Produced by prolific exploitation master Sam Katzman (ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK), THE LOVE-INS was one of the few films of its era to take a distinctly negative view of the hippie subculture. The 66 year old Katzman, his director, 59 year old Arthur Dreifuss, and 47 year old writer Hal Collins combined to make a movie about a subject that none of them understood, resulting in the REEFER MADNESS of 1960s cinema.
Jonathan Barnett (Richard Todd) is a Timothy Leary-esque university professor who resigns his position in protest when publication of the school underground newspaper is halted by the Dean and its publishers Larry (James MacArthur) and Patrica (Susan Oliver), are expelled. He appears on conservative broadcaster Joe Pyne's television program where he is grilled over his belief in the consciousness-raising properties of LSD. Pyne suggests that Barnett move to Haight Street where he can be closer to the freaks he so obviously loves. Barnett moves in with Larry, Patricia and about ten other people in a Haight Street apartment also housing Elliot (Mark Goddard), an in-name-only hippie who makes money by selling banana peels to the kids for five dollars and ounce and likes to make jokes about the stock market. He suggests to Barnett that there would be money to be made selling Barnett to the hippies as a new age guru. Soon Barnett is dressing in white robes and preaching his mantra of "Be More, Sense More, Love More." One night Patricia has a bad LSD trip where she becomes convinced that she is Alice in Wonderland, leading to a rediculous musical production number, the likes of which have absolutely no place in a movie like this. When Larry confronts Barnett over Patricia's somewhat dangerous yet totally embarassing trip, Barnett refuses to renounce the use of LSD which creates a schizm in the once-happy group.
The hippies in this film are treated like a separate species despite being the main characters in the film. There's an early scene where sightseers on a tour bus snap photos of the hippies on Haight Street like they were monkeys in a zoo. It's remarkably similar to a scene in John Water's MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970) where tourists pay to gawk at members of the counterculture, but where Waters was satirizing the attitudes of society towards those they perceive as different, Katzman and company are playing it completely straight. Also suspect is the film's depiction of drug use. LSD is the drug of choice and not only are the hippies high on it all the time but one hit and the characters in the film are either flailing about wildly on the lawn, jumping out of windows or becoming convinced that they've become Alice in Wonderland (I'm honestly not sure which is worse).
For a film that only runs 85 minutes there's a remarkable amount of padding. The scene where Barnett first arrives in town and observes the hippies doing their thing while obviously all stoned out of their minds seems to go on longer than the entire Summer of Love. And then there's that Alice in Wonderland sequence. I give the filmmakers credit for wanting to do something different than the usual light show representing an LSD trip but this was a really crazy idea that should have never made it past the first draft of the screenplay. It stands as a classic "What were they thinking" moment and is easily the most memorable part of the film, although I'm sure not in the way anyone intended.
For all its faults (and they are legion) I still think the film should be seen not as a snapshot of the time it was made, but a snapshot of the attitudes of those that made it. It's a classic case of an established producer and a major studio (Columbia) teaming up to pander to and criticize its audience at the same time. The result may be somewhat offensive but it's never boring. It's like HAIR as written by Glenn Beck. Groovy.
See Todd Mason's blog for more overlooked films.