse example of cognitive dissonance that didn't seem to bother anybody at the time, probably because they didn't know what it meant.


Ladies, would you go to a gym run by
these guys?
The leader of the drug ring, Humberto Scalli (gee, I wonder what his ethnic heritage is) uses a woman's gym as his cover, where his overweight clients are also hooked to his "weight-reducing" pills. As his sidekick says, "Those blimps really line your pockets!" Scalli is equally subtle, remarking, "I gotta laugh. They're like trained elephants -- give them a pill and send them on their way." The bit players who were the target of this witty repartee must have loved appearing in this movie. 

"Don't be like me, kids, or you'll wind
up looking like a drag queen."
Many exploitation movies of the '40s and early '50s tried to attract attention by casting familiar names to make their two-bit -- make that one-bit -- productions look more important. The Devil's Sleep offers Lita Grey Chaplin as Judge Ballentine. It's a little rich to see her playing Miss Morality, considering she was knocked up at age 16 by 35 year-old Charlie Chaplin, who was then obliged to marry her -- a union that ended with an incredibly ugly divorce before her 20th birthday. The Devil's Sleep was her final attempt at show business immortality, after decades of third-rate vaudeville houses, where here defining talent was... being Charlie Chaplin's ex-wife.

Wake up, doc!
Then there's John Mitchum, whose older brother, Robert, was already a red-hot movie star. Despite sharing the same parentage, John lacks his sibling's looks, charisma, talent, and whatever else you relate to Robert Mitchum. During his one scene as a doctor, John not only can't keep his eyes off the cue cards, he pronounces "barbiturate" as "barbitooit." Er, thanks, doc, I think I'll go for a second opinion...

Can't he read? No, probably not.
Presumably as eye candy for what few women put down good money for The Devil's Sleep, George Eiferman, aka Mr. America of 1948, appears as himself, taking a job as an instructor at Scalli's gym. Sounding like he's downed a couple of goofballs, Eiferman is even less convincing as himself than John Mitchum is as a doctor. In the least realistic scene in a movie filled with them, he eventually finds the stash of pills by breaking a padlock off a locker with one hand. 

You gotta admit, he's a got a great head of hair.
The Devil's Sleep real star, though, is the legendary Timothy Farrell as Humberto Scalli, a character he played in two other low budget shockers, Dance Hall Racket and Racket Girls. (Starting to see a pattern?) But he's known best as being Robert De Niro to Ed Wood's Martin Scorcese in Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait and The Violent Years. A court bailiff when he wasn't appearing in fly-by-night pictures, Farrell brings a strange piquancy to all his roles. There's no way he could have made it in real movies -- he's only slightly less wooden than a totem pole -- but there's something undeniably hypnotic about him. And whether he's playing a pusher, shrink, cop, or (gulp) gynecologist, you always wonder if he was as sleazy in real life as he is onscreen. 

The Devil's Sleep, like many of its ilk, probably turned up occasionally in Times Square theatres into the  '60s, angering patrons who were looking for real adult entertainment. Today, of course, it's best enjoyed with the mind-altering substance of your choice, an irony that its more wised-up participants wouldn't find surprising. 

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