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 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. Two of these films, PSYCH OUT and THE TRIP, peeked into the world of San Francisco circa the Summer of Love. By the time the films were released, 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 will be jumping for joy at the chance to see these!
Susan Strasberg (daughter of famous acting coach Lee Strasberg) is Jenny, a deaf runaway who ventures to San Francisco by bus to find her missing brother (Bruce Dern in a pretty wild turn). As luck would have it, she falls in with a pretty good crowd: Jack Nicholson as Stoney (with an embarrassing pony-tail), Max Julien as Elwood, and Adam Rourke as Ben. They initiate her into the hippie society, buying her far-out clothes and letting her crash in their pad.
PSYCH OUT is a real trip, to say the least. From the opening credits, with Susan 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. There are a number of incredible freak-outs (one guy sees his hand as a mangled bloody mess with protruding bone, another has a brawl with a gang of thugs imagining they're medieval knights), there is almost non-stop rock music by the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Seeds (unfortunately, little of it is any good; Jack Nicholson's "group" even does a really bad imitation of "Purple Haze"!), and Susan Strasberg's 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! Cult film viewers will already enjoy seeing former child star Dean Stockwell, future Oscar winner Jack Nicholson, and wild man Bruce Dern in unexpected roles, but should also keep an eye out for future director Gary Marshall as a plainclothesman cop and Al Adamson regulars William Bonner, John "Bud" Cardos, and Gary Kent in the gang of thugs.
MGM had previously released PSYCH OUT as a limited Amazon Exclusive VHS, considered by many to be a dumping ground promotion where the cult titles with the least likelihood of appearing on DVD were unleashed, making this disc that much more surprising. The 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen transfer on the disc isn't as impressive as some of their earlier efforts, with a good deal of grain, dirt and speckles, but colors are very strong (an important factor in this film) and is generally acceptable. The mono audio isn't strong enough, however, you'll have to crank the volume to hear both music and dialogue. In addition to including the theatrical trailer (which shows clips from a scene missing from this DVD, but present on the VHS, of Susan Strasberg trying on outfits in the hippie shop that probably inspired a similar scene with Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN), there is a well-done featurette, "Love and Haight," discussing the making of the film. Producer Dick Clark, director Richard Rush, cinematography Laszlo Kovacs, and co-star Bruce Dern talk about the beginnings of the film, the various psychedelic camera effects, and all aspects of shooting, including locations, editing, music (both rock and Ronald Stein), censorship, and promotion. Some great anecdotes are shared (the Hell's Angels served as security on the set!), but little time is spent discussing the cast, and I was surprised that Jack Nicholson couldn't be persuaded into participating.....(snicker)....
Opening with a disclaimer stating the dangers of LSD, I wasn't sure what I was getting into with THE TRIP. I had been recommended it multiple times by friends and for some reason just hadn't gotten around to seeing it. It has earned the reputation of being the best LSD film ever made, approaching both the enjoyable and the dangerous elements surrounding the hallucinogen. After seeing the finished product, it certainly lives up to its reputation! The plotline is simple: TV commercial director Peter Fonda is tired of just smoking grass, so decides to take the plunge by taking his first acid trip, supplied by bearded confidante Bruce Dern. Hallucinations fluctuate from erotic to surreal to horrific, and when Fonda runs from Dern's apartment into the real world, things only get worse. There isn't much reason to list other notable cast members, as the majority of them are on-screen for very little time, but Susan Strasberg (PSYCH OUT) is Fonda's wife, and Dick Miller as a bartender, Barboura Morris (A BUCKET OF BLOOD) in a laundromat, Dennis Hopper as a pothead, Beach Dickerson, Peter Bogdonavich, Luana Anders as a waitress, Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), and Angelo Rossitto as a dwarf all make brief appearances, as does Fonda's ass in some surprising nudity. Written by Jack Nicholson (wonder if he puts this on his resume?), director Roger Corman saturates the film with bizarre color opticals, sex with projected light shows on the bodies, and groovy dialogue, and the editing and cinematography are absolutely superb! There is really no way I can review THE TRIP. It is an experience, non-linear and completely off-the-wall in every way! Does it advocate LSD or condemn it? See for yourself....
MGM's 1.85:1 Anamophic transfer for THE TRIP is considerably nicer than PSYCH OUT. The colors are much richer and smoother, with little grain and no dirt or speckling present. Every color burst and the vibrant set and costume design are all rendered beautifully. Alas, the mono audio is weaker than PSYCH OUT, asking for much more cranking to hear what is being said. The special features on this side of the disc, though, are exceptional. The theatrical trailer, narrated by Peter Fonda, is a mini-masterpiece by itself. The making-of featurette, "Tune In, Trip Out" features interviews with costar Bruce Dern, director Roger Corman, and cinematography Allen Daviau. Too bad Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson couldn't come around to discuss this minor masterpiece. Regardless, in their absence, there are plenty of interesting anecdotes to be heard here: Corman discusses his first LSD trip to understand the drug in order to make the film, Dern makes no secret of his disdain for the drug culture (which surprised me) and does a great Nicholson impression, and Daviau goes into detail about the light shows and color effects used in the film. Daviau isn't used much in the featurette, so he is given an entire featurette to himself: "Allen Daviau, ASC: Psychedelic Film Effects." He talks about Bob Beck's light show effects and Peter Fonda's involvement in the cinematography. The "Psychedelic Light Box" contains all the colorful optical effects first witnessed by Peter Fonda during his trip, excerpts of the psychedelic Fonda/Strasburg/Salli Sachse sex scene, and other visual wonders; while not essential viewing, it's a nice little bonus. An excerpt from American Cinematographer Magazine (March 1968) is an article covering the behind-the-scenes creation of the visual effects of the film. More DVDs should contain magazine articles about the film! But the extra to salivate over is the Roger Corman audio commentary: it is one of few he has done, and it will leave many listeners craving for him to record more! Starting off with disagreeing with the studio-imposed disclaimer before the film, Corman discusses more in-depthly about his first acid trip, his relationship with cast and crew, the various cost-cutting effects and methods, and censorship problems he encountered with the film. Required listening!
Despite PSYCH OUT being briefly cut and the audio being weak on both films, this is an indispensable double feature disc any cult film fan should not be without! Pass around the sugar cubes, turn on the lava lamp, and prepare for one of the best trips of your life! (Casey Scott)
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