Good news: if you’re a fan of 1980s TV movies, holy God does Warners Archive have you covered this winter. The January release slate includes several titles that brought back memories of tense teaser spots during commercial breaks for Diff’rent Strokes, including Scruples, I Know My First Name is Steven, Blood & Orchids, Lace, and, of course, Lace II. But I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to Desperate Lives, the 1982 TV movie that has since grown a quiet reputation as the Reefer Madness of the “Just Say No” years. This, bad TV movie fans, is the movie where a drug-crazed Helen Hunt jumps out of the high school window, a moment that came back to haunt her during a 1994 Saturday Night Live appearance. This was something I had to see.But if it was, indeed, my generation’s Reefer Madness, it needed to be viewed through the necessary filters. I don’t partake of the substances myself, but I invited over two of my more chemically-inclined buddies, Karl and Bernie (not their real names) to get their take on its view of their bad behavior. Bernie brought a full complement of “stoner food” (pepperoni pizza, macaroni and cheese, grape soda), and off we went.
The film first introduces us to young Scott Cameron (Doug McKeon), a happy-go-lucky high school boy who is given a ride to school in a molester van full of dope-smokin’ kids, including his sister Sandy (Hunt). On their way, they stop at the graveyard for a meet-up with Ken Baynes (Sam Bottoms), the town’s briefcase drug dealer, full of high-octane sales pitches like “I got coke so hot it could be on the highest side of the sun!” The kids do their business with Ken (“Fifty bucks for a half gram?” snorted Bernie. “These kids are getting’ robbed!”), and he, in accordance with the Movie Drug Dealer code, gives Scott a free first hit, so as to get him hooked, ya know.
When the crew arrives at school, they have their run in with the new guidance counselor Miss Phillips, played by Diana Scarwid (fresh off Mommy Dearest) with a terrible haircut and a worse accent (we couldn’t pin down what the hell it was until she says of Scott, “He reminds me of my brother back in Tennessee,” to which Karl cheerily noted, “Mystery solved!”). She is made immediately aware of the proliferation of dope (or, as she says, “dupe”) throughout the school, which is ridiculously lax; kids pass joints at pep rallies, make PCP in the science lab, and shotgun in the girls’ bathroom, while her concerns are met with laughable apathy by the school staff. Soon, of course, she’s on a one woman crusade, taking on the system and trying to save Scott, etc., etc.
Lew Hunter’s script is packed with clichés, from “C’mon, everybody else is doing it!” to “Everybody does it” to “She’s just a dumb doper, Miss Phillips” to “You never think it could happen to your child!” The dialogue style is expectedly turgid and sign-posty; no one actually talks to each other, they just deliver monologues with occasional interruptions. The filmmakers clearly have no idea how people genuinely interact—the guidance counselor and her boyfriend not only take Scott away for a weekend in the country (apparently without encountering his parents, who meet her for the first time near the end of the film), but their drug-free good time appears to consist of wacky, “no hands” and “no feet” bicycle riding (Karl: “That sequence makes you want to do drugs”).
And then there is the film’s most celebrated sequence, the one that put us in front of the TV in the first place. Poor Sandy’s amateur chemist boyfriend has cooked up a little something in the chemistry lab, which he puts on his finger and invites her to try, you know, just as an experiment. “By the way, that’s gonna be the moment that ends our friendship,” Karl told Bernie. “When you say, ‘It’s just an experiment’ and make me snort something off your finger.” When Hunt crashes through the window and starts having seizures on the ground, pawing for broken glass to cut herself, it really is the Reefer Madness moment—not just for the overblown action, but for Scarwid’s thundering “EVERYBODY DOES THIS?” in the aftermath.
McKeon is irritating as hell, though Hunt is likable enough. Sam Bottoms does the best he can as the skeezy drug dealer with the happenin’ bachelor pad (“This guy’s neon art is inspiring,” noted Bernie), but as you watch him here, reflect that this was a mere three years after he co-starred in Apocalypse Now. As we wondered what he was doing in a goofy TV movie, I imagined he probably needed money for drugs—a credible theory, we decided. “This is a feature, made in California, in the early 80s,” Bernie agreed. “I’ll bet a solid nine percent of this budget ended up in drug dealers’ hands.”
Let’s jump to the end, because, let’s face it, you’re never going to see this movie (but if you do, spoiler alert, blah blah blah). Two girls are dead, Sandy is in a cast, Scott is in the “violent ward” at the local mental hospital. Poor Miss Phillips gazes longingly and sadly out her window, listening to the voices in her head, for a long time—so long, in fact, that the replayed dialogue is like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Movie in her head. Then, full of fierce determination, she gets a rolling cart and starts opening up lockers, grabbing the bags and paraphernalia (Karl: “See, these kids don’t know how to hide their stash”) and rolling the whole thing into the middle of the school’s Christmas program (!) where she sets the whole thing on fire (!!) and delivers a big monologue about the evils of drugs (Karl noted, “Oh, this is the one everybody does at Forensics tournaments”). How do the kids respond? By getting up, one by one, and throwing the drugs they have on them into the bonfire—the drug-movie equivalent of a slow-clap. Then there’s a real slow-clap, and then Miss Phillips looks heavenward and raises her arms for a triumphant freeze-frame. Credits, the end.
Most made-for-TV movies have only one specific goal: to fill two hours of airtime. They’re not intended to be high art, or to inspire any specific passion (either by their creators, or by their viewers); it’s just what’s on between the commercials. Perhaps the saddest thing about Desperate Lives is that it seems like it was made by people who did care, and very deeply, about America’s drug problem—it feels as though writer/producer Lew Hunter and director Robert Lewis really thought they were making a difference. But good intentions don’t equal good movie. About midway through, Bernie offered up this comparison: “This movie is like a Journey song—it’s stylistically outdated, it’s overwrought, and it’s just plain awful.” That about sums it up.
Desperate Lives is, by no one’s standards, a particularly good movie. But we certainly had a good time watching it and laughing at it; like its forefathers Reefer Madness or Cocaine Fiends, it is so preposterously over-the-top and out-of-touch that it enters the realm of films that are enjoyable for their earnest badness. The description on the box ends with the following sentence: “Highlighted by a title song written and performed by Rick Springfield and a rare acting performance by famed psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, Desperate Lives remains as timely today as when it first aired.” There’s a certain kind of person who reads a line like that, and something clicks. I think you know who you are.