Michael J. Nelson and the Cat’s Eye
By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
If you are a horror/sci-fi/B-movie geek of any magnitude, you know the name Michael J. Nelson. As the former head writer-turned-host of the much-beloved cult hit Mystery Science Theater 3000, Nelson is an essential player in the fan boy pantheon. And MST3K, as the devout often refer to it, is considered by many critics to be one of the best TV shows in the history of the medium thanks in no small part to Nelson and company’s wisecracking “riffs” over the dialogue of utterly unwatchable B-movies.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with MST3K, which enjoyed a ten-year run first on Comedy Central and then the Sci-Fi Channel, the set-up focused on a mad scientist who launched temp Mike into space, forcing him to watch B-movies in order to measure how many of these films it would take to drive a person crazy. Luckily, the scientist couldn’t break Mike’s spirit thanks to the latter’s robot friends, with whom he would offer commentary during the films. The point to all this madness was to help the mad scientist identify the worst movie of all time, release it on the world and turn us all into zombie slaves. As you do.
Unfortunately, like all good things, MST3K eventually came to an end. Sigh. But from the ashes rose a new hope – a new, more Digital Age, egalitarian take on the “talking over the movie” concept: RiffTrax. Featuring Nelson alongside Mystery Science alums Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, RiffTrax offers the next evolution from MST3K, taking modern movies from The Matrix to Harry Potter to Avatar and sending them up via MP3 tracks which you can purchase, download, and sync with the films. Consider a RiffTrax the DVD extra that the studio was too cheap to put on the disc. Luckily, the group hasn’t completely left behind their B-movie roots. You can still get RiffTrax for “classics” like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Carnival of Souls. Which brings us to Mike’s pick for today, a film that, lucky for us, also has a RiffTrax commentary available, as if the film weren’t ridiculous enough it and of itself. That film is Maniac, a truly obscure B-movie gem from 1934.
Mike tells us, “This will be the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen, even if you’ve been to every single Burning Man. Made by the infamous Dwain Esper, who turned out such classics as How to Undress in Front of Your Husband and How to Take a Bath, Maniac is another exploitation film, but it’s hard to discern exactly what or whom he was exploiting. It’s the story of a corpse-stealing mad scientist who is murdered by his assistant, an amateur actor and impersonator who dresses up as him, injects people with super-adrenaline (there is such a thing, I guess) and pops out the eyeballs of his neighbor’s pets. Oh, and there’s nudity. Creepy, 1930’s nudity. Despite all this, Maniac is largely overlooked. Do yourself a favor and take the plunge into wonderful, hilarious madness.”
Do yourself a favor, indeed. Take Mike’s advice and watch Maniac. It is absolutely one of the weirdest (and unintentionally funniest) films I have ever seen, not only because of the over-the-top acting (the mad scientist does actually laugh maniacally) and melodramatic close ups (replete with demonic imagery), but also because of its inclusion of numerous pointless scenes clearly meant to titillate the audience. This was, of course, director’s Dwain Esper’s stock in trade at a time when Hollywood was officially starting to censor itself. Not without some irony, Maniac was released the same year that the American film industry instituted the infamous Production Code courtesy of former Postmaster General-turned–chief censor William Hays. Along with general standards of morality (aka sex and violence), the Code – which was crafted by overtly religious standard bearers — forbid any depictions of miscegenation and covertly denounced homosexuality and the use of harsh language. By far my favorite “rules”, though, have to be the ideas that crime must always be punished and sexual relations outside of marriage must never be presented in a manner that would elicit “passion”. Of course, the studios eventually – and quickly – found ways around these rules when box office returns started to sag.
Esper understood the ins and outs of the Code better than most and, because he never presented his films in mainstream movie theaters, he could skirt the rules of the Code and show whatever he wished, including the extreme “cat-on-cat violence” (RiffTrax’s apt terminology), brief glimpses of milky white breasts, and numerous lingerie-clad ladies that pepper Maniac. It’s no surprise that Esper has been dubbed the Father of the Exploitation Flick; many critics aren’t quite so kind, labeling him “sleazy”, “a bottom feeder”, and suggesting that his movies are worse than those of the acknowledged worst director of all time, Ed Wood. Even Esper referred to himself as “King of the Celluloid Gypsies”, a fitting title since he managed to bleed money out of people even in the midst of the Depression. Like a sideshow barker, he set up his cinematic carnival in small towns across America offering his “educational” (and, just coincidentally, shocking) movies for a few days, then sneaking out of town before the cops got wise.
The best-known film with which Esper was associated is the cult classic Tell Your Children or, as most of us know it today, Reefer Madness (also available as a RiffTrax or a DVD of a live Riff show). But, for sheer bizarreness, Maniac wins the prize. After all, is there any other movie in cinematic history that features a freaky character who raises cats fed on rats, which in turn then eat the cat carcasses after the guy skins the cats for their fur? Yes, you heard me. Is that “cat-on-rat” violence or “rat-on-cat”?
As mad as the movie is, the real way to experience it is, of course, the RiffTrax way. Head on over to the RiffTrax site for a preview of what you have in store and to purchase the track or the full movie.
In keeping with the cat theme, our featured drink today is the aptly titled Cat’s Eye. This is a drink that goes back at least a hundred years, and more than one variation has popped up over the intervening century. We’ve gone with a more modern take, although in any form, the drink is decidedly outside of our usual 12 Bottles. So, by the power of Dwain Esper and the spirits from beyond, I hereby invoke our holiday-specific 13th Bottle: Maraschino Liqueur.
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass
Original garnish was an olive; we opted for a homemade maraschino cherry
For a long time now, a handful of readers have continually dogged us about the lack of Maraschino in our bar, so in the spirit of the 13 Bottle Bar Halloween, we’re conceding. In truth, Maraschino is an absolutely wonderful bottle which some people (those who love the Aviation Cocktail) claim indispensable. Even though it didn’t make the 12BB starting line-up, trust me when I say that it’s always been in the on-deck circle. Now, the rub is that the Cat’s Eye doesn’t even call for Maraschino; it specifies Kirschwasser, a clear brandy fermented from the sour morello cherry and more commonly known simply as Kirsch. Unfortunately for Kirsch, it simply isn’t the kind of “must-have” bottle for which we’re willing to rewrite our rule book. It’s usually drunk as an aperitif/digestif and, while it does show up in a number of old-school cocktails, none of them are classics.
While remarkably sweeter, Maraschino shares a similar, albeit not exact, cherry/bitter almond profile as Kirsch, and, most importantly, it works remarkably well in the Cat’s Eye (and in another upcoming Halloween drink as well). Of course, the question you should be asking is: Why pair the Cat’s Eye with Maniac? Rather that ruin the fun of the film for you, I’ll simply say that a cat’s eye features in one of the more outrageous and unforgettable scenes in the film. If you require a deeper explanation than that, you can watch the entire film online (legally, we’re assuming, since it’s via the Internet Archive – and it’s less than an hour long) here: Watch Maniac at the Internet Archives
Extra Special Treat: Should you want to experience Maniac in all its RiffTrax glory, you have the opportunity to enjoy “three hours of chills” in a RiffTrax Live! Streaming double feature of Maniac, Night of the Living Dead and two short films on Thursday, October 27 at 10 am, 2 pm, and 6 pm Pacific Time.
Go to http://www.rifftrax.com/live for tickets. And lock up your cats!.
Esoterica: Ever wondered what a young Phyllis Diller looked like? Of course you have. In Maniac, your question shall be answered. Hint: She plays Mr. Buckley.