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WAY OUT (1966).

"This is a crazy, way out world that squares just won't believe," the film's narrator promises, and he's right, because at times I couldn't believe that this preachy, streetwise, truly remarkable movie had been lost for so many years. While most '60s drug flicks were either blatant scare films or heady exploitation, this solemn, South Bronx slice of life focuses on heroin addicts, and features a cast of honest-to-goodness ex-dope fiends. Though low on budget, it's high on realism, and makes excellent use of authentically seedy NYC locales, from building rooftops and subways, to slumlord apartments and grubby pass-out pads. The storyline bounces between a few desperate addicts, as they stumble through their home life, their nightly fixes and lots of overwrought drama. Ever-hustling Frankie (Frankie Rodriguez) initiates a homeless kid named Jim (James Dunleavy) into the world of smash-and-grab crime and the hooked generation -- even as Jim begins a rooftop romance with sweet, 16-year-old Anita (Sharyn Jimenez). Frankie and Jim will boost anything in order to pay for their habit (like stealing a baby carriage, and leaving the rugrat lying on the sidewalk!), until cops bust brain-fried Frankie and toss him into a cold turkey jail cell. Meanwhile, fast-talking Jerry (Jerry Rutkin) is a junkie Cosmo Kramer, who happily rips off his pals and even leaves his girlfriend as collateral with a sleazy neighborhood dope dealer -- the appropriately named Fats, who seduces addicted babes with bags of junk. As various characters are ruined by heroin, will True Love save Jim? The Magic 8-Ball predicts: "Highly unlikely." BUT WAIT! Just as I began to dig its unflinchingly downbeat agenda, the finale makes a 180-degree turn to...Jesus! We're suddenly assaulted with cleaned-up testimonials from the cast, who explain how religion "fills the empty spaces inside" and then break into song. What a mindfuck! If you've got to make a 'Jesus Saves' movie, this is the way to do it! Produced and directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. (who directed '50s creature features THE BLOB and THE 4D MAN, as well as numerous Billy Graham TV-specials during the '60s), this is a jaw-dropping mix of cool street reality, grim overdoses, heavyhanded family drama, and that jolting Christian twist. It's based on a play entitled "The Addicts" by John Gimenez (a self-confessed addict of 16 years, who also co-stars as Frankie's hard-working pop), which toured schools and churches, with the cast sharing their own drug experiences with impressionable youngsters. Sure, the drama is overbaked and the amateur cast ranges from Cassavetes-level reality to "Where'd they find this clown?", but it's also surprisingly powerful for its era, with detailed scenes of shooting up and destroyed lives. WAY OUT is a startling, one-of-a-kind experience.

© 2003 by Steven Puchalski.