If exploitation cinema can be traced to a single wellspring from which all its filth and fury flows, an argument can be made that said wellspring is Dwain Esper. Writer, producer, director, and all-around impresario, Esper may not have made the first exploitation film. The silent era was rife with exploitation and sleaze, usually masquerading under a flimsy veneer of “cautionary tale,” like 1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. I’d be willing to go to the mat, however, in defense of Esper’s position as the godfather of the exploitation industry as we know it today. His impact goes far beyond being a director. Working with fellow exploitation godfather Louis Sonney (father of exploitation legend Dan Sonney), Esper helped establish a network of theaters and the concept of regional circuits that served as the foundation for the exploitation film. From burlesque to motion picture to roadshow, Esper had a hand in all of it, and for that, his name should be forever enshrined as one of the true pioneers in the history of the motion picture (it’s not). But even if he’d never done any of that, even if all he’d ever done is direct Maniac—known also by the slightly less sensation title of Sex Maniac—he would still deserve to go on the Mount Rushmore of strange films. Incidentally, the Mount Rushmore of strange films is located in an abandoned central Florida amusement park, and it’s made of fiberglass.
Esper, who dubbed himself “the king of the celluloid gypsies,” started his professional career as a carnival barker in the typical “getting out of town one step ahead of the law and an angry mob of fleeced locals” style of carnival that was much beloved at the time. When Esper received ownership of a film lab as part of a legal settlement for some suit or other, he decided that screening movies was a substantially easier way to make a buck than staging live shows. He and his wife, Hildegarde, went into the motion picture business, operating far outside the established industry. Their first feature film (back when a feature film could clock it at just barely an hour) was a cautionary tale of drug addiction called Narcotic (1933). In classic exploitation style, Esper and Hildegarde tack on a last-frame “and then everyone was miserable and died” moral to excuse the previous fifty-five minutes of tawdry sleaze and indulgence.
Narcotic is packed with pretty much everything that would send the Hayes Code censors and Legion of Decency into fits of apoplectic indignation. Rampant drug abuse, swinger parties, drunkenness, violence, and immorality of every fashion is paraded across the screen to shock and delight and outrage the viewing public. Espere and his wife would travel town to town, exhibiting Narcotic and other dubious films in pop-up theaters and tents before having to hotfoot it to the next town with charges of obscenity and indecency chasing after them. Narcotic even boasts the screen debut of Elmer the Mummy, a real mummy from a carnival side-show whose odyssey in exploitation film spans from the 1930s clear up to the 1970s, with everyone from Esper to David Friedman to Dan Sonney owning him at one time or another.
Whatever immorality was on display to Depression-era Americans in Narcotic paled in comparison to Esper’s next celluloid monstrosity. Maniac (1934) is even by today’s standards shockingly perverse, grotesque, and mean-spirited. It was Esper’s response to the Universal horror films, specifically 1931’s Frankenstein, which Esper felt he could have done much better. Or if not much better, then let’s say he could at least do and make some money off. Keep this in mind on the off chance you’ve seen both Frankenstein and Maniac and noticed a slight quality gap between the two. Loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, and punctuated by “educational” title cards that explain some psychological affliction or another before reveling in depictions of said affliction, Maniac tells the story of batshit insane scientist Dr. Meirschultz (Horace B. Carpenter, whose list of uncredited appearances in films is truly staggering in its length) with a lab in the basement of his otherwise normal-looking suburban home. With the help of ex-Vaudeville performer and wanted criminal turned lab assistant Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), Meirschultz is able to spirit corpses away from the local morgue to use in his quest to resurrect the dead. Meirschultz is set up for all sorts of movie science, though being a mad scientist, he spends most of his time staring at the camera, making crazy eyes, and clutching at the air as he screams out near unintelligible rants about fools and showing them all.
Surprisingly, Meirschultz’s experiment sort of works. He revives the corpse of a beautiful young woman, albeit as a vacant-eyed somnambulist who, in one of the film’s many many non sequitur moments, gets naked (in case you thought on-screen nudity wasn’t invented until the 1960s), wanders around the woods, and is raped by an animalistic man suffering from mental instability that is described to us in a placard (he “believes he orangutang murderer in Poe’s murderer in the rue morgue”). Maniac is nothing if not an educational and totally accurate exploration of mental illness. Anyway, nude woman thus revived and apparently dispatched, the good doctor decides to dig into his next experiment: heart transplants, which frankly seems a bit of a step down from reviving the dead, but who am I to argue with a man with such raw cotton plant looking hair?
