Though the box art says this movie is rated PG, I should tell you that there is nudity, language and frank drug use in the film.
Back in 1971, we were introduced to Al Pacino in a film called 'The Panic in Needle Park', which was his first main role in a feature film. The year after, Pacino appeared in 'The Godfather', and the rest is basically history, as he became one of the greatest actors to ever grace the big screen. This first film though, 'The Panic in Needle Park' was ahead of its time on its own accord and was overlooked by the Oscars that year, most likely due to its graphic nature. In fact, this is perhaps the first film that showed characters shooting up heroin and the awful effects it has on the human body and mind. Even though this is not a horror film in the traditional sense as far as monsters and gore are concerned, there are certainly some gruesome scenes that would even have veteran gore-hounds looking away.
'The Panic in Needle Park' was even banned in a country or two for a few years for its unconventional content for the time, which is still difficult to watch. Director Jerry Schatzberg (Honeysuckle Rose) wanted to show an unflinching look into the life of drug addicts in New York. He drew his inspiration from a a few articles in the newspaper about the people who shot up heroin on a constant basis in Sherman Square in the heart of Manhattan. Due to the majority of people shooting up in the park, it became known as 'Needle Park'. The title itself refers to when the heroin supply goes to zero, thus causing a "panic" amongst the users who then start to rat and turn in others to the police in lieu of more drugs.
That being said, that's not the real story or case here with the film. Instead, Schatzberg focuses on a romantic relationship between two people who use and all of the horrors that come with it. The film really centers on a beautiful young woman named Helen (Kitty Winn from 'The Exorcist), who has a beautiful smile and charming way about her. We are introduced to her as she has just had a back alley abortion and back at her boyfriend's (Raul Julia) apartment, where a guy named Bobby (Pacino) is doing a drug deal with her boyfriend. Helen starts to bleed more from the abortion and she takes herself to the hospital where Bobby visits her and not the boyfriend.
Helen starts to fall for Bobby and instead of moving back to Indiana to be with her family, she moves in to a crumby apartment with Bobby and she soon sees his addiction to heroine. For a while, Helen seems to just observe his drug induced states as she watches him shoot up and even overdose, but his charm and wit always seem to win her over. Soon enough, Helen starts using heroin and her relationship with Bobby begins to deteriorate with abuse, drugs, and betrayal. Meanwhile, there is a man named Hotch, who is a police detective who is trying to stop the drug use in the park and find the supplier. He has his eyes on Helen to help him out by turning in Bobby.
This seems like a realistic portrayal of what a drug like heroin can do to someone and those around them. There really isn't an explanation as to why Helen starts her drug addiction, but I think it's to show just how two people can really be in love no matter what the consequences or actions that take place. This is the case with Bobby and Helen as they should not be together by any means. They bring out the worst in each other, but they also have flashes of happiness. At one point, Schatzberg hired the famous composer by the name of Ned Rorem to score this film, but he ultimately decided against using Rorem's score and instead used nothing at all to make the film more realistic and play out more like a documentary. It had a sobering effect on the audience for sure.
Pacino turns in an amazing performance here as fast-talking debilitating drug user who you can scare you just as easily as he can melt you in his hands. It's no wonder that Pacino became one of the finest actors around after this. Kitty Winn has a very small resume in film, and I'm sure she could have won an Oscar or two in the following years, but she stuck the theatre work instead, only rarely coming back for movies. She actually won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival back in the 70's for this film and proved that she still is one of the greats, even though she doesn't work a lot anymore. 'The Panic in Needle Park' is a brilliant film and also a hard movie to watch. You want these characters to succeed, but they are their own worst enemy. Only a couple films have had a lasting effect as this movie had over the last forty years, making this one a rare gem to still see.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Panic in Needle Park' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Twilight Time and is Region A Locked. There were only 3,000 copies made. The disc is housed in a clear, hard plastic case with an insert that consists of an essay by Julie Kirgo on the film.
'The Panic in Needle Park' comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new transfer from Twilight Time looks very good with sharp detail and realistic, if not dreary colors. The film was shot entirely on location in New York and the cinematography in the 1970's here look impressive. Detail is fairly sharp and vivid throughout with excellent closeups of both Al Pacino and Kitty Winn.
The corduroy wardrobe is distinguishable and individual hairs can be seen easily. The closeups of the dirty needles and and drug addicted makeup effects look realistic as well. Wider shots of the city look bleak, but realistic without a whole lot of softness. The colors are a bit drab and aren't very warm or inviting, but that's all part of the mood for these two heroine addicted people whose lives spiral downward quickly. Don't get me wrong, the colors look good, but they don't really pop off screen.
Black levels are consistently inky and deep, and the skin tones are natural. Grain levels fluctuate a little bit here and there, with some scenes being heavier than other, but overall, this image looks quite good. There are still a few scratches, dirt, and debris throughout, but it's hardly anything to write home about.
This release comes with a decent DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix that gets the job done nicely. There isn't a whole lot of immersion here, but the dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow. There isn't a tin can or high shrill sound when Al Pacino yells either.
Originally, there was supposed to be a score by Ned Rorem in the film by the filmmakers decided that this somber film would be more realistic if there was no score, hence there is no musical score in the movie. However, there is an isolated score track available as a bonus feature. Ambient noises of city life and sound effects of the big city ring true and are robust. There are no pops, cracks, or hiss here either. Again, this audio track won't win any awards, but it does the job.
Panic in the Streets of New York (SD, 26 Mins.) - This is an interview done in the last decade or more with the director of the film as he talks about filming in New York, working with his actors, and going through with this subject matter.
Writers in Needle Park (SD, 10 Mins.) - This is also and older interview with writer Joan Didion, as she talks about writing the screenplay and the characters.
Notes on the Unused Score by Ned Rorem (HD, 3 Mins.) - This is just some actual note cards that display text, explaining about the unused score by Ned Rorem.
Isolated Score Track - Here is the unused score in its entirety. You can select this Music Only option on the main menu.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Booklet - Is a fully illustrated booklet with an essay about the film by Julie Kirgo.
'The Panic in Needle Park' is a fairly difficult film to watch still. The use of drugs and the downward spiral of Bobby and Helen's relationship is uneasy and awkward to say the least. This is one of those films you could definitely show people to convince them not to do drugs. It's not a pretty picture whatsoever, however the relationship between Bobby and Helen is almost endless and there is something beautiful about that, given all of the horrible things that take place. Al Pacino and Kitty Winn are both excellent here in their early careers too. The video and audio presentations are both decent and the extras are worth watching, despite them being vintage interviews. This one comes recommended!