The 25th Anniversary Project – WHITE HOT (1989)

Every so often throughout 2014, we’ll be looking at a film from 1989 that wouldn’t otherwise get a grand 25th Anniversary Celebration. These films may be overlooked, obscure, or downright invisible, and while only a few are undiscovered would-be classics, together they form a look at the psychotronic cinema landscape of a quarter-century ago.

I want to get serious with you for a moment. I want to talk to you… about drugs.

Back in the ‘80s, the country had a serious drug problem. We were basically snorting, smoking and shooting up everything we could get our hands on, and all illegal drugs were lumped in together into one glorious escalated War on Drugs that captivated the nation’s attention and tax dollars. “Casual drug user s should be taken out and shot,” the era’s most prominent stand-up comic, Los Angeles’s Daryl Gates, opined. Now, of course, we can look back on this and laugh, as the billions and billions spent and countless D.A.R.E. T-shirts and bumper stickers have led to illegal drug use being a thing of the past and a product of a less-enlightened age.

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But the ominous specter of “drugs” was #1 on the internal American enemies list when it came to movies in the ‘80s. Robert Downey Jr. found LESS THAN ZERO in James Spader’s arms. James Woods looked for THE BOOST. Michael Keaton tried to get CLEAN AND SOBER. Philip Michael Thomas returned to DEATH DRUG. DONOVAN’S BRAIN star Nancy Davis made a triumphant return to screen to counsel Arnold about the nature of drugs and the importance of snitching on “Diff’rent Strokes.” Even squeaky-clean Michael J. Fox tangled with cocaine in BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY – even if they were mostly taken out of the film adaptation of Jay McInerney’s book.

But the best ‘80s flick where celebrities encounter the horrors of drug addiction? Robby Benson and Tawny Kitaen in WHITE HOT.

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The ICE CASTLES star not only stars in but made his directing debut with the film, a crack cocaine scare film that doubles as a low-rent late-night Cinemax thriller. It’s an exploitation film in the guise of a morality tale, or possibly it’s an erotic thriller in the guise of a satirical comedy, or maybe a quirky thriller in the guise of a domestic drama. It’s WHITE HOT, and it has a cracked-out, naked, sweaty Robby Benson having sex with a woman and then shoving her aside afterwards when she goes in for a kiss. It also features a cameo by Judy Tenuta. As herself.

It is batshit.

Benson and big-haired “Whitesnake” vixen Kitaen play Scott and Vanessa, a New York City couple struggling to make ends meet. He’s unemployed, and she works at some sort of office doing some kind of presentations. They want to have kids, but haven’t yet because… cost? Medical conditions? Scott’s a closet case? It’s unclear. In any case, Scott wears a “World’s Best Dad” T-shirt around the house out of optimism. It’s the saddest thing in the world. You can’t help but find it hysterical.

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The two aren’t total squares, however, as Scott catches Vanessa casually snorting a line of coke at home. “I thought that was something we only did at parties,” he objects, but it’s cool, she’s just using it to get an edge in her upcoming racquetball game. Meanwhile, Scott’s dealer, the improbably creepy Butchie played to improbably creepy ‘80s drug dealer perfection by Broadway vet Kevin Gray, is having some problems with rival dealer Charlie Buick, played by Danny Aiello. Danny Aiello, who was nominated for an Oscar for DO THE RIGHT THING the same year.

Scott’s dimwitted neighbor Dwayne claims to have found a stash of Butchie’s coke in the laundry room, so Scott aggress to return it to him – possibly with the idea that Butchie would forget about what Scott owed him. (Why does Scott owe Butchie money? Scott and Vanessa seem like low-level users that wouldn’t be probably wouldn’t have a credit line with their dealer, but maybe their alluded-to minimalist drug use is worse than they allude to? Or maybe it’s just crappy writing.) Butchie tempts Scott with the potential for making big money, so he has our hero take over the drug running for a couple of weeks while Butchie lays low as Charlie Buck is out to get him.

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These obviously aren’t the most brilliant drug dealers, as menacing as they pretend to be. Even Charlie Buck is a bit dim, calling on his weak-kneed nephew Angelo (Tony Gillan) to take out a rival – and who ends up shooting a statue. He’s also financing a Broadway show, for which Judy Tenuda auditions, in full character, calling the drug-dealing mobsters “pigs” and playing her accordion. Then Charlie threatens to kill her. It’s… hilarious? Or something? It’s WHITE HOT, whatever it is.

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Scott takes over for Butchie, not telling Vanessa, though she finds out soon enough and barges in on some zany confusion involving Butchie’s sexy assistant Tiffany. (It’s all innocent! For now.) Vanessa actually thinks the drug dealing is a great idea, especially after he shows her the $150,000 he made in a week (!) and gets a taste of the good stuff. Vanessa is soon smoking up a share of the profits, and bringing in their yuppie friends over to get them good and hooked. Scott still has some sympathies, even giving a free toke to a quivering young woman Butchie refers to as “one of my pathetics” when she bares her boobs for crack early in the film.

