Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.
Narcotics: Pit of Despair is an over-the-top yet at times effective anti-drug short from 1967 tracing the fortunes of a hapless college student who quickly declines from Lawrence Welk Show extra to pot smoker to straight-up junkie in a matter of a few weeks. It has some genuinely scary scenes, but ultimately suffers from a cliché script and an unconvincing plot.
The short follows the adventures of John, a young college student played by Kevin Tighe of Emergency, who is facing the normal issues of a sixties college student: bad grades, his struggle to stay on the track team, and neglectful parents. He naturally turns for guidance to the campus drug dealer, Pete, played by Gerald LeRoy at the beginning of an illustrious career consisting entirely of this role. Pete invites him to a party where, rather than just selling him drugs, he and his girlfriend go through a convoluted scheme to manipulate him into smoking pot.
The sequence where John is first introduced to drugs is key to what is wrong with this and so many other anti-drug films. In the world of Narcotics: Pit of Despair, a drug dealer isn’t simply a criminal engaged in illicit commerce; he is a straight-up hunter of souls who entraps his victims like a spider. After having his girlfriend feign interest in John, they lure him into a back room where people are smoking marijuana, then pressure him into smoking a joint himself. From there, it is a “natural” progression to injecting heroin. No self-respecting drug dealer is going to go through this much effort to get one customer. The introduction to drugs is likely to be much more casual, quite possibly by a friend rather than a drug dealer.
This scene is further undermined by the fact that the film has no dialogue, relying entirely on a narrator. Aside from the overall weakness of narration for moving a plot along, the narrator’s script is beyond hackneyed, with laughable attempts at mimicking “hip” youth lingo. The narrator’s flat delivery of lines like “Shake this square world and blast off for kicksville” undermines any attempt to take the material seriously.
In spite of these major flaws, the film does have one strong scene. Shortly after being introduced to heroin, John is forced to go cold turkey. The sequence is truly disturbing, with John thrashing on a bed from withdrawal. His fellow drug addicts bind and gag him to the bed so that he won’t attract police attention. Scenes like this show the actual dangers of drugs, and it would be better if more PSAs featured them. The film also ends on a dark note, reminding viewers of how easily addicts can slip back into drug use.