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Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation

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[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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Mad Science

The second I heard about the “Camp & Cult Blogathon” being hosted by Stacia at She Blogged By Night, I knew what I wanted to write about. Because Maniac (1934), aka Sex Maniac, is perhaps the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. Watching it is like entering a trance. Directed by Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker behind titles like Marihuana and Sex Madness, Maniac is no mere movie; it’s a cri de coeur against structure and restraint. Not one of its 50 frenzied minutes is anything less than outrageously loony.

The plot? It is labyrinthine, and thinking too hard about it leaves me woozy. Roughly: vaudevillian Don Maxwell, moonlighting as a lab assistant, kills a hubris-addled scientist and assumes his identity. Police investigate; corpses walk; the actor grows increasingly paranoid. Peripheral characters deliver halting monologues. One jaw-dropping, Poe-pilfering set piece follows another. And finally, with only a few minutes left, Esper and screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie (his wife) introduce an out-of-nowhere subplot featuring Don’s estranged showgirl wife, an inheritance left by his rich uncle, etc., etc. THE END.

About a dozen horror movies’ worth of plot is squeezed into Maniac, all of it told at breakneck speed and maximum volume. Dialogue isn’t spoken so much as hyperventilated. No one seems to have an inside voice—like Horace Carpenter, who plays the mad Dr. Meirschultz by howling every single one of his lines, and who literally beats his chest when Don disappoints him. “Coward!” he sobs. “Oh you fool!” Histrionic is the default here, with each performance more mannered and exaggerated than the last.

Well, except for the INLAND EMPIRE-esque chorus girls who turn up at the end, lounging around a hotel room and cracking wise. They behave just like actresses in a conventional 1930s B-movie. Although their conversations are a little strange: one girl describes homelessness as “sinking your weary bones into the soft recesses of some park bench”; another jokes about the Greek philosopher Diogenes; and a third girl mocks a sucker in a newspaper article by laughing, “His head must be a jelly bean instead of what they thought it was!” Evocative, puzzling, both? Maniac positively bulges with writing like this.

Or like this:

Stealing through my body… creeping through my veins… pouring in my blood! Ohhh, darts of fire in my brain! Stabbing me. Agony! I can’t stand it, this torture, this torment! I can’t stand it! I won’t! I wo— [incoherent ape noises]

These lines are screamed by Buckley, a patient of Meirschultz who thinks he’s a killer orangutan, after he’s injected with “super adrenaline.” And this hysterical, stream-of-consciousness rant is only one of Maniac’s many grotesque spectacles. To wit:

  • Immediately after Buckley’s rant, a once-dead woman appears from behind a screen. Buckley abducts her, runs off into the wilderness, and exposes her breasts.
  • Don decides that a black cat named Satan has “the gleam” in his eye. He catches it, then gouges out and eats one of its eyes onscreen. (This, after Satan knocks Meirschultz’s artificial heart onto the floor and nibbles on it.)
  • A jocular neighbor explains the workings of the cat-and-rat farm in his backyard: “The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”
  • More breasts are exposed.
  • Don manipulates his and Buckley’s respective wives into fighting each other with syringes. Meanwhile, a frog hops around the basement.
  • Jailed, Don moans that he “only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” but has now “spent [his] whole life perfecting an act that no one wanted.”

The causal connective tissue between these incidents is minimal. At times, their chronology feels totally arbitrary, as if the whole movie was a loose, nightmarish clip reel. This impression is magnified by the “educational” title cards that occasionally break up the flow of the film, dry lectures on mental illness with headings like “DEMENTIA PRAECOX” or “MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES.” In keeping with exploitation film formula, these are meant to excuse Maniac’s excesses. See? they say. This [prurient, horrifying] movie’s performing a public service!

However, since the information in the title cards is now 100% outdated and had only the most tenuous link to the rest of the movie in the first place, they instead come across as a proto-Godardian distancing device, existing only to further disrupt an already fragmented narrative. You read that right: Maniac is surprisingly avant-garde, though it’s unclear how much of the film’s demented style is a function of low budgets, tight schedules, and bad actors vs. Esper and Stadie intentionally crafting a Dada-horror fever dream. One image in particular, of Don and Meirschultz massaging a dead woman’s limbs in a cavernous morgue, even struck me as something right out of Jean Cocteau. (Or, by the same token, Ed Wood.)

This isn’t to say that Maniac is sophisticated or poetic. On the contrary, it’s crude trash. But trash can be experimental too. In all its gory, convoluted melodrama, Maniac is exactly as powerful as it is risible. Every unanswered question—Why do they talk like that? Why did he do that? Where did she come from?—and every one-of-a-kind act of violence sticks like a burr in your brain. Every non sequitur, bizarre inflection, and over-the-top cackle helps explain why Maniac makes such a deserving cult object, even if doesn’t have much in the way of an actual cult. This is exploitation cinema at its most transgressive.

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