The Trip — Psych-Out
“It’s like… I can feel the colors, man. The colors are running down my fingers, into my bones!” One had to be there, trying to talk to someone on drugs, to know what it was like. Roger Corman took his own experimental trip and decided to make a movie about it. For social relevance, the subject certainly bested telepathic atomic crab monsters. Olive Films’ new Blu-ray of Corman’s The Trip follows the company’s disc of Psych-Out by a full year, but since I was remiss in covering the first disc, I’ve combined them both in one review. In the sixteen years since I’ve last seen these movies, one seems better than I thought it was, and the other just as flaky as ever. The good news is that both are longer restored versions, and much improved experiences on Blu-ray. The less happy news is that Olive includes no extras.
The Trip and Psych-Out
Separate Releases from Olive Films
Color / 1:85 widescreen
Directed by Roger Corman, Richard Rush
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Roger Corman took an artistic turn near the end of his directing days to flex his creative muscles. After the finish of the Edgar Allan Poe series and before an unsatisfying experience at a major studio he made The Wild Angels, a borderline outlaw production with some of the wilder Hollywood crowd introduced to him by his actor friends, most particularly Jack Nicholson.
1967 / 85 min. / Street Date March 22, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.95
Starring Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper,
Salli Sachse, Barboura Morris, Judy Lang, Luana Anders, Beach Dickerson, Dick Miller, Michael Blodgett
Cinematography Arch R. Dalzell
Special Montages Dennis Jakob
Art Direction Leon Ericksen
Film Editor Ronald Sinclair
Original Music American Music Band
Written by Jack Nicholson
Produced and Directed by Roger Corman
Next up for Roger was the craze for mind-altering drugs, which in late 1966 had not yet been fully stigmatized as the scourge of the nation. Having had success with improvising and ‘letting things happen’ on his biker epic, for this LSD picture Corman relaxed his usual rule requiring a concrete narrative. The result is a mix of effective and ineffective elements, but good performances and Jack Nicholson’s thoughtful script give it a sense of legitimacy. And the somewhat dated visuals no longer bother me the way they once did.
Commercial director Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) is depressed by creative anxieties and is in denial about his upcoming divorce from Sally (Susan Strasberg). Through discussions with his pot connection Max (Dennis Hopper) about ‘opening his mind,’ Paul connects with a psychologist friend John (Bruce Dern). John agrees to monitor an experimental trip on LSD, at his Hollywood hills retreat. Paul drops acid under controlled conditions. John shepherds his charge through several unstable stages of the experience, but Paul wanders away when he hallucinates that John has been killed. Drifting on Sunset Boulevard, he has a number of strange encounters before being taken by a pickup, Glenn (Salli Sachse) to her Malibu house.
The Trip is split between the visionary impulse and the need to create an exploitation picture. It has several good performances and a minimalist screenplay that consists of fewer than four or five formal scenes. The dialogue isn’t terribly dated. The word ‘groovy’ is spoken constantly, which I must sadly report was perfectly accurate for the lingo of 1966/67. Peter Fonda is just plain dull in his first scenes, as a day-tripping advertising guy with a shallow soul-sickness. Paul Groves is no hippie, but a straight everyman, a placeholder for Roger Corman himself. Paul thinks in terms of ‘hang-ups.’ He doesn’t want to leave Sally and he fears his life’s work making advertising might be a trifle hollow at the core. Do ya think? Jack Nicholson’s screenplay begins with the assumption that any straight job is like, for squares, man.
Peter Fonda’s performance improves 100% after Groves drops acid. He describes his trip as it happens. Staring at an orange, he perceives its living aura glowing and dripping down his arm. Fonda communicates the sudden clarity of Groves’ emotions, his delight with some things but also his growing fear as ‘dark ideas’ in his psyche assert themselves. We’re convinced that Fonda has observed his share of tripped-out users, and walked the walk some himself.
Dennis Hopper is a denizen of a crash pad ‘stashed full of pot’ who, when he becomes concerned about the cops, plays denier and turns the Fonda Christ-figure back to the streets. This was pre- The Summer of Love, mind you, so we see perhaps the first instance of an instant cliché: a panning shot that follows a joint being passed around a circle. It needs to be pointed out that Corman and Nicholson were breaking fresh ground here: the closest Hollywood had come at the time to depicting a dropout counterculture was the wine festival orgy in 1966’s Seconds, a film that describes an earlier, totally different movement.
