Glancing back at the cinematic head trips of the 1960s, many of them have dated pretty shabbily. Big studio embarrassments such as CANDY and SKIDOO are rarely acknowledged by those who made them, but the films that now exist as fascinating time capsules are those produced with a low budget. American-International Pictures (AIP) had their fingers on the pulse of America's youth for years, delivering the “Beach Party” films, monster movies, and biker flicks to the drive-ins for the audience that the mainstream studios ignored. PSYCH-OUT peeked into the world of San Francisco circa the Summer of Love. By the time the time it was released in 1968, the Free Love aura of SF was already turning sour, but cashing in on the nationwide hippie/drug/free love craze seemed like a good idea at the time and cult film fans can now jump at the chance to see this gem on Blu-ray.
Jenny (Susan Strasberg, SCREAM OF FEAR) is a deaf runaway — with the ability to read lips — who ventures to San Francisco by bus to find her missing brother Steve, who is now known by the locals as “The Seeker” (the great Bruce Dern in a pretty wild turn) and wanted by a certain party who don’t condone the things he says in public. The only clue she has to go on is a postcard her brother sent her which reads "Jess Saes: God is alive and well and living in a sugar cube". As luck would have it, she falls in with a pretty good crowd in the form of a hard-working and often high rock band named Mumblin’ Jim which includes Stoney (Jack Nicholson, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) on guitar, Ben (Adam Roarke, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) on keyboards and Elwood (Max Julien, THOMASINE AND BUSHROD) on drums. They initiate her into the hippie society, buying her far-out clothes and letting her crash in their pad (a communal house full of hippies practically sleeping on top of each other) so she can hide from the police and at the same time search for her brother. Stoney tries to put the moves on Jenny, but she initially rejects him and his “free love” lifestyle (she later falls in love with him). After the band gets offered a big-time gig at “The Ballroom”, Stoney gets more demanding about band practice (wanting to be famous “like The Airplane”), ignoring poor Jenny, causing her to take way too much STP and run out into the streets, and her friends later find her standing in the middle of a very dark and very busy Golden Gate Bridge!
Originally scripted as “The Love Children”, PSYCH-OUT is a real trip, to say the least. From the opening credits, with the lovely Strasberg first witnessing the magic in the streets of San Francisco, set to a marvelous theme song, you know you're in for something special. Granted, there is very little plot, but the groovy surroundings and incredible aura of a time long gone will literally drown the viewer in good vibrations. The film may not be a realistic portrayal of its era, but it’s a colorful, imaginative psychedelic snapshot of the late 1960s Haight-Ashbury phenomenon. There are a number of incredible freak-outs including a character named Warren (future director Henry Jaglom) seeing his hand as a mangled bloody mess with a protruding bone and his sympathetic friends as rotted corpses, and Elwood seeing a gang of junkyard thugs as medieval knights during a brawl. Susan Strasberg's climatic STP trip is very impressive, with plenty of firey effects, edgy cinematography and visuals, and haunting music. Interestingly enough, not only does the film praise the community of the love children, but also paints them as lazy slobs who need to grow up and get a life! Director Richard Rush (whose crowning directorial achievement would be the Peter O’Toole vehicle THE STUNT MAN) was definitely an asset to drive-in cinema, having also helmed the fun AIP racing movie THUNDER ALLEY as well as HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS and THE SAVAGE SEVEN, two of the best motorcycle pictures of the 1960s.
Third-billed Jack Nicholson is awkwardly yet appealingly cast as Stoney, complete with a hair attachment in the form of a long ponytail which we never see set free. Although Nicholson looks incredibly stilted when pretending to strum a guitar onstage, his portrayal of a somewhat self-centered bohemian with a bit of a conscious is a good one, akin to his portrayal of Poet in Rush’s HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS (which also features Roarke in a much different role than his one here). Nicholson’s “angry young man” intensity can be found with certain aspects of his character, leading to the kind of mainstream performances he would soon be better known for in acclaimed Hollywood favorites like FIVE EASY PIECES and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE. Second-billed former child actor Dean Stockwell (THE DUNWICH HORROR) plays a cynical, preachy prophet-like character named Dave, who is also on the make for Jenny and finds himself in competition with his former bandmate Stoney (Stockwell sports a long black wig fastened with an American Indian-style headband). Cult movie lovers should also keep an eye out for future TV producer and film director Gary Marshall as a detective and Al Adamson regulars William Bonner, John "Bud" Cardos, and Gary Kent (who is also credited for the special effects and as stunt coordinator) in the gang of thugs. Bob Kelljan, director of the two “Count Yorga” movies, can be seen as one of Stoney’s friendly housemates.
The main instrumental song which Mumblin’ Jim is seen performing (it also turns up in one of the freak-out scenes) is basically Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” with the cords rearranged and the tempo slightly slowed down (actually, a tune called "Ashbury Wednesday" by Boenzee Cryque). It’s the psychedelic ensemble The Strawberry Alarm Clock (who can also be seen playing on the stage right before Mumblin’ Jim) who provide the bulk of the harmonious soundtrack songs. Starting with the opening "Pretty Song From Psych-Out", they also perform the haunting “Rainy Day Mushroom People” and the more up-tempo “The World’s On Fire” and of course their smash number 1 Billboard hit “Incense and Peppermints”: their music fits right into the look and feel of the film and the sights and sounds of the bygone era it represents. Garage rock royalty The Seeds (lead by the late, great Sky Saxon) perform “Two Fingers Pointing at You” during a pointless but unforgettable outdoor faux funeral party scene where a pasty-faced Roarke wakes up out of an open coffin in front of a parade of dancing flower children.
Olive Films brings PSYCH-OUT to Blu-ray in a pretty 1080p HD picture preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Detail is extraordinary, and the image is remarkably crisp and free of excessive grain while maintaining a proper filmic appearance. Colors are vivid and accurate, black levels are fine, and flesh tones appear true as well. The dirt and speckling present in the previous DVD are nowhere to be found in this excellent presentation. An strong DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track supports the film’s music and dialogue quite well (no subtitle options are included). What's great about this Blu-ray release is that it’s the full 101-minute director’s cut (it actually runs a little longer than that with the MGM, Olive Films and American International Pictures logos). The 1990s Orion VHS version is listed as running 95 minutes, while MGM’s 2003 DVD release ran just under 90 minutes. Some of the bits restored for this Blu-ray include when Jenny is trying on outfits in the hippie shop as well as when Mumblin’ Jim’s bass player trips out to the partially nude images of various body-painted women.
Although Olive Films’ Blu-ray presentation of PSYCH-OUT is definitive for sure, if you have the old MGM Midnite Movies DVD you might want to hold onto it not only for the inclusion of Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (not available on Blu-ray as of this writing) but because of the excellent featurette "Love and Haight" which contains interviews with Rush, Dern, the late cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and the late producer Dick Clark. There is no theatrical trailer or any other extras on the Blu-ray (which is subsequently being released on DVD by Olive utilizing the same HD transfer). (George R. Reis and Casey Scott)
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