Grapes, anyone?

Back in the early 1930s, before the Hays Code forced Hollywood into a puritan straightjacket it would take decades to wriggle out of, the silver screen was not quite as innocent as one might expect. Several movies of the period had no compunction in showcasing what was, for the day, a healthy amount of nudity and violence. One famous — in certain circles at least — example of such early Hollywood prurience is Dwain Esper’s attempt at a motion picture, “Maniac”.

Oh yes, I almost forgot — spoilers ahead. Many, many spoilers.

As the curtain rises on this 1934 work, we find a nervous fellow by the name of Don Maxwell hard at work assisting an intrepid scientist by the name of Dr. Meirschultz. From the first shot in which we see him, we know Dr. Meirschultz is going to be trouble, for not only is he a bearded, wild-eyed weirdo who doesn’t seem to own a comb, but he is also given to conducting experiments aimed at raising the dead. This negative impression is confirmed when the quack informs his assistant that “Tonight, my dear Maxwell, I’m ready to try my experiment on a huuumaaan.”


The deranged medico then proceeds to suggest to Maxwell that they sneak into the morgue and fiddle around with the corpse of a freshly suicided young woman, an idea which appears to make poor Maxwell very unhappy. To overcome his skittish assistant’s resistance, the doctor proceeds to employ two tactics. The first is to point out that Maxwell is in his debt, as he is a wanted man taken in by the good doctor in exchange for lab duties, some light cleaning, and the occasional body-snatching, the second is to play on the man’s artistic pride, for it seems that before becoming assistant to this bearded fruitcake, Maxwell was an actor specializing in impersonations. The ploy works, and soon Maxwell – cunningly disguised as the coroner – and Meirschultz – cunningly disguised as a mad-eyed basket case – are up to no good.


Once at the morgue Dr Meirschultz dispenses with the time-honored mad scientist tradition of bringing the cadaver back to the lab, electing instead to carry out his experiment in the morgue, completely heedless of the two badly performed workmen toiling nearby. Meirschultz proceeds to inject a compound into the neck of  young Maria ( for that is the lovely guinea pig’s name, ) and lo, she feebly stirs, alive if not exactly kicking. For a madman, the doctor’s reaction is an unexpectedly restrained one, consisting not of “She’s alive! She’s alive!” but rather “She needs oxygen, we must get her out of here.” Better late than never I suppose…


Upon his return to the lab we find out why the doctor isn’t that excited at Maria’s resurrection; it appears he thinks it a greater achievement to find a corpse with a damaged heart and replace it with a new one – specifically the live, beating heart suspended in fluid inside the jar on his desk! To this end he orders his reluctant aide to procure such a specimen, if not from the morgue then the streets or an undertaker. And wouldn’t you know it, there just happens to be an undertaker around the corner! So, like a dreadfully neurotic graveyard rat, Maxwell crawls along some sort of tunnel until he reaches the undertaker’s basement. Just as Maxwell is about to reach into the coffin, the easily-frightened thespian is frightened by two cats fighting over a ball of string and rushes out into the street, where his nervous state is exacerbated by the sight of two small dogs fighting over a fireplug. As upsetting as this outing has been for Maxwell, its failure is even harder on the poor doctor, who upon hearing the news promptly bursts into tears.


The doctor’s despair is short lived however, soon being replaced by a maniacal burst of  patented “Mwahahahahaha!” type of laughter. For the doctor has decided that the best way to obtain a subject for his newest enterprise is to ask his hapless helper to shoot himself, and then bring him back to life by sticking the new heart in his carcass. Having been handed the gun, Maxwell ponders the situation for a moment, and realizing that the best he could hope for from such a deal is to break even, shoots his cackling employer instead. As Maxwell recites a speech about maggots and life force, or some such nonsense, over the stiffening corpse of  his employer, we see super-imposed on the main image several shots from a 1922 movie called “Witchcraft Through the Ages.” These shots consist of various demonic entities, and although I am no expert in the use of symbolism in art, I think it safe to assume that the filmmakers are trying to tell us that poor Maxwell is starting his slide from mere neurosis into full-blown psychosis. Soon after this plundering of someone else’s imagination sputters to an end, there comes a knocking at the chamber door. This late night visitor is one Mrs. Buckley, and she urgently needs the doctor to take a look at her husband, who is laboring under the delusion that he is an orangutan! And not just any orangutan, but the miscreant from Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which as I recall is a story about an inept barber. The physician is indisposed, Maxwell tells the monkey-man’s wife, but to no avail, and she leaves to fetch her husband, having apparently forgotten him back at the house. Whatever shall poor Maxwell do? Shall he prop the doctor up in a chair and then hide under the desk, throwing his voice in an attempt to fool the patient and his wife? No, of course not, that would be stupid! Instead, Maxwell gets out his makeup kit, dyes his hair white, sticks on a false beard, and begins a new career as an impersonator of fruitcakes, in the process becoming America’s first method actor.


