Maniac (1934) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Don Maxwell is an ex-vaudeville ham, wanted by police, who has now found himself as the unlikely assistant to Dr. Meirschultz, a mad scientist in the business of reanimating corpses. Maxwell's gift of impersonation gets him and Meirschultz past the guards and into a morgue where they use a special serum to revive the corpse of a pretty young woman. But that's nothing. Dr. Meirschultz has a heart beating in a jar of solution and is eager to put it into a corpse that really needs it. Meirschultz gives his assistant a gun and advises him to commit suicide, so that he can put the heart in him, but Maxwell shoots and kills the scientist instead and hides the body. People will miss Meirschultz, Maxwell quickly realizes, but no one will miss his lowly assistant; and so Maxwell dons eyeglasses and a fake beard to become his onetime benefactor. The trouble is, he impersonates the mad doctor too well and goes crazy himself.

  • An ex-vaudeville actor is the assistant to a doctor with Frankenstein aspirations. After murdering the doctor, the would-be actor finds it necessary to assume the identity of the dead physician. Edgar Allen Poe's THE BLACK CAT is written into the storyline.

  • Don Maxwell is a vaudevillian actor known for his impersonations, who is running from the police and has taken a job assisting a certain Dr. Meirschultz. Meirschultz believes he knows the way to resurrect the dead with a special formula he has created, and when he cannot find a corpse to experiment on, he orders Maxwell to kill himself so that he might test the serum on him instead. Rather than go through with it, Maxwell turns his gun on Meirschultz, killing him; and so that he won't arouse suspicion, Maxwell then disguises himself as the doctor and attempts to fill his role. He proceeds to meet a couple of murderously-minded women, drive one man to insanity, and eat a cat's eyeball. Sporadically placed title cards relating the symptoms of various mental illnesses help give the movie its title.

  • A former vaudevillian gifted at impersonation assists a mad scientist in reanimating corpses and soon goes mad himself.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The film starts with a written introduction: "FOREWORD: The brain, in and of its physical self, does not think any more than a musical instrument can give forth melody without the touch of the musicians hand. The brain is indeed the instrument of thinking, but the mind is the skilful player that makes it give forth the beautiful harmony of thought It is because of the disastrous results of fear brought not only on the individual but on the nation, that it becomes the duty of every sane man and woman to establish quarantine against fear. Fear is a psychic disease which is highly contagious and extraordinarily infectious. Fear thought is most dangerous when it parades as forethought. Combat fear by replacing it with faith. Resist worry with confidence. --- Wm. S. Sadler, M.D., F.A.C.S., Director of the Chicago Institute of Research and Diagnosis. [William Samuel Sadler (1875-1969), American medicine doctor as psychologist, psychiatrist and surgeon at Chicago for over 60 years, teacher of Psychology at the McCormick Theological Seminary.] Unhealthy thought creates harped attitudes which in turn create criminals and manias. The Chicago Crime Commission made a survey of 10.000 (exact number impossible to read in the video copy; possibly higher multiple of 10.000) convicted criminals and found them all suffering from some mental disease."

    In a laboratory, Dr. Mierschultz (Horace Carpenter) is putting his finishing touches to some chemical mix in a big hypodermic syringe, while his assistant is doing some electric experiences on a strange apparatus. "Tonight, my dear Maxwell, I'm ready to try my experiment on a human. Yeah In the morgue, there is a little guest suicide." Maxwell (Bill Woods aka William Woods) is obviously distressed, "Have you made arrangements?" The Doctor is taken aback: "No! You know that I do not work under prying eyes! You shall find a way for me to work without detection. It is your chance to show me your gratitude for my generosity, and protection!" Maxwell stands up, towering over the sitting Doctor: "I'll never forget what you have done, and I'd do anything to help you - but the morgue! Dead people! What if I should be caught?"

    The Doctor almost spits his answer: "How many times have you told me of your impersonations, that you never had a chance!... May be now your art will serve you, after all! You have seen the Coroner, why not impersonate him? That's it! Impersonate him! The time has come when you can repay me for what I have done."

    Maxwell tries to plead, but at the same time he voices his disapproval for the old Doctor's experiments: "To bring back life is not natural," he says he has arranged for other guinea-pigs, a dog, and a cat. Satan, the black cat, snarls from his pillow, as on cue.

    "Once a ham, always a ham! [meaning, an actor who overacts in a bad way] You, an actor? (derisive smile) But dont forget, my dear Maxwell, the police would be very glad to find you."