Also remember that Corman and Nicholson were products of the comparatively primitive 1950s — their visions don’t extend to enlightened ideas about sex equality. Fonda and friends refer to the ever-present parade of gorgeous, smiling women as ‘chicks.’ The female’s function is to dress hip and be available when studs like Fonda amble by. LSD and getting high is just another male sex fantasy. Naked women figure importantly in Paul’s visions. He hallucinates his estranged wife Sally having sex with none other than TV star Michael Blodgett, who has seemingly teleported back from three years in the future, from the set of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Sally is played by the underused, luminous Susan Strasberg of Picnic and Scream of Fear.
What Nicholson, Corman and the actors get right are his relationship scenes. Bruce Dern should have played more sane people and fewer zonked-out psychos, because he’s magnetic as Fonda’s lysergic tour guide, lending unexpected sobriety and depth to the role. A simple smile from John elicits an exaggerated response from the hypersensitive, paranoid Paul. Neither actor looks foolish, even as Paul becomes emotionally unglued, fumbling naked around John’s hilltop pad. (Note: judging by the views from the windows, this could very well be the same Hollywood Hills ridge house later occupied by another Peter Fonda character, in Steve Soderbergh’s The Limey.
The film’s two best scenes take place when Paul wanders away from John’s house. In an old commentary, Corman waxed nostalgic over actresses Luana Anders and Barboura Morris. Nicholson surely thought of them when he was writing. Morris’ brief scene in the Laundromat with a zonked-out Fonda is perhaps her best work this side of Corman’s A Bucket of Blood; it’s on the quality level of Five Easy Pieces. The most original scene has Fonda’s Paul just wander into an upscale Hollywood Hills house, which in this pre-Manson setting is wide open and unlocked. He sits down, turns on the TV and talks to the sleepy little girl who joins him for a glass of milk. Both encounters feel authentic for Los Angeles, ‘back in the day.’ I’ll never forget the afternoon that a guy knocked on my apartment door in his underwear, asking if he could borrow a shoe for an experiment. He clutched one shoe that he’d completely torn up, and said he needed another because he was certain he’d find something fantastic in it, if he could just look under the sole. I identify completely with the Barboura Morris’ character’s situation in The Trip.
Any discussion of The Trip must take in its depiction of psychedelic visions. Corman’s visuals aren’t bad; I was once much harder on them, as I had long ago lost all patience with cheap light-show tricks. I’ve since seen elaborate CGI effects doing what I thought would be better (in Taking Woodstock) and now give Corman and Co. more credit. Corman hired a light-show expert from the rock circuit to project hippie-trippy moiré patterns over naked bodies in bed; now seen in HD with the contrast set correctly, it looks very good.
The film’s flash-cut avant-garde editing style is not as easy as it looks — the key to all those short cuts is finding images that ‘read’ in only a few frames’ exposure. Remember, this show was cut not on a modern nonlinear computer but on a Movieola, where adjusting hundreds of short cuts — snipping frames one at a time — takes forever. If editor Ronald Sinclair did all that cutting, I hope he was paid by the hour. The first flash frame hallucination blip is very successful.
The less-than-inspired content of Corman’s associative montages still seems forced. Fonda wanders through a Griffith Park-like area, encountering body-painted women, hooded horse riders, etc. Angelo Rossito shows ups as a medieval dwarf, in shots that now remind us of the hilarious critique of dwarves and dream sequences in the Steve Buscemi film Living in Oblivion. The visual references to The Seventh Seal are obvious enough, but Corman’s budget-conscious reflexes kick in when he recycles themes from his old movies. Visuals imitating (and swiped from) his Poe films are crosscut with the Bergman rip-offs and more arbitrary material filmed on the beach up at Big Sur, his favorite location. We also see the ever-present Bronson Caverns. Pursued by one of the ‘dark horsemen of the apocalypse,’ Paul Groves races into a smoky cave. We fully expect him to confront the cucumber creature from It Conquered the World.
