Saturday, April 17, 2010

Three “Educational” Movies: “Drug Abuse,” “Narcotics” and “The Stranger”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a 1969 production by Alan Kishbaugh (writer and director) called Drug Abuse: The Chemical Tomb; a 1967 film written by Edward Brennan and directed by Mel Marshall called Narcotics: Pit of Despair; and a 1957 production called The Stranger by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe S. Cozzolino that was so low-budget it was sponsored by the Highland House Restaurant of Santa Rosa, California and the print was made possible (that’s what it said in the credits!) by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Employees Association.

The Stranger was by far the most amateurish of the three — however talented Mr. Cozzolino may or may not have been as a cop, he was hopeless as a filmmaker, and there was an all-in-the-family nature about the credits: it was a drama about child molestation and the little girl victim was played by Rennie Knight, the molester (the “stranger” — like a lot of other warning films and news stories about molestation since, this film plays up the danger of the stranger in the bright pink car and carrying the cute doll with which to lure the kid into his trap, ignoring the fact that most molestations are carried out by people who already know their victims: family members, neighbors, family friends or teachers, youth counselors and volunteers, etc.) by Danny Knight; the boy who discovers Rennie’s body by Steve Knight; and Rennie’s mother by — big surprise — Tolie Cozzolino.

Mrs. Cozzolino looks more like Rennie’s grandmother than her mother (though a lot of big-name Hollywood films have cast ancient actresses as the mothers of young kids with a similarly slipshod attitude towards the generations) and is utterly unable to deliver a line with any conviction — even the Big Scene in which she’s obliged to react to the news of her movie daughter’s death is one in which she merely flops around on the couch as if she can’t get over the trauma of her soufflé just having fallen. It’s a trait she shares with her husband, who can’t even play himself with any degree of credibility — nor can the real-life fellow deputies, Ron McHenry and R. Anderson, who play the cops who pull the case of Rennie’s disappearance and later have to relay the information to her mom that she’s dead — only she’s not dead: Joe S. Cozzolino can’t resist a happy ending in which the whole story turns out to be, you guessed it, a dream the mother had when she and her daughter fell asleep together on the family couch. (I couldn’t help but joke that the daughter would wake up and say, “Oh, I had a dream too, but mine was much cooler: I got to be Judy Garland and I got to go to Oz”).

The two anti-drug films from the 1960’s were certainly more professional productions, and they weren’t without interest: Drug Abuse: The Chemical Tomb offered a surprisingly sympathetic vision of 1960’s youth culture and said that the rebelling students were actually making valuable points about our society and its resistance to change, and if anything they should avoid drugs precisely because drug abuse would get in the way of their ability to do anything positive to realize their noble ideals. (Quite a few 1960’s Leftists made this argument at the time, and the Progressive Labor Party came up with the idea that the U.S. government was distributing drugs to the counterculture in order to sicken the youth and make it impossible for them to wage revolutionary struggle — a bit of paranoia that has somehow survived in many manifestations since the end of the 1960’s.)

It was interesting to see a just-say-no film that at least aspired to be more than a just-say-no film — quite a contrast to the overripe melodramatics of Narcotics, Pit of Despair, which followed it on my disc and told the story of John Scott (Kevin Tighe, who later played paramedic Roy DeSoto on the TV series Emergency! — the idea of anybody in one of these exploitation movies actually going on to a respectable gig as an actor seems a little odd), who’s trying to stay on the track team and eke out enough time to study so he doesn’t flunk out of English and math in high school. He meets up with Pete (Gerald LeRoy), who used to be in his class at high school but has since dropped out and is making a decent living for himself as an out-of-town salesman — only, of course, he’s really a drug dealer — and from then on writer Brennan and director Marshall turn their anti-narcotics tale into a modern-dress version of Faust, playing up the Mephistophelean aspects of Pete’s character by having Gerald LeRoy wear an attractively trimmed full beard that seems inexplicable for someone still of high-school age but gives him the appearance of a sophisticated tempter rather than the seedy guy on the street corner dealers were usually depicted as in films like this.

The stentorian narrator, Patrick Miller, explains that Pete is himself a heroin addict who deals — and needs continually to recruit new customers — to support his own habit, but he doesn’t look like a heroin addict on screen (there’s another character who does, who’s there as a warning to the audience of the fate that awaits poor John Scott if he persists). Anyway, Pete takes John and drags him down the circles of addiction from beer and “bennies” to marijuana and, ultimately, heroin — the act of shooting up and the dirty needles, tie-cloths and cotton wads through which the drug is filtered are shown with surprising graphicness for a movie presumably aimed at audio-visual showings in high school (and at 30 minutes it’s a bit on the long side for the genre — the 18-minute length of Drug Abuse: The Chemical Tomb was more usual) — and the film climaxes with John Scott getting arrested after Pete’s girlfriend and fellow temptress Helen (Julie Conners) gets busted and turns in the whole gang — the cops pick them up in the middle of a drug party that, like the ones in Reefer Madness, seems staged to persuade the audience to eschew drug use on the ground that it’s really incredibly boring and no fun at all — and going to a government rehab facility, then — out and clean — wondering where Pete and his other old friends are, and as the audience’s spider senses are tingling, “Relapse! Relapse!,” the film flashes the title, “There is no end.” It’s a dumb, dippy movie by any normal standards but the Faustian construction of the plot gives it a rather haunting quality.