Review: Ghetto Freaks (dir. by Robert J. Emery)


During my freshman year of college, my roommate Kim often used to tell me that we were born several decades too late.  If only, she often lamented, we could have grown up in the 1960s and been part of that legendary counter-culture.  Her logic was that we both considered ourselves to be anti-establishment, we both felt society needed to be changed, and we both liked to get high on occasion.

I can see her point but honestly, I would never had made it as a hippy or, for that matter, even as a quasi-hippy.  For one thing, I hate being outdoors.  I’ve got too many allergies and crickets freak me out.  While I support free love, I don’t support practicing it with people who don’t shower on a regular basis.  I’m not going to argue with any woman who feels the need to burn her bra but quite frankly, I don’t want to wake up one day and discover that I can touch my boobs with my big toe.  Actually, that whole idea of running around day after day without any underwear on is just gross.  I don’t even want to think about it.

So, no, I could never have been a member of the 60s counter-culture.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t watch the hundreds of films — some well-known but most incredibly dated and obscure — that have been made about and during that era.  Indeed, whatever knowledge I have the 1960s pretty much comes from my movie collection and movies like Ghetto Freaks.

The production history of Ghetto Freaks is rather obscure.  Just to judge from the clothes and the dated lingo, it was originally filmed in 1969 or 1970.  The film, which is nearly plotless, was shot in Cleveland, Ohio.  I’ve never been to Cleveland (or Ohio, for that matter) and Ghetto Freaks — with its cold and gray urban landscape — hardly makes it look inviting.  Still, the fact that it was shot on location and that no attempt was made to hide the decay there, does bring an unexpected rawness to the movie.  Whether it was by intention or just the result of a low budget, director Robert Emery does manages to make the film’s ugliness oddly compelling.

The movie opens up with a bunch of hippies talking to a bunch of older people.  If you’ve seen any of the protest films of the 60s or 70s then you’ve already seen this scene a hundred times.  The hippies are told to get haircuts.  The hippies make the standard response about Jesus having long hair.  Fortunately, the cops arrive before the scene turns into the 2nd act of Bye Bye Birdie

This is the 1st of many awkward, predictable scenes in Ghetto Freaks.  Fortunately, this movie was smart enough to follow its bad scenes with good ones.  So, once the pigs have released him, the head of the hippies (a ruggedly handsome former drug dealer named Sonny) spends his night hanging out at a rather dingy club.  

How to describe the Club Sequence?  Well, you really have to see it to understand why I can’t get it out of my head but it all comes down to the a rather hyperactive singer who performs at the club.  This singer performs two songs.  The first features the immortal lyrics “My name is Mousey and I feel lousy.”  The second is an odd cover of the MC 5’s seminal “Kick Out The Jams,” (though, in the film, the song is kicked off by the singer shouting “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!” as opposed to the actual “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!”)  The two musical performances are energetic and — as opposed to the earlier “protest” scene — entertaining to watch and the singer’s flamboyance contrasts interestingly with the club’s drabness.

Of course, there’s more going on in the bar than just the music.  Sonny talks to the other members of his hippy commune.  He also turns down a chance to return to his old career of dealing drugs on the street.  These conversations have a rather nice, breezy air to them.  For the most part, the actors all give surprisingly natural performances and the dialogue — no longer full of platitudes — is occasionally even memorable.

One other important thing happens at the bar.  Sonny spots a pretty young woman named Diane who is fighting with her obviously upper class parents.  Sonny finds the time to invite her to drop by the old commune before she is dragged away by mom and dad.

Later that night, Diane makes her way to the hippie pad currently occupied by Sonny and 14 other hippies.  She and Sonny have a long talk about why Sonny and friends live the way that they do.  And I do mean long.  The conversation seems to drag on forever and it doesn’t help that everything Sonny says is a platitude along the lines of “War is bad for children and other living things.”  Fortunately, this scene is made barely tolerable by the fact that Sonny and Diane are both played by likable performers.  Sonny’s has a rugged charisma about him and Diane comes across as sincerely nice.  I haven’t ever seen either one of these actors (or for that matter, anyone in Ghetto Freaks) in any other movies and that’s a shame because the movie does boast some memorable performances.

Anyway, even as Sonny explains his world view to her, Diane is dropping acid for the first time.  Naturally this leads to a huge orgy in which the members of the commune dance around naked while Sonny and Diane make love on the floor.

