Marihuana (1936)

Marihuana (1936) movie poster

director Dwain Esper
viewed: 03/17/2017

Watch Marihuana and mainline Exploitation from the Godfather of the genre, Dwain Esper. I discovered Esper, myself, about 10 years ago, watching his maniac Maniac (1934), which I do truly believe must be his trash masterpiece. Marihuana is his own production, made after he picked up Louis J. Gasnier’s Tell Your Children and re-branded it the now classic Reefer Madness (1936).

Not a ton is known about Esper, though there is a good article about him on Grindhouse Therapy that I recommend. He and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, whom wrote and collaborated on his films, came from the carnival background (which a lot of great Exploitation filmmakers would as well in the future), made his films outside of the influence of the film code, traveled around and showed his films alongside burlesques in tents around the U.S.

His stuff is often as outrageous as anything that would come 20-30 years later, though often shrouded in the guise of being Instructional and for the public good, rather than just out and out sleazy and titillating as they were. This was the 1930’s and this stuff makes pre-code films looks awful tame.

Marihuana tells the tale of teenager Burma Roberts (Harley Wood) who goes to one booze and weed party and comes out with a drowned friend, hooked on Mary Jane, and knocked up to boot. The wayward path leads her boyfriend to get shot down by the cops and her to become a needle-abusing drug queen. Not bad for 57 minutes!

Esper’s Marihuana is nowhere as outrageous and shocking as Maniac and while arguably “better” than Reefer Madness, maybe less so in its innate inanity and camp. Because it’s not quite as pure camp as Reefer Madness, though it’s got gratuitous nudity thrown in for good measure. Maybe it’s a little grittier and noirish, too.

I’ll tell you this much: Dwain Esper is the godfather of Exploitation, a true trailblazer of sleaze and trash and deserves far more recognition than he’s gotten.

Sex Madness (1938)

Sex Madness (1938) movie poster

director Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/23/2014

What’s there to say about Sex Madness?  First: Great title.

For me, the real reason to see this particular exploitation film is that it is the work of one Dwain Esper, whose 1934 film Maniac I found to be one of the most mind-bogglingly wild movies I’ve ever seen.  I figured his later film on the horrors of syphilis and gonorrhea had to be worth seeing, even if it is on a pretty shitty copy on DVD.

This is the reality of movies in the public domain.  For all the film restoration that goes on, some movies are never going to really warrant the work.  And the version of Sex Madness I watched was as poor a copy of any movie I’ve sat through in the past decade or so.

It has its moments.  A bunch of young people go to a burlesque show and get all hyped up on sex.  In fact, in a throw-away moment, the film intimates that one man all hopped up on sex from the burlesque show hunts down a child to rape and kill.  The others just go to a party at a house to pair up and “get it on”.

Oh, but there are diseases.  Shameful diseases.  Pretty devastating diseases if untreated.  We even go to a hospital to see the ravages of syphilis on the human body.  It can ruin a good person.

The film is actually quite progressive in its way, actually trying to foreground the talk about sexually transmitted diseases rather than shaming and hiding them.  It encourages people to know their facts and seek treatment, to “come out” if you will about their illnesses.  So, give it credit for that.

It’s no Maniac, sadly.  Still, quite interesting in its way.


Narcotic (1933) movie poster

(1933) dir. Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/04/07

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.


Maniac (1934) movie poster

(1934) dir. Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/04/07

Last year I watched a couple of documentaries about the Exploitation film (see: Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)) and was turned onto this little movie of which I had never heard before, Dwain Esper’s Maniac.  It’s an amazing little film.

An independently produced film, made to play in the traveling burlesque circuit, it didn’t really have to worry about the Production Code.  Esper was a non-professional filmmaker, which is hardly surprising from much of the quality of the filmmaking, though most evident in the acting and dialogue.  It’s a camp quality film with some highly bizarre and effective scenes, most notably, the cat that gets its eye popped out and then eaten by the titular Maniac.  A clever sequence in which a one-eyed feline and a glass eye makes for a pretty creepy little moment reckoning of Un chien andalou‘s (1929) notorious eye-slicing.

There are cats all over the place in this film, and a finale that is ripped out of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat.  One of the other totally hilarious and bizarre episodes is the neighbor cat farmer, who keeps cats for their pelts, describing his reasoning for keeping rats as well (something like: “rats eat raw meat–you know, cat carcasses…so the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”)  Cats fighting cats, cats fighting dogs, a brawling, clothes-rending, syringe-laden “cat fight”.  Does this movie have it all?

Yes.  Zombie resurrection, a great psychotic meltdown after a patient is injected with adrenaline instead of “water”, who then carries off the zombie woman and strips her and rapes her.  Yes, gratuitous nudity.  Was this film really made in the 1930’s?  It contains so much of what one would expect in the 1960’s in the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

One of the other great effects in the film is the transposition of scenes from the Finnish film, Maciste in Hell (1924), on the ranting ravings of Maxwell, the maniac.  These scenes are crazy sequences of devils romping and flying and tormenting, and then the groping hands…  I actually would love to see the original Maciste in Hell.  It looks brilliant itself.

What can I say more than this film, made initially with the intent of “informing the public” about the dangers and woes of mental illness, which are archaically described in strangely-timed intertitles “Dementia Praecox”, among others.  It’s a cultural milestone.  It is avant-garde.  It is trash cinema at its peak.