Judge Bill Gibron invites you to get your freak on with this mismatched pair of cautionary drug tales.
A celebration of social rejects!
Sonny lives with a bunch of his unwashed brethren (and some semi-showered sisters) in a confusing collective of '60s refugees. Sadly, they've all arrived 15 minutes too late to the cultural, sexual, and political revolution. Among the other residents of this ratty retreat from reality—human humps with nonsense names like Stringbean, Halo, and Mousey—the Sonnster is BMIC: Big Man In Commune. He loves the ladies, and they lust right back after him. But Sonny wants no strings, no attachments of any kind. Call him a commitment-phobe or a typical pre-feminism male, but this oddly attired artifact just wants to do his own thang, change with the changing times, and party like it's 1969. But the fuzz won't let Sonny fill his antisocial, autonomous dance card.
One night, while visiting a local go-go, Sonny sees a dreary deb named Diane getting hassled by "the Man"—along with her mother and distant dad—and he slips her a note. Taking this as an invitation for that "free love" thing she's been so desperate to learn about, Diane drops by the S-man's digs and before you can say—or make that spell—lysergic acid diethylamide, our chemical virgin is trippin' like President Ford on a gangplank. The next thing you know, Sonny is riding her like he's got the last seat on the Merry Prankster's bus. Love blossoms, and Sonny shows Diane the wonderful, carefree life of a hippie: group panhandling, swapping bus passes, and forgetting to bathe. But when a drug lord comes along looking to get Sonny back into the pusher game, there's trouble in the air for these Ghetto Freaks.
On the cold, harsh streets of the Bronx, life is hard for a junkie. Frankie lies to his cop father and faithful family friend Anita, swearing he has a legitimate job. But when he leaves the tenement each morning, Frankie heads directly for his hideout, where henchmen Louie and Che Che wait for him. They push heroin, and commit crimes to feed their own habits. Jerry also works the streets, pimping his old lady Stella to raise the cash to buy smack from the repellent drug lord, Fats. One day, Jim arrives in the neighborhood, and helps Anita fend off some local thugs. Frankie takes a shine to the new guy, and shows his gratitude by letting Jim into his racket. At first, everything seems fine. Anita and Jim grow close, and everyone's secret shame is kept from those they love. But the grip of addiction is a cruel bitch goddess, and soon everyone is hooked and very hard up.
When his crew gets captured robbing a warehouse, Frankie is arrested and sent to jail. Jim abandons Anita for the needle, and the naïve 16-year-old takes up the habit in the hope that it will save their relationship. Desperate for a fix, Jerry "sells" Stella to Fats, leaving her to fend for herself. Naturally, all roads lead to either death or destruction when you're riding the wild white horse, and there seems to be no hope for anyone. But Frankie learns that there can be life after drug abuse and prison. All he needs to do it turn to God. Religion, not the reality of the back alleys and shooting galleries of the inner city, is the actual Way Out.
There are no ghetto freaks in Ghetto Freaks. No naughty urban blaxploitation or horrifying helping of human oddities exists here. If someone told you that this film was originally called Love Commune, would that clue you in as to what its attitude is all about? How about if you knew that the group home gambit was actually yet another retitling of the "should have been a Hair outtake" Sign of Aquarius. Well, apparently, the moon got booted out of the seventh house after the disappearance of a postcoital Jupiter and Mars when this movie was marketed, since this hippy-dippy docudrama underwent more name changes than Paris Hilton's social calendar. As preachy as it is perplexing, with equal amounts of already-outdated jargon and heinous, half-assed post-Mop Top music (some of it sung by a shaved gorilla of a shirtless nightclub performer), Ghetto Freaks is one fringed-jacket farce that wants to scream serious social statement. But all it can muster up is a weary, wound-licking sigh. X-Ray Specs were perfectly within their punkish rights to whine about the problems resulting after the world turned Day-Glo. Indeed, Ghetto Freaks seems to be the direct result of such a psychedelic social shrimp job.
Trying to be a hip, happening look at the counterculture, but playing more like a Midwestern restaging of Oh! Calcutta (sans songs and superiority, of course), this squares vs. the squalid message movie is a fascinating, flustering freak-out. Almost nonlinear in its narrative (though we do get a meddling mobster out for revenge as a suitable subplot) and filled with the always perplexing, pompous pontifications of the bong generation, this is a movie that will treat you to more pot-based philosophy, bad body art, and nude male ass than you ever wanted to experience without a copy of the Geneva Convention at your side. Ghetto Freaks wants to be the movie that tells it like it is. Unfortunately, it forgot what "it" was, or was never quite sure what "it" was supposed to be in the first place. It hops all over the Hair Bear Bunch map as it tries to speak to and for its people. With such a mouthpiece, it's no wonder Nixon won reelection. From the protest march featuring a throng of several, to the spastic Soul Train-style dance sequences, this is one peace sign missing a major, compelling component.
