Tune in, turn on, “Psych-Out”

Pub date July 3, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

CULT FILM Some movies define a generation. Some distort a generation. Very special ones manage both. Welcome to the genius of Psych-Out, a 1968 American International Pictures epic (produced by none other than squeaky-clean American Bandstand icon Dick Clark) that remains perhaps the all-time high-water mark in cinematic hippiesploitation.

Oh, Psych-Out, Psych-Out, Psych-Out! How many times have I loved your psychedelic excesses since that fateful first viewing in the 1980s at Boston’s annual Schlock-around-the-Clock marathon? Not even my housemate’s desperate need to exchange MDA-driven warm fuzzies in the lobby could tear me from such enchantment. (She did succeed in wrangling me away that night from such additional gems as The Thing with Two Heads. A small resentment lingers.)

Psych-Out, which plays as part of the Red Vic’s commemoration of the Summer of Love’s 40th anniversary, is the least heralded of an unofficial AIP trilogy from that year, alongside The Trip (Peter Fonda drops lysergic under the tutelage of ever-levelheaded Bruce Dern) and Wild in the Streets (the US voting age is lowered to 14, resulting in Shelley Winters being sent to a concentration camp for too-old people). Those films were actual hits. Psych-Out ran through the drive-in mill and was quickly forgotten.

Stupid humans!! How could they resist a film advertised thus: "These are the PLEASURE LOVERS! They’ll ask for a dime with hungry eyes. But they’ll give you love — for NOTHING! Have you ever TASTED FEAR or SMELLED MADNESS? LISTEN to the sound of PURPLE!" Nearly 30 Susan Strasberg plays Jenny, an underage runaway searching for her brother (Dern as "the Seeker," a sort of Crazy Acid Jesus). Escaping their abusive mother — glimpsed in one genuinely disturbing flashback — the mute Audrey Hepburn–goes–mod gamine arrives in San Francisco, center of the known counterculture universe, where she’s taken in by the hipsters who constitute rock group Mumblin’ Jim: a ponytailed Jack Nicholson, barely bothering to finger-mime rip-off Hendrix riffs as guitarist Stoney; jive-talking drummer Elwood (Max Julien); keyboardist Ben (biker-flick staple Adam Roarke); bassist Wesley (Tommy Flanders); and Wesley’s shareable wife, Lynn (Linda Gaye Scott), who can’t hit a tambourine on tempo to save her life. Then there’s Dean Stockwell as Dave, the serenely weird ex-bandmate turned fountain of guru wisdom. He lives in a rooftop cardboard box.

All help Jenny look for that elusive messianic bro, at least when not introducing her to the joys of thrift shop fashion montages and Golden Gate Park Be-Ins (at which garage greats the Seeds play). Befitting this turbulent generation, distracting crises occur. Some are peacenik-versus-redneck stuff requiring hippies to kick local junkyard greaser ass. Others are drug related, as when future bad director Henry Jaglom hallucinates that his limbs need cutting off. This occasions the immortal line "C’mon man! Warren’s freaking out at the gallery!"

Psych-Out has everything: kaleidoscope visuals, STP dosing, horror-movie hallucinations, and dialogue like "It’s all one big plastic hassle." The Strawberry Alarm Clock contribute not just their signature "Incense and Peppermints" but also a theme ("The Pretty Song from Psych-Out") whose lyrics and melody encapsulate the entire plotline with a dreamy be-there-or-be-square vibe and the song "Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow," which soundtracks a particularly senseless sequence involving the soft-focus stringing of beads around a communal household. More bent yet is the scene in which Nicholson and Julien sit in a van, their nutty bloodshot eyes suggesting major real-world fry-dom.

Psych-Out was largely filmed in the Haight-Ashbury of fall 1967, lending some aspects an authenticity that concurrent Hollywood hippiesploitation flicks lacked. Yet locals reportedly greeted the crew with such hostility that they had to hire Hells Angels as guards. The end-product melodramatic hash must have induced much derisive stoner laughter among subsequent longhaired viewers.

Director Richard Rush had an odd, thwarted career that peaked with one genuinely admired film (1980’s The Stunt Man), then after a long layoff crashed fatally against the 1994 erotic thriller absurdity Color of Night (Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist stalked by a transsexual patient). On the other hand, the richly colorful Psych-Out‘s Hungarian émigré cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, went on to shoot all of Peter Bogdanovich’s, Bob Rafelson’s, and Dennis Hopper’s major films — plus Shampoo, Ghostbusters, and less prestigious but popular recent vehicles for Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts.

Psych-Out is a camp classic that nonetheless makes you desperately wish you were there then. It’s a "bad" movie, yet wonderful in ways that aren’t silly or dated at all. Its freak flag is on.


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