Saturday, April 26, 2008

16th May 2008: There Never Were Any "Good Old Days" triple!


USA 1934 b&w

aka Sex Maniac

Director Dwain Esper Writer Hildegarde Stadie

Cast Bill Woods (Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (Dr Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (Buckley), Phyllis Diller - no, not THE Phyllis Diller (Mrs Buckley)

Tonight we travel back to the Thirties to discover what truly characterized that decade: SEX! VIOLENCE! DISEASE! INSANITY! All of which proves, there never were any "good old days".

Tonight's two films are from Dwain Esper, a writer, director, producer and exploitation showman extraordinaire. He didn't just live on Poverty Row, he lived on its outer fringes, and still managed to survive for over twenty years as one of the most independent of all indies. His lurid filmography reads like a roll call of wrongness: How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband, The Strange Love Life Of Adolph Hitler, and Marijuana The Weed With Roots In Hell. For a while he was also owner of the 1932 film Freaks which he retitled Nature's Mistakes, and toured it with an actual freakshow in the lobby. Like any showman worth his salt, he took the most sensationalist of topics, turned them into a carnival, and charged an arm and a leg for something not even worth a finger. Now THAT's exploitation!

“Isn't the spark that moves the maggot the self-same spark that moves the man?” Thus poses Esper's best known film Maniac from 1934, an attempt at making a horror film disguised as a social statement whilst failing miserably at both, and yet making something completely new in the dialectic process. It's the tale of crazed Professor Meyerson, a woolly haired, panda-eyed scientist doing a risible Bela Lugosi impression, and his assistant, a second-rate vaudeville actor named Maxwell who does his best despite Meyerson's constant criticisms ("Vonce a ham, alvays a ham!"). Neighbours have been noticing the pair's ghoulish experiments in reviving dead cats and dogs (which they, in a brilliant example of proletarian understatement, describe as "queer"), and now the couple have taken to creeping around the morgue pumping corpses full of the Professor's special serum.

At the final phase of his research, the Professor insists Maxwell shoots himself so he can bring him back to life: "You will live! Hahahahaha! LIVE! HAHAHAHAHAHA!" Instead Maxwell shoots the Professor and takes his place, thus initiating his complete schizophrenic split. He steals his beard and glasses, and continues both the Professor's research and his day-to-day housecalls, with mixed results. Being a stage actor, of course, his performance impersonating the Professor was always going to be exaggerated so the blind people in the back row can see: teeth clenched while beating his chest, and bucking like a pantomime horse being ridden by a barbed wire jockey. Meanwhile the cat is constantly watching - we're never sure if it's been brought back from the dead in one of the Professor's experiments, but it looks like it's seen stuff and isn't happy about it...

And that's just the start of the Vintage two-reeler that's like watching Ed Wood Jr at work, but twenty years before; in a bizarre foreshadowing of Glen Or Glenda, we see flashes of hell and Satan holding a pitchfork superimposed on Maxwell's crazed features. The footage, of course, was stolen from a Swedish silent called Haxan; not content with just one criminal act, Esper also thieves a subplot from Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat, AND has the audacity to frame the film with quotes from textbooks on psychiatry. It's like the insane have taken over the asylum, put on a Grand Guignol stage play, and filmed the results. AND STILL if ever there was a film that was an insult to genuinely insane people, it's this one: Dwain Esper's delirious ode to paranoia, manic depression, and milking the American public for a quick buck, the 1934 Maniac.

Sex Madness

USA 1938 b&w

aka Human Wreckage: They Must Be Told

Director Dwain Esper Writers Joseph Seiden, Vincent Valentini

Cast Vivian McGill (Millicent Hamilton), Rose Tapley (Mrs Hamilton), Al Rigali (Mr Hamilton), “Stanley Barton”/Mark Daniels (Wendel Hope)

Welcome to the second of our Dwain Esper festival tonight, Esper's love-hate letter to the Wages of Sin: the 1938 Sex Madness.

'Show Raids Net 11 Girls,' the headlines scream to the horror of a stern moral reformer, who blames the current war on VD on the loose morals of impetuous youth and salacious entertainment. Little does he know his son Tom is just another young bucks cavorting after hours with dancers from one of the many burlesque house. That's right, kids, this is where your great-grandfathers used to get their "education" - theatres crammed to the rafters with Girlie Shows watched by perverts, covert lesbian thrill-seekers, and those on the slippery slope who should know better.

Backstage we're introduced to two of the dancing goils - both hoping for something better, and both riddled with disease. Yes, THAT social disease! Sheila is dating Tom, though still finds time to play hostess at the many post-show house parties, barely-concealed breeding grounds for physical and moral decay. Then there's Milly, a former teenage beauty queen who left her sweetheart to try her luck in the Big Apple. Hunger and an unscrupulous manager lead to an unfortunate incident with a casting couch. There's a wild party, champagne, promises of a rosy future, and then.... A kindly doctor takes her through a hospital's venereal disease ward and shows her, warts and all, what she has to look forward to. There's still hope, however, and an out-of-town doctor promises her a speedy cure so she can return home to marry her sweetheart. The payoff: new hubby's eyesight is beginning to fail and the baby's lips are blue. Hmmm.....

At first glance, Esper's handheld, grainy b&w footage and naive performances almost pass as a cinema verite document of the Thirties' seedy underbelly. But art it certainly ain't - it's vintage exploitation oozing out of every pore and sore, and in classic exploitation style, Sex Madness wallows in the very acts it condemns. Fabrication, Titillation, Demonstration, and in that order – it’s a formula that worked for Esper and every other huckster plumping up their lurid peekshows with moral fibre. To quote Errol Morris: it's fast, cheap and out of control, with the subtlety and sophistication of a concrete enema. If only the Good Old Days were this bad, as seen in 1938's Sex Madness.

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