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Marihuana / Narcotic (Forbidden Fruit Vol. 4)
The fourth entry in Kino Lorber's Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age Of The Exploitation Picture, which is done in conjunction with Something Weird Video, is Dwaine Esper's 1936 film Marihuana, a fifty-eight-minute scare film meant to keep God-fearing Americans away from the Devil's root!
The subject of our story is a young woman named Burma Roberts (Harley Wood), or Blondie if you prefer. One night she and her boyfriend, Dick Collier (Hugh McArthur), attend a party at the beach. Things are fine at first but soon enough some local dope peddlers led by a guy named Tony Santello (Pat Carlyle) and Paul Ellis (Nicholas Romero), start passing around some doobies. Burma and a few of the other girls get stoned and a bunch of them go skinny dipping (leading to a surprisingly blunt sequence involving some unexpected full frontal nudity from members of the female cast!). This would all be harmless enough but one of the girls goes out too far into the surf and never returns, while Burma lies in sin with Dick and soon discovers that she's pregnant!
Without any real prospects, Dick decides to ask one of the drug peddlers for a job and soon enough, he's slinging weed for a living. This end quickly enough when poor Dick is killed in a drug deal gone bad. Burma winds up having to work for the same drug dealers to make ends meet and is soon pressured to give up her unborn child for adoption. Will Burma work her was up the ladder of weed and start selling cocaine and smack or will she be able to turn her life around and get things back on track?
Not quite as over the top as the better known Reefer Madness, Marihuana is nevertheless quite an amusing watch for many of the same reasons. Very much a product of its time, it opens with a ridiculously racist text screen or two noting how weed was once only a problem in Asia, where the populace is ‘uneducated' but has since spread to the United States where it's causing all sorts of problems and making people turn violent! That sets the stage for the goofiness to come as we get a few of the requisite scenes where we see people who look much older than the characters they're meant to portray smoking dope and giggling like fiends only to then fall all over one another and lose any sense of moral decency they may have once had.
At under an hour in length, Esper's picture is never dull even if some of the scenes of talk amongst family members and friends really do feel like they're there to pad the picture out bit. The script from Hildegarde Stadie, Esper's wife, isn't particularly deep but it's enough in that it establishes characters quickly enough. Not surprisingly, it wasn't uncommon for the undressing and subsequent scenes of female nudity to be completely cut out of the picture in certain territories when this originally played theatrically. Some of the dialogue alluding to sex and having a child out of wedlock was also cut from certain prints to appease censors in more conservative areas. The version of the movie included on this Blu-ray does appear to be the completely uncut version of the film (the commentary notes that this doesn't appear to be anything missing from the feature but given the age and history of the film and its issues with censorship it would seem to be impossible to say for sure).
Marijuana arrives on Blu-ray transferred from a collection of different film elements that look to be archival prints. There's print damage noticeable throughout, mostly vertical scratches, but if you can look past that this isn't in particularly bad shape for a low budget exploitation picture fast approaching its centennial. The black and white picture shows occasional contrast blooming but that is almost certainly a result of the original camera work. Black levels are decent and the grey scale here is fine. Detail levels are quite good given the age of the elements, and the transfer stays film-like from start to finish, showing no issues with noise reduction , edge enhancement or compression artifacts. Given that this was a patchwork job to a certain degree, requiring the use of different sources to create the most complete version out there, this is all certainly forgivable.
The English language 16-bit LPCM Mono track is on par, quality wise, with the video. There are no alternate language or subtitle options provided. There's a little bit of hiss here and there and range is quite understandably limited. There are definitely times where the dialogue is more than a little muffled and subtitles would have certainly helped. The levels are properly balanced throughout, and the problems with the audio are understandable given the age of the film.
Extras start with an audio commentary from Bret Wood, the co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age Of The Exploitation Film. He starts by talking about where the print came from and how other sources were used to make the complete version of the picture before then going to talk about the ‘square up' used in the picture. He offers up plenty of info about the Esper's and the Stadie's as well as their family history, little ‘Esper touches' that are featured throughout the picture, how a female actress got injured on set and Esper just left the footage in, the poster art used to promote the film, the use of roadhouses and of cars as areas of vice in this and other pictures cut from a similar cloth, information about the cast and crew featured in the picture, Roland Price's cinematography work, the controversy that obviously surrounded the nudity in the film (and how one of the cast members also appears in Esper's infamous How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband) and the censorship that occurred around the film. It's a very thorough and interesting track with a lot of great information in it.
