“Ghetto Freaks” aka “Sign of Aquarius”: Faux Blaxploitation with cold Cleveland hippies on acid

By on November 5, 2015

After it originally opened in the local Cleveland, Ohio-area, where it was filmed on location, often surreptitiously, the 1970 film Ghetto Freaks went by a few different names.

Its original title was Sign of Aquarius, but director Robert J. Emery later spliced in two additional minutes of freaky footage, right into the middle of an orgy sequence, which featured “the black leader of a kinky love cult” (that’s what it says on the back of the DVD re-release). After that, he was able to find a new distributor, and suddenly the hippie exploitation film had a new title and was now being marketed it as a Blaxploitation film, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the film was actually white.

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This trippy LSD sequence in this clip, by the way, is one of the best scenes in what is surprisingly an otherwise mostly drab low-budget film, which was shot during the wintertime in Ohio! We have to admit, it’s a little jarring to see midwestern hippies — these aren’t west coast hippies, basking nude in the California sunshine — dealing with the freezing cold of Cleveland, crunching through the snow on the streets and sidewalks.

Here’s the original trailer:

Marc Campbell, reviewing the film recently for Dangerous Minds, said it “stinks as bad as a crash pad mattress.”

While we don’t necessarily think it’s as bad as that might lead you to believe, it’s still not as good as any of the various taglines associated with the film in its many re-released versions might lead you to believe either, all of which attempt to hide the fact that Ghetto Freaks is mostly an unfocused anti-hippie-ish diatribe that purports to be something it really isn’t, which is some kind of post-Manson cinéma vérité social commentary.

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Seriously, just how did a film with these taglines -- “15 Hot-Blooded Young Drop-Outs Living in One Room!,” “They Lived For the Night and Tripped Till Dawn!,” “When the Moon is in the Communal House of Love…A Shocking Tribal Ritual Will Take You Higher Than You’ve Ever Been Before!” — end up becoming a Blaxploitation flick? Blows our mind.

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Let’s pause here to let the words spoken in this slightly NSFW Blaxploitation-ish film trailer, released years after it’s initial theatrical release, flow over you and tell what the film is supposed to be about, baby:

“…To take the man’s poontang… don’t miss Ghetto Freaks. Ghetto Freaks is a mother of a film. They tried to stop it, censor it, water it down, but it didn’t happen, baby. The man lost…

Ghetto Freaks comes on strong and tells it like it is. A ghetto commune where color didn’t stop the freaks from doing their weird, shocking initiation rites… night after night.

They were wild, free and beautiful… and they all did the weird bidding of a black leader. He took the man’s woman and made them all sisters, and they kept begging for more. A sweet, funky black chick is all he wanted… but a freaked-out white chick in a dashiki blew his mind…

This is where it’s happening, baby… in the main city, and the main thing is getting your thing on, no matter what. Do it.

Ghetto Freaks makes you want to do it right now. Ghetto Freaks isn’t a film about how to show the man your ass, but what to do with his.

Groupies, long-hairs and Jesus-freaks all under one roof and they raised hell… and when the going got rough and the bread short, they put the chicks on the street and brought all their money to the leader, the head freak. He was a saint to this family of freaked-out, sex-starved white chicks, and he showed them how to get their kicks where their cracker lovers left off.

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Shake it, fake it, but make it baby, do your thing… and make the man think you’re doing his. They were busted, beaten, and taken downtown… and that’s where the black chicks made you proud you’re black. Then they busted out of Harlem and sent the city on a freaked-out, sex-starved weekend that ended in blood, crime and murder.

Ghetto Freaks is the picture that explodes on the screen with the shocking, brutal facts of taking over a white commune and turning all the brothers into black sex saviors. If you want to see a film that will make you come alive when you step out on the street… a film that makes every sensuous part of you react with a new sensation… don’t miss Ghetto Freaks.

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See Ghetto Freaks and feast your eyes on some of the grooviest, outta-sight commune chicks and their sex-starved commune brothers. Every society chick wanted to join his family just to get in on the integrated action. Blue-eyed devils didn’t mess with this brother’s thing, or they’d find their ass hung high and waving in the god-damn breeze. That’s right, baby… They didn’t let anything stop them in the man’s ‘take-from-the-blacks-and-use-for-their-white-asses’ world.

Don’t miss Ghetto Freaks coming to this theater, with full approval of The Third World. Ghetto Freaks…”

Now, here’s what really goes down, you dig?: the plot concerns a former drug-dealing, poncho-wearing lothario named Sonny (Paul Elliot) and some of his hippie friends, who all live together in a Cleveland crash pad (touted as a “commune”). They have names like Mousey, and Stringbean, and Cleaver, and Halo.