    Maxwell looks up at the ceiling, I didn't mean I wouldn't..." "Of course not. In time, you may become a great man!"

    Both men strip their long white shifts, and leave the laboratory. Satan the black cat is seen on the basement running after a rat, and then a lonely ginger cat.

    At the morgue, Maxwell in disguise with a monocle, accompanies the undisguised Doctor in the search for a human corpse.

    The Doctor chooses the body of a beautiful young blonde, "This is the one here!" he says, uncovering her head. Maxwell reads from a plate on the corpses wrist, "Number 5-6-9-4-1, Maria Altura, age 24, suicide, carbon monoxide gas, not clean."

    The doctor checks for a heart bit with a stetoscope, then applies an injection in both carotids. "We have to work fast," he says.

    In the next room, the Embalmer (J.P. Wade) and his assistant are complaining that with so many deaths, and suicides yet, they have to work overtime.

    The Doctor massages the body's cold arms, and the girl starts moving her head a little. The Doctor decides she must have some oxygen, so they'll bring her outside through a side door.

    The Embalmer comments to his Assistant that the Coroner is making extra working hours, performing an autopsy on the beauty that had been brought in earlier [insinuating an act of necrophilia].

    Meanwhile, at the Bureau of Missing Persons, Captain Jones is hearing the deposition of the baldhead Embalmer and the Coroner (Bill Woods in a dual role), about the disappearance of Maria's body; the Embalmer gives a description resembling Dr. Meirschultz. The Coroner admits that the Doctor is a bit strange, but denies the possibibility of him being a body snatcher. Meanwhile, the police receives an official inquest on the whereabouts of Don Maxwell, a vaudeville impersonator by profession, who has disappeared in town. Detective Collins is put in charge of the case.

    At the laboratory, Dr. Meirschultz is waiting for Maria to recover fully in a few hours. While his assistant is overly impressed with giving back life to a dead person, the Doctor says, "This is but one step. Cases like these have an element of doubt, but what I want is a victim with a shattered heart! Yes! A heart (There is a pulsating heart, kept in a large bowel on the labs main desk.) - that I may exchange for this thing I've been keeping for years. Ah! Ah! Ah! You! You shall bring it to me, Maxwell. It will be my supreme accomplishment!" The assistant cowers again at the idea, "Not from the morgue!..."

    But the Doctor is relentless, "I dont care where you take it from the morgue, the streets, the undertaker! Get going! The end will justify the means."

    Maxwell goes out, rampages through a tunnel into the undertaker's office (looking like the laboratory's basement). Two ginger snarling cats are there fighting (apparently tied to each other by a piece of string). One cat darts between Maxwell's legs, frightening him so that he runs away by the front door. As he runs through a green park, he passes by a white dog versus a black cat fighting on the road.

    At first, the doctor is displeased on the assistants failure, "Coward! You are a fool! You've failed me." But then, looking at the throbbing heart in the glass jar, he has an idea. He takes a revolver from a drawer, and says, "Yeah! You have seen the extent of my powers; you have worked with me; you have faith in me. Here, take this (he hands the revolver to him). You'll take your own life, and I'll give it back to you. I'll give you the new heart, and you'll live again. Ah! Ah! Ah! You'll live!... Ah! Ah! Ah! Live!... The assistant shoots. The revolver falls. Dr. Meirschultz hangs briefly to the table, than falls on the floor, dead.

    DEMENTIA PRAECOX is the next films title, describing the most important of the psychosis, both because it constitutes the highest percentage of mental diseases and because recovery is so extremely rare. Dementia praecox patients show blunting of the emotions, serious defects of judgement, development of fantastic ideas, belief that they are being forced to do things or are being interfered with. [Dementia praecox (precocious madness) is a term first used in 1891 in this Latin form by Arnold Pick (1851-1924), a German professor of psychiatry at Charles University in Prague.]

    Maxwell inspects the doctors notes, to find the formula to bring him back to life, only to find there is none. [Montage of a laughing Pluto and his minions, from the film _Maciste in Hell (1924)_ (qv).] Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller; not the TV comedienne) comes for urgent consultation with the doctor, for her husband is having a delusion of being a killer ape. She is prepared to wait, but demands to see the doctor. Maxwell, under strain and not wishing to give away his crime, turns to his old box of Make-up Artist, adds a wig and the doctor's eye-glasses, and comes to a resolution: Meirschultz would be missed - Maxwell never would! So, he impersonates the Doctor (figuratively commiting the suicide the Doctor had ordered him to do). Maxwell talking in a strong voice, tries to convince himself of the perfect impersonation: "Not only do I look like Meirschultz, I am doctor Meirschultz! (bulging his biceps) I'll be a great man!"

