I have only ever seen a live freak show one time. I don’t remember when it was or which of any number of annual county fairs it may have been at, but I did see one many years ago. Don’t misunderstand, there wasn’t much to see. There was a sword swallower, a tattooed lady (she didn’t have a thing on the Suicide Girls, but still…), and an alligator man (note to rubes: simply a guy with icthyosis). I was young enough to love every minute of it, even the mannequins made up like various freaks in a poor man’s version of the Mütter Museum. So naturally, I also fell for the come-on to take a gander at what was behind the dark curtain. Again, I don’t recall the wording exactly, but I fell fast for this hard sell. Next thing you know, I’m one dollar poorer and standing in a partitioned corner of the tent staring at replicas of deformed babies in suspension: babies sharing a head, babies sharing a torso, and so forth. I can’t say it wasn’t interesting to look at, but let’s face it, if someone says they want to show you the Egress and then escorts you out the door and onto the street, you’re likely to be hit with a mix of aggravation and admiration. I don’t think I’d want to go see a modern freak show like Jim Rose’s for the simple fact that part of the fun of old school freak shows was in being taken advantage of. To my thinking, the modern versions are more “freak” than “show,” and that’s not really entertainment to me.
Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter) wants to try out his new life-restoring serum on the corpse of a young woman who recently turned up in the morgue. Strong-arming assistant and former actor Maxwell (William Woods) into impersonating the coroner, the two skulk into the morgue and perform their experiment with successful results (kind of). But Meirschultz wants to get a victim with a “shattered heart” in which to transplant the heart he has been keeping alive in his lab. Resisting the doctor, Maxwell winds up shooting the older man and, instead of getting the hell out of there, decides to impersonate the madman and carry on in his name. And that’s about the first ten minutes.
Anyone who is in any way a fan of Genre and Exploitation Cinema should know the name Dwain Esper. Basically, what he and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, would do was take their little films, like Maniac (aka Sex Maniac), from town to town and exhibit them in roadshow style at local theaters and burlesque houses, appealing to the prurient interest of both male and female audiences. Well-versed in the carnival tradition, Esper was no dummy, and he knew how to both satisfy his audience and skirt decency laws. Essentially, he advertised his films as being educational or, barring that, moralistic and therefore uplifting to his audience’s character. This is why there are often text cards or crawls which interrupt the film’s story (such as it is)to give the audience some cursory edification about a given subject (for example, medical descriptions of Dementia Praecox, Paranoiacs, Paresis, and Manic-Depressive Psychoses). The restrictive Hays Code (aka the Motion Picture Production Code) was enacted into law in 1930 and started being enforced in 1934 (and would be in effect until 1968) by the Breen Office which was a giant thorn in the side of exploitationeers, but this in no way slowed down Esper and his wife. This is the ball which such luminaries of Exploitation as Kroger Babb (of the infamous Mom And Dad), H.G. Lewis, and Roger Corman would pick up and run with (not always in the right direction, but that it moved at all is significant) for decades to come. And his influence is still felt today, in my opinion.
When we think of the past (or at least when I do, and particularly the past as depicted in visual media of the day), it is typically very clean, sanitized in a way. It’s not the past, per se, but how its producers want the past to be remembered. People didn’t have genitals (a notable exception to this being actress and libertine Louise Brooks). People didn’t die violently. The good guys always won. The State always had its people’s best interests in mind rather than its own agenda. It’s a fabrication, but damn if it hasn’t become the truth (or the popular truth, at any rate). Film’s like this one are examples of sleaze which feel more transgressive for the times in which they were created, because we (okay, me) still have it in our heads that what we’ve been show about this era is honest for the most part. So you feel a little dirtier seeing a woman’s bare breasts as she’s virtually raped by Maxwell’s latest patient, Buckley (Ted Edwards). It feels somehow more wrong watching an erstwhile actor pop out a cat’s eyeball and eat it (though I’m fairly sure they didn’t actually do that on set, to be honest) in the film’s most (in)famous scene. Of course, after having seen such transgressive films as Cannibal Holocaust and Salò, Maniac feels a bit old-fashioned, but it still doesn’t feel 100% okay, either.
Intriguingly (and it’s almost metatextual, in a way), the film also deals with appearances and truth. Maxwell is a gifted mimic, and he starts off impersonating the coroner. And yet, after taking on Meirschultz’s persona, he quickly becomes as insane as the doctor ever was, his appearance becoming the truth. What we see is Meirschultz, and what we get is Meirschultz, even though it’s not. Ironically, Maxwell will attain the apotheosis of his acting career by completely becoming the deceased scientist and successfully carrying on his maniacal work in actuality. He is the two people at once, but his original calling (the theater) is at last fulfilled by fulfilling this new one (mad science). In the same way that Dr. Mabuse’s evil transcended his physical being to infect others, insanity in this film is contagious and “…our defense against a world which is not of our making or to our liking.” In other words, if you’re not careful, you could very easily go as insane as any of the people in this film (or, say, the person sitting next to you watching this picture). With a level of theatricality somewhere in the stratosphere and all the technical virtuosity of moldy bread, this is in no way, shape, or form a well-made or even a good film. This is insanity on celluloid and a peek under the antiseptic veneer of a past so meticulously cultivated since its inception, it’s difficult to fathom that things like this could ever have existed back then. But I absolutely love that they did.
MVT: At a scant hour long runtime, the amount of pure craziness that infests every frame of this film is bewildering. You not only don’t have a second’s respite to consider that everything about the film is bullshit, but you also don’t have a second’s respite to figure out if you’re not as nuts as the characters on screen.
Make Or Break: There’s a reason why the cat’s eye scene is so talked about (in the same way that similar scenes are talked about in films as variegated as Zombi 2, Un Chien Andalou, and Thriller: En Grym Film), but let’s be honest; You could unspool this film onto your floor, sit in the middle of the celluloid pile and point at any arbitrary frame, and you almost certainly would still point to a scene which makes this movie such a deviant pleasure to behold.
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