narcotic | dwain esper | vival sodar't | a.j. karnopp | hildegarde stadie | harry cording | joan dix | patricia farley | j. stuart blackton jr. | biography | drama | drug | united states | jean lacy | paul panzer | miami alvarez | charles bennett | josef swickard
Directors: Dwain Esper and Vival Sodar’t
Writers: A.J. Karnopp and Hildegarde Stadie
Starring: Harry Cording, Joan Dix and Patricia Farley
This is a movie that I found when looking for horror from 1933. The title intrigued me as I didn’t know if we would be getting like an early drug dealing movie or what. I came into this one blind aside from knowing the year and that it was in genre. I did notice Harry Cording starred, which I just saw him in another movie from the same year as well.
Synopsis: exploration film which follows the downward spiral of an idealistic medical student whose fall from grace leads him to opium dens, a carnival freakshow, swanky drug parties, dingy brothels and finally a realization of his decisions.
Now I’ll admit, I did clean up the synopsis a bit as it spoiled the ending. This is an early propaganda film to prevent drug addiction. It warns us with opening text that the medical student from the synopsis becomes a successful snake oil salesman. His name is Dr. William G. Davis (Cording). This is also supposedly based in fact. Upon watching it, I’m sure there are plot points here that mirror real people or things that did happen.
We see William when he is still a med student. He hangs out with a few guys and one is Gee Wu (J. Stuart Blackton Jr.). This is a racist take on someone from Asian and he introduces William to an opium den. What I find interesting here is that we get a look at American and western culture. Gee states that in Asia, they’re able to use opium recreationally and not become fully addicted. There are those that do, but for the most part they can use it as a release. In America, they get hooked and this is warning the viewer to stay away from these dens. Also that Americans push to the excess more easily.
It is from here that William becomes addicted. He doesn’t think he is and that he can stop whenever. There is a vibe here of ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ with William working in a free clinic. He doesn’t make a lot of money though. He is striving to buy a gold locket but can’t afford it. He gets the idea to use opium to create a tonic and watching a peddler makes him realize he needs to find the right way to market it. This isn’t far from the truth before regulations prevented putting things like this freely in items.
Without going through each of the points from the synopsis again, William is hurt in a car accident and that gets him hooked back on opium. The driver that crashes with him in the vehicle is also an addict. William lives an interesting life with a circus and scores dope with a guy there. He also hangs out with the likes of Lena (Jean Lacy), Mae (Patricia Farley) and her friends as they use different things as well. It also shows us the effects of living life this way.
That is where I’ll leave my recap and introduction to the story. Where I want to start is the tone here. This is absolutely a propaganda film a la Reefer Madness. What I’ll give credit here is that I’ve seen the effects heroin has on people so this is much closer. I didn’t bring up that there is a couple more texts screens that we get, one stating that the drug party we see is something that most don’t get to. We are able to due to people getting clean and relaying what they experienced. I bring this up as they’re using heroin, pills and smoking ‘marijuana cigarettes’. This goes heavy handed with its message. At least it is closer to form though.
With that set up, let me get into whether this is horror or not. It isn’t in the traditional sense. We don’t get murders or monsters or anything to this effect. What we do though is see is more the horrors of humanity and our decisions. The ‘horror’ is drug addiction here. What is interesting is that this movie portrays it as fun. That is until the ‘bill comes due’ and you must pay. What I’ll say is that it doesn’t end well for William. Do not come into this expecting horror as we know it today. This is a cautionary tale.
There isn’t more to go into the story for me so I’ll go to the acting. This isn’t good either. It is stiff. I’m not going to go through each person to see if they acted after or even before this. I do think that Cording is fine as our lead. We see him go through a lot of things and that works. Other than that, Joan Dix, Farley, Lacy and the rest of the cast are fine. It can be stiff and I don’t know if this does the best at conveying the effects of what they’re doing. The gravity is there, but it comes off comical to me. I did want to give credit to Blackton. It is racist to have him playing this character. I do like what they gave him to work with though. This is a western way of looking at things though as well.
All that is left then would be the filmmaking. I don’t think this is particularly strong either. The cinematography is fine. The different set pieces we see are good. It is an interesting path that William goes along. The message is too heavy handed though to the point were watching it today made me laugh. We don’t get a lot in the way of effects, but this feels more like a docu-drama than a movie so that is part of it. The soundtrack also didn’t stand out or hurt this either.
In conclusion, this isn’t a good movie. I think there is a good message this wants to convey, but it doesn’t translate as well for modern viewers. It might have been for the 1930s. The acting is stiff. Cording and Blackton being the two best performances despite my issue with the casting of the latter. The filmmaking is fine. It is lacking there. This also isn’t horror in the traditional sense either. It is more of a cautionary tale for sure. I can’t recommend this unless you want to laugh at what this tries to do.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 10