    APARESIS is the general paralysis of the insane the most serious disorder for the criminologist. There is marked failure of memory, poor retention, impaired judgement, and failure on the part of the patient to curb his primitive tendencies. -- according to a text quoted from Philip A. Parsons, Ph.D., Crime and Criminal.

    As Maxwell progresses in his insanity, he is unable to cope with the injection he is preparing in the lab for Mr. Buckley (Ted Edwards) who fancies himself as a killer ape; instead of giving him an injection of water, which would do no harm (?!), he administers a dose of "super-adrenaline." "Do you feel better?" he asks. Mr. Buckley contorts himself in pain, speaking out his suffering and twisting his body, feeling fire in his brain. The wife is worried, "Doctor... he doesn't seem to be getting better, but worse!" and, "Doctor, what was in that hypo?" Buckley frightens his wife, who tumbles into the laboratory, then he jumps at the fake doctor, overpowering him and throwing him to the ground easily despite being a smaller man.

    Maria Altura, in a long, white negligee, walks in from behind a folding screen, and is immediately abducted. Mrs. Buckley, trying to raise from the floor, sees the late Meirschultz's corpse hid behind the desk, and shouts, "Doctor! What have you done? This looks like murder!..." He denies, and tries to convince her that it was his assistant who had shot himself. But then, he commits a "lapsus linguae", and says that he killed him to bring him back to life with his experiments.

    Meanwhile, Maria Altura is being stripped to the waist in an apparent swoon, as Mr. Buckley keeps walking through a wood, screeching like an ape. [The topless stand-in is a brunette with very long hair.] Mrs. Buckley sums the situation up: "Doctor, I've heard of uncanny experiments but this tops them all. But I think we speak the same language... Am I right? When youll bring your assistant back to life, he will do as you direct. You can do the same with my husband. Only he will do... as I direct."

    In the woods, Buckley is upon his victim, apparently strangling her to death, or worse. Maxwell decides he must bring the real doctor back, but first, he has to find out the formula. Maxwell is distracted again, this time by his neighbor, a man who was calling after two of his cats that had escaped from the house. Maxwell denies using cats for his experiments, stating, "I think too much of Satan to use cats for experiments."

    Meanwhile, in the laboratory, Satan had got out of his favorite pillow, overturned the jar, and eaten the heart [in a heavily cut scene]. Maxwell is undecided about his priorities, and now decides to dispose of the body. He carries the corpse downstairs to the basement. While he works feverishly to hide the corpse behind a wall of bricks, he sees Satan spying on him from the stairs, and chases the cat mounting the steps cat-like. Finally he corners Satan, grabs forcefully at the animals head and pressing with his thumbs, he dislodges the cats left eyeball. [The stand-in cat for Satan is the ginger cat seen earlier, who had been a one-eyed cat before this scene.] Once free, the stand-in cat jumps against a glass window, breaking it, and disappears.

    When Maxwell looks down and finds the cat's eyeball on the ground, he compares it to an oyster, or a grape, "But the gleam is gone! Ah! Ah! Ah!" And eats it. Then, he returns to the basement, and finishes sealing Dr. Meirschultz's body inside the brick wall of his basement.

    PARANOIAC This is an extremely rare but very serious disease. Characteristics of it are fixed suspicions, persecutory delusions. The paranoiac is often particularly dangerous because of the difficulty of detecting his disease.

    Distracted by his inner phantasms, Maxwell stops adding bricks to the wall for a moment, just in time for Satan to dart inside, joining his late owner. Next morning, Detective Collins is the neighborhood asking questions, first from a woman sweeping her front porch, and then a Man who has a cat breeding farm; nothing useful comes out of it, except that shots were heard but were not reported, and that may be they were not heard at all. Cat Breeder Neighbor: "I have everything figured out. You see, rats breed faster than cats; cats skins make good furs; cats eats rats; and rats eat raw meat; but that means they eat the carcass of the cats. So, the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins..." Detective Collins: "Rats eating cats! Well, that IS news." Cat Breeder Neighbor: (Gleeful) "Simple ain't it..." Detective: "Did you hear any gunshots last night?" Cat Breeder Neighbor: "I dunno..."

