Before Requiem for a Dream there was The Panic In Needle Park which has the appearance of a film sponsored by D.A.R.E. if it wasn’t so artfully made. The 1971 film was adapted from James Mill’s exposé in Life magazine as an intimate tour into the danger and grit of New York City which was perceived as a hub of dope fiends and criminals by middle America. Panic definitely doesn’t prove that incorrect because you are placed directly amongst the most adulterated inhabitants. These are addicts who go to alarming lengths to get their next fix yet what makes this depiction of the perils of heroin so unsettling is its level of humanizing done for its characters. You’re welcomed into the lives of young couple Helen (Kitty Winn) and Bobby (Al Pacino), presented through a nonjudgmental lens. While brutally honest about their imperfections, the enlightening performances provoke such sympathy so as their lives spiral out of control, it becomes a gut punch with each poor decision. Shot cinéma vérité, director Jerry Schatzberg takes you deep into the dark allies of the city but paired with such moving performances, you can’t look away.
What differentiates Panic from Requiem is the appeal of the characters. With Requiem, everyone starts off pretty unlikeable (except for Ellen Burstyn of course) as Jared Leto kicks off the movie stealing his mother’s television. The film’s tone is immediately pessimistic as the three leads situation goes from bad to worse that by the end characters are either incarcerated, homeless or turn to prostitution. All this is included in Panic but at its core, it is a love story. It’s a tragic love story of a couple doomed by drugs and lose themselves in a cycle of self-destruction but in a fucked up way, they have each other. It’s not all bad, at least to start, you’re lured into the sweet amidst the sour environment. We are introduced to Helen quite deceivingly as she sits dazed on the subway. We already know her fate as the film states upfront with text that Needle Park is the nickname for Sherman Park on the Upper West Side populated by heroin addicts. Her vacant stare leads you to believe she may already be in the throes of a habit but as she returns to her then boyfriend’s loft (a handsome Raúl Juliá) you learn she had an abortion, a botched one that lands her in the hospital. An equally handsome Bobby who has become smitten with her sneaks into the hospital to flirt with her and this is where the affair blossoms. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Even though Helen is conscious of his reputation as a user (her boyfriend his supplier) she is instantly charmed and you can’t blame her. We meet Bobby at a high point which later becomes few and far between but when at his best, he’s magnetic as hell. He chats up the bum outside the ER, playfully teases the elderly pawnbroker to whom he sells a stolen TV and he loves sitting on the park bench with his pals swapping stories about what drugs mix best. Helen being an introvert is drawn to his bravado and they become a winning couple. So when Helen inevitably gives in to her curiosity and takes her first hit, you feel as betrayed as Bobby. She’s no longer pure but as flawed as him. The light in her eyes in gone as she is a zombie with a hunger stronger than Bobby’s.
Panic must have been shocking to audiences at the time of its release with its brazen depiction of heroin use and even by today’s standards is quite jolting. It’s not for the squeamish as there are long takes of how one injects heroin, something most films generally cut away from but that’s part of the film’s impact. This is coming out of the era of censorship when such sadism was only implied. The first time we witness shooting up is when Bobby takes Helen to a flophouse and while they talk mundanely in the background we watch a man strap up, find a vein and insert that needle, injecting the clear liquid, pulling back some blood, injecting again then sitting back as he’s hit by the rush of the high. The sound fades out as all we hear are his heavy breaths and watch his eyes go cross. A registered nurse was reported to be on set observing the technical precision and safety of the act making it all the more unnerving, knowing it’s real. The depiction in continually gratuitous with needles dangling from long track marks as unattended babies cry out on the shared bed.
Out of all the horror movies I consume, I can stomach ghosts, serial killers and masked assailants but nothing scares me more than drugs. It’s more terrifying because it’s undeniably around me. Helen’s deterioration could happen to anyone especially when it comes to the most addictive of substances. Kitty Winn incredibly sells Helen’s descent from the bubbly girl who picks at her fries to a pale, disheveled shell of a person turning tricks to pay for her $80 a day needs. What is so agonizing is how the film will give you these fleeting moments of happiness. There will be instances where both are somewhat clean and take the ferry to Long Island to buy a puppy and Helen dreams of moving away and starting a home. Before her thoughts can be completed, Bobby whisks her into the ferry bathroom for a hit, leaving the puppy to stumble off the side of the boat. Optimism is always dashed as the drugs dimish any good intention. They encourage each other’s habits but hate it when one is too strung out or hides their dwindling supply. What they look like slack-jawed, eyes rolling back from heroin could be mistaken for a corpse. The addicts in Needle Park are the real Walking Dead.
Panic is now a faded snapshot of a sanitized New York. Sherman Square is now adjacent to a Trader Joe’s and Haagan-Daz. That doesn’t mean these dark narratives have disappeared, they merely aren’t as visible. Even without the abysmal aesthetic, it’s a pertinent cautionary tale. Though maybe it only scares straight edge people like myself, inherently fearful of all forms of illicit consumption. I mean this couple marred by drugs finds solace with each other. The film concludes with Bobby being released from jail, a situation which Helen set him up for, yet they walk in toe towards the Manhattan horizon. There’s no way they live to see another winter but that’s ultimately unknown. They could get clean, finally get married and move to Connecticut, but throughout their relationship, we see little promise of that. Bobby is in love with Needle Park and Helen is in love with Bobby and the cycle continues. That entrapment is what is so haunting, addiction eliminating one’s free will. All that’s left is death which one of Bobby’s friends remarks “is the best high of all.” A depressing outcome to look forward to but that’s what this movie is, the dispiriting life of a junkie. It’s a morose note to end on but that’s how I felt when it was over, completely broken. So yeah, thumbs up.