The Films of 2020: Shooting Heroin (dir by Spencer T. Folmar)

Shooting Heroin takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, a once close-knit community that is dying a painful death.

As the film opens, we meet several people who have lost loved ones to the Opioid Epidemic.  Hazel (Sherilyn Fenn) speaks at a school assembly about how both of her sons overdosed within hours of each other and the only response she gets is a few students snickering at her.  Adam (Alan Powell) loses his sister to heroin and has to take her baby into his home.  Sitting in a bar, prison guard and local hunter Edward (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) demands to know why the police aren’t doing more to lock up the dealers.  The town’s sole lawman, Jerry (Garry Pastore), can only explain that he is only one person and that he can only arrest someone if he has proof that they’re actually dealing drugs.  Suspicions and gossip aren’t enough.

After a night of heavy drinking and heavier emotions, Adam comes up with the idea of a voluntary drug taskforce.  He recruits Edward and Hazel and, after Jerry reluctantly deputizes them, the three of them set out to battle the drug dealers their own way.  (“By any means necessary,” as Edward puts it.)  Of course, all three of them have their own thoughts on how to best deal with the issue.  Hazel puts up crudely painted but well-intentioned signs, asking teenagers if they truly want to break their mother’s heart.  Edward stops every car that’s heading into town and does a search.  (Yes, it’s highly unconstitutional.)  As for Adam, he wants revenge against the man who he believes was his sister’s dealer.  And if that means setting a house on fire and picking up a rifle to go hunting, that’s what Adam’s going to do.

Now, from that plot description, you might think that Shooting Heroin is a run-of-the-mill revenge flick but it’s not.  It definitely has its pulpy elements but, for the most part, Shooting Heroin is an intelligently written and well-directed look at how the Opioid Epidemic is ravaging communities across America.  The film approaches the subject with the type of empathy that, far too often, is missing from films like this.  There are no easy villains, the film tells us, and there are also no perfect heroes.  Adam, Edward, and Hazel all have their own approaches, each with their own set of strengths and flaws but the ultimate message of the film is that nothing is going to get better until we stop attacking and demonizing one another.  That’s an important message and one that, unfortunately, doesn’t get broadcast as much as it should.  Far too often, the war on drugs is a war on those members of the community who are at their most vulnerable.

The film is full of familiar faces, with Sherilyn Fenn giving the strongest and most poignant performance as Hazel.  There’s something very touching about the combination of Hazel’s determination to get through to teenagers and her total cluelessness about the best way to actually do so.  For all of her grief and anger, Hazel remains innocent enough to believe that telling a drug addict that they’re breaking their mother’s heart is the ultimate solution to the crisis.  When she joins the task force, she hands out adrenaline shots so that addicts can be revived.  When she confronts of a pharmacy worker who has filled an obviously faked prescription, Hazel speaks with the anger of someone who has seen the damage done to her community.  When she’s handed a gun, she says that she’s not going to carry anything that can kill.  Hazel, like so many people, is just trying to do her best in a unwinnable situation and it’s sometimes both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch her.

Shooting Heroin brings empathy to its look at the Opioid Epidemic, which is something that has been lacking in far too many other examinations of the what’s currently happening in America.  What’s happening in middle America is, for many in the political and media establishment, an inconvenient truth.  During the Obama years, the Opioid Epidemic was ignored because acknowledging it would have meant acknowledging the failure of Obama’s economic policies.  During the Trump years, the victims of the Opioid Epidemic were dismissed by a media and a political class who insisted on viewing every issue through the prism of red state vs. blue state.  One can only guess how these ravaged communities will fare during the Biden years, though there’s little reason to be optimistic that a 78 year-old career politician is going to do anything differently from his predecessors.  Shooting Heroin is a film about what’s happening today and it’s a film that will leave you thinking about the future.

Bronson’s Revenge: Death Wish (1974, directed by Michael Winner)

To quote “Dirty” Harry Callahan, “I’m all broken up about his rights.”

In 1972, a novel by Brian Garfield was published.  The novel was about a meek New York City accountant named Paul Benjamin.  After Paul’s wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, Paul suffers a nervous breakdown.  A self-described bleeding heart liberal, Paul starts to stalk the streets at night while carrying a gun.  He is hunting muggers.  At first, he just kills the muggers who approach him but soon, he starts to deliberately set traps.  Sinking into insanity, Paul becomes just as dangerous as the men he is hunting.  Garfield later said that the book was inspired by two real-life incidents, one in which his wife’s purse was stolen and another in which his car was vandalized.  Garfield said that his initial response was one of primitive anger.  He wondered what would happen if a man had these rageful thoughts and could not escape them.

