In the '30s and '40s, the debate over sex and violence in entertainment was at least as muddled and confused as it is now, and after the institution of the strict Hays Code, the amount of flesh, blood, and morally questionable behavior permissible in Hollywood films became extremely limited. Where, then, could audiences hungry for unsavory action turn? To fill the void, up stepped a group of maverick, independent filmmakers who could, by ostensibly creating cautionary tales in the interest of public service, get away with just about anything they wanted. Touring the country playing small-town movie houses, exploitation filmmakers and exhibitors (who were often one and the same) spread the good word about the perils of sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, teenage prostitution, and other plagues while turning a sizable profit in the process. Consequently, audiences could have it all, feeling enlightened and morally outraged while watching all the sex, violence, and corruption they wanted. Sometimes, filmmakers barely tried to hide the trick at all, as is the case with the husband-and-wife team of Dwain and Hildagarde Esper's Maniac, one of three classic exploitation films just released in restored form on video. Only the periodic interruption of intertitles addressing the dangers of mental illness distinguishes the 1934 film from the disgusting, occasionally hilarious thriller it clearly is at heart. Bill Woods stars as an actor and master of disguise who is inexplicably in the employ of a mad scientist. Together, they reanimate a corpse before Woods kills his employer, assumes his identity, drives a patient mad, and then goes kookity-koo himself, at one point devouring a cat's eyeball and commenting, "Why, it's not unlike an oyster… or a grape!" No doubt the Espers educated millions previously unaware of mental illness in the process. Drugs provided another popular topic for exploitation filmmakers, including the Espers, who promised in the opening scrawl to their 1933 film Narcotic that "the weird and revolting behavior of addicts while under the sinister influence of drugs is authentically presented throughout this picture." Assuming that to be true, most people become hooked on drugs, specifically opium, by swarthy Asian men. This in turn causes them to throw high-class, formal-dress drug parties at which speed, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana are lain out neatly on cocktail trays, and at which well-dressed young women squeal in delight, "It takes a needle for me to get a bang!" Aside from that highly amusing scene, however, Narcotic is bogged down by long stretches of dull inaction as it traces one successful salesman's descent into opium hell. Reefer Madness is similarly plagued by boring patches, but all in all, the Espers' 1936 film deserves its reputation as one of the most entertainingly bad movies ever made. Opening with an explanation of the effects of the demon drug "marihuana," Reefer Madness then explains that its subject is worse than heroin, cocaine, or any other recreational substance before launching into its story of the corruption of innocent, if suspiciously old-looking, high-schoolers. According to the film, several puffs on a marijuana cigarette—distributed by suit-and-tie-clad men working out of barren offices—teenagers feel the uncontrollable urge to bug out their eyes, laugh maniacally, dance wildly, cheat on their girlfriends, listen to hot jazz, drive at breakneck speeds, and possibly commit murder. For all their plentiful camp value, however, Maniac, Narcotic, and Reefer Madness are fascinating and revealing for other reasons: Not only do they shed light on the various paranoias that troubled the '30s, but they also provide timeless examples of the fact that wherever controversy flares up, people will always be there to profit from it. Whenever material is repressed, it inevitably returns, though usually in less brazenly entertaining forms than you'll find here.
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