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Memphis Flyer The Wages of Sin

Early exploitation films and the Branch Davidians hit video stores.

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Film

Reefer Madness directed by Louis Gasnier
Maniac directed by Dwain Esper
Narcotic directed by Dwain Esper (Kino)

In the 1930s, Hollywood owned most of the movie theatres in America, giving the mainstream industry a virtual lock on film distribution. And the films it distributed were governed by the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of guidelines enacted in 1934 that dictated what could and could not be depicted on screen. This twin monopoly of distribution and regulation, however, gave rise to a shadow industry that operated outside both the mainstream industry and its prudish guidelines.

The exploitation film was born.

In a series produced by Bret Wood and Felicia Feaster, authors of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, Kino on Video has recently released three samplings from this cinematic sub-genre: the drug-scare classic Reefer Madness and two movies by exploitation weirdo Dwain Esper, Narcotic and Maniac. True to the exploitation badge, all three explore apparently somber topics in order to bring sensational scenes of abject prurience to the big screen in the name of education.

Reefer Madness is arguably the most famous exploitation film ever made. Its portrayal of marijuana as the gateway to hysterical giggling, homicide, and wild-ass piano-playing provides evergreen camp value. It's also fairly straight-laced, however, and the young-man-gone-wrong at the center of the picture actually receives a second chance.

Far more relentless, not to mention bizarre, are the two Esper offerings, which wear their didacticism loosely, to say the least. Narcotic tracks a doctor's descent into opium addiction, madness, and eventually suicide. Along the way, there is a caesarian section, footage of one snake devouring another, a freak show, and a dope party (a phenomenon rarely seen except by professional investigators, an on-screen editor's note warns us).

Maniac, meanwhile, all but abandons any pretense of social comment. The textual segues describing various mental disturbances seem like they were added as an afterthought and have no real bearing on the film's action, except that its central character, a deranged vaudeville actor posing as a mad scientist, is indeed a maniac. Maniac may in fact be the closest American cinema has ever come to true surrealism -- more than 40 years before David Lynch's Eraserhead. Using Hollywood's Production Code (which ended in the mid-Sixties) as a guide to the culture's collective subconscious, the film is a rhapsody of unsettling images: injections, cat fights (literal and euphemistic), acts of animal cruelty, and howling lunatics.

Of course, even the most macabre scenes from Maniac seem somewhat quaint today. Quainter still are the lengths these three films go to lend a sense of serious purpose to their sensationalism. Or at least it seems quaint until you tune in to the evening news. -- Jim Hanas


Waco: The Rules of Engagement

directed by William Gazecki (New Yorker)

It's a commonly held truth on the American Left (or what remains of it) that the mainstream media too often act as merely a conduit for corporate and government accounts of the world. This can take the form of essentially rewriting government or corporate press releases and passing it off as journalism or, perhaps more insidiously, lazily allowing establishment powers to set the parameters of a story.

This last seems to have been the case with the government's 1993 siege of Mount Carmel Center, a Waco, Texas, compound run by a religious group called the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh. The semi-legendary, if comparatively little-seen, documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, now available on video from New Yorker, acts as a corrective to official accounts. It's a sober-minded film that inspires great anger and cynicism, but it does the work that the media should have done at the time.

In February 1993 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms attempted a raid on the compound, citing three justifications: the stockpiling of illegal weapons (dubious), child abuse at the compound (unproven and outside ATF jurisdiction anyway), and drug involvement (completely unfounded). The ATF raid was met with armed resistance, with casualties on each side, and soon the FBI was brought in for what amounted to a 51-day siege of the compound that resulted in the immolation of Mount Carmel Center and the death of approximately 80 Davidians, 24 of which were children. The FBI denied firing any shots at the compound and also denied introducing any pyrotechnic devices into the center that may have caused the fire. According to official accounts, the Branch Davidians set fire to themselves, conducting a mass suicide on par with Jonestown.

Now that Waco is back in the news, with the FBI finally admitting to introducing flammable munitions into the compound, but still denying any role in starting the fire or that agents shot at the Davidians, this documentary should take on new prominence. All of those charges are all but proven by the evidence marshalled in this film. The mainstream media treats evidence that government helicopters may have fired on the compound as a new revelation, but Waco: The Rules of Engagement includes a phone conversation between Koresh and an FBI negotiator in which that is plainly admitted. The film also shows extremely graphic photos of corpses found at the compound after the siege, including a revolting look at what effect government-introduced cyanide gas had on an 8-year-old girl.

The disaster at Waco is revealed as a rebuke to the American ethos of "law and order" and its concomitant militarism, the duplicity of government bureaucracy and the complacency of the American people and press. At one point during the siege, members of the Branch Davidians unfurl a sheet banner from an upstairs window: "Rodney King -- We Understand."

-- Chris Herrington


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