The scenes of Paul wandering the Sunset Strip are much better. The crew probably spent an evening on Sunset Boulevard shooting all the great signage outside the rock clubs. We see the Tiffany Theater marquee, and even a glimpse of Jay Ward’s ‘Bullwinkle statue’ from the East end of the Strip. Corman’s uncut version features quite a bit of actual nudity, in a club scene with painted topless dancers, scenes lifted for the general release. Peter Fonda’s emotional confusion during his Sunset Strip odyssey is very appealing — he’s much more sincere and likeable than he is being ‘cool’ in his other movie appearances. This is before Fonda settled into the affected persona that dominates his post- Easy Rider pictures.
Again, the hip ‘n’ happening experience is all from a male POV. Paul is picked up by a casual acquaintance played by Sally Sachse, an original A.I.P. beach bunny from the Beach Party movies. He’s stoned, so she takes him to Malibu in her red convertible, via the California Incline I write so much about. In her fabulous beach house, they make passionate love until the sun rises and reality comes back into Paul Groves’ life. You know, I did my share of aimless wandering in Hollywood, the Sunset Strip, Santa Monica and Westwood. Not once was I picked up by a flashy blonde in a red convertible, seeking overnight company in her Malibu pad. I guess it happened to everybody but me.
As a time capsule, The Trip isn’t bad. It certainly shows us which oars Roger Corman had in the water and which were up trying to row through the air. Corman had helped launch Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson’s A.I.P. only ten years before. They had weathered business disputes, but starting with The Wild Angels they meddled with his pictures as they had never done previously. A.I.P. wanted edgy subject matter but was afraid of anything too controversial. They added a clumsy text disclaimer up front: “The illegal manufacture and distribution of these drugs is dangerous, and can have fatal consequences… This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to us all.” They also imposed a ‘broken mirror’ optical on the last shot, to make it clear that ‘Paul Groves’ experience was a bad one, and that he’s now mentally screwed up.’
MGM restored The Trip in 2010, adding about three minutes. Most of that goes into a scene in an unlikely Sunset Strip dance club, one with topless entertainment. MGM Technical Services also got the idea of doing a director’s cut and asked Roger Corman to come in and approve it. It didn’t take much to restore the film to what Corman had originally turned in. The bogus disclaimer card was removed from the front, and the final shot of Peter Fonda was frozen on the frame immediately preceding the animated broken mirror optical. Fortunately, audio without the corresponding “cracking” sound effect was also located. After requesting a few minor tweaks, Corman decreed his satisfaction with the result, which has been cablecast several times on the MGMHD channel. Now it’s finally on disc.
1968 / 101 min. / Street Date February 17, 2015 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
<Starring Susan Strasberg, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern,
Adam Roarke, Max Julien, Henry Jaglom, Gary Marshall, Robert Kelljan
Cinematography Laszlo Kovacs
Art Direction Leon Ericksen
Film Editor Renn Reynolds
Original Music Ronald Stein
Written by Betty Tusher and Betty Ulius
Produced by Dick Clark
Directed by Richard Rush
Corman’s The Trip displays a legitimate desire to explore new subject matter, but A.I.P. was still in the full-on exploitation business. Dick Clark and Richard Rush’s Psych-Out is a laughable and embarrassing attempt to cash in on the hippie craze. In his remarks in an older disc docu, producer Clark remembers that his crew arrived at Haight-Ashbury only a few months after The Summer of Love. The commercialization of hippie-dom was already so acute that his L.A. actors in their art-directed costumes were met with active hostility. Jack Nicholson can’t have felt that he was in his natural element. At age thirty he was still taking any role he could get, even a part on Andy Griffith’s TV show.
Psych-Out is a freeze-dried San Francisco saga. It imposes soap-opera melodrama on the Summer of Love, combined with a dose of tragedy-lite. Deaf mute Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg) is on the run from an asylum. Arriving in Haight-Ashbury, she makes friends with the hippie band Mumblin’ Jim: Ben (Adam Roarke), Elwood (Max Julien) and Stoney (Jack Nicholson). Hanging out in a crash pad with characters like Earth guru Dave (Dean Stockwell) and freaked out Warren (Henry Jaglom in his pre-directing days), Jenny adopts a hippie wardrobe. She eventually makes it with Stoney, who isn’t sure he needs the attachment. But the boys band together to help Jenny locate her brother Steve (Bruce Dern), a visionary who’s totally blown his mind and disappeared off the streets. Like, far out.
