Exploitation movies of the '30s and '40s have seldom received much respect. Even during the era when drug-scare movies such as Reefer Madness and Narcotic attracted large audiences on the roadshow circuit, exploitation movies were sliced and diced by their owners. The editing scissors of clever producers and roadshowmen struck like dull meat cleavers, snipping out a segment here, pasting on a new segment there. New movies rose from the remnants of old movies. Movies with 70-minute-long running times, suddenly were chopped to 45 minutes so they could fit on double bills.
It should come as no surprise then, over half a century after their heyday, that most exploitation movies exist in tattered fragments. To the rescue comes Kino On Video with a new digitally-mastered video series, "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film," that features three vintage exploitation classics: Narcotic (1933), Maniac (1934), and Reefer Madness (1936). These three videos form a series much-too-brief to hint at the breadth of exploitation cinema. Two of the three movies (Narcotic and Reefer Madness) are drug scare movies, while wayward women and sex education pictures such as Slaves in Bondage and Mom and Dad are completely unrepresented. However, it's difficult to argue that any of these three movies should have been left out in favor of another.
Narcotic takes us into the opium-addled mind of a snake-oil salesman and features a swanky drug party that turns into an orgy of excess. Maniac is arguably one of the most outrageous movies ever made. It focuses on the increasingly unstable mental condition of a vaudeville actor who impersonates a mad scientist. It features a smorgasbord of debauchery that includes murder, necrophilia, rape, drug injections, and more. Meanwhile, Reefer Madness is without doubt the single most famous exploitation title. It features a cast of characters who turn into giggling fiends after only a few puffs (they barely even inhale) of marijuana.
As the opening scroll tells us, Narcotic was "presented in the hope that the public may become aware of the terrific struggle to rid the world of drug addiction." At least that was ostensibly the goal of the filmmakers. The movie itself is a salacious plunge into a world of sordid pleasures. It tells us the story of Dr. William G. Davies, an infamous snake-oil salesman who started his career as a promising medical student. In the opening sequence he saves an unborn baby by performing a cesarean operation after the mother was killed in an automobile accident. Stock medical footage shows a woman's stomach being sliced open like a ripe watermelon and the baby popping out like a jack-in-a-box. But the allure of opium proves too strong for the doctor to resist. After a single night of relaxation in a Chinatown opium den, Davies becomes a slave to drugs. As his medical practice deteriorates, he shifts his attention to "selling medicine by demonstration." He says to his nurse/fiancee, "I can't see anything wrong if my preparation has merit." However, his "preparation" is one of the great quack cure-alls: "Tiger-Fat." Davies soon becomes one of the leading sideshow attractions for a carnival. (It's one of the rattiest looking carnivals ever committed to celluloid. The circus animals consist solely of a skunk, a rattlesnake, and a lizard.) His success as a carnival huckster initially allows him to run with a fast crowd. In the movie's most shocking episode, Davies and his ritzy friends retire to a hotel room together for a drug party. "We're gonna get lit," says a woman. A buffet of drugs is spread out on a table and each guest takes their drug of choice. "It takes a needle for me to get a bang," says a woman. As each participant indulges, the party quickly turns into an orgy of excesses, one woman hikes up her skirts, another laughs hysterically, a man pontificates, another man becomes paranoid. The movie provides a litany of different reactions to drugs. Ultimately, Davies' drug addiction leaves him gaunt and stooped, living in a hovel with no hope of returning to his previous life. Made by Dwain and Hildagarde Esper, the most notorious exploitation filmmaking duo in history, Narcotic contains surprising moments of inspiration. Much of the movie is carelessly shot. You'll even see microphone shadows on the walls. However, occasionally the Esper's provide a surprising composition, as when Davies tries to kick his opium habit. The camera watches him from inside the fireplace as he breaks his opium pipe and throws it into the flames. This is an astonishingly brutal and seedy movie that builds to a powerful conclusion. Narcotic is one of the very best exploitation movies. (Kino's edition of Narcotic has been digitally mastered from a 35mm print courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
While many exploitation films preached about the dangers of drugs or social diseases, Maniac tackles an unusual target for exploitation cinema: it focuses on insanity. The opening scroll tells us "Unhealthy thought creates warped attitudes which in turn create criminals and manias." And then the movie introduces us to a pair of characters that indulge in "unhealthy" thoughts. Dr. Meirschultz dreams of reanimating the dead. He dreams of a victim with a "shattered heart" (whatever that might be). He wants to replace a dead man's heart with the heart he keeps beating in a beaker in his laboratory. To provide subjects for his experiments, he turns to his assistant, Maxwell. Maxwell is an actor on the run from the law. Together, Meirschultz and Maxwell visit the local morgue, with Maxwell disguised as the coroner. They find a recently deceased woman and attempt to bring her back to life with injections of Meirschultz's secret formula. After an injection on each side of the dead woman's neck, Meirschultz and Maxwell begin massaging her arms and shoulders with their fingertips. Meanwhile, two creepy morgue attendants watch and comment: "Did you see the beaut that come in today?" "Did I!" Before long, the woman begins to breathe. Meirschultz and Maxwell spirit her home while the morgue attendants wink and growl. But Meirschultz's mania for research victims has twisted his mind. After Maxwell fails him in retrieving another body (a pair of fighting cats scare him away from his morgue-robbing expedition), Meirschultz pleads with Maxwell to kill himself: "Coward! Oh, you fool! You have failed me, in the greatest moment