Directed by Dwain Esper
Horace B. Carpenter: Dr. Meirschultz
William Woods: Don Maxwell
Satan: Himself (NOTE: Satan, in this case, is a cat)
Holy crap, this movie is a fever dream. It's also absolutely not what I would have expected out of 1934 (when movies had only been talking for less than a decade and cameras were the size of a VW bug). I'd heard of it back in middle school when I was reading a copy of Danny Peary's Cult Movies that had lots of pictures cut out of it courtesy of Wheaton Public Library patrons who were assholes and owned scissors. As I recall, Marilyn Monroe was snipped out of the book, as was King Kong. Probably by different people. But the first time I heard of this film in any context was in the essay celebrating the shabby dignity of Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which Peary stood up for a film that had been--well, I guess "celebrated" is the right word--as the worst in history. This was Danny Peary's choice for worst thing ever filmed, and I don't really agree with that assessment but I can totally see why he made it.
There's an opening credit crawl that basically says "The brain is not the mind". So maybe Dan Reeder is a fan of this one, maybe not. There's a lengthy quotation about conquering fear with confidence that's attributed to William Sadler and an actress named Phyllis Diller in the; are they time travelers? Pseudonyms? Random and meaningless coincidences? I'm guessing the third option is the most likely one. Anyway, the last thing we learn from the opening crawl is that 40,000 criminals in prisons all suffered from some kind of mental illness that led them to a life of crime. That's a lot of random gibberish to start with, and you ain't seen nothin' yet. This movie claims to be three things at the same time: It's a mad-science horror movie about Dr. Meirschultz trying to conquer death. It's an adaptation of "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe. And it's also a nonfiction treatise on types of mental illness. That last aspect of the film is the most important from an exploitation aspect. Why would that be the case? Because of a quirk in movie production standards in the Thirties: If it's a documentary, there's a "get out of censorship free" pass where nudity is concerned.
So, yes, Dwain Esper is giving the viewer a documentary that's also an adaptation of one of Poe's best known stories, while making sure there's a topless woman in it (because that's going to put a hell of a lot more butts in seats in 1934 than either of the other two plotlines). And every so often, to continue the ruse that it's an educational film, everything's going to grind to a halt while a silent movie-style intertitle card displays the name of the mental illness being portrayed by the actors.
Now that you're feeling lightly concussed after reading that setup, here's the movie.
It starts in a mad scientist's laboratory. Two characters that I call Mad Santa and Smug Igor in my notes are doing some science. Mad Santa is holding a distressingly large syringe while he tells his assistant that he's ready to start human trials. It turns out that the mad scientist is Dr. Meirschultz, which worked out nicely for my notes because MS could mean either name. His assistant is Maxwell, gets sent to the city morgue to snatch the body of a suicide who stuck her head in the oven and asphyxiated herself. In the manner of all job creators, Meirschultz gives Maxwell a tongue-lashing and tells the other man how lucky he is to have a job where he gets food, shelter, and a complete lack of the police knowing where he is.
I figured that meant Maxwell would be a mobbed up goon or something, but it turns out he's an out-of-work vaudevillian! Damn, movie, you're getting weirder every minute. Maxwell uses his actorly skills to sneak Meirschultz into the morgue so they can experiment on the cadaver. I'm not sure how this looked in 1934, but the print on the DVD is so washed out that I can't really tell if Maxwell looks all that different. While the scientific goings-on are going on there's two Komedy Morgue Attendants who have a "duelling shitty acting styles" conversation about needing a bigger building to hold all the corpses that New York City produces in the normal course of events.
Meirschultz injects his Reanimation Juice into the dead body, which wakes up--we're barely in the first act and the mad scientist has conquered death! Man, this plot is just zooming along. Meirschultz says that the woman needs air, and Maxwell and him take the woman outside so she can breathe the atmosphere, which at this point in the 20th century was probably made entirely of soot, horseshit and burning hair. And the next scene is the Wacky Morgue Employees getting yelled at for losing a body. They ID the mad scientist as Dr. Meirschultz, and it turns out their boss knows the good doctor.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, Meirschultz decides that the next project he's going to work on involves finding a body with a damaged or completely destroyed heart so that he can implant the still-beating heart in a jar that's on his desk. Twelve minutes into the film and at this point he's really just showing off. I'm sure Herbert West would be throwing popcorn at the screen and hyperventilating at the sheer ego on display.
Maxwell goes to the cemetery to acquire a fresh body but gets frightened away by two cats fighting each other (I think--I may have mentioned earlier that I can't really tell what some of the images on the DVD are at certain points). He returns to the lab without a single dug-up cadaver in a burlap sack and Meirschultz throws a complete flying tizzy. Then he realizes he can just kill his Igor and bring him back to life so he hands Maxwell a gun and orders him to shoot himself in the heart so that he can be resurrected via mad science. Maxwell gives the idea a lot of thought and blows Meirschultz away instead.