Psych-Out is padded with music montages of the Haight-Ashbury district, and long passages observing phony hippie activity. Richard Rush’s long-lens rack-focus technique hoses down the crash pads populated with bearded guys and attractive women, all fixed up in hippie garb and staring at love beads as if they’re, like, tripping out on the beauty of it all.
Susan Strasberg had a small but memorable presence in The Trip. Her role is much larger here, and having her around elevates the show’s general watchability. The hippie jargon is so thick and overdone, with everyone decked out in full flower-power regalia, that pros like Bruce Dern and Dean Stockwell (and for all we know, the director) must have thought the film as a joke. The fun is seeing the fave actors of David Lynch and other latter-day directors make utter fools of themselves.
Jack Nicholson is in a special category,. He’d already been angling around A.I.P. and Corman for more than a decade, attracting little positive attention as an actor and trying to find work as a writer. Cry Baby Killer in 1958 and The Raven in 1963 earned him negative to dismal notices. Nicholson must have been the most persistent actor in town, or the luckiest. The next year’s Easy Rider came through like a gift from heaven.
Here he’s a tie-dyed, head-banded lead guitarist for a group that plays bad imitations of big hits — one number is an embarrassingly close sound-alike for Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. The Strawberry Alarm Clock is on board with a couple of tunes, including their “Incense and Peppermints”, a rip-off hippie anthem if ever there was one. Hearing a pretty awful song behind over a hippie funeral scene, I thought, ‘that sounds a little like The Seeds.’ Well, it is The Seeds, who should have known better.
The story arc is an unknowing revamp of the classic The Seventh Victim, another tale of a search for a missing sibling in the big city. Nicholson and Strasberg outsmart the cops snooping on her trail, including a nerdy narc played by familiar TV actor and director Gary (Garry) Marshall. They also out-fight several junkyard thugs — hey, those peace-loving hippie dudes can really kick ass! Stoney finally puts Susan in contact with her spaced-out brother, Bruce Dern, who shows up in a horse-mane wig for a tiny slice of screen time.
As soon as the novelty of seeing our stars as flower children grows tiresome, the show can’t end soon enough. This movie could very well have inspired a classic National Lampoon Magazine satire of Hollywood cluelessness, a faux exhibitor pressbook for a non-existent film called Right On! The made-up movie stars all three Fondas — Peter, Jane and Henry — as undercover straights penetrating the world of hippie-dom for the FBI. The parody of Jane’s inconsistent politics and Peter’s vapid posturing is priceless.
Psych-Out on Blu is much longer than the old MGM DVD. MGM Technical Services restored it in 2010 as well, adding a full reel to its running time with the approval of director Richard Rush, who supervised the final transfer. The theatrical cut had chopped the song “Incense and Peppermints” in half. It had also removed a five-minute chunk of a party scene and Susan Strasberg’s awful musical montage trying on used hippie clothes. In addition to reinstating A.I.P.’s cuts, the restored version adds another three minutes that were set aside for the International version. This chunk of music, zoom shots and spaced-out hippies includes the ‘nudes in the picture frame’ sequence seemingly lifted from Busby Berkeley’s Dames.
The old transfer also came from an inferior dupe element, so the new transfer — made from the only IP of the long version — is much sharper and more colorful.
Olive Films’ separate Blu-rays of The Trip and Psych-Out are much improved by the jump to HD video. The film sources were always in good shape, but the added sharpness and contrast make all those light-show special effects look much better. The presentation lifts Corman’s picture up a few notches in importance; it now seems even more of a thematic sequel to the director’s even more visionary “X” The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
Olive offers no extras, which is a shame, as MGM’s older combo DVD of the two titles featured a wealth of added value material, some of the best work by then-MGM Home Video producer Greg Carson. The Trip on DVD had a long documentary, a commentary by Roger Corman, and a fascinating interview with cinematographer Allen Daviau on the film’s special effects. Psych-Out had trailer and another worthwhile making-of docu, featuring interviews with Bruce (“Drugs? Where?”) Dern and television sellout Dick Clark, who claimed he was hands-on all the way.
In other words, if you own the old MGM DVD double-bill, hang on to it for the extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Trip / Psych-Out Blu-rays rate:
Movies: The Trip Very Good ++; Psych-Out Fair ++
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Separate releases in keep cases
Reviewed: March 9, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson