...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Dwain Esper's NARCOTIC and MANIAC

While prepping dinner last night, I watched Kino's DVD double feature of Dwain Esper's Narcotic and Maniac.

From kino.com
Esper is one of the grandpappies of the American exploitation film.  An Esper film consists of vaguely connected scenes filmed using considerably amateur production methods, with then-lurid drug and sexual material scattered throughout.  He would then list medical "facts" on title cards throughout the movie and thus would claim his film was for educational purposes only.  Because these works were produced outside the mainstream American studio system, Esper was forced to find ways to exhibit them on his own.  The need to advertise his films gave birth to the great exploitation film posters.  For instance:

I'm actually a big fan of old exploitation films.  They were the original cinema indies.  The folks making them were truly on their own, free from studio support and studio restrictions, so the results were storytelling labors of love.  I find that unique struggle very inspirational, even though the films were often terribly made.

Dwain Esper's films are TERRIBLY made.  I mean, just abysmal.  He makes Ed Wood look like Howard Hawks.  And I don't think that's not hyperbole.

Of the double feature, Narcotic (1933) seems to be the better work.  There was a storyline, occasionally a fully-formed scene, acting effort, consistent lighting, and a stab (sorry) at character development.  Like Esper's "educational" films, Narcotic is a cautionary tale, in this case it's about Doctor William Davis.  Running a free medical clinic eventually wears Davis down and he's lured into an opium den by his friend(?) Wu.  He then goes from opiate addict to drug dealer.  He makes good money as a drug huckster, but eventually the drug ruins his life and leads to suicide.

Despite the limp filmmaking, the story is quite sad.  Watching a free clinic doctor who'd once assisted the less able of society sacrifice everything in his life for The H becomes an absorbing experience.  Particularly melancholy are the sequences in the opium den wherein prostrate addicts give up their universe to the smoke.

from moviegoods.com
Towards the end of the film, Esper starts inserting images of animals fighting, killing, and eating each other.  He'd repeat this stylistic flourish in future films, though never as well as he did here: predators stalking pray and snakes consuming each other as heroin addicts fight over the remaining powder.

I'm not saying that the film is well made.  If you haven't watched your share of exploitation films, then your patience may be short once the bad acting, clumsy stereotypes, and indifferent editing kick in.  BUT, it's considerably better than Esper's followup.

Maniac (1934) is likely the worst film I have ever seen.  It is Manos Hands of Fate bad.  At times it seems like a sophomoric spoof......but there was nothing like it yet to parody.  It is such a stumble downwards from Narcotic, that I wonder if Esper had a drug issue of his own.

Each scene never connects (logically, structurally, nor cinematically) with the previous and succeeding scenes.  The dialogue unnecessarily tells us what we're already seeing, does nothing to move the story along, is inconsistent with the character speaking it, and is usually utter nonsense.  The characters' personalities keep changing every two minutes, so their actions make no sense.  The actors tasked to portray these characters appear to never know which emotion they need to show and barely get their insipid lines out (probably because they don't understand the dialogue either).  Characters show up then vanish -- including a rapey psychopath who seems important to the story or something.  The lighting is all over the place, the sound is terrible, and the editor seems to have died at the flatbed after watching hours of completely out of focus footage.

It's quite epic really.  I could tell you the story but it wouldn't make sense.  It starts out Frankenstein, goes to Cask of Amontillado, throws in a little Black Cat, a bit of Jekyll & Hyde, there's a man with 1000 cats who eat rats who eat dead cats, a wife suddenly shows up (played by Phyllis Diller?), a "cat fight", an actual cat fight, super adrenaline tinctures used for several inconsistent purposes, a full movie makeup kit in a doctor's office, a guy who pokes out a cat's eyeball then eats it, and the whole thing's tied up with a bunch of "educational" warnings that people are crazy.

By the time the anticipated nudie shots roll in, this viewer felt bad for the topless girl.  No matter how cherry her figure was, the fact that she seemed to be in a snuff film tempered any excitement over here.


I'm not really sure what happened to Esper in the year between these two films.  Narcotic showed the promise of an affecting and effective storyteller within the exploitation genre.  Maniac looked like the stoned musings of a handicapped four-year-old.

Many of Esper's films are in the public domain and can be found at the (SUPER!) Internet Archive.  The Kino DVD has better quality video as well as some good special features, including a snippet from the very enjoyable Maciste in Hell (a version of it here on YouTube).



  1. Have you ever checked out the Prelinger Archives section of IA? The 40s-50s PSAs are almost as bad. There's an extended one about the scourge of porn and all I could think was "good thing this guy didn't live to see the internet".

  2. Yeah, the Prelinger Archives are great! I'm glad those educational/scourge/scare films are now free b/c I disposed of stupid $$$ tracking them down on VHS over a decade ago.

    As a friend just reminded me, these really should not be viewed while one is sober. I have to watch Perversion for Profit again one of these days soon.

  3. My alma mater used to have annual screenings of the Prelinger Archives. I'm sure there were plenty of substances (licit and illicit) involved.

  4. The involvement of substances was probably likely. :)

    Some films are good meals on their own. Some need a little additional seasoning to make them more palatable.

    Esper's films require considerable cayenne pepper. And maybe oregano.

    And that's as far as I'll take that metaphor for now.