(And here's the story with the title: In order to sell this draft-dodging dung to the grindhouse crowd, a small two-minute scene featuring a black cult figure performing some manner of voodoo sex ritual was inserted into the film. This apparently was enough to publicize the film with the aforementioned notorious inner city moniker and apply a taboo-busting tagline about white gals getting cozy with wild African studs.)
Way Out, on the other hand, is an amazing movie, a brash indictment of the entire drug culture, posing as a very successful experiment in avant-garde filmmaking. Don't get the wrong idea from that last statement: This is not some manner of performance art passing itself off as reality, or a combination of editing tricks and narrative misdirection. No, director Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr., famous for helming the original The Blob in 1958 and The 4D Man in 1959, took a potent, underground play by real life recovering addict John Gimenez, transported the story to the mean streets of the Bronx and populated his cast with ex-junkies. The result is Way Out, a sublime, substantial look at the everyday struggles of Hispanic heroin addicts.
This is not your typical Tinsel Town fare, nor does it completely fit into the exploitation mold. More powerful than the standard mainstream walks through the mire of drug dependence, but with none of the outrageous elements that tend to undermine most art house titles, this is a frank and forceful discussion of the desperate lives of sad, strung-out people. Using the barest of plots to illustrate its pro-God points (this is a film that argues for faith as the cure-all for addiction), the reality of the performances combined with the sense of authenticity given off by the environment gives this film a true aura of apprehension and melancholy. The players, all ex-users themselves, bring the pain, the pathos, and the precariousness of abuse to vivid life, never once undermining the illusion or accuracy. Not quite a complete example of cinema vérité (there is too much artifice in Yeaworth's blocking and color scheme), Way Out avoids many of the pat answers offered in a typical Hollywood drama. The result is an amazing and moving picture, far better than other examples of mid-'60s social scare films. Way Out doesn't need to make up nightmares to warn young people about the dangers of dope. It offers up pragmatism in gritty, grotesque bucketfuls to illustrate its horrors.
Like scholars unlocking a long-lost secret tomb of time capsule treasures, Something Weird has really outdone itself with these two titles. While Ghetto Freaks fails in its flower power, Way Out more than makes up for those hopeless hippie missteps. The result is a real dichotomy of cinematic style and motion picture communication. Ghetto Freaks wants to waltz around the issues with acid rock ridiculousness. Way Out addresses the problems up front and personally. The same could be said for the tech specs as well. Both color transfers come in 1.33:1 images that suffer from age defect and negative issues. Yet Way Out looks a thousand percent better than Ghetto Freaks. It doesn't have the latter's washed out, ultra-grainy grubbiness. Way Out looks surprisingly good, with bright vibrant hues dancing around the otherwise dark and dirty streets of New York. Yeaworth also has the better artistic sense. Robert J. Emery, the director of Ghetto Freaks, is too lost in his own world of wild angles and pointless montages to make his movie work (though the "caught in the act" panhandling sequence does have a nice, innocent eavesdropping quality to it). Both movies feature the same type of tiny, muffled soundtrack that occasionally makes the dialogue indistinct. But for the most part, these long-lost films look and sound fairly good.
Sadly, Something Weird really lets us down in the extras department. The ads for other drug/dropout films are fine, with the Cameron Mitchell starring vehicle Monkey on My Back looking like manic, must-see dementia. But the only other bonus beside the four trailers (none for either film offered) is 10 minutes of cautionary claptrap about the evils of drugs. Pulled directly from some sixth grade health class, and doing nothing to either shock you out of or support your use of illegal narcotics, this vague overgeneralization about the dangers of dope is just dumb. You know you're in trouble when a weenie roast is the naughtiest thing about your anti-addiction rant.
While Ghetto Freaks / aka Love Commune / aka Signs of Aquarius is about as cogent as a freshly smoked banana peel and twice as tempting, Way Out is one hell of a film, as emotional as it is memorable. Together, this duo combines to form a DVD of divergent directives. Way Out wants to scare you straight. Ghetto Freaks hasn't sobered up enough to figure out what all the fuss is about.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.