I've just bought a three-film DVD set of Dwain Esper. I've already seen two of them, but I can't find Narcotic anywhere for download and there's no way I'm leaving an Esper-Stadie film unwatched.
To recap, Dwain Esper was a 1930s exploitation fiend. He bought a mummified body for his sideshow and made tasteless, hysterical films that contained nudity and any behaviour that a 1930s audience might find deplorable and hence titillating. He reissued Tod Browning's Freaks. His name is on some terrible films, either as director or producer, but every so often he blows me out of the water.
There's a common thread to these Good Esper Films and that's his wife as scriptwriter. Her name's Hildegarde Stadie and she wrote the brilliant and demented Maniac
. She wrote this. She wrote Narcotic, which I've just ordered and wild horses wouldn't stop me from watching. She also wrote The Seventh Commandment (1932), but that's a lost film, damn it. She sounds a fascinating woman, actually, and I'd have loved to meet her. She was the niece of a cure-all medicine peddler who travelled all over America with her and showed her naked with a python as part of their sales pitch. Later she married Dwain Esper and wrote mad, lurid exploitation scripts for him to turn into movies. She's the one who faced down all the state censorship boards, which in itself sounds like a labour of Hercules.
This particular film starts out at the height of camp ludicrousness, then gradually sneaks up on you with a proper story. It's about marijuana, obviously, but being a 1930s exploitation film it's pretending to be a morality fable about its dangers. Did you know that marijuana will turn you into a psychotic violent lunatic who'll do anything to feed his addiction? I do now. The opening intertitles told me so.
The film itself begins with a wild party. Parties are bad. We know so because this particular party has a pair of old coots sitting in the corner saying things like, "If my mummy and daddy had come to places like this, I wouldn't be here now." Why are they here, then? Why don't they just leave, if they hate it so much? Some time later, they're still there, passing horrified comment on these young people who surely didn't invite them.
However you can understand their shock because it looks like a pretty good party. There's an apparent urination gag that's funny, involving a man too wasted to be capable of pouring beer into a glass. Men and women kiss! The horror! They even have fun! Nurse, the smelling salts! "Bet you can't put this on your head" is the kind of thing you'd think only students would do. This is raucous even before the drug dealers get in on the act, but some time later funny cigarettes are going around and so the girls get high and go skinny-dipping. "We tried Tony's giggle-water, so let's try his giggle-weed!" This is impressive. We're not talking about discreet almost-nudity, but four girls all getting naked and Esper showing no shame in recording this for posterity.
However at the same time, Stadie's writing a proper story. What made me sit up and take notice was the scene where Hugh McArthur's making out with Harley Wood in the back of his car. It's simple, but it's a nice little episode with more character than I was expecting. Wood's acting's better than you'd expect in this genre, for a start.
Then we get some surprisingly interesting character work with Wood, who resents always having to play second fiddle to her engaged elder sister. In an inversion of the usual way of movies, it's the women who matter and make all the important choices, while the men are mostly trophies, puppets or low-level criminals. Wood's the one in control of her relationship with McArthur and she's also trying to flex her muscles with her mother and sister. The fiance is mostly a plot device, really. He doesn't matter. It's the ladies' relationship that's rich, spiky and offers no simple heroes or villains.
That said, I liked the men too. McArthur's got a bit of a stick up his arse, but I liked the sincerity of his relationship with Wood. Much later, I was charmed by that drug dealer with a lamp shade on his head, playing with a child.
It's always Wood's show, though. She gets a mighty character arc, complete with a Faustian bargain that goes even further than you'd be expecting from one of these cod-morality fables. I should have seen the final twist coming, but for some reason I didn't. I honestly love the finale. It's wonderful and again that's largely Wood. She's another fascinating woman, incidentally, having been a songwriter, composer, actress, author and publisher as well as an actress. She'd started out in radio.
I shouldn't overlook Esper. The film has problems technically, with its cinematography, sound and editing all lacking polish. However I was impressed by those ghosts from the past at the end, which is quite a nifty bit of special effects.
This is a ludicrous film. It's exploitation that talks hysterical garbage about marijuana and makes Terrance Dicks sound like Irving Welsh. "When they're that age, they're not suspicious and easily hooked." When it's preaching, it's impossible to take seriously. However when it's not, it's telling a story that's far above the general run of 1930s exploitation films. It's impressively women-centric, in a good way. If you can forgive the fact that it's also silly nonsense, I think it's genuinely worth attention.
"Police authorities declare that the majority of brutal crimes now occurring are directly due to the use of marihuana."