Film

The Director with Roots in Hell

Violet Glaze
A character gets an 'eye exam' in Dwain Esper's Maniac

Step right up folks, don't be shy. There's room for even the most sophisticated film fan when it comes to the exploitation excess of grindhouse pioneer Dwain Esper.

There are many contenders for the title of best motion picture director of all time – Welles? Kubrick? Scorsese? – but few will argue that there's anyone worse than Ed Wood. Ever since Michael and Harry Medved (co-authors of The 50 Worst Films Of All Time and The Golden Turkey Awards) identified Wood as the auteur behind stunningly inept disaster pieces like Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) and Glen Or Glenda (1953), his place in film history is firmly cemented as low on the totem pole as possible.

But what about Dwain Esper? While he's not the household name cult figure that Wood is, and selections from his body of work (a filmography that includes high-minded fare like Hell-A-Vision (1936), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937) and Marihuana: The Weed With Roots In Hell! (1936) are much harder to find, his style is just as clumsy and twice as twisted. Perhaps that's why Esper hasn't gained a snickering following to rival Wood's. The schlocky horror films from Mr. Plan 9's canon like Bride Of The Monster (1955), Night Of The Ghouls (1959), or even anti-erotic, car wreck-hypnotic pornos like Necromania (1971) have a klutzy charm and a gentle campiness that invites ironic giggles.

Esper's work, on the other hand, has a hard, merciless edge and a serial killer pathology about what's funny and what's not. His films are too sick and mean to be guiltless kitsch and too weird to enjoy just for the laughs. Let's put it this way – even ooky-kooky Tim Burton won't be making a biopic about sleazemeister Esper anytime soon.

Esper's pre-cinematic background, unsurprisingly, was in the tawdry underbelly of the early 20th century carnival circuit. But after receiving a film lab as part of a settlement, he had the same revelation that later would dawn on the owners of burlesque theaters as "nudie cutie" loops replaced girlie dancers in the '50s – talent could balk, show up late, or ask for more money, but a film runs uncomplainingly every time it's reeled up. With dollar signs dancing in their eyes, Esper and his wife Hildegarde immediately plunged feet first into the world of exploitation filmmaking.

Operating in a grey netherworld as divorced from the mainstream studio system as the underground film scene of the '60s would later be, exploitation films were pure sleaze masquerading as "education" for an imperiled great unwashed that had a right to know about the sex menace, or the drug menace, or the white slave trade, or whatever invisible horror lurked at the perimeter of their domestic tranquility. Films like Reefer Madness (1936) (which Esper produced) or the teen pregnancy morality tale Mom And Dad (1945) played in grindhouses or at fly-by-night tent screenings, operating just outside the all-grasping influence of the Hays Code. It was this governing body of Hollywood censorship that prohibited filmic depiction of narcotic abuse, scantily dressed women, and explicit mention of sex-related indelicacies like syphilis or childbirth that were the exploitation film's stock in trade. Esper, like other exploitation directors, didn't care whether audiences left his films more enlightened about polarizing issues of the day. They paid money for a geek show, and by Jove, that's what they were going to get.

The cinematic sideshow begins with Narcotic (1933), Esper's earliest still-extant feature length film (if 57 minutes counts as feature length). This loosely fictionalized recount of Hildegarde Esper's uncle's descent into drug addiction is a sterling example of the incomprehensible hallmarks of Esper's style: stentorious dialogue, soundtrack music that stops and starts in sudden jumps, abrupt cutaways to barely relevant stock footage (usually of some atrocity) and a narrative so spotty you're convinced several reels went missing on the way to the projection booth.

