Maniac / Narcotic DVD

Esper classic double feature

This pair of exploitation roadshow features from producer/director Dwain Esper happily makes their DVD debut in a definitive deluxe double feature from Kino on Video.

Esper was one of the notorious “40 Thieves”, a group of cinema showmen that made and distributed films outside the Hollywood studio system, often blatantly going beyond all the boundaries of good taste in subject matter, but easily selling his product town to town in the guise of educational programming.

Though he mainly made films with the same sort of themes as his competitors, Esper’s films are especially enjoyable due to their wild, anything goes, carnival atmosphere. He would abruptly cut away to seemingly unrelated footage, put different actors in the same roles mid-film, employ bizarre camera angles, and do whatever he could to spice up a picture.

One scene in Maniac shows a man in a mortuary, suddenly frightened away by two cats fighting. Fleeing the scene, he’s frightened again by a dog and a cat fighting in the street – no rhyme or reason, just pure inspiration. You can never tell what will happen next in an Esper movie.

Narcotic is the biography of Dr. William G. Davies (Harry Cording), purportedly one of the foremost medical quacks of American history. Though the film is fairly faithful to the known facts about Davies – especially for an exploitation feature – it skims over the details of his lucrative patent medicine business in favor of concentrating on the doctor’s own drug abuse, and how it leads to his downfall. Struggling to maintain his new practice, young Dr. Davies seeks some peace through the use of opium, which is first introduced to him by his old Chinese chum Chi Wu (played by an obviously Anglo actor).

The film shows drug use, the birth of a baby, a head-on collision between a car and a train engine – but it really kicks into gear by showing an “actual dope party”. What a title describes as “weird and disgusting behavior” consists mainly of a lot of silly talk laced liberally with outdated drug slang, some hysterics, and women brazenly showing off their underwear.

Narcotic is quite a ride, but Maniac is the knockout punch of the pair, one of the wildest and weirdest films of the 1930s.

Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter, using a thick Bela Lugosi accent) is a mad scientist engaged in strange and illegal experiments. He’s trying to re-animate the dead. His assistant Maxwell (Bill Woods) is apparently not any kind of medical man at all, but some kind of failed actor.

Though they both appear to be off their rockers, they succeed in reviving a young woman in the city morgue, helped by Maxwell’s impersonation of the coroner. When Maxwell fails in his attempt to steal another corpse, the raving Meirschultz hands him a gun and commands him to take the corpse’s place himself. Instead, Maxwell kills Meirschultz and uses his make-up skills to take the doctor’s place.

From there, things really get wacky. Suffering from “dementia” and other mental maladies, Maxwell really gets into his role, handing out bogus and dangerous treatment to patients. He gives Mr. Buckley (Ted Edwards) – said to be suffering from the illusion that he’s the “orangutan killer” – an injection that turns the man into a murderous lunatic.

The man’s wife (Phyllis Diller – no, not the comic, but a silent film character actor from Dekalb, IL), none too concerned that her husband has run off foaming at the mouth, discovers Meirschultz’ corpse – but Maxwell is able to explain it with a farfetched story. In one of the film’s most infamous sequences, Maxwell catches a stray cat eating his experimental heart, then takes his revenge by poking out the cat’s eye and eating it (never mind the fact that the one-eyed cat used for the “money shot” looks nothing like the offending black cat). Maxwell walls up Meirschultz’ body in the cellar, and the unlucky feline along with it.

Maxwell’s heretofore “forgotten” showgirl wife (Theo Ramsey) pops up with the news that Maxwell has inherited a fortune. When Maxwell gets the news, he hatches his maddest scheme yet in an effort to silence both his wife and the prying Mrs. Buckley.

Produced for $5,000, Maniac stretches the “educational” excuse beyond all reason. Other exploitation roadshow pictures were constructed as fables, with an authority delivering a moral at the end. Maniac is an all-out horror story, mixing Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” with ideas from Frankenstein and other horror features. By tacking on a bunch of title cards giving a few details about various psychiatric illnesses, Esper managed to pull the wool over the eyes of censors enough to add such elements as nudity, gore, perversion, necrophilia, and other taboos.

In his audio commentary, Bret Wood (author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film) explains how the 40 Thieves went out of their way to break every taboo possible in the Motion Picture Production Code in an effort to make a buck. Dwain Esper wasn’t just out to make money – he broke taboos for the pure fun of it.

I used to think Maniac was very poorly photographed – dark and blurry due to the restraints of a low budget. This DVD shows that poor quality prints and tapes were to blame. These prints, taken from the Library of Congress, are scratched and speckled by age, but are otherwise clean and clear.

The extras on the disc are a treasure trove of fringe cinema artifacts. Up to now, the information available on Esper and his ilk has been sketchy at best. After hearing Wood’s audio commentary, I look forward to reading his book as well.

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