CRACK HOUSE. Cannon Films, 1989. Jim Brown, Anthony Geary, Richard Roundtree, Cher Butler, Angel Tompkins, Gregg Thomsen. Director: Michael Fischa.

   This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Although the story takes place in Los Angeles, there’s little sunlight – real or metaphorical – in this surprisingly gripping exploitation film about rival gangs and the urban crack epidemic that gripped the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The mood is somber, the performances better than one might expect, and the atmosphere is bleak. But make no mistake. Crack House is an exploitation film par excellence. It truly exploits the public’s dual fascination with how the other half lives and fears about the crack-related urban violence spreading out to suburban America.

   The plot is an essentially a Romeo and Juliet inspired love story set against the backdrop of an increasingly drug infested neighborhood. Rick (Gregg Thomsen), a Hispanic high school student who has recently quit a gang, is in love with Melissa (Cher Butler), one of the few – if only – white girls in the neighborhood. Their trouble really begins when Rick ends up in jail, having taken part in the very gangland violence he swore he had given up.

   That leaves Melissa at the mercy of local street toughs and dealers. Things go from bad to worse for her as she ups her social cocaine habit to crack addiction.

   Her spiral downward goes from bad to worse. She learns that one of her high school teachers (Anthony Geary) is involved in the crack trade. He is also a total sleaze and expects sexual favors from her.

   But the heart of the action in this movie revolves around two blaxploitation giants. Richard Roundtree portrays Lieutenant Johnson, a LAPD cop determined to break the backs of the crack dealers infesting his city. His nemesis is the aptly named Steadman (Jim Brown), a cruel brute SOB who makes Melissa a virtual captive in his crack house.

   If it weren’t for the presence of these two men who starred in many 1970s urban crime dramas, there’d honestly be no reason to watch Crack House. But with them in it, the movie actually does have something going for it. It is not fine cinema and it doesn’t have much artistic merit, but it hit all the buttons in terms of exploiting the public’s dual curiosity and revulsion when it came to the crack epidemic.