We follow them around in what starts to feel like an endless, monotonous murky stream of un-plotted sequences strung together to showcase the boredom of the hippie lifestyle — and we also get to see some of Cleveland’s loveliest scenic hot spots, including Public Square and the surrounding downtown area, University Circle, and the Detroit-Superior Bridge.

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We get to see hippies congregating in local parks, panhandling the crowded streets, begging strangers for spare change; we follow them to peaceful protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which lead to them being busted by the fuzz and thrown in a jail cell; then it’s back again, off to nightclubs and drug parties, getting high; then back to the streets again, selling copies of an underground newspaper, chatting with those who stop to earnestly to their spiel (likely these scenes were completely improvised on the spot), then riding the city bus without paying the fare; and then it’s back to the hippie crash pad, where it’s always all about dirty hippie dudes screwing dirty hippie girls and participating in acid-drenched orgies with naked dancing and full-on freak-outs, all this despite anyone apparently forgetting to take a bath or have a shave now and then.

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Oh, and one of the girls has a bad LSD trip, man, because that’s the price you sometimes pay, you dig?

Then, we meet Donna (aka Diane) (Gabe Lewis), an innocent and naïve young girl, who can’t handle the hassles she’s having at home with her dad, played by Bob “Hoolihan” Wells. In 1970, Wells was very well-known to Cleveland locals as both “Hoolihan the Weatherman,” which was his regular gig on local channel WJW-TV, aka “TV-8,” and as the co-host on the Friday night B-movie horror and comedy show, “Shock Theater,” which was primarily a showcase for the host, “Ghoulardi,” played by TV personality and local deejay Ernie Anderson.

After Anderson stopped performing his “Ghoulardi” character live in September 1966, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, Wells and his co-host “Big Chuck” Schodowski took over the Friday night movie time slot as co-hosts of the now re-titled “The Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show.”

Donna/Diane becomes a runaway who falls in with Sonny, meeting him at the rock club. Because she’s new to the exciting hippie lifestyle, and because he’s the older, wiser man-of-the-world (he seems like he’s a good ten years older than she is), he teaches her about drugs and sex and, of course, she drops acid for the first time, which of course leads to huge orgy while members of the commune dance around naked as Sonny and Diane make love on the floor (it’s probably her first time having sex too).

The dance scenes, by the way, were choreographed by Jeff Kutash, a dancer on the locally-produced TV dance show, “Upbeat.”

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Then, towards the end of the orgy sequence, quite suddenly, we’re no longer watching Sonny screwing Diane while a bunch of nude hippies dance, but we’re instead seeing a tall black dude with a knife, who appears as though he’s dropped in from a completely different film; indeed, it’s likely the two-minute sequence was spliced in from another film, giving director Robert J. Emery to re-title Sign of Aquarius film Ghetto Freaks (since the dude’s black) and re-work it for a completely new audience, marketed now as a Blaxploitation film despite the fact that nearly everyone else in the film is white. (Future Psychotronic editor Michael J. Weldon says he unsuccessfully auditioned to be an extra on the film too).

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Marc Campbell, in his awesome Dangerous Minds review, provided a video of one of his favorite moments (ours too), “in all of its unadulterated badassness,” of one of the original pieces of music by composer Thomas Baker, “Om, Pax, Om,” adding in some “light show trickery to obscure a bunch of nudity”:

Of course, this being a hippie exploitation flick from 1970, it all ends badly for Donna/Diane, since that’s the point, right? They never show the hippies that cut their hair and get jobs and find a way to fit into society, that’s a drag, man.

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Nope, there’s gotta be violence and death, which comes along when Billy, a violent drug dealer, pressures Sonny to push drugs for the local rackets. Sonny refuses, of course, but that leads to a tragic death, because that’s where it always leads. It’s an ending you can see coming from miles away, no matter if you’re straight as an arrow, or high as a kite.

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Like so many low-budget hippie exploitation films of the era, the film has subsequently been distributed under a few additional names. It was given the name Love Commune, and when Something Weird Video released the original version of the film on VHS, in 1992, that’s the name they used.

They later released the Ghetto Freaks version on VHS and DVD in 2002 and again in 2004 as a special edition DVD, and at some point the film was also reissued in the U.S. as Wages of Sin. Producer G.B. Roberts also produced The Weird World of LSD, which we told you about here.

(h/t Dangerous Minds)

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.