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The Ultimate Trip: The Original Psychedelic Movies

  When Albert Hofmann took his fateful bicycle ride in 1943 and first experienced the effects of his invention LSD on a deliberate trip, he had no idea what he was about to unleash on the world. He was a scientist, and at first his creation was used in treatments for depression and mental malaise, but once the artists got hold of it there was no stopping them, and a host of acid-inspired works (and indeed acid casualties) was the result. The first film to get to grips with this altered state of consciousness hailed from a bunch of exploitation flick makers led by Roger Corman, seeking to branch out into more experimental, countercultural fare. Called somewhat blatantly, The Trip, it saw Corman, his star Peter Fonda and screenwriter Jack Nicholson initially take their own doses of the drug all the better to depict it on the big screen.

That went well, but Nicholson (also of weirdo classic Monkees movie Head) was more keen on an ambivalence as Fonda's television commercials director is always one step away from suffering a really bad trip, as opposed to a good one. He may emerge from this feeling better about himself, but the bosses at A.I.P. got nervous and insisted on a last frame that made it look as if Fonda's mind had "cracked", much against the intentions of everyone else in the project. Nowadays, Corman's original ending has been restored, and it is the most widely available, so we can understand the film this was meant to be, a virtually plotless account of a very personal experience, the LSD experience, though exactly how accurate it was turned out to be just as controversial among those who had tried it themselves and were advocates of the hallucinogenic properties it bestowed.

We see a photograph of Timothy Leary in The Trip, the highest profile cheerleader for the drug which he regarded as wholly positive, and indeed Fonda is guided through the journey into his mind by a sensible adult, as is wise, but when that sensible adult was played by Bruce Dern, we can think little wonder his trip turned out to have such highs and lows. Still, it was amusing to alternate between the imagery going on in Fonda's head and what was actually happening, one minute freaking out in a cupboard lightshow, the next sitting in a laundromat with Barboura Morris and putting the wind up her. The visuals also included Lord of the Rings scenes, with our protagonist chased by Black Riders - after all, who was Tom Bombadil but the first explorer into the psychedelic in literature? This was a strong indicator the age of trippy cinema had begun.

The Trip was far from the mainstream, however: it was banned for decades in Britain thanks to its supposed promotion of drug-taking. On the other hand, there was a film released months later that depicted a trip like never before thanks to the finest special effects of the nineteen-sixties, and that had a G-rating in The United States which meant anyone could go to see it, which was the case all over the globe. This was Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, their attempt to craft the most highbrow science fiction movie ever made, finally an example that set aside the juvenilia of the larger portion of the genre and genuinely treated it not merely seriously, but as a work of philosophy; art, even. Initially, as with many movies ahead of their time, it was greeted with outright bafflement and rejection.

Yet something Kubrick and Clarke were aiming for was contemplation of what was beyond the physical realm, which quickly caught the zeitgeist as the sixties wore on and the younger generation were interested in the exploration of the self, giving rise to everything from drug culture to a surge in religious study, and not all Christian, either. Somehow 2001's tale of a space mission to the planet Jupiter became emblematic of all this, thanks to its beginnings in being as scientifically accurate as possible and using that as a basis for the more cosmic strangeness later on. We commenced with the Moon-Watcher, an apeman at an early stage of mankind's evolution, meeting a mysterious monolith and finding it inspires him to pick up a tool, in that case a bone from an animal carcass which tellingly he uses as a weapon.

From there we leap millions of years to humanity's development of space travel, and another monolith discovered on the Moon that sends out a message to Jupiter. On the journey to that world, the ship's computer, which equally tellingly has more personality than the astronauts it is intended to care for, begins to murder them. So far, so... unlike anything else seen before, but once Keir Dullea enters the stargate at the destination, you could almost hear a collective "Wow!" from the acidheads of 1968 thanks to one of the finest representations of getting out of your head ever depicted, at least since The Incredible Shrinking Man had his own cosmic revelation. That promise that you could achieve a higher state of consciousness was too good to resist, and if you could not manage it with LSD, then simulating it with the new psychedelic movies was the next best thing.

Shortly after, proof the drug had entered the public consciousness as well as the artistic consciousness arrived when Al Brodax wanted to make an animated Beatles movie, and Yellow Submarine was what he and his team conjured up. By this time the Fab Four had been enthusiastically embracing the creative possibilities that taking LSD could bring, and unusually, it did enhance their music, probably because there was an abundance of talent to work with as a basis in the first place. Brodax hired animator George Dunning to helm the movie version of some of their songs, stringing together what were effectively proto-pop videos for an hour and a half, with a simple plot about the band travelling to Pepperland to rescue its denizens from the wicked Blue Meanies who have turned the colourful environment grey.

It was probably here that the old cliché some like to cling to was born, that cliché being the creators of children's entertainment from Mr Benn to Rainbow to H.R. Pufnstuf were all off their faces on LSD and marijuana when they wrote the scripts and went before the cameras. Naturally, these accusations are way off, but the programmes and films were so imaginative that the less mentally inspired were wont to blame illegal substances for that innovation since they could not trust the talents to have relied on flights of fancy for their inspiration. For the record, the chief designer on Yellow Submarine was Heinz Edelman who insisted he never touched anything stronger than beer, and certainly wasn't drunk when was drawing the marvellously conceived characters and landscapes for the third theatrical Beatles movie: he was simply blessed with incredible ability.

Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of Yellow Submarine is how innocent it is, almost at odds with the increasingly culturally aware Beatles who were drawing on a widening variety of sources for their inspiration. Funnily enough, this movie came about because of the American Beatles cartoon series the group detested (no wonder when you heard their characters' voices) and there was a contractual obligation to make a feature, but where the small screen was restrictive, on the big screen their music burst into life with a riot of jokes, wild imagery and a genuine sense of hope for the future that the sixties was enjoying even amidst all the tumult. Rarely had music and image been so well matched, and you didn't need to be high to gain the full benefit, though the film became popular for all sorts of reasons, one of those the same as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As The Beatles were experimenting with their music and pushing at the doors of perception, their main (friendly) rivals The Rolling Stones served up a psychedelic album of their own, Their Satanic Majesties Request, which continues to divide fans between those who thought they conjured up something provocative and attractive, and those who thought they should have stuck to the blues rock that made their names. That was released in 1967, but the following year Mick Jagger's girlfriend Marianne Faithfull contributed her own item of pop culture to the movement, The Girl on a Motorcycle. Forever after, seemingly galled by the terrible reception this garnered, she would criticise the movie and its director Jack Cardiff as less the definitive mind-expanding meditation, and more the sexual fantasies of a dirty old man.

Said dirty old man being Cardiff, who otherwise was a much-respected cinematographer with eventually an honorary Oscar for his work to his credit. He had been a director for some years before this, memory jogger The Long Ships his most celebrated credit and his last, The Mutations, his least respectable outing, leaving The Girl on a Motorcycle somewhere in between. What he was not when he made it was in the first flush of youth, and in no way, shape or form part of any movement in the counterculture, which has always rendered the film seriously iffy when it came to its cool credentials. Yes, it had one of the coolest ladies of the sixties as its star, even if that was by association at the time, but from the second the voiceover began you would hear alarm bells ringing that this was actually straining to be hip but missing by miles.

About as many miles as Marianne travelled, across France and Germany, on said motorbike, a Harley Davidson just like Brigitte Bardot sang about. Her character Rebecca was speeding through rural landscapes and towns to reach Alain Delon, her lover who she had decided was a hell of a lot more interesting than her new husband (the exotically-named Roger Mutton), and as she sped along, her anticipation led her to sexual reveries and reminiscences. To the extent that the power of this erotic charge had her hallucinating, so this was a psychedelic effort that showed you didn't need LSD at all to get as high as a kite, a conclusion you may not agree with. Cardiff was evidently enjoying himself with his camera techniques and tricks (the 360-degree pans around Faithfull on her bike were admittedly impressive), but the ending especially was too risible to take seriously.

If you wanted to see Hollywood stars who had actually dropped acid, you could do a lot worse than watch 1968's Psych-Out, one of A.I.P.'s pleas to the counterculture to keep watching their product now the appeal of the Beach Party franchise was wearing off. Jack Nicholson, Dean Stockwell, Susan Strasberg - but not Bruce Dern, funnily enough - they were experienced guides through Haight Ashbury, with freak-outs and slang dialogue galore, yet much the same could be said of a film that genuinely was a lot worse, the notorious exploitation effort where fading superstar Lana Turner had her own trip, The Big Cube. Really this was one of the melodramas she had specialised in since the nineteen-fifties, but with a try by Warner Bros to try to rope in the youth market who were increasingly rejecting their staid product, hence this Mexican co-production.

You know how Tom Cruise would market his audience to attract every generation by starring alongside the likes of Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman in the eighties? That was not a new phenomenon, and Turner was doing her best to harness the mass of younger folks who would potentially be interested in the frank depiction of drugs - but did they want someone of their parents' generation to lecture them on the dangers of hallucinogens? The plot had it that Lana was retiring from the stage as a renowned thesp to settle down with millionaire businessman Dan O'Herlihy, the sticking point his daughter, Karin Mossberg (a Swedish model whose wooden performance was not helped by having her thick accent dubbed over with an equally thick accent, bafflingly). Soon the brat is having poison dripped in her ear by new boyfriend George Chakiris.

Chakiris, an Oscar-winner lest we forget, was not so bad as the reasonable sounding but hopelessly corrupt villain, trying to marry into the family to get his hands on their fortune, but the true amusement came from the movie's clueless depiction of the hippy culture. While it got some of the sexism of the movement surprisingly accurate, everything else was relentlessly middle-aged in its view of the hedonism Lana's usual fans feared was threatening their kids at every turn, with ridiculous terms bandied about from the younger cast (Pamela Rodgers was especially diverting as funseeking hippy chick Bibi), but the plan to drive Turner crazy with LSD was plainly a hip update of the old theatrical warhorse-turned movies Gaslight. Chakiris got his comeuppance when he got so high he would never come down, an unintended callback to Corman's X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.

There's a reason many of the most psychedelic films of the sixties were released in 1970, and that's because studios across the globe were seeking to cash in, but motion pictures take some time to develop, shoot and edit, so many