For the reviews on my website, I have keywords for "favourite" and "rubbish". About halfway through this film, I realised it was on the point of qualifying for both of them.
Dwain Esper. My oh my. The Ed Wood of his generation, he'd originally been a real estate agent who'd got stuck with a house full of filmmaking equipment when one of his clients defaulted on a mortgage. He also ignored the Production Code, making films that weren't even pretending to be fit for ordinary cinemas and were instead "roadshow" movies that he showed in tents and burlesque houses. He'd travel around the country, showing his wares as quickly as he could before the local authorities noticed his salacious advertising. His films also pretended to be educational, which was his excuse for showing things you weren't meant to put in a movie.
For a start, there's nudity! It's mild by modern standards, but in 1934? What's more, that's not the half of it.
Technically the film's terrible, of course. The acting is risible, the script is doing whatever the hell it feels like and sometimes you can't see what's happening on screen. Startlingly though, it lives up to the hype. You know what I mean. You track down one of these so-called worst movies of all time and it turns out to be a bit boring. This however had me riveted. It's entertainingly bad and has the energy it needs to work as a viewing experience. More specifically it goes like a bullet and the first 35 minutes are so ingeniously tasteless that they hit gutter brilliance. Crucially, the actors are hilarious. Almost everyone's overblown or wooden in a completely different way and if you watch this thing in company, you might have people wiping away tears of laughter. It also helps that the dialogue's giving the actors plenty to work with.
"Tonight, my dear Maxwell, I'm ready to try my experiment on a human!"
"Oh! Stealing through my body! Creeping though my veins! Pouring in my blood! Oh, DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN! STABBING ME! I CAN'T STAND IT! I WON'T!"
Then you've got the story. We begin with... well, actually, we begin with the first of several intertitles that lecture us about mental disorders. I found these interesting. However the narrative begins with a mad scientist called Dr. Meirshultz and his assistant Maxwell, who's not a hunchback but an ex-actor. Shouldn't that mean he'd be able to deliver dialogue? Anyway, this pair are going bodysnatching because Meirshultz thinks he can revive the dead. Their first choice for this is a suicide and their second choice is a gangster who's been shot. Great thinking there, guys. Things get better when Meirshultz says he needs a victim with a shattered heart so that he can simultaneously test his ability at resurrection and organ transplants. He's got a spare heart beating in a jar on his desk, you see.
This is loopy. I've only described about 20% of Story 1 in the movie, but already we've gone further and madder than a regular Frankenstein movie. It doesn't turn out as you're imagining, though. On the contrary, we have some story developments of which I'm in awe, leading us down plot alleyways that are unique and deranged enough that I'd be interested in seeing someone remake this film. There's a scene where a living zombie kidnaps a woman, tears away her top for gratuitous breast shots and then walks right out of the movie. I was riveted... but then the film goes a bit off the rails thanks to the following intertitle.
"Maxwell had forgotten all about his wife, and she him until"
To be fair, it's almost worth it for the surrealism value of seeing a film so brazenly take a screeching handbrake turn. However this is Dwain Esper's cue to give us four women in titillating states of undress, one of whom appears to have been sucking helium. What's that, the plot? Oh, sorry. How about Maxwell suddenly acquiring not just a wife but also a just-deceased rich relative?
Eventually the film turns into an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat, in which it's far more faithful than the Karloff-Lugosi Universal film of the same year that's supposedly based on the same story and even uses its title. It's amazing. I particularly admired the scene in which our hero thinks the following is a sufficient explanation to a suspicious member of the public. "I wanted to bring him back to life. I want to experiment on him." Fortunately the person he's talking to: (a) has either been reading the script or is getting information beamed into her head by aliens, and (b) randomly turns out to be evil, despite the fact that her plot role had hitherto been "concerned wife of patient". Then there's the Crazy Cat Guy, who shows up for a few minutes to tell us about his fur farm with a thousand cats in it. This is our hero's next door neighbour, by the way.
There's an animal motif. Esper will often for no reason insert shots of animals, such as two cats fighting or a mouse running from a cat. What's more, these aren't trained movie animals. Esper would do things like tying a cat and a dog together with string, while that's one worried mouse. However the movie's most notorious (and gross) scene was achieved without animal cruelty, as is shown by the animal changing colour because you're looking at a very special kind of stunt cat.
Then there are the surreal attempts to appear worthy and virtuous. You've got the educational intertitles, of which I thought the last one had an interesting analysis of mania. Loopier still though are the religious overtones, in which Esper will indicate something dangerously nuts by overlaying the image with footage of Satan in Hell from a Swedish silent film called Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922). I also have a feeling that the film has a black cat called Satan, which may or may not be the reason for the following dialogue. "I think too much of Satan to use cats for experiments."
This movie is a wonder. Where it scores over something like Plan 9 from Outer Space is the fact that it has a dynamic storyline, never missing an opportunity to get sleazier. It's like a spoof of itself, yet fundamentally its core story stands up surprisingly well. In terms of gutter flair, you could put it next to the Takashi Miike I'd watched the day before. Personally I found it far more entertaining than Reefer Madness. Oh, and one cast member (Horace Carpenter) was a real actor who'd worked with D.W. Griffith, but our hero is being played by someone who'd go on to become a well-respected make-up artist. This is a freaky, offensive story that manages to be trash in all the best ways. It's public domain and I downloaded it for free, but I'm now tempted to buy the DVD, which apparently includes a trailer ("It will make thy blood to freeze and thy hair to stand!") and some correspondence between Esper's office and the New York Film Censor Board. The mind boggles.