A second commentary, an archival track from 2000, features the late Mike Vraney, founder of Something Weird Video, and the late David F. Friedman, exploitation move mogul extraordinaire. It's a reasonably scene specific discussion of the film delivered with a great sense of humor. These guys are having a blast watching this film together, with Friedman delivering an enjoyably hammy reading of the ‘square up' before talking about the censorship history with the picture, how the film was a groundbreaker in many ways, how Esper was ‘one of the great, great creatures of exploitation' (Friedman tells some great stories about him), the way that alcohol leads to weed which leads to harder drugs in the film, where the film really does push the envelope in terms of its depictions of sex and vice and lots more. It's a very fun listen.
A second feature, the fifty-seven-minute Narcoticfrom 1933, is also included, which Esper co-directed with Vival Sodar't. The opening scrawl tells us how the film is meant to bring awareness to the scourge of drug addiction plaguing America before we're introduced to Dr. William G. Davies (Harry Cording), a medical practitioner of dubious morality, the type who cares more about profits than patients. When we first meet him, he saves the life of a baby about to be born by successfully delivering via cesarean section after the mother is brought into the hospital he works at, dead from a very recent car crash (this is where you can say ‘cue the stock footage inserts' and thrill to actual clips of a cesarean section being performed).
Davies' life and career truly showed great promise when he got out of medical school, but unfortunately, one night, he decided to visit an opium den in his city's Chinatown where he quickly developed and addiction. As he becomes more interested in chasing the dragon, much to the dismay of his lovely wife (Joan Dix), than in doing right by those who need his help, his practice quickly falls into disarray and he turns into a bit of a snake oil salesman, selling opium to potential patients as a cure for what aisles them. His wife eventually talks him into checking into a rehab clinic, but it doesn't work out the way she had hoped and soon the doctor's decline begins to drag him downhill faster and faster…
This one works on the same level as Marihuana did. It's goofy by modern standards but reasonably strong stuff by the moral gauges of the era in which it was released. It deals quite bluntly in drug use, prostitution and moral decay and, again like the feature, is less than charitable in its depiction of Asians. While Marihuana didn't actually feature any Asian characters, this one does, played by an actor who is clearly of Caucasian descent made up to look Chinese and putting on a very cringey accent. Again, it's a product of its time, and should be approached as such. As a drug scare film it's pretty over the top and quite melodramatic. Davies' descent is quick and, yes, quite ridiculous but the movie entertains. Again, Esper paces the picture well and it's got enough sensationalism and taboo-busting footage to please those looking for cheap thrills and conflicting morality.
The black and white film is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and famed at 1.33.1, taken from elements in less than pristine condition but completely watchable if you don't mind the print damage (in fact it looks quite a bit better than the feature attraction). The English language 16-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track has some hiss and occasional distortion but otherwise is serviceable enough. There are no subtitles provided.
Bret Wood also provides an audio commentary over Narcotic. He starts by noting that this version restores several minutes of previously lost/censored version and for that reason, he's re-recorded a track for this release (having previously recorded one for the film in 1999). He talks about the use of Esper's handwriting in the opening scene, the beginning ‘square up' used in the picture, the weird use of inserts to demonstrate a man's physique, Esper's ‘disregard for the laws of' storytelling tactics in film, the depiction of the Asian characters in the film and the actors that played them, the medical footage inserts shown in the picture, ad campaigns that were used to resell exploitation films over and over again, details of the personal lives of Esper and his wife, the use of ‘tiger fat' in the film and the history behind all of that, where footage has been restored in this version of the movie (some of which has never appeared on video prior to this release) and lots more. Again, it's a very interesting and informative talk about the history of the film that's well worth listening to.
Kino has also included a trailer, the opening titles and two fragments (one of which is silent) from The Seventh Commandment, a lost picture that appears to be a scare film about the perils of alcohol, adultery and a quack doctor! Esper co-directed this picture in 1932 with James P. Hogan. It's interesting stuff and a shame that this doesn't appear to exist in a complete version anywhere.
The disc also includes censored and uncensored trailers for the feature as well as a trailer for Narcotic and bonus trailers for Reefer Madness and Test Tube Babies. Menus and chapter selection are also provided.
Kino's Blu-ray release of Marihuana and Narcotic is fantastic! The presentations are what they are, don't go into this expecting pristine video quality because you're not going to get it, but compared to past DVD editions they both get substantial upgrades. The movies themselves are fascinating artifacts of a bygone era, both entertaining and amusing if often times for all the wrong reasons. It is, however, the extra here that really impress. The trailers and clips from the lost film are great while each of the three commentary tracks is seriously interesting stuff. Highly recommended to fans of classic exploitation pictures or anyone with an interest in the more obscure side of American film history.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.