The title of that novel was Death Wish.  Though it was never a best seller, it received respectful reviews and Garfield subsequently sold the film rights.  At first, Sidney Lumet was attached to direct and, keeping with Garfield’s portrayal of Paul Benjamin, Jack Lemmon was cast as the unlikely vigilante.

Lumet, ultimately, left the project so that he could concentrate on another film about crime in New York City, Serpico.  When Lumet left, Jack Lemmon also dropped out of the film.  Lumet was replaced by Michael Winner, a director who may not have been as thoughtful as Lumet but who had a solid box office record and a reputation for making tough and gritty action films.

Winner immediately realized that audiences would not be interested in seeing an anti-vigilante film.  Instead of casting an actor with an intellectual image, like Jack Lemmon, Winner instead offered the lead role (now named Paul Kersey and no longer an accountant but an architect) to Charles Bronson.  When Winner told Bronson that the script was about a man who shot muggers, Bronson replied, “I’d like to do that.”

“The script?” Winner asked.

“No, shoot muggers.”

At the time that he was cast, Charles Bronson was 52 years old.  He was the biggest star in the world, except for in America where he was still viewed as being a B-talent at best.  Bronson was known for playing tough, violent men who were not afraid to use violence to accomplish their goals.  (Ironically, in real life, Bronson was as much of an ardent liberal as Paul Kersey was meant to be at the beginning of the movie.)  Among those complaining that Charles Bronson was all wrong for Paul Kersey was Brian Garfield.  However, Bronson accepted the role and the huge box office success of Death Wish finally made him a star in America.

To an extent, Brian Garfield was right.  Charles Bronson was a better actor than he is often given credit for but, in the early scenes of Death Wish, he does seem miscast.  When Paul is first seen frolicking with his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii, Bronson seems stiff and awkward.  In New York City, when Paul tells his right-wing colleague (William Redfield) that “my heart does bleed for the less fortunate,” it doesn’t sound natural.  But once Paul finds out that his wife has been murdered and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), has been raped, Paul gets mad and Bronson finally seems comfortable in the role.

In both the book and the original screenplay, both the murder and the rape happened off-screen.  Never a subtle director, Winner instead opted to show them in a brutal and ugly scene designed to get the audience as eager to shoot muggers as Bronson was.  Today, the power of the scene is diluted by the presence of Jeff Goldblum, making his screen debut as a very unlikely street thug.  Everyone has to start somewhere and Goldblum got his start kicking Hope Lange while wearing a hat that made him look like he belonged in an Archie comic.

With his wife dead and his daughter traumatized, Paul discovers that no one can help him get justice.  The police have no leads.  His son-in-law (Steven Keats) is a weak and emotional mess.  (As an actor, some of Bronson’s best moments are when Paul makes no effort to hide how much he loathes his son-in-law.)  When a mugger approaches Paul shortly after his wife’s funeral, Paul shocks himself by punching the mugger in the face.

When Paul is sent down to Arizona on business, he meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a land developer who calls New York a “toilet” and who takes Paul to see a wild west show.  Later at a gun club, Paul explains that he was a conscientious objects during the Korean War but he knows how to shoot.  His father was a hunter and Paul grew up around guns.  When Paul returns to New York, Ames gives him a present, a revolver.  Paul is soon using that revolver to bring old west justice to the streets of New York City.

As muggers start to show up dead, the NYPD is outraged that a vigilante is stalking the street.  Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to bring the vigilante in.  But the citizens of New York love the vigilante.  Witnesses refuse to give an accurate description of Paul.  When Paul is wounded, a young patrolman (Christopher Guest, making almost as unlikely a film debut as Jeff Goldblum) conspires to keep Paul’s revolver from being turned over as evidence.

The critics hated Death Wish, with many of them calling it an “immoral” film.  Brian Garfield was so disgusted by how Winner changed his story that he wrote a follow-up novel in which Paul is confronted by an even more dangerous vigilante who claims to have been inspired by him.  Audiences, however, loved it.  Death Wish was one of the top films at the box office and it spawned a whole host of other vigilante films.

Death Wish is a crude movie, without any hint of subtlety and nuance.  It is also brutally effective, as anyone who has ever felt as if they were the victim of a crime can attest.  In a complicated and often unfair world, Kersey’s approach may not be realistic or ideal but it is emotionally cathartic.  Watching Death Wish, it is easy to see why critics hated it and why audiences loved it.

It is also to see why the movie made Bronson a star.  Miscast in the role or not, Bronson exudes a quiet authority and determination that suggests that if anyone could single-handedly clean-up New York City, it’s him.  An underrated actor, Bronson’s best moment comes after he punches his first mugger and he triumphantly reenters his apartment.  After he commits his first killing, Bronson gets another good scene where he is so keyed up that he collapses to the floor and then staggers into the bathroom and throws up.  Garfield may have complained that the Death Wish made his madman into a hero but Bronson’s best moments are the ones the suggest Paul has gone mad.  The real difference between the book and the movie is that the movie portrays madness as a necessary survival skill.

This Friday, a new version of Death Wish will be playing in theaters.  Directed by Eli Roth, this version starts Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Will the new Death Wish be as effective as the original?  Judging from the trailer, I doubt it.  Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson?  I’ll pick Bronson every time.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns in Death Wish II!

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: 31 (dir by Rob Zombie)


Are you scared of clowns?  Sure, you are.  All good people fear clowns.  However, if you somehow do not find clowns to be frightening, you may change your mind after seeing Rob Zombie’s latest film, 31.

Of course, that’s assuming that you actually see 31.  31 is not a film for everyone.  In fact, if you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie or his style of horror, you should probably stay miles away from 31.  Bloody, intense, violent, and occasionally rather nihilistic, 31 is perhaps the Rob Zombiest of all the films that Rob Zombie has ever made.

However, if you’re a fan of extreme horror, you’ll appreciate 31.  It may not always be easy to take but then again, that’s kind of the point.

The film takes place in the 70s, which means that it has a really kickass soundtrack.  A group of carnival workers are driving across the desert in a van when they are attacked and kidnapped.  They find themselves in a dark building, being lectured by three people who are dressed like 18th century French aristocrats.  The leader of the aristocrats (played by Malcolm McDowell) informs them that they are going to playing a game called 31.  For the next twelve hours, they will be locked away in a maze.  They will be hunted by five murderous clowns.

Yes, you read that right.  Not just one murderous clowns — FIVE!  (Even worse, a sixth bonus clown eventually joins the game.)

If they can survive for 12 hours, they win.  What do they win?  Other than freedom, the film is never particular clear on this point.  The motives of the aristocrats remain a mystery for the majority of the film.  Are they just sadists, are they perhaps devote fans of The Purge who were so disappointed with Election Year that they decided to recreate the second film on their own, or is there some bigger reason behind this game of 31?  The film leaves the question for us to answer.

The rest of the film is a collection of progressively more violent fights between the carnival workers and the clowns.  For the most part, the carnival workers are all likable and you don’t want to see any of them harmed.  The clowns, meanwhile, are just about the freakiest collection of killers that you’ve ever seen.  When one of them is cornered, he pathetically begs, “We’re all pawns!  We don’t want to do this!” but you never quite believe him.  The deadliest of the clowns is Doom-Head (Richard Brake) and his evil smirk will give you nightmares.

31 is an incredibly intense film and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  Everything from the acting to the set design to the costumes to David Daniel’s stark cinematography comes together to make 31 into a harrowing horror film.  If you can’t stand Zombie’s trademark mayhem, I would suggest avoiding 31.  However, if you’re a fan of Zombie’s films, you’ll find 31 to be perhaps the purest distillation of his artistic vision.

Cleaning Out The DVR: The Christmas Gift (dir by Fred Olen Ray)

The Christmas Gift

After I watched The Flight Before Christmas, it was time to continue cleaning out the DVR by watching The Christmas Gift!  The Christmas Gift was one of the first Christmas films to show up on Lifetime this year, premiering on November 30th.

Megan (Michelle Trachtenberg) is an ambitious writer who works for a tabloid magazine and who is frustrated by the fact that she’s only assigned to write articles about the best lip gloss for fair skin.  As well, her boorish boyfriend, and fellow journalist, Alex (Daniel Booko) not only dumps her but gets assigned the big story that she wanted!  Michelle’s editor, Cooper (Rick Fox), tells her that, if she really thinks that she deserves better assignments, then she needs to go out and find a story that proves it.

Megan returns home to discover that her aunt has sent her a package of her old belongings.  Going through it, Megan comes across a notebook that was anonymously given to her one Christmas many years ago.  The notebook — and the poem that was inscribed within — inspired Megan to become a writer.  She decides, for her story, to track down the person who gave her the notebook.

Her investigation leads her to Wesley Hardin Johnson, Jr. (Sterling Sulieman), who runs a foster care program.  Megan says that she wants to do a story about the program and the kids that Wesley is helping.  Wesley agrees, on the condition that the story be about the kids and not about him.  For reasons that only make sense when you consider that this is a Lifetime holiday film, Megan decides that this means that she shouldn’t tell him about the notebook.

Not only does Megan have a hit story but she and Wesley are also falling in love!  However, Megan then discovers why her aunt sent her all of her old stuff.  It turns out that her aunt’s retirement community is about to be leveled and repalced with condos.  And who is evicting Megan’s aunt?  None other than Wesley’s father, Wesley Hardin Johnson, Sr. (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs)…

Needless to say, it all leads to misunderstandings and conflicts but it’s nothing that can’t be solved within 90 minutes of narrative.  This is a Lifetime Christmas film, after all.  You watch it with the full knowledge that everything’s going to turn out okay.  The Christmas Gift is a good-natured and likable holiday movie and Michelle Trachtenberg does a pretty good job in the lead role.

Perhaps what is most interesting about The Christmas Gift is that it was directed by the incredibly prolific Fred Olen Ray, who is better known for directing horror films and thrillers than for directing sweet-natured family films.  (That said, if you look at his filmography, you’ll actually come across several movies that you wouldn’t normally associate with him.)  Someday, someone is going to write the definitive overview of Ray’s long and varied career and, hopefully, I will be one of the first to read it.

Back to School #17: Cooley High (dir by Michael Schultz)

For our next entry in Back to School, we take a look at a film that is often referred to as being a “black American Graffiti,” 1975’s Cooley High.

Cooley High follows the adventures of two lifelong friends who are both seniors at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School in Chicago, Illinois.  The charismatic Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is a popular and friendly basketball star.  Meanwhile, Preach (Glynn Turman) is an aspiring writer who, despite his obvious intelligence, is also one of the worst students at the school.  Preach divides his time between skipping school, gambling, and writing poetry.  Alone among their friends, Cochise and Preach both seem to have a chance to escape from life in the projects.  At the start of the film, Cochise has just received a scholarship to play basketball in college.  As for Preach, he’s the eternal optimist.  He knows he’s going to make it, even if he doesn’t seem to be quite sure how he’s going to do it.

For the first half of the film, Cooley High is largely a plotless collection of vignettes featuring Cochise, Preach, and their friends skipping school, chasing girls, getting into minor trouble, and trying to avoid major trouble.  The emphasis is on comedy but, unlike a lot of high school comedies from the 70s and 80s, the humor grows organically from the characters.  Facing a future that’s likely to be dominated by prejudice, poverty, and limited opportunity, what can the students of Cooley High do other than laugh?  The second half of the film takes a far more dramatic turn, with Preach and Cochise accused of both stealing a car and snitching on the actual thieves in order to get out of jail.  The film’s downbeat conclusion may be predictable but it’s effective all the same.

One reason why I wanted to review Cooley High is because a few months ago, while I was trying to find something to watch on TV, I came across an episode of a show called Unsung Hollywood.  The title of the episode was “The Story of Cooley High” and it told the story of how and why this film was made.  It was actually pretty interesting to watch, as it featured interviews with screenwriter Eric Monte (who based the character of Preach on himself), director Michael Schultz (who directed a lot of memorable films in the 70s — including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — but has never quite gotten the recognition that he deserves), and the film’s two stars.  Even more interesting, however, were the interviews with the local Chicago residents who essentially played themselves during the filming of Cooley High.  Some of them had fond memories of appearing in the film while others were upset that the film’s box office success didn’t open up any new opportunities for them.  Most haunting of all was the fate of an amateur local named Norman Gibson.  After giving a genuinely good performance as a petty criminal who comes to a violent end in Cooley High, Gibson was murdered a year after the film was released.

As I mentioned before, Cooley High is often compared to American Graffiti and the two films do have some things in common, like the period setting and a great soundtrack.  Ultimately, though, Cooley High can stand on its own.