B&W, 1934, 51 mins.

Directed by Dwain Esper

Starring Bill Woods, Phyllis Diller, Theo Ramsey, Horace B. Carpenter, Ted Edwards / Written by Hildegarde Stadie / Cinematography by William C. Thompson


B&W, 1933, 57 mins.

Directed by Dwain Esper and Vival Sodar't

Starring Harry Cording, Joan Dix, Patricia Farley, Jean Lacy / Written by A.J. Karnopp / Cinematography by William C. Thompson

Format: DVD - Kino (MSRP $29.98)

There are bad movies, and then there are Dwain Esper movies. Now regarded as the Ed Wood, Jr. of his day, Esper and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, churned out a host of ludicrous, zero budget "educational" films during the '30s and '40s, often exhibited like a sideshow in tents and makeshift theaters. Esper's cutthroat distribution tactics and hilariously misleading advertising eventually caught up with him as the drive-in took hold, but for anyone lucky enough to witness the weird magic of his films, the experience will never be forgotten.

Esper's most famous opus, Maniac, opens as a treatsie on the dangers of mental illness but quickly swerves off in directions no sane person could ever predict. Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter), a prototypical mad scientist, recruits a vaudeville performer, Don (Bill Woods), who happens to possess uncanny impersonation skills. The two swipe a female corpse and revive her by rubbing her arms. After another bodysnatching expedition goes awry, Meirschultz comes up with a great idea -- he hands Don a gun and asks him to shoot himself so the doctor can bring him back. Don decides to shoot Meirschultz instead and impersonates the doctor when a pair of strangers arrive. A young woman claims that her husband believes he is the gorilla from Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," so Don grabs a needle at random and injects him. The poor guy immediately bursts into a spastic transformation routine that defies description, then grabs the reanimated female corpse and, after conveniently tearing open her dress (yes, there's nudity), ravages her in the woods. But wait! There's much more, as the narrative suddenly turns into a reprise of Poe's "The Black Cat." The fake Dr. Meirschultz pops out a kitty's eyeball and eats it, the walled up corpse of the doctor proves to be more trouble than it's worth, and two women have a catfight with hypodermic needles. In the meantime, Esper treats his audience with title cards explaining various forms of mental disease which have relation whatsoever to the onscreen action.

An earlier film, Narcotic isn't as consistently depraved as Maniac but offers many goofy chrams all its own. Dr. Davis (Harry Cording), a promising medical talent, winds up experiencing the forbidden pleasures of smoking opium, thanks to the influence of that old '30s standby, the wise but decadent Asian. Actually, it's a terrible American actor with bad make up and a riotous sub-Charlie Chan accent, but you get the idea. Davis' wife doesn't think too highly of her hubby's new habit, especially when he decides to peddle opium as a new medical wonder to Americans. Eventually she talks him into going into rehab, where the doctors treat the poor soul by giving him... heroin! Yep, it's a real slippery slope from there, as Davis plunges into the depths of a real "dope party" at which participants dress up in evening wear, shoot up, smoke pot, and tell awful jokes. Oh, the horror! Anyone could predict where the good doctor winds up next -- the carnival sideshow, of course. When that venue doesn't work out, it's time for Davis to go huddle up in a cheap hotel room with heroin and a pistol. You can figure out the rest.

Designed to violate every censorship code in the book, Esper's films wallow in wretched acting, non sequitor editing, and gleeful exploitation. Just a few minutes into Narcotic, for example, the audience is treated to a Cesarian birth sequence, just for shock value. Likewise, Maniac trots out so much sleaze it plays like a catalog of everything the legendary Hays Code opposed. Not surprisingly, both of the films are in rough shape on this DVD, but their survival in any form is something to behold. Maniac looks better in its Kino incarnation than rotten public domain copies floating around, most of which look projected through a fishbowl. Scratches and splices abound, especially in the openeing credits, but the actual clarity of the image is impressive and satisfying. Narcotic appears to be edited with Scotch tape to begin with, so the presentation obviously isn't much better. Dialogue is often clipped off (deliberately?), and many frames appear to be missing. As with most Esper titles, the bizarre insert footage (cats fighting, snakes eating each other, the Cesarian birth, etc.) have been spliced in without sound and stick out jarringly against the surrounding footage. The sound quality is fine, considering it was always muddled anyway. The DVD includes a sidesplitting trailer for Maniac ("It will make thy blood to freeze and thy hair to stand!"), excerpts from the Maniac screenplay (yes, it did have one), some amusing correspondence between Esper's office and the New York Film Censor Board, and a running commentary by the co-author of Forbidden Fruit, Bret Wood. Almost Criterion-like in its exhaustiveness, this presentation benefits greatly from Wood's laconic treatment of the two films, which obviously still inspire him beyond words during a few scenes. As long as viewers know what they're getting, this double feature really delivers the goods and makes one seriously wonder about the future of fringe DVD.

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