Way Out (1966/1967)

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

The little-seen Way Out is a gem for fans of obscure cinema with quirky histories and happily, it’s way better than it should be. I first saw it as part of a double bill released by Something Weird Video along with the hippie-themed Ghetto Freaks (1970.) 

A cautionary tale about drug use, the film was made by director Irwin S. Yeaworth, Jr. following the sci-fi hits The Blob (1958) and Dinosaurs! (1960.) Right about now you’re probably wondering how in the hell that happened. It turns out Yeaworth was extremely religious in his private life, serving in both presbyterian and non-denominational evangelical ministries with Billy Graham. No doubt, the church funded its production. 

As if that wasn’t weird enough, Way Out is based on a play written by and starring former junkies who turned to religion to replace (ahem…I mean cure) their addictions. That’s right. Not a single actor in this film was an actual actor. And yet, the film boasts exceptionally good acting and ticks all the boxes meeting modern standards for representation. 

Set against the backdrop of the slums of The Bronx in the 1960s, the film tells the stories of young (mostly Hispanic) people, struggling in poverty. The main character Frankie (Franklin Rodriguez) has a strained relationship with his drunk cop dad. Despite the hardship of life in their neighborhood, Frankie meets and falls in love with a lovely, innocent young lady named Anita (Sharyn Jimenez.)

Anita watches as one by one, Frankie and his buds fall into the clutches of addiction and turn to crime to keep from getting dopesick. When Frankie gets arrested, he’s forced to go cold turkey in jail. He comes out clean, having turned to Jesus for a “way out”, but his world is turned upside down when he finds out everything that happened while he was away. His best friend was killed by the police and two other friends are in prison.

 Worst of all, when he visits Anita, he finds a totally different girl from the one he pined for from inside his cell. The pure girl he fell in love with is gone. The new Anita is a trash-talking, world-weary junkie turning tricks to feed her habit. It does not end happily. And yet it does. 

Following the conclusion of the main story, there’s a short epilogue featuring the entire cast marching toward the camera singing a religious hymn in celebration of the fact that they’re all still clean and sober. Is it religious propaganda? You bet it is. Frankie makes the jump from joint to junk ridiculously fast. Its assertion that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” is blatantly incorrect based on modern science, but the film nonetheless paints a grim picture of the ease with which people back then people gained access to heroin. 

The best parts of this movie are the acting and the real-world locations. Not a single person in the film was a professional. These people lived this life for real, living in shabby, sparely furnished rooms, meeting on filthy rooftops to shoot up with shared, dirty homemade needles fashioned from eyedroppers. It’s so realistic that some scenes make other drug films like Sid and Nancy and Trainspotting (1996) look glamorous in comparison. No one in those films ever tried to pour milk down the throat of an OD victim.   

For a night of depression-inducing “entertainment”, Way Out would make an excellent companion piece to other less glamorous New York-centered drug films like Panic in Needle Park (1971) or Requiem for a Dream (2000.) 

Despite its heavy-handed message, it’s a film that makes you root for the principles. Especially knowing they’re baring their souls for us onscreen. When it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the cast in the years following its completion. Franklin Rodriguez has a few more credits to his name on imdb, but he probably deserved a bigger career. 

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