Eventually, Vanessa gets so hooked that Scott’s had enough, even though he’s starting to smoke crack as well. He tosses her out and instead hooks up with Tiffany in the aforementioned naked crack scene. But he feels bad about it! He feels so bad that he goes off on a client, who suggests he have a big party. He does, Vanessa shows up and there’s crack everywhere, especially the morning after, in the bed next to her.

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Meanwhile, Scott gets visited by a pair of comical (?) henchman types named The Wiz and The Tin Man, who are working for Butchie to check up on the business. The situation with Charlie Buck escalates, blood is shed, and Scott and Vanessa just want out, so they agree to both go to rehab.

Of course, this being a movie about drugs in the ‘80s, the characters are tainted the minute their lips touched the pipe, so things do not end up well. The pair learns a valuable lesson – DRUGS DESTROY EVERYTHING. Or at least DON’T SMOKE YOUR PRODUCT. They’re seriously just terrible drug dealers.

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WHITE HOT is a jaw-dropping blend of genres that doesn’t cohere at all, and is all the more entertaining for it. Scott, with Benson’s baby face and innocent charm, is an after-school special come to life, Vanessa seems to be in a Lifetime TV movie, Butchie is like a low-rent villain in an erotic thriller, The Wiz and The Tin Man seem to come from the quirky thriller school implemented by countless Coen Brothers wanna-bes, Charlie is a lost GOODFELLAS character and who the hell knows how Judy Tenuta ended up in this? The one overriding theme is crack cocaine, and if you made a drinking game out of every time the word “crack” is said in the film, you’d be dead by the halfway point. Don’t you drug runners have nicknames for things?

The most entertaining thing about WHITE HOT is that it never bothers to depict why the hell anyone would ever do drugs – generally the whole point of making a drug scare film! Scott and Vanessa just go from pathetic to pathetic and screechy, and other than a few indications where they say, “oh, that’s good!” after taking a puff, we don’t really get any insight into why they’d bother messing up their lives so much. As a result, the whole thing is impossible to take seriously because the leads are laughable and the situations they become involved in are so unbelievable that you’re basically just highly entertained by watching them fall into a descent of narcotic despair. And it’s all wrapped up in a brightly-colored, day-glo ‘80s package of big hair, purple lights and minimalist décor that make BEETLEJUICE’s house look like the height of homeliness.

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The performances are over the top, the nudity is sad, the shrieking is hysterical and the morality about the evils of crack use lacks any subtlety whatsoever – all in all, a fine ride. Why WHITE HOT not yet managed to be rediscovered by the “Everything is Terrible” crowd is beyond me – it’s everything you’d expect from a crack addiction exploitation film featuring the stars of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and WITCHBOARD.

It’s WHITE HOT. And it’s amazing.

@Paul Freitag-Fey

Previously on the 25th Anniversary Project:

Rebecca De Mornay and Paul McGann in DEALERS
Richard A. Haines’ pulpy sci-fi flick ALIEN SPACE AVENGER
Paul Bartel’s all-star sex farce SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Robert Forster takes on a crossbow-wielding prostitute hunter in THE BANKER
Paul Benedict peers through things in THE CHAIR
Lynn Redgrave tries on some amazing outfits at horror hostess MIDNIGHT
Shannon Tweed plays the Most Dangerous Game in LETHAL WOMAN
A lady cop takes her revenge in David DeCoteau’s AMERICAN RAMPAGE
A cyberpunk-influenced piece of lo-fi sci-fi in Chris Shaw’s SPLIT
Linda Blair teaches you HOW TO GET REVENGE
Paul L. Smith, David Carradine and Brad Dourif star in the wild SONNY BOY
Paul L. Smith, Frank Stallone, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasance and Brenda Vaccaro get tents in TEN LITTLE INDIANS
Joe Estevez deals with a mad mommy in MURDER IN LAW
Zoe Lund helps an Oklahoma boy in the big city in the arty EXQUISITE CORPSES
James Hong and Arte Johnson in the zany tax accountant comedy TAX SEASON
Suburbanites fend off against Chicago gangs in CHAINS
Ned Beatty helps out some time travelers with some very odd sexual tastes in the Corman-produced TIME TRACKERS
A killer clown runs amok with Karen Black, Paul Bartel, Divine, Tab Hunter and Tracey Walter in OUT OF THE DARK
Liane Curtis, Lezlie Deane and Dana Ashbrook take on the GIRLFRIEND FROM HELL
The dangerous world of figure skating is explored in the strangely not Canadian ICE PAWN
Gorgon Video tries to launch a horror movie video magazine with GORGON VIDEO MAGAZINE VOL. 1
A mutant teleports onto a ship called the Bounty in MUTANT ON THE BOUNTY

Jon Abrams

Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse
Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___.
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