This is where we get the first intertitle, describing DEMENTIA PRAECOX to the no doubt confused audience while some syrupy classical music plays on the soundtrack. It doesn't fit the movie or the interruption particularly well at all. And I found it funnier each time the music got interrupted when the narrative resumes because it sounded exactly like someone just picking the needle up off the record in the middle of a note. I'm willing to bet that's exactly what it was.
When we return to the film, Maxwell realizes that he has to impersonate the late Dr. Meirschultz because in addition to tampering in God's domain, the doctor was also a psychiatrist (!!!) and he's got a patient that thinks he's the killer ape from "The Murders at the Rue Morgue" coming over to his house / lab / office for regularly scheduled treatment. Maxwell sends the first patient's wife away with a cover story, then dresses up as the deceased headshrinker and commits 1934's oddest case of identity theft. Maxwell goes instantly maniacal when he puts the glasses and lab coat on, which is pretty great.
PARESIS shows up for a quick breather while the audience tries to guess what the hell is going to happen next. Nobody ever guessed "Maxwell accidentally shoots the ape-man patient up with super adrenaline instead of a sedative (as you do)", but that's what happens. The man goes utterly bananacrackers when that stuff hits his bloodstream, and the "Agony! Agony!" monologue from a flailing goofball so memorable in It Came From Hollywood comes from this sequence. The man tears the blouse off a woman and walks through the woods raving and snarling, which I never would have guessed as a thing to happen in a feature from 1934. Weirdly enough, the man's wife pretty much instantly figures out what's up with Maxwell and says if her husband got killed and resurrected he'd be much more compliant.
So of course this is the time for an extended comedy break, where Maxwell-as-Meirschultz has a conversation with a neighbor who has a cat-and-rat farm that's supposed to be a perpetual money-generating enterprise. Satan the cat eats the heart-in-a-jar before Maxwell can reanimate Meirschultz with it (let this be a lesson to everyone who gets sucked into one-sided conversations with ear-bending neighbors!) and Maxwell decides to wall Meirschultz's body up in the cellar rather than risk someone finding it. He also manages to get Satan stuck in the body-hiding nook while he's at it. Oh, and right after he does that,
PARANOIAC stops by for a quick visit and the snarl the narrative up again. Suddenly Maxwell's wife is introduced dancing in her underwear, and then there's a lengthy conversation between four women wearing bathrobes. I guess Dwain Esper was worried people might figure out what the hell was going on if he didn't throw in another couple random elements. Maxwell's wife goes looking for him and tells "Meirschultz" that his assistant inherited a fortune.
MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSIS shows up after that bombshell, because why not. The fake Meirschultz is consulting with a female patient and Maxwell imagines making out with her in a really neat double-exposure sequence, and then we go back to the regular narrative. Maxwell tells two different women that the other one is insane and needs to be sedated, which leads to a huge catfight while the fake shrink laughs like a loon. The cat farmer calls the cops, and when they show up one of them hears the cat crying in the bricked-up body vault. They pulls bricks out and find Meirschultz's body and the credits roll seconds later, but there's the first post-credit cookie in cinema history with Maxwell in prison, laughing about how well he impersonated Dr. Meirschultz. And then the end.
Words pretty much fail me. This movie has more happen in its 51 minute running time than some movies pack in over three hours. The acting styles range from somewhat naturalistic to gleefully over the top to robotic. Plot elements get introduces and thrown away with vigor and abandon. Maybe there's a more complete version that makes more sense out there, but I have no idea if putting more stuff in the film would make it any more or less coherent than it is; as things stand it's fractally odd. Every sequence is just as bizarre as the full movie. Any time it looks like things are going to stabilize there's another oddball secondary character, a new plotline introduced or just an interruption to explain a mental illness while 101 Strings try to relax the viewer.
I know they say they don't make 'em like that any more about all kinds of things, but I'm not sure anyone ever made another movie like this. I'm ignorant of everything else Dwain Esper did so I don't even know if this is typical of his work or just a glorious mutant sent out to scream at an uncaring world. I'm not even sure which of those alternatives I'd prefer. One part of me welcomes the idea of seeing something else as unhinged and fevered as this movie while another part dreads it. And since Esper worked in the field of scare pictures meant to make people afraid of marijuana and Africa, I'm sure I'll see another film from him sooner or later and make up my own mind on the subject.
The worst movie ever made? Not to my way of thinking. It sure wasn't good but it was never dull and it moves like a bullet train. Kinda like Road House that way, and any film that's similar to Patrick Swayze's apex of cinematic art cannot be all that bad in the end.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Matango, Fungus of Terror
Yes, I Know: Man Bites Dog