Few films represent the cultural upheaval of the 1960s more bluntly than Richard Rush’s Psych-Out and Roger Corman’s The Trip. These exploitation gems, finally released to DVD last month on a double bill from MGM, reached theaters in 1967 and 1968, respectively, and looked forward to an era of filmmaking – during the ’70s – when artistic “independence” ruled. Watching these two films now is like watching a counter-cultural tidal wave, still a little out at sea, heading slowly towards the shore of cinematic dominance.
Psych-Out tracks Jenny (Susan Strasberg, Lee’s daughter), a deaf girl who escapes an abusive home by running to Haight-Ashbury at its Flower Power peak, in search of her older brother (Bruce Dern). Her only clue to his whereabouts is a postcard that reads, “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.” In her naiveté, Jenny at first doesn’t seem to grasp the psychedelic inspiration behind her brother’s message. With the help of Stony (Jack Nicholson), the sardonic leader of a local psychedelic rock band, she gradually figures out that her brother has “turned on, tuned in, dropped out” and is now known as “the Seeker.”
At first, Jenny is pleasantly overwhelmed by the love and freedom of her new surroundings, but gradually, she realizes its lazy, selfish underside. Once she has sex with Stony (in typically gauzy, stroboscopic fashion), for example, he loses interest in her, turning his attention to his band’s first big gig, at the Fillmore. In a moment of jealous anger over his subsequent going off with another woman, the formerly straitlaced Jenny gulps down a glass of psychedelically-enhanced fruit juice. As seen-it-all hippie Dave (Dean Stockwell) observes, “She’s gone to the end of the universe… on STP.”
With an adventurous (if occasionally clichéd) script, strong performances, and excellent camerawork by the legendary Lazlo Kovacs, this film moves beyond what could have been a semi-sleazy expose of the free-loving flower children. Instead, it’s an engaging hybrid of AIP’s horror/biker flicks (there’s a bad trip wherein a character sees his friends as walking zombies, and a clumsily staged fight scene against some bullies in a trash dump) and the experimental, character-driven 1970s cinema to come. Best of all, it is neither anti- nor pro-drugs. In depicting both the spiritually liberating and destructive aspects of LSD, it’s still years ahead of its time; the psychedelic effects are at once scary and hilarious in a way that will captivate the kitsch crowd, the best of both worlds.
The DVD transfer for Psych-Out is first-rate, with minimal grain and great, vibrant colors. The sound is robust and clear. The disc’s flip side, Roger “King of the B’s” Corman’s The Trip (1967) fares less well, with some faded colors and a static-haunted soundtrack. Still, it’s a gem and features a great commentary track from Corman. The story has Peter Fonda as Paul, a self-centered commercial director in the midst of a divorce from Sally (Susan Strasberg). He’s decided to take an LSD trip to find out something about himself. He scores some hits from Max (Dennis Hopper) and with John (creepy Bruce Dern) as his guide, prepares to “flow to the center of everything.”
The film includes footage of Fonda strolling along the beach at Big Sur or being nailed into coffins left over from Corman’s Poe films. Racy sex scenes (to capture the heavy breathing of a trip) use light show effects on entwined bodies, rapid, free-association juxtaposition editing, a topless body-painted go-go dancer, and lots of really bad, dated music by the American Music Band (does anyone ever really want to hear blaring, pseudo-Dixieland jazz?). As in Psych-Out, moments of genuine insight blur with delirious camp, creating a unique viewing experience.
Roger Corman’s DVD commentary provides background and insight into this, explaining how the “serious” ambitions of Corman and scriptwriter Jack Nicholson were undermined by budget constraints. The sharp dialogue suggests that Nicholson has “been there,” and keeps dated slang to a minimum (he also penned the even trippier Head, released the following year).
The DVD includes short documentaries on the making of both films, featuring the current incarnations of these past psychedelic warriors, remembering and recalling the shoots with fondness. Standing out weirdly in each doc is a rambling, unfocused Bruce Dern. He confesses his alienation from the drug scene (he was a marathon runner at the time and never indulged), and recounts his dismay at what drugs did to his friends. Yet, compared with the ex-heads interviewed here, he alone seems burned out and confused today. Corman, on the other hand, comes off like some wise, laughing, thin white Buddha (he says he had a terrific time on his one acid trip).
This colorful, elaborate, even eloquent tapestry of a period long gone reveals an era when psychedelic drugs boosted the emerging counterculture into the spiritual stratosphere, transforming curious college kids into yogis and religious mystics, literally overnight. Viewing these films may create a “contact” buzz, as well as nostalgia for this “innocent” time. LSD’s invasion of suburbia and its abuse by the underage and unprepared would soon lead to a witch-hunt: The drug sparked a national hysteria and was put into the same classification as the most dangerous narcotics, abruptly ending decades of psychological research. Since then, U.S. mainstream culture has assiduously denied the validity of psychedelic experiences, despite clinical findings and the fact that, in many other cultures, they have been revered. The Trip and Psych-Out are reminders this was not always so; they are lysergic time capsules dug up from a more permissive past.
At the time, they heralded the genesis of a strikingly independent cinema that became “1970s Hollywood.” It was on The Trip, after all, that Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson first came into contact with each other. Soon afterward, they made Easy Rider. In Psych-Out, we first see, among other crazy things, the complex Nicholson persona emerge: a womanizing antihero, righteously angered by his own self-seeking behavior, whose smirk wins us over in spite of ourselves. Special mention should be made of cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs, whose work on Psych-Out and Easy Rider made them into experimental works of art.
As the missing link between the drive-in’s heyday and what Peter Biskind has called the era of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, these films are now regarded as respectable “exploitation” pictures. It’s as if the drugs helped these young filmmakers achieve a new creative consciousness, bursting through their biker chains and horror film conventions. It’s tempting to dismiss their counter-cultural idealism outright, but in their fearless exploration of controversial subjects, these films actually seem relevant again. Their resistant, freaky flag flies in the face of today’s repressive narrow-mindedness, media-sanctioned consumerism, and pro-war sentiments.