Maniac pushes the boundaries beyond what was common and typical of cinema back in the 1930s. It's frightening and disturbing even today, leaving the one watching feeling uncomfortable- which is exactly what it wants. Though the film possesses many problems from some terrible acting and unnecessary plot twists, it still remains a very unique exploitation horror made with a mindset way ahead of its time.
PLOT: Insane Dr. Meirshultz (Horace Carpenter) and his hopeful apprentice, Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), are planning to give life to a once-dead human being with a real human heart. After sneaking into the local morgue and bringing a dead woman back to life, the doctor's passions and psychotic tendencies get stronger. His lust for his experiments gets so crazy, Maxwell ends up shooting him out of panic. In an attempt to cover up what he's done from the public eye, Maxwell uses his skills as a master of disguise to impersonate Dr. Meirshultz. However, after taking on the role of the late doctor, he starts to actually believe he's the real Dr. Meirshultz and takes on his impassioned intentions to an even further degree. The plot is a very excellent concept altered too much. The plot at its bare bones is very well thought-out and perfect for a good horror film. What ruins it is that the filmmakers added a few too many excess plot twists that didn't really have anything to do with the film or its essence, like some of the sequences with the injected "maniac" and Maxwell's wife and her friends. Some of it just seemed to hold little relevance to the genius horror plot presented. However, it was executed well enough to fit almost snugly into the flow of the film.
ACTING: The acting in this film is very hit-and-miss. The two main leads are the best performances in the whole film and actually grow very realistic and convincing as it progresses. Horace Carpenter plays a very chilling role as the mad scientist Dr. Meirshultz, and Bill Woods plays an even more frightening role as Maxwell. Carpenter's performance was of a very convincing mad scientist, whereas Woods' is comparable only to a true mind going mad. His performance in this film is disturbing, almost iconic, and as manic and insane as the title and his character suggest. However, the rest of the Maniac's cast are best described as circus clowns. The performances are stereotypical, annoying, and very inexperienced. It look as if some of them had never seen a camera before in their lives. Aside from the two very talented leads, the cast is pretty terrible, granted it was the 1930s.
SCORE: The musical score of this film wasn't anything too special but fit the mood just right. It was very dramatic and spooky-sounding.
OTHER CONTENT: Maniac is an exploitation film worth praise and more recognition by horror fans around the world. The film pushed many boundaries beyond what was accepted to be filmed and what was considered taboo. It's one of the first of its time to contain content like animal brutality (staged), grotesque blood and gore, Satanic imagery, heavy talk of mental illness, and full-on female nudity. One didn't see anything like that from the 1930s world of cinema- even taking horror into consideration. Most of the rage around this time was from stars like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in spooky mainstream horror movies, but none of them had the guts to push past the boundaries of the taboo. Aside from being just controversial for its time period, Maniac is actually pretty frightening and well-styled. The leads set up and deliver a feeling of paranoia and terror and the horrific imagery really drives the feelings home. The director of this film (Dwain Esper) knew how to send a message and drive the point home by painting a portrait of madness on the screen rather than straight up telling the viewer what changes were going on. It wasn't just fighting animals and dramatic, Satanic overlays that signified the character's descent into mania but the well-written tidbits of psychological facts and life advice given in between each sequence of the film. Each one preceded a twist in the story and a change in Maxwell's character, helping the viewer feel not only well-informed about the science of his mental condition, but uneasy as the viewer knows what's coming next and that whatever it is won't be very pretty. The film has a very dedicated style, enhancing the frightening and disturbing moments and giving it the real dirty, gritty, and somewhat uncomfortable feel of watching a true exploitation horror film.
Maniac is an exploitation horror that demands to be remembered. The frightening and disturbing imagery is way ahead of its time, racing past what's acceptable of the time period without looking back to wave goodbye. Most of the acting is quite awful and lackluster, but the two leads stole the show. Each's depiction of his own mania is a terrifying and convincing, delivering even still today. The plot is genius, punctuated with style and only interrupted by unnecessary plot twists that even still help the film's flow. Maniac is no true horror masterpiece for sure, but it definitely deserves credit for what it has done and for what it still does to viewers today- make them feel both frightened and uncomfortable.