Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all the slickly-produced big budget crap, and watch some non-produced no-budget crap. You know, the kind of movie that treats a single in focus shot like the rarest of unicorns, whose dialogue is swallowed by a crackle so loud you’d swear Paul Bunyan were about to shame-eat a colossal bag of Cheetos, whose plot is somehow less interesting than that Idiocracy movie about the farting ass. It’s time for 1938’s Sex Madness.
Tagline: Protect your daughters!
More Accurate Tagline: Keep that dick holstered, cowboy. There are laws in this town.
Guilty Party: The ass-goblin responsible is Will H. Hays, author of the Hays Code and the chief censor of Hollywood from 1922-1945. Not content with just being a humorless, brain-dead scold, Hays decided that he should bring his particular brand of empty moralizing to the world at large. After the Hays Code became the rule in 1930, the only way to show fun stuff was to make a movie about how terrible it was. So, we now know that premarital sex leads directly to syphilis.
Synopsis: Sex Madness really only has a plot in the most abstract of senses. I’m not even entirely convinced it was a movie. Some ghost hunter probably just left a camera on in some abandoned hospital and got the visual equivalent of EVP.
An old couple is really mad about sex. They’re sitting around, reading papers, and approving of what Paul Lorenz, local pervert, is doing about it. This might confuse the one other person who has seen this movie, as Paul Lorenz is the heroic man fighting against premarital sex. Well, he’s a pervert. Sorry. What else would you call it when someone is so upset about other people having sex that they spend all their time trying to stop it? That sounds like a pretty freaky sex game to me.
Then the movie jumps over to an office where a pair of women try to work up the courage to ask each other out. Seriously, that’s the horrifying thing here. They eventually decide to go check out a burlesque show. Man, it was complicated being gay back when everyone was a complete idiot.
The burlesque show turns out to be pretty tame, but it’s like that weird experimental gay-bomb from 30 Rock to the audience. There’s a loner whose twitchy face gets some generous close-ups, the two office workers who decide to go home together (and that’s the last we see of them, so I’m going to assume they lived happily ever after), and a bunch of 1930s-era bros led by Tom Lorenz, whose dad is trying to stamp out this filth. Or maybe he just wants it to make the tiniest lick of sense.
In the locker room, one of the dancers, Sheila, tries to get another one, Millicent, to come to an after party with Tom Lorenz and what I’m assuming are his frat brothers. Millicent demurs. Sheila heads off with some girls, hooks up with Tom, and that’s the last we see of her until the final minutes.
Remember the creepy guy? Well he leaves the burlesque, and so turned on by seeing moderately attractive women in shorts, stalks a woman. Smash cut to the newspaper from the next day: Sex Criminal Jailed After Baby Murder. That… that was quick.
Millicent suddenly remembers her boyfriend back home after he sends a letter. I’m pretty sure if she heads back now, she’s going to find he’s been murdered by Sand People. Anyway, she goes to the doctor to tell him her origin story. She won a beauty contest which included a trip to New York. Then, desperate for work, she took up burlesque dancing, or whatever the hell that was in the previous scene. A man pursued her, got her drunk, and took advantage. She, of course, instantly came down with a bad case of the syphilis.
With this raging social disease, she can’t marry her beau Wendel. She embarks on the cure, which seems like it takes forever. Right around here, there’s another newspaper montage that plants the idea of quack doctors, so you know what’s happening. Millicent heads home and reunites with Wendel. She’s still taking the cure, and thus can’t marry him. She’s lying the whole time, presumably because Wendel would freak out and leave her, which is just terrible. “No, honey, those aren’t open sores… they’re pepperoni! I’m a pizza lady!” Sadly, that never happens.
Anyway, eventually they do get married and have a kid. Right around this time, the newspapers report that Dr. John Grenoble was arrested for distributing quack cures, and this is how I learned the name of her doctor. Wendel comes down with syphilis, but has no clue what it is. Seems like the baby has it too, but then it just vanishes from the narrative. So I’m going to assume it was carried off by Jareth the Goblin King to be with all the other syphilitic babies throughout history. That is what happens, right?
Tom Lorenz abruptly returns to the narrative, coming out to his dad about having syphilis. Paul’s cool with it, and they get back on their anti-sex crusade.
But Wendel is dying! Millicent decides to speed this up by giving them both poison, but then they get a call from Sheila. She’s fine now and for some reason this makes Millicent cut out all the nonsense.
Life-Changing Subtext: One trip to a burlesque club and the best case scenario is syphilis.
Defining Quote: The film features a title card that desperately needs a John Williams score. Here’s the opening lines: “Down through the ages has rushed a menace more dangerous than the worst criminal. Syphilis. Let us seize this monster and stamp out forever its horrible influence.”
This monster has us! I call him Syphilitor and his fiery breath will no longer cover us in sores and lead us to eventual insanity! Even now, he’s climbing the Empire State Building with virtue clutched in his sweaty paw!
Standout Performance: Charles Olcott as Paul Lorenz is incredible. This guy takes so many bizarre pauses he makes Christopher Walken sound like an auctioneer.
What’s Wrong: Pretty much everything, but special attention should go the lighting. Periodically, everything goes completely white. It’s like alien abductions were constantly happening on set, but the crew was on a deadline so no one acknowledged it.
Flash of Competence: The costumes looked like they might be clothes. That’s the best I can do.
Best Scenes: I don’t even know what’s happening in the burlesque show. You know how when characters on TV hit the strip club, all the strippers are somehow wearing more clothes than the customers? Well, one of those places makes this place look like a convent. Women dance around, and for some reason they appear to be carrying colons. Not the section of intestine, the punctuation mark. And surrounding them are these women standing motionless in capes. It’s like the Justice League heard about someone abusing colons, totally misinterpreted the alert, and came down to stand, utterly baffled, by what was unfolding.
When the doctor is telling Millicent all about Syphilis, probably to scare her for no good reason, he gives her this bon mot: “The insidious effects of syphilis on once dainty fingers… the hand that rocks the cradle is now pleading for humanity’s help!” I’m going to assume that’s help killing Annabella Sciorra.
Transcendent Moment: Paul Lorenz states his entire goal, and for a moment, a brief, shining moment (or alien abduction) he seems relatively sane. He wants to educate people about sex and de-mystify it. Wow! That does sound good!
…so they will be properly terrified of social diseases and make premarital sex a thing of the past. Wait… this fucking guy is a supervillain!
Sex Madness is exactly what the title describes, only in the exact opposite way the title intends.