In the meantime, Mrs. Buckley has finally managed to get her monkey to the doctor’s office, where the newly disguised Maxwell decides the man needs an injection of … well, anything really, as long as it results in him and his wife making a prompt exit. Having no real medical training, Maxwell wisely rejects a syringe full of “super adrenaline” in favor of a syringe full of harmless water. Unfortunately, the poor nitwit makes the mistake of placing the latter next to the former, then for no apparent reason looks away, and as he does so the water-filled syringe conveniently rolls off the table, causing him to pick up the syringe full of “super adrenaline” instead. Failing to notice that this syringe is much larger than the one he intended to use, Maxwell proceeds to super-adrenalize Mr. Buckley, who immediately starts to writhe and contort while complaining of a fiery pain in his brain so intense that he can’t stand it. “I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!” he shouts, before his face contorts into a grotesque grimace and he starts making bestial sounds while knocking down the “doctor” and Mrs. Buckley — I can only assume that the explanation for this unlikely reaction is that the “super adrenaline” has somehow strengthened the lunatic’s conviction that he is indeed the orangutan from the Poe story, and that this in turn has led him to decide that it is high time he started behaving accordingly.


At this point, who should wander onto the set other than young Maria the recently-dead girl, finally ambulant though looking rather woozy and befuddled. Not being the kind of primate to waste an opportunity, Mr. Buckley hauls the dazed beauty into his arms and carries her off into the night, where he tears off her clothing so the audience can get a good look at her breasts, then proceeds to strangle her to death. Talk about breaking even…


Meanwhile, Mrs. Buckley has found the real doctor’s body where Maxwell had carefully hidden it — in the middle of the lab floor — but thanks to a conveniently overturned chair covering its face, she mistakes the corpse for that of Maxwell himself. Not buying the “doctor’s” story about Maxwell’s suicide, Mrs. Buckley nonetheless decides she will keep quiet if he gives her power over her husband’s mind — presumably so her increasingly primitive spouse will grant her a divorce as promptly as possible.


Finally realizing that having a corpse lying around is not a good idea, Maxwell now decides not to hide or destroy the body, as would any sane maniac, but rather to bring Dr. Meirschultz back to life using the beating heart in the jar on his desk — a heart which, incidentally,  seems to have escaped Mrs. Buckley’s notice, perhaps because back in the thirties such ornaments were a staple amongst interior decorators. But alas, once again poor Maxwell’s plans run afoul of fate, for while our disaster-prone hero is out of the lab, the late doctor’s cat grows peckish, and not being able to find a can opener the cunning creature proceeds instead to knock over the jar and devour the heart !Only now does Maxwell come to the conclusion that hiding the body is the way to go and, no doubt inspired by Mr. Buckley’s Poe-derived mania, decides to conceal his erstwhile boss’s remains behind the basement wall.


As he begins his task, who should intrude on his labors but that darned, heart-munching little bastard, the doctor’s cat. Enraged by the presence of the gluttonous beast, Maxwell plucks one of its eyes from the socket and, deciding that two can play this game, proceeds to eat it, chewing carefully and pausing only to note how “not unlike a grape” the morsel is. But worry not animal lovers, for the whole thing is simulated. We know this because not only is the resulting wound long healed over as opposed to fresh, but whereas the first cat had been black (of course ) this second one is clearly a lighter-furred imposter. Revitalized by this late night snack, Maxwell finally succeeds at something and manages to get the Doctor’s remains walled up. But in our ill-starred protagonist’s world, things are never quiet for long….


And here is where Maxwell’s estranged and previously unmentioned wife makes her entrance. When we first meet Alice Maxwell she is ensconced in a hotel room, trying to reduce the size of her ass through the use of a vibrating belt machine while singing “La Cucaracha” at the top of her voice. Being obviously an individual of low character, Alice is sharing this one-person living space with several equally goofy gals, one of whom keeps moving across the room while shaking her head, zigzagging her hips, and holding her hands out in front of her. As by now Alice has ceased her caterwauling and no music is audible, I can only assume the poor woman is suffering from some sort of neurological disorder. Once her handicapped friend yields the floor, Alice proceeds to complain about never having any money, at which point one of her co-conspirators chances to come across a newspaper article announcing that obscure ham Don Maxwell has just been left a fortune by a long lost Australian relative!


