Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Death Drug
Sometimes, the best of intentions can lead to the cheesiest of films. Earnestness is a key ingredient in the making of a cheesy movie and message films have a habit of sacrificing certain qualities for the sake of their cause. In the US, The ABC Afterschool Special was known for this special sort of cheesiness and every so often, a Lifetime film will find itself trying so hard to address a topic that it will forget all about basic screenwriting and filmmaking conventions.
And, sometimes, that cheesy, but well-intentioned film can find itself becoming even cheesier thanks to the star’s sudden burst of popularity. Just like this week’s film, Death Drug.
The plot concerns one Jesse Thomas (Philip Micheal Thomas), a plumber with a rare musical gift. His talent earns him a spot at the Conservatory of Music and an audition with a Los Angeles record company. He also happens to be a good friend and a loving husband. But the night he and his wife go out on the town to celebrate his acceptance to the Conservatory, he runs into a local drug pusher who gets him to try PCP — aka Angel Dust, or, as it was apparently called in 1978, “Whack.” In the form of a Nat Sherman cigarette dipped in the infamous Phencyclidine, Jesse smokes Whack and begins to hallucinate while at the nightclub. But since it all seems like a bit of innocent fun at that point, he still nails the audition. The record company signs him immediately, which means the thing about the Conservatory is dropped entirely.
Which makes you wonder why the film brings it up at all…
Things seem pretty good for Jesse, he keeps smoking Whack while he composes music for his debut album and continues to work as a plumber despite being told will be too busy recording and promoting to go to the Conservatory. His hallucinations get worse and he eventually develops a paranoia about his co-workers, record producers and even The Gap Band. He also has a succession of violent outbursts around his wife Carolyn (Vernee Watson). A supposedly more concentrated whack cigarette he gets from the pusher makes things much worse — Jesse loses his record deal and his job — and Carolyn fears he will be in no condition to be a father to their currently gestating baby. But when Jesse finally learns she’s pregnant, he promises to get clean and enters a rehab program. But if you remember the PCP scare of the 70s and early 80s, you know where this story is headed: right into the front of a Mack truck.
And if this all feels like a poorly staged informational video about the dangers of using PCP, that’s part of the charm. The drug was a legitimate health concern plaguing inner cities prior to the introduction of crack cocaine, and writer Roland S. Jefferson — a novelist and practicing psychiatrist at the time — was sensitive to the issue. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the film features the sort of dryness which typifies stilted anti-drug videos. But Death Drug stands apart from them as it tries very hard to develop a story. At one point, we learn Jesse and his father had a falling out over Jesse’s music, but like the Conservatory, it never goes anywhere. It’s not even meant to suggest his drug use is tied to his trauma as it seems prior to the whack, Jesse was a very occasional weed smoker. Characters like his friend Melvin (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Casey Biggs) are introduced, but developed as poorly as the subplot involving Jesse’s father.
Instead, most of the runtime is devoted to depicting the effects of the drug and Jesse’s downward spiral. And even that fails to be effective as his hallucinations and manic episodes read more comical than tragic. And, as it turns out, the tendency toward violence while taking PCP was more of a media fabrication. While mania is a side-effect and widely publicized incidents of otherwise mellow people going on violent sprees occurred, subsequent studies revealed users with violent outbursts generally had a history of violence. That may be why Jesse’s outbursts — like throwing sheet music at Carolyn during one of his episodes — rings false. But even the depictions of hallucinatory and disassociative events fail to capture a certain veracity; to say nothing of Jesse’s bizarre life-ending flashback during the climax.
But all of this is just part of the baseline cheesiness. Death Drug gets an added cheesy boost thanks to its only available form: a 1986 VHS release from Academy Home Entertainment. Capitalizing on Thomas’s success in the NBC series Miami Vice, the 1986 version of Death Drug features a hastily shot intro and outro by Thomas and added video material interspersed throughout to suggest Jesse was a bigger star than the 1978 material suggests. In the new version of the narrative, the record company quickly releases Jesse’s album and shoots a “music clip” to support it. The video turns out to be Philip Michael Thomas’s video for his own single, “Just the Way I Planed It.” It’s not hard to imagine its inclusion was a condition of Thomas’s participation in the updated version.
Thanks to the added material, the timeline of the film goes bonkers. Looking only at the 1978 material, Jesse’s fall occurs over, at most, a three month period — Carolyn is still not showing during Jesse’s final supermarket freakout. The 1986 version asks you to believe Jesse wrote two albums and released one which was expected to go double platinum shortly before his death. Yet, Jesse is still working as a plumber after its supposed release and the record execs telling him he will be too busy to do anything else by promote it.
It is unclear if director Oscar Williams was involved in the new material, but it is easy to suspect J.J. Keno, the credited supervising producer of the 1983 version, was behind the grandiose additions to Jesse’s story which, oddly enough, undermine the intent of the original film and add to the overall cheesiness. From the 1978 footage, it’s easy to see Jefferson’s message: PCP can undermine a life full of potential. This is why Jesse gets accepted to the Conservatory and lands a record contract in the same week. But by making Jesse a celebrated, Grammy-nominated recording artist during a very strange scene featuring KTLA newsman Larry McCormick 68 minutes into the film’s 73 minute runtime, that message is severely compromised. Watch the scene for yourself and notice how Jesse’s life becomes more and more epic despite the audience being told twenty minutes earlier that the record company cancelled his contract.
In spite of its good intentions, Death Drug‘s strange failure as a legitimate drama makes it the cheesiest anti-drug movie you’ll ever watch. The performances are a little outsized — though right on the mark for an Afterschool Special — the direction never quite gets the intended message across and the added material from 1986 turns it into a Frankenstein Monster of competing ideas. It is, nonetheless, an incredibly entertaining trip to the early days of drug education which will leave you giddy without narcotics. It will also make you interested in the music of The Gap Band.
Death Drug is not available from any legitimate source outside of the Academy Home Video VHS release. But it is easily found on certain online video sites.