It's another 1930s exploitation film from Dwain Esper, the man behind films like Maniac
(as director) or Reefer Madness
(as producer). It's also boring and annoying.
Firstly, I don't hate Esper. Maniac
is brilliant. However I'm not a fan of his hysterical exploitation films that are "warning" the public about the dangers of something titillating. Obviously you'd only watch them today to laugh at them, but they're not even particularly good at that. Reefer Madness
is worth a few laughs, although not as many as you might be hoping, but Sex Madness is desperately poor.
As exploitation, it's lame. The Hays Code is no defence, because Esper's films flew under that radar by claiming to be educational. If he'd ever paid any attention to the Code, he'd never have picked up a camera in the first place. Admittedly this was probably strong stuff for the late 1930s, but you'll have to do freaky mental ju-jitsu to get yourself into a state to realise this. There's very little sex madness in Sex Madness. A young man gets stroppy with his father for being opposed to "innocent fun". There's a party in which people go upstairs. We visit the theatre and see a line of showgirls dancing, then go backstage into their dressing room in a scene that shows nothing whatsoever.
...and that's it. There's no canoodling. No nudity. (Esper's perfectly capable of that, but he doesn't here.) Oddly, there's no sexuality at all. We see nice, well-mannered boys talking to nice, well-mannered girls. There's a possible lesbian, though.
Esper's dirty secret, you see, is that his film isn't about sex. Instead it's about syphilis, which is more or less the opposite. He's not showing us anything gratuitous, but is simply pelting us with lurid headlines and some facts and figures about social diseases in 1930s America. Imagine it as a celluloid equivalent of The Daily Mail. In fairness this was a big deal back then, since it was only penicillin in the 1940s that caused a dramatic decline in the disease, but unfortunately we know that Esper was a huckster willing to do anything that might get money from suckers. More importantly, it's really dull. It's tedious, it's shrill and it has bad actors saying preachy dialogue, which is enough to make you want to kick in your television.
Here's the opening text crawl, like Star Wars
"Down through the ages has rushed a menace more dangerous than the worst criminal. Syphilis. Let us seize this monster and stamp out forever its horrible influence. Syphilis must no longer play its deadly part in our lives preventing marriages... breaking up families... and resulting in innocent offspring born blind, diseased and maimed... doomed to a life of misery. The subject of syphilis must no longer remain hushed, but must be fought in the open like any other dangerous contagious disease... humanity must be enlightened! Ignorance must be abolished! Young and old... rich and poor..."
Esper tries to damn sex as he damned drugs in Reefer Madness
, but he's straining way too hard. "Sex criminal jailed after baby murder!" screams a newspaper headline. Uh-huh. Theoretically he's got some hard-hitting material (showgirls moonlighting as prostitutes, lesbians in a 1938 film and a good girl selling her body to get a job), but none of it means a damn on-screen.
The film becomes a sermon about a Good Girl who's managed to catch syphilis and yet wants to marry her Good Boy. This is entirely predictable, except for the ludicrous twist that everyone who comes clean about their infection is embraced with unconditional love and understanding by their friends and family. Angry? Why should anyone be angry? No one gets angry in this film! Why, the Good Girl's husband doesn't bat an eyelid on learning that he has syphilis even after he's been suffering with a mysterious illness for months and spending a fortune on doctors, while on top of that their baby is infected too. Strike me pink, the man's a saint!
Will you care an iota for these people, for even a millisecond? No.
The syphilis story is done in detail, though. It might even have seemed good if we could have (a) cared and (b) forgotten that we'd ever seen a film before. Incidentally, as well as being a treatise on syphilis, the film's also warning us sternly to watch out for doctors.
I don't disagree with the film's message. It's bringing up something that needed talking about, especially in the 1930s. You can rely on Esper not to shilly-shally around an issue, that's for sure. As it happens, on this occasion he's banging an important drum and I approve of the fact that this film exists. On the downside, though, it's annoying and dull. In terms of entertainment value, the only thing in its favour is that it's short. It uses hysterical language that doesn't even begin to match up with what's on the screen, e.g. "blight upon mankind", or "humanity is bound to return to the dark ages of despair". It's not even lurid enough to be funny. It's inept and it misses targets by such a margin that you can't even laugh at it.
No, no, no.