ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) writer/editor in London. She currently works as a freelance ghostwriter of personal memoirs and writes for several blogs on topics as diverse as film history, punk rock, women’s issues, and international politics. For links to her work, please visit https://www.jennuptonwriter.com or send her a Tweet @Jennxldn
Regional independent film made in Cleveland, Ohio and released originally under the titles Love Commune, The Aquarians, The Wages of Sin, and Sign of Aquarius, this pseudo-musical was one of many from that era that attempted to capitalize on the hippie trend and the popularity of Hair. Then it was released again more than a year later under this version, with a new marketing campaign to capitalize on the popularity of Blaxploitation films.
How might these two genres cross over? Well, they don’t. Ghetto Freaks is the same movie as the earlier versions, with two minutes of footage added. Thie new scene features an African American guy in a robe performing some sort of blood ritual and has nothing to do with anything else in the film. With a cast of mostly white kids, plus one black guy and no literal ghetto freaks, it must have been a disappointing experience for anyone who went into this version expecting the next Shaft.
In 2023, it serves as a wonderful time capsule. The clothes, hairstyles, lingo, and furniture are far out, man. It’s a slice-of-life film where the cast randomly breaks into song and dance. The narrative follows the daily (sometimes mundane) activities of a group of hippies. They pretty much do what you’d expect them to. They panhandle and bitch about “the man” to anyone on the street that walks past them. They protest the war in Vietnam go to a club (owned by co-director John Pappas) to listen to groovy music. One evening, the main man Sonny (Cincinnati’s Paul Elliot) meets a naïve runaway teen girl named Donna (Gabe Lewis) who joins their commune.
Back in their squat, Donna is inducted into the hippie life. They sit around, smoke pot, philosophize endlessly, dance around nude, paint each other and have group sex. There’s one scene of a pregnant girl going on a really bad acid trip, allowing the directors to get creative with lenses and lighting.
There’s also something resembling a plotline where a dangerous drug dealer threatens Sonny and Donna’s newfound happiness by pressuring Sonny to sell drugs for the neighborhood gangs. Donna dies tragically because of Sonny’s refusal.
Released on a double bill with the far superior anti-drug message film Way Out (1967) by Something Weird in 2009, it’s unclear where Ghetto Freaks stand on the issue. The filmmakers include some scenes that make it look fun and other scary ones. While their efforts to grab as wide an audience as possible are noteworthy, it didn’t work. Hence the alternate titles, re-releases, and re-vamped marketing campaigns.
Older people from the Cleveland area will likely get a thrill from seeing all their favorite places preserved on film as they existed in the late 1960s. For the rest of us, it’s slow going.