(1933) dir. Dwain Esper
Paired with the amazing Maniac (1934) on a DVD from Kino Video, director Dwain Esper’s earlier exploitation film, Narcotic, is actually, while still incredibly low-budget and campy and exploitative, manages to tell a moderately compelling story about a medical student turned junkie, as a cautionary tale of the dangers of drug addiction.
The film has a number of notable things about it: the explicit depiction of drug-taking (smoking opium, snorting cocaine, smoking marijuana, shooting heroin), the strange exploitative criticism yet appreciation of Chinese culture, and the compelling portrayal Dr. William G. Davis by Harry Cording.
The drug-taking is depicted in more detail and with some camp but moderate realism. The “dope party” is funny but not all that unrealistic in some ways.
The character of Gee Wu, portrayed by J. Stuart Blackton, Jr., obviously a non-Asian, is an interesting one. Though physically depicted with make-up as a “Chinaman”, he is a college roommate and peer and friend to the medical students, and though he initially leads Davis to the opium den, he is regularly a noble and wise (though often with lots of bits of wisdom that wouldn’t ever even show up in the worst fortune cookie).
Despite the positive piction of Wu, who is still utterly stereotypical and played by a badly made-up caucasian, the rest of the opium den denizen are played by actual Asians who have non-speaking roles. One background character is about as stereotypical as you could imagine from such a scene, in period costume, just sitting aslant, pipe permanantly attached to his mouth. Beyond the opium den scenes, as Davis sinks deeper and deeper into drug abuse, his whole apartment becomes decorated with Asian motifs and he is shown wearing some kimono-like robe as he picks up his personal opium pipe. There seems to be some parallel being drawn between Asian customs and drug abuse, even though in the dialogue of the film, it is often pointed out that the Chinese have battled narcotics themselves and have faced similar issues.
It’s weird and kind of interesting. I think that it’s a good sampling of the drug problem film of the period.