Deciding that the estrangement has gone on long enough, Mrs. Maxwell rushes to impart the news to “that goofy professor,” who surprises the audience by announcing that Mr. Maxwell will be pleased to find that he is now a rich man. When Alice tells the “doctor” that she wants to deliver the news personally, he  tells her to come back at 8pm, at which time her husband will be waiting. This of course sets up in the viewer the expectation that Maxwell is going to ditch the disguise before meeting the missus, but no, he is still in his beard and lab coat when he turns up for their rendezvous! Perchance by then the beard had become permanently attached to the actor’s face and so the script had to be changed at the last minute, assuming of course that there was a script. Strangely enough, the revelation that Dr Meirschultz = Mr. Maxwell does nothing to disturb Alice’s equanimity, for, being a perspicacious sort, she has long known that her spouse is one  very strange bird indeed.


At this point, the film starts to become illogical. Maxwell has now concluded that Alice wants to kill him for the money, a conclusion he owes to his theory that when one is in a murderous mood there is a certain gleam in the eye…

“The gleam…It was in Meirschultz’ eyes when he wanted to murder me. It was in Mrs.   Buckley’s eyes when she wanted to murder her husband. Alice had the gleam in her eye when she wanted to find me…”

Frankly, in the process of writing this piece I have viewed this movie carefully at least once, without noticing any scenes in which Mrs. Buckley even hints at wanting to kill her husband, but perhaps at the time I was distracted by the sheer inanity of it all.


Deciding that turnabout is fair play, Maxwell enlists the aid of Mrs. Buckley in a diabolical plan which seems to call for the latter to lure the supposedly insane Alice to the basement, then to inject her with a tranquilizer and await the arrival of Mr. Buckley, whom Maxwell is presumably planning to use as a murder weapon. Alas, even though she agrees to the plan, Mrs. Buckley makes the mistake of suggesting that it is not Alice but rather the doctor who is one can short of a six-pack, and that Alice may have the right idea in wanting to turn him over to the flatfoots. While to the viewer this slip of the tongue merely adds to the confusion as to why Mrs. Buckley is aiding Dr Crackpot, to the villain it is a sign that Mrs. Buckley must also be disposed of. To this effect he gives Alice her own syringe of tranquilizer, feeds her a story about Mrs. Buckley being the loony one, and sends them both into the basement.


Once they find themselves locked in the basement — despite the fact that they are both under the impression that they are facing a lunatic– the women elect to throw away the syringes and to instead whale on each other like a pair of TV wrestlers. As his plan reaches fruition, Maxwell is upstairs pacing back and forth, rubbing his hands, slapping his thighs and laughing maniacally. But once again Maxwell has made a mess of things, for he laughs a little too maniacally, thereby attracting the attention of a neighbor who has been nursing a grudge ever since the real doctor adducted some of the residents of the man’s cat farm for use in his devilry. The angry cat farmer calls the boys in blue, who apparently had a much better response time in those days, and several cars show up as the two women are still beating the tar out of one another. Maxwell tries to explain the screams issuing from the basement by telling his unexpected visitors that it is merely two of his patients settling their differences, only to have the detective in charge come to the hasty, if not incorrect, conclusion that Maxwell is crazy. Maxwell takes this news badly, clutching at his hair, pounding his fists on his chest and informing the flatfoots that the women downstairs are suffering from “the gleam.”


Feeling his diagnosis vindicated, the detective has his men drag Maxwell down to the basement, where they put a stop to the all-girl brawl just in time to hear an eerie, unearthly howl rising from behind a certain wall. At his boss’s behest, one of the uniformed officers tears down the wall — with a little help from the cadaver, whose hand can clearly be seen pushing the bricks outwards — and what do we behold but Dr. Meirschultz’ moldering carcass! And perched on its shoulder a cat… a black cat… which had snuck into the makeshift tomb while Maxwell was distracted by another of his visions of pilfered demons…


In the last scene we see Maxwell clinging to prison bars — sans wig, sans beard, sans sanity, staring intently into the camera and blithering an explanation as to how he has come to be in this mess. It was the gleam, he tells us. And the hunger, the humiliation, and the stress of being an unappreciated artiste. But he showed us. Oh yes, he showed us all, with Meirschultz, his “supreme impersonation…”


Well, I can’t deny him that one…