Meirschultz isn’t satisfied with the quality of corpse he can get from the morgue, and so he hands Maxwell a gun and, amid sundry other rants and raves, demands that his assistant commit suicide so Meirschultz can cram the new heart into Maxwell. It turns out that Maxwell isn’t totally down with this idea, and Meirschultz doesn’t recognize the inherent danger of handing a loaded gun to a known felon and con man, demanding the shady character kill himself, then berating him as a moron and scumbag. Shockingly, Maxwell turns the gun on the doctor and does away with him, then decides more or less for shits and giggles to use his skill as a vaudeville actor and master of disguises to masquerade as Meirschultz. So begins Maxwell’s rapid descent into total insanity, a descent that includes suspicious cops, prying ex-wives, sleazy dames, and a particularly weird neighbor with an interesting take on the circle of life as pertains to acquiring dried cat skins.
Esper’s films lack the good-natured, gee-whiz goofiness of films from a director like Ed Wood, Jr. With Wood’s films, whatever incompetence is on display is compensated for by the boundless enthusiasm that infuses them, and by the fact that so much of what is wrong with them translates into joyous entertainment. By contrast, Esper’s films are every bit as technically incompetent, but they are infused with such meanness, such a twisted sense of misanthropy, that they become difficult to celebrate even if we acknowledge the importance of Esper in the history of exploitation film. This hard-edge grotesquery is likely the product of a hard life on the road during one of the US’ most hopeless and defeated eras. Wood’s films are a gleeful celebration while Esper’s are a corpse rotting on a bleak Dust Bowl landscape. They are shrouded in such genuine nastiness that Esper seems less the forerunner of a guy like Ed Wood and more like the cesspool from which would climb an angry director like Andy Milligan.
Maniac has plenty of moments that will make one shout out and howl, from surprising nudity to vicious girl-on-girl fisticuffs, but none elicits so thunderous a response as the bit where Maxwell-as-Meirschultz, by now possessed of pathological hatred of cats, grabs a mangy feline, rips out its eyeball, and while cackling hysterically the whole time, pops it in his mouth. I don’t consider myself unseasoned in the ways of shock cinema, but even I leaped from my chair and exclaimed incredulously at what I’d just seen. Don’t worry—it’s not real animal mutilation (from what I gather, they had a one-eye cat and actor Bill Woods just palmed an olive or a grape or something), but it’s just so god-damned weird the way it’s handled, and so perversely hilarious and sick that it can get a jolt out of even the most jaded viewer. The icing on the cake, mind you, is when Maxwell then goes on at length about how tasty it is—”not unlike an oyster or a crepe.”
It’s pointless to talk about any technical merits this film may possess, because it possesses none. However, I do like the silent film style imposition of dancing, tempting devils onto the frame. The picture is fuzzy, partly because it’s an old film poorly preserved, but mostly because focusing a camera was not one of Dwain Esper’s strong points. The sound recording is so muffled that much of the dialogue would be impossible to decipher even if it wasn’t being mumbled. Most of the dialogue is just people yelling out loud to no one, like they were in a comic book or something and needed to explain every single thought or action. The educational inserts, meant presumably to deflect some of the firepower of people incensed by all the seediness, rarely have anything to do with what is happening on screen. Every character is off-putting, despicable, or insane. Usually, they are all three (there’s a whole other horror movie to be made about that “cats eat the rats, rats eat the cats, I get the skins” neighbor—you can’t convince me he’s any less insane than Meirschultz). There are plenty of movies about madmen, but this one looks like it was actually made by a madman.
Dwain Esper directed a few more movies, mostly “cautionary tales” about wayward sexpots and dope fends, but for the most part, he settled nicely into the role of producer and exhibitor, buying up other movies and running them and, in some cases, splicing additional doses of sex and drug use into existing films so he could release them as new movies. He bought the rights to Tod Browning’s Freaks and roadshowed it around the country. Even more famously, he acquired the rights to director Louis J. Gasnier’s loony alarmist movie Tell Your Children and showed it wherever he could under a new title: Reefer Madness.
As bad a filmmaker as Esper may have been, he seems to have been an even worse businessman, failing to retain the copyright on most of the films he made or acquired. By the end of the 1940s, he had disappeared from the industry almost entirely, with only guys like Dan Sonney around to trumpet what a fantastically bizarre and oddly important legacy Esper had left behind. While Reefer Madness enjoyed a massive surge in popularity when it was rediscovered in the 1960s, similar recognition did not occur for Esper himself. In fact, since he hadn’t retained the rights to the film, by the 1960s Reefer Madness was public domain. Esper passed away in 1982 in almost total obscurity.
However, as entertainment entered the DVD era and film historians began digging into the really dark, forgotten crevasses of cinematic history for documentary material, the rock under which Esper’s legacy had crawled was overturned. Documentaries such as American Grindhouse finally gave the man his dubious due as where, more or less, “it” all started. Maniac is, for me, the final testament to his “skill” and vision as a filmmaker. You would assume films this graphic and tasteless weren’t made for another thirty or forty years. If you colorized Maniac and told people it was a sleazy horror film from the 1970s, few people would be the wiser, so ahead of its time is it in terms of unabashed foulness and depravity. It is utterly cracked, astonishingly tasteless, profoundly incompetent, and undeniably essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a fan of exploitation cinema.