(I have to admit I got a little bit jealous of Diane here because, back when I used to do that sort of thing, I never had a trip that resulted in an orgy.  I saw my face melting occasionally but never an orgy.  It makes me wish I had a “I Dropped Acid and All I Got Was A Lousy Flashback” t-shirt.)

As you might guess, the Ghetto Freaks orgy is the film’s best known scene.  Along with all the nude hippies dancing (and, credit to the film, all the hippies are seen nude and not just the females), we also get a lot of dark blue lighting and psychedelic music playing the background.  While undeniably erotic, there’s also something rather disturbing about the whole scene.  First off, with all the weird camera angles and nude onlookers, the scene immediately made me think about the Satanic “dream” sequence from Rosemary’s Baby.  Secondly, seen today, it’s painfully obvious that the film’s hero is essentially taking the virginity of a girl who has been drugged. 

Oh, there’s one other interesting thing about the orgy sequence.  Are you wondering yet why this movie about a bunch of white hippies is called Ghetto Freaks?  Well, it’s because of what happens towards the end of the orgy.  Suddenly, we’re no longer watching Sonny rape Diane while a bunch of nude hippies dance.  Instead, we’re confronted with the image of a tall, glowering black man who handles a knife while several women we’ve never seen before parade past him.  I don’t know how to explain just how odd and jarring this two-minute sequence is.  Beyond the fact that we’ve never seen any of these characters before (and we won’t see them after), the scene itself is obviously shot on completely different film stock from the rest of the movie.  The only thing that connects it to anything we’ve seen before is that droning orgy music which continues to play (albeit in rather muted form) in the background.  Yes, this sequence was inserted into the movie after it had already been filmed.  The producers, obviously wondering how they’d ever make their money back, inserted this scene featuring this unnamed black man so that they could then market this nearly entirely white film as a blaxploitation film.  That man and his “followers” are the Ghetto Freaks of the title and they’re in the film for all of two minutes.

Following the orgy, we are treated to a day in the life of a hippy commune.  Diane accompanies Sonny, Mousey, and the whole gang on a day full of passing out an underground newspaper, panhandling, and getting harassed by the pigs.   Meanwhile, the neighborhood drug dealers, angry that Sonny won’t agree to push their drugs, are plotting their own revenge on our counter-culture Adonis.  If you think all of this eventually leads to a tragedy you can see coming from miles away, you’re right.

Even though it’s hard (actually impossible) to top a drug-induced orgy sequence, the second part of the film does feature two memorable scenes.  The 1st one features the members of the commune (what should one call them?  Communers, maybe?  Communists?) standing out in the street, trying to convince people to give them money for copies of a free, underground paper.  Shot in a documentary,cinéma vérité -style, this scene is appears to unscripted and features the cast interacting with actual human beings.  As such, the reactions (most negative but some surprisingly positive) are authentic as opposed to idealized.  The cast themselves turn out to be surprisingly skilled at improvisation and this sequence features the film’s best dialogue (which could be considered back-handed praise when you consider that the scene was unscripted).  It helps that the scene was obviously shot on a very cold day and the cast was obviously suffering for their “art.” (Diane, in a surprisingly endearing moment, keeps asking people to look at how blue her frozen hands are.)  I’m not a big fan of panhandlers in general but this film does succeed in making it look like very hard work.

The 2nd sequence occurs at the end of the film, even as the end credits are rolling.  If the panhandling sequence represents the best of Ghetto Freaks, this 2nd sequence represents, perhaps, the worst.  Following the film’s sudden violence of the movie’s “tragic” conclusion, the actors suddenly go from grim-faced to smiling like a bunch of Broadway understudies who have just learned that the entire cast of the latest Grease revival was aboard a plane that crashed while landing.  They start hugging each other (except, of course, for the character who dies at the end of the film.  She just keeps lying there on the sidewalk) and giving each other high fives as the camera pulls back to reveal — yes, you guessed it! — the movie’s director and his crew.  There’s a forced whimsy to this and it’s hard not to imagine the director smirking as he talks about how much he loves Jean-Luc Godard.  Reminding the audience that they’re actively watching a movie (as opposed to reality) was, of course, one of the French New Wave’s major contributions to the language of cinema.  Unfortunately, in Ghetto Freaks, it just feels like a forced attempt at trendiness.  (If Ghetto Freaks was made today, it would be in 3-D.)

As I stated previously, my entire knowledge of the 60s counter-culture pretty much comes from how it was depicted in the movies of the era.  One of the things that I’ve always found interesting about these movies is that, regardless of whether the movie is a classic like Easy Rider or a big budget misfire like Getting Straight or even a Roger Corman B-movie like Psych-Out, they are all essentially so middle class in their attitude towards women.  Again and again, the message of many of these films seems to be that everyone should be allowed to “do their own thing” as long as they don’t have a vagina.  However, those of us who do were continually portrayed in much the same way that we were portrayed in almost every film released before and after 1967.  To be female means that you can either be worshipped or you can be punished but never dare to be an individual.  (For the most obvious example of this, check out Getting Straight, a film in which activist Elliott Gould pretty much spends two hours screaming at Candice Bergen for daring to have opinions of her own.)

This is a trend that continues in Ghetto Freaks.  For all the talk about how Sonny and his commune are all about freedom and allowing people to be themselves, it doesn’t change the fact that the female members are pretty much there to be pretty and sexually available to whoever wants them for the night.  Diane is accepted into the group not because she rejected the values of society but because she has sex with Sonny.  Add to this a scene earlier in the film in which our hero Sonny jokes about how his best friends “big-titted” sister was raped by a black man (“She was asking for it,” Sonny assures her brother who eventually agrees) and you end up with a very contradictory message.  I don’t necessarily have problem with the characters themselves being sexists.  To be honest, I prefer an honest sexist to a liberated liar.  What’s annoying is that this movie, like a lot of other so-called “counter-culture” films, does not seem to be aware of the double standard.

In true exploitation film-tradition, Ghetto Freaks was released and re-released under several different names.  Seeing as how much of the film plays out like a community theater production of Hair, the film originally had the much more appropriate title of The Age of Aquarius.  When that title didn’t exactly work wonders, the film was retitled The Love Commune.  Again, this was an appropriate (if rather banal) title that failed to attract an audience.  Finally, the film’s producers spliced that footage into the middle of the orgy scene and, hoping to appeal to the blaxploitation audience, renamed the movie Ghetto Freaks.

And it worked.

When it comes to exploitation, freaks will beat lovers any day.

Ghetto Freaks was released on DVD by one of my favorite companies, Something Weird Video.  As is typical with SWV, the DVD is actually a double feature.  The second movie is an earlier, drug-centered movie called Way Out.  Technically, it’s a far better movie than Ghetto Freaks but it’s also a lot less fun.

5 responses to “Review: Ghetto Freaks (dir. by Robert J. Emery)

  1. I’ve not heard of this particular film. The counter-culture genre is one I’m still quite a newbie on, but I like your take on this particular film. May not put it on my must-see list, but it definitely makes me rethink my current lack of experience on this genre.

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  2. The most interesting thing about this genre is that there is absolutely no subtext anywhere in most of these films. The 60s counter culture films are arguably a lot like the action movies of today in the fact that everything is always very literal. The genre, as a whole, is nowhere near as fascinating as other exploitation film genres. The genre itself is so literal that, to a surprising extent, it really does become a case of “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” There are a few stand-outs — Easy Rider is better the 2nd time you see it, Medium Cool is one of the best movies ever made, and Ghetto Freaks is just enough of a grindhouse flick to be entertaining. Psych-Out and The Trip are two other good titles to track down. Some people would include Bonnie and Clyde and the Graduate but neither one of them is specifically counter culture like the other movies I mentioned. They’re a gangster and a sex comedy with counter culture elements but both could have existed without the counter culture.

    Unless you really want to be a completist, I’d suggest avoiding the “campus protest” films like The Strawberry Statement or the terrible Getting Straight. I’m still trying to track down a copy of Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said, which is supposedly the only good campus protest film ever made.

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  3. How interesting to come across a review of my film after all these years. Can’t disagree with the author. I think he hit the nail on the head. We had a blast making the film. By the way, I had nothing to do with the insertion of addition footage of the back guy with the knife and when I learned of it had my name removed.

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  4. Pingback: Dance Scenes I Love: Ghetto Freaks | Through the Shattered Lens

  5. Pingback: Dance Scenes That I Love: Get Psychedelic With The Love Commune! | Through the Shattered Lens

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