In yet another misguided attempt by Hollywood to understand America's drug use, this focuses on real-life rehab center Synanon House, where junkies could clean up and switch to "safe" vices such as chain-smoking cigs. Filmed at their actual Santa Monica beach-front locale, director Richard Quine bludgeons us with preachy cliches and a strung-out roster of recovering-addicts. Though its obvious intent is to send audiences screaming from the horror of narcotics, the result is a corny b&w soap opera enlivened by its enjoyable cast and grim 'tough-love' attitude. Like any formulaic prison film, its story begins with a new fish -- in this case, Alex Cord as smack-happy newcomer Zankie Albo. Stumbling into Synanon's door, he gets the standard cold turkey treatment and meets the other residents, including Chuck Connors as a long-clean jailbird who tangled with Zankie in prison; Stella Stevens as curvaceous Joaney, who abandoned her baby and will undoubtedly fall for this swarthy new cynic; Eartha Kitt, who admits to once being a swinger, a whore and a vegetable; plus Richard Conte and Alejandro Rey. Then there's Edmond O'Brien as Synanon's blustery, ex-alcoholic founder Charles Dederich, who bitches about underfunding, bellows at screw-ups, and gets the best line when the center receives free tickets to a nearby amusement park: "Dope fiends at Disneyland?" Wallowing in past fuck-ups during the house's rap sessions, and shaving the head of anyone who sneaks a quick high, this place seems like a voluntary prison camp. Will Zankie and Joaney return to their old spike-in-the-vein ways? With a film this self-righteous you know the answer is going to be a bummer, and if Synanon's idea of happiness is a group sing-in of "We're poor little lambs who have lost our way," pass me a needle, quick!! The actors work hard, as if they've been conned into believing this hard-hitting slop. Cord's character is an asshole (but also provides the hippest, junked-up banter), Connors has to restrain himself since he's playing an ex-bully trying to change his bad-ass ways, and Stella attempts to act, but only proves that her finest role was as January 1960's Playboy Playmate... But wait! What makes this film unintentionally hilarious is Synanon's legacy, since the real-life Dederich went nuts in the mid-'70s. Declaring Synanon a religion (shades of L. Ron Hubbard!), he cut himself off from society, and instead of sending rehabilitated junkies back into the world, they were to stay in Synanon forever. Increasingly-wacko Dederich also created his own "Imperial Marines," while hundreds of his cult followers were ordered to get vasectomies and divorces! With this crackpot info undercutting everything on-screen, it's no wonder that this glowing tribute rarely surfaces.
© 2000 by Steven Puchalski.