"This picture is presented in the hope that the public may become aware of the terrific struggle to rid the world of drug addiction", reads the not-fooling-anyone title card. Lightning flashes, Model Ts zip around, and a hand-written note is brought close to the camera to read the neatly penned words "You can take it out of the body, but you can't get it out of the mind . . ." Two men arm wrestle while a white actor in ludicrous Chinaman makeup puffs on a pipe and contributes some 'Confucius says' pontifications on the opium trade. A car (driven by one of the men leaving this strange party?) hits a fruit cart and knocks over the peddler's wife. White-gowned surgeons cluck their tongues sadly over the stricken woman: "She was just about to be confined." Then, in what must be the most whiplash-inducing acceleration from quaint euphemism to bloody realism in film history, comes surgical footage of a real Caesarian section and the extraction of a morbidly limp baby.

Still with me? We've got about 50 incomprehensible minutes to go, crowned by the "authentic" depiction of a real dope party attended by swankly dressed swells snorting coke and cooking 'H' over a candle flame (Esper, always the completist, doesn't spare us a close-up of a hypodermic needle entering the skin).

Narcotic may be inept, but Maniac (1934) is criminally perverse. A very loose adaptation of Poe's short story "The Black Cat", the film opens on Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter) and his assistant Maxwell (William Woods) in their laboratory. They've recently reanimated a pretty suicide stolen from the morgue, but that's not enough for Meirschultz. He wants to bring a man with a "shattered heart" back to life, and so hands Maxwell a gun and implores him to commit suicide. But Maxwell has a better idea and instead shoots the doctor dead. His burgeoning madness is heralded by an intertitle about the symptoms of "DEMENTIA PRAECOX" and the superimposition of grasping hands and swirling smoke over Maxwell's revelatory monologue about "the spark of life".

Maxwell, now disguised as the deceased doctor with the help of a makeup kit (standard equipment in every scientific laboratory), must treat his first patient; a madman who believes he's the killer orangutan in Poe's "Murders In The Rue Morgue". The patient doesn't take the treatment well, yowling "Darts of fire in my brain!" and frothing at the mouth. He seizes the reanimated girl and hauls her off to the woods, ripping off her clothes and straddling her unmistakably naked body while yanking her neck and shrieking animal growls. This too-real scene is the first sign the movie has veered away from camp and into depravity.

Before we can catch our breath, someone's knocking on the doctor's door, asking if he's taken in any runaway cats. He denies it: "I think too much of Satan to use cats for experiments." What?!? Apparently that's the name of the laboratory's feline mascot, but no one bothered to previously explain that fact. Poor Satan gets the worst of it a few minutes later when Maxwell grabs him and gouges out his eye in a graphic close-up. Before we can regain our bearings enough to realize the gray stunt cat had an empty socket stuffed with an ersatz eyeball, Maxwell gloats "Why? It's not unlike an oyster, or a crepe!" and gobbles down the extracted organ.

If Maniac hadn't already become no fun for sensitive viewers, the next scene takes place in the neighbor's backyard, where a chicken wire complex houses dozens of forlorn-looking Persians. "I figured out that rats breed faster than cats," he explains to a visitor. "And catskin makes good fur. Cats eat rats. And, rats eat raw meat. That is, they eat the carcasses of the cats. So, the cats eat the rats, the rats eat the cats, and I get the skins." he gloats. "Rats eating cats? Why, that is news!" blurts his visitor. (The notes on the Kino video release claim the cat fur farm was a real facility. Esper certainly didn’t have a budget that would have permitted the construction of an elaborate set for a throwaway scene, so draw your own conclusions.) Esper plays this scene for laughs, but the creeping dread it instills instead makes the viewer long for a scaldingly hot post-movie shower to scour the eccchh off the skin.

Esper continued directing and exhibiting films until the late '40s, even picking up films like Tod Browning's cult classic Freaks (1932) for reissue on the exploitation circuit after it bombed at the box office. While his drug hysteria films like Marihuana became popular stoner midnight movie fare in the '60s, little is known about his later years (he died in 1982 following complications after surgery). But opuses like Maniac and Narcotic are, with a little sleuthing, still easy to obtain, thanks to an ironic twist of copyright law: every film created by Dwain Esper, the guy who went into moviemaking just to make a buck, is now in the royalty-free public domain.

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