of my life!" He promises to bring Maxwell back to life and gives him a gun with which to blow out his brains; however, Maxwell turns the gun on Meirschultz instead. He shoots him dead and then uses his make-up expertise to disguise himself as Meirschultz: "Not only do I look like Meirschultz, I am Meirschultz!" he says while his eyes go wild. Meanwhile, the title cards tell us about the impending states of insanity to watch for--"Dementia Praecox," "Paresis," "Paranoiac," "Manic Depressive Psychoses," etc. And superimposed scenes from Witchcraft Through the Ages (a classic silent film filled with images of devils, demons, and witches) warn us that Maxwell's mind is becoming increasingly dangerous. If this isn't enough, the movie then goes right off the chart completely on the weirdness scale: Maxwell accidentally administers a hypodermic needle full of corpse rejuvenation serum to a live subject, Mr. Buckley. Mr. Buckley begins rubbing his head and screaming "stealing through my body, creeping through my brain, pouring through my blood!" Envisioning himself as the "Orangutan murderer," he grabs a woman (a zombie-like laboratory test subject) and runs off with her into the night. In the middle of an empty field, he strips her upper torso naked and strangles her. It's hard to imagine just what audiences in the '30s must have thought when seeing shocking scenes like this one. Hollywood movies of this era rarely even hinted at subjects such as rape, but in Maniac the filmmakers use intimations of a medical purpose to justify showing some of the most shocking material ever captured on celluloid. In addition to the aforementioned sights, Maniac also features cheesecake shots of women lounging around in their underwear. One topless woman sings "La Cucaracha" while a reducing belt gives her a workout and another woman takes a bath while exclaiming, "I may not be decent, but I'm sure gonna be clean." Meirschultz's next door neighbor raises cats for their fur. After he skins the cats, he feeds their carcasses to rats: "The rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins," he says proudly. As with their Narcotic, Dwain and Hildagarde Esper provide typically crude images in Maniac. However, every so often they provide a visual flourish, as when Maxwell tires of a nasty black cat: the camera peers down the basement stairs as Maxwell creeps up the stairs. It's a strange and eerie camera angle. (The eerieness factor lurches up again when Maxwell catches the cat, gouges out its eye, and pops the eye in his mouth: "Why, nothing like an oyster or a grape," he says as he smacks his lips and laughs hysterically.) This is truly one of the strangest movies ever made. Until I saw this version of Maniac, I had only seen a badly worn print that was horribly burned out. I had considered the movie as virtually unwatchable, but this new print makes a huge difference. Presented in cooperation with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, this Kino edition is digitally mastered from a 35 mm print. You'll still see ugly splices and streaks. But now Maniac can be appreciated as a perverse paean to commercialism.
While the people responsible for Narcotic and Maniac gave every indication of knowing virtually nothing about the craft of filmmaking, Reefer Madness looks like a typical Grade B project. The camerawork isn't particularly inspired, but at least it's technically adequate. Director Louis Grasnier's career goes back to very near the turn of the century and includes famous serials such as The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine. Unlike most exploitation movies, the movie also features professional actors. Actor Dave O'Brien, for example, had a long career in Hollywood, first playing small roles in the '30s and later turning to stunt work. Throughout the '40s, he played a hapless hero in the "Pete Smith Specialties" series for MGM. So unlike the other movies in Kino's "Forbidden Fruit" series, Reeefer Madness is not a super-low budget offering with a non-professional cast, but its claim to fame is largely a result of incompetence nonetheless. Its depiction of marijuana smoking is a perfect example of an hysterical reaction to the dangers of drug addiction. After only a few puffs on a reefer, high school kids turn into homicidal maniacs. One boy takes a few puffs and then drives his car like a war chariot, running over passersby. Another high school boy, Ralph (O'Brien, whose hairline was already receding noticeably by this time) becomes a giggling fool. While marijuana usage is now known for typically providing the ultimate laid-back experience, the hysterical agenda of Reefer Madness required extreme reactions--never mind honesty. This discrepancy between what the movie depicts and the truth about the effects of marijuana is largely responsible for the movie's notoriety. In the late '60s and early '70s, Reefer Madness was elevated to cult movie status by a with-it audience that howled derisively at the movie's exaggerated depiction of pot smoking.
However, people who consider Reefer Madness as simply a camp classic fail to see how the movie cunningly exploited the fears of 1930s' audiences. In order to reap the greatest boxoffice rewards, exploitation filmmakers strove to turn every subject that they filmed into paranoia-laced threats to mankind. Reefer Madness appears to take the form of an educational drama. It opens with a lecturer hectoring the audience about the dangers of marijuana. Scrolling text spells out the effects of the drug: first, "violent, uncontrollable laughter"; then, "dangerous hallucinations -- space expands-- time slows down, almost stands still"; next, fixed ideas are responsible for "conjuring up monstrous extravaganzas"; followed by "emotion disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotion"; and finally, "acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity." Exaggerations? You betcha. But what better way to grab the attention of audience members who have little experience with marijuana? Reefer Madness uses the forum of preaching against marijuana to indulge the viewer's interest in a variety of sordid developments: we witness dope parties, murder, rape, teenage fornication, and much more. Reefer Madness is a classic exploitation film not simply because it's now a hoot to watch but because it so effectively exploits the audience's fears and their insatiable interest in the sordid side of life.