    Maxwell had forgotten all about his wife, and her, him - until... This films inter-title introduces a living room with three young women in various degrees of undress, plus Maizie (Jenny Dark), a blonde who wants to be clean, and is taking her time in the adjoining bathroom. Alice Maxwell (Theo Ramsey) is a plump silver blonde who rents the apartment (and looks and speaks like Mae West); Jo (Celia McCann) is a pretty, long haired brunette with a funny, shrill voice; and Marvel (Marvel Andre) is a beautiful young blonde, in knickers and skin-color bra, doing gymnastics. The brunette is ironing some underwear, Alice takes off her dark robe and is using an electric equipment to massage her buttocks and belly, while Maizie who had changed her bath towel for a flimsy negligee sits, reading the newspaper. Then, Maizie reads from the newspaper that some man died in Australia, living a fortune to his nephew, Maxwell, a well known impersonator artist who has disappeared. With good reason, Alice remembers her fugitive husband, and that the last she heard of him, he was staying with that good professor...

    [There's a cut scene, in which detective Collins informs Mrs. Buckley that her husband has been found in a very serious condition, near a dying woman, and that Dr. Meirschultz is suspect of wrong doing. She tells a false story about what had taken place at the laboratory, covering up both for her husband, and for the Doctor.]

    Alice goes to Dr. Meirschultz's and is received by her husband in disguise; she tells him that Maxwell has inherited a fortune, and she wants to reunite with him. He dismisses her, saying that her husband will be there by 8 p.m.

    MANIC DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSIS is the lead of the next piece of scientific text. There are three phases of the manic-depressive psychosis: the manic phase, the depressed phase, and the mixed phase. In the manic phase, ideas come so rapidly that there is no time to select the proper reaction and judgement accordingly appears impaired. Such patients are often liable to commit sex offenses.

    There's a moment of fantasy, in which the false Doctor fancies to be kissing a young, long haired Brunette Patient, who had come to him for an injection. She is seen wearing only large cotton knickers, peering from behind a folding screen; and then, sitting on a table covered with a white bedsheet, incongruously wrapped up in a black negligee. [She is the stand-in for Maria Altura in the rape scene.]

    Next, Don Maxwell, speaking to himself, is fascinated with the gleam in the Patient's eyes, and he recalls the gleam in Mrs. Buckley's eyes, and concludes that it means she wanted to kill her husband. The same gleam in Alice's eyes means that she wanted to kill him, when she came searching for Maxwell. "She wants to murder me thats what she wants to do!" (The long clawed hands of Pluto and other devils reappear in an insert, superimposed to the scene.) He forms a plan to get rid of both women.

    He starts by telling Mrs. Buckley that she must help him, that Mrs. Maxwell (Thea Ramsey) is crazy, and she'll be here any minute. She thinks I murdered her husband! To prevent her from going to the police with such an accusation, he needs help. "Down in the basement, there is a secret vault! We will put her down there. You will quieten her by jabbing this in her arm (placing an hypodermic syringe in Mrs. Buckley's right hand), and in the meantime, I'll go get Buckley." "It sounds alright - except the fact that she's crazy," objects Buckley's wife.

    Footsteps announce the approaching Alice Maxwell, and the false doctor dismisses the woman's objection lightly, sending her to the next room.

    In his interview with Alice, Maxwell tells her that her husband told him he was ready to go with her to get the inheritance, but first there is a dangerous woman in the next room, who puts both their lives in danger. "I will take her to a room downstairs, I will give her a shot, and you'll take care of her until I'm back." "What about me getting help? (listening) She is quiet now, isn't she?"

    Maxwell cuts in, "Yeah, but she can break up any minute. She is not afraid of a woman, so if she happens to get wild, just shove this into her arm. (placing an hypodermic needle in her hand) Keep it, and all will be well." Maxwell puts his hands on his wife's shoulder, as he walks her to the adjoining room. He enters first, and says in an unnecessary high voice: "Alright, Mrs. Buckley. We'll go downstairs now, I've a special treatment down there!..."

    The fortyish woman goes in front, wearing long coat and a design hat, plus a fox fur wrapped around her neck and a large ring in her middle finger, followed shortly by Alice, wearing dark jacket and long skirt and a hat. They had not time to see each other, and as they go down the staircase to the basement, Mrs. Buckley, turns around a couple of times trying to see the twenty-something woman behind her. Her husband follows her, but then he quickly turns back, closing the trap door on both women, who suddenly find themselves in the dark basement, alone with a candle light and a couple of rats.

    Fear leads them to lose control, and to attack each other wildly. The screaming will be heard all through the entire sequence, and despite they are closed in a basement without walls, the noise can be heard in the laboratory, too. Mrs. Buckley screams, and turns around, hitting Mrs. Maxwell's arm, who loses her syringe that rolls between the feet of the entangled pair. Alice jumps at the other woman, grabbing her arms and making her lose her hold in her own hypo. [The syringes with the deadly venom will be seen occasionally on the floor, but never re-taken.] They shove each other around, then Alice tries to strangle the older woman. Upstairs, Maxwell is going even more mad, and laughing maniacally (insert images of clawed hands reappear). The Cat Breeder neighbor comes to spy through a window, and disappears in fear of the look on the false doctors face.

    Alice goes down on her rump, but as she is grabbing her attackers arms, she has the leverage to get up on the rebound as Buckley stands back. Alice throws down Buckley's wife, and looks for some kind of weapon in the filthy basement, plunged into darkness, and rat infested. The older woman is fast to get up, and goes after Alice, who turns around to face her foe. Face to face, they grab each others by the neck, strangling each other. In the fierce struggle, both disentangle their necks, and slap each other to face and body. The older woman wrestles Alice down, and pulls her jacket, effectively stripping it off the jacket of the blonde, leaving her in a white shirt, that she rips with her clawing fingers. Alice goes down twice, and stands up again, her breathing hard, coming to hands again with the other woman. This time, Alice springs up from the floor, and the two women engage in a double head-lock, going down together, first hard, on their knees, then twisting sideways, slumping to the floor in a close embrace, and rolling around for a moment. Alice seems to dominate the fight, staying on top for a moment, and punching her foe twice. she forces Mrs. Buckley in a tight clinch, both grabbing the opponents neck to breaking point, and tumble and roll entwined and screeching. Alice disengages, and applies a couple of punches to the fallen foe.

    In the night, three cops on motorcycles precede a 1927 Studebaker Commander police car, all sirens on - possibly called by the curious neighbor.

    In the down and dirty room, the two women keep on their fight; Alice shoves Buckley onto her back against some boxes in a corner, punches her and, as Buckley screams out in pain and disoriented, Alice gets a baseball bat from behind her, and bashes it onto Mrs. Buckley's head - missing, and hitting the wall instead. The second blow is more effective, but delivered by a very tired arm. (Insert of a flying pidgeon.) Buckley manages to stand-up and punch Alice, who falls against a shelf full of glass jars and laboratory equipment. The shelves fall on Alice's head, knocking her out momentarily, and the vials break up noisily on the ground.

    The police vehicles stop by Dr. Meirschultz's place, and two detectives and two uniformed cops go in without knocking on the door. Mrs. Buckley grabs the stunned Mrs. Maxwell by the scruff of her neck with her left hand, and proceeds to strangle her with her right. Alice is almost finished, as her foe stands, picks up a flower pot, and bashes her head with it. Alice still has strength to scream out loud enough to be heard upstairs by the police. On hearing the woman's scream, Inspector Jones gets inquisitive.

    Maxwell candidly enough, assumes its two of his patients who are battling it out in the basement. "What kind of place is this, anyway?" asks the detective. Maxwell, trying to explain it in a few words, argues that "These women have the gleam!" The detective finds the way to the basement and goes down, followed by the two cops forcing the mad man between them.

    When the police arrive, the two women are on their knees, still fighting. A police in uniform grabs Buckleys arms, and pulls her off Alice and towards the staircase. The plainclothes detective helps Mrs. Maxwell up and holds her in the opposite corner.

    The policemen ear another scream from behind the brick wall, and since the fake doctor is not offering any sensible explanation, they bring the wall down. The doctor is there all right, and moving; but that's because of Satan the cat that is standing on his right shoulder. Satan jumps away, and the corpse falls forward, breaking the rest of the brick wall. The film ends with a last scientific text

    COMPLEX: Manias are created by inability to adjust to the world as it is. Insanity is our defense against a world which is not of our making or to our liking. The normal person can make such an adjustment. It is not always easy, but it is being done constantly. The person of inferior mental capacity can not do this. He therefore creates a world in his mind which is his own idea of the world of his choice. He retreats to this world whenever the other world becomes unbearable. This explains the periods of rationalism all mental cases have. The periods of rationalism depends upon the unbearableness of the real world. There are many people of sound mind who find one particular thing unbearable. When this is the case, he is said to be a victim of such a complex.

    Maxwell is more calm now, behind bars - and he starts a speech on insanity recalling the gleam! He claims he did not want to be a criminal, he only wanted "...to amuse, to entertain. Dr. Meirschult'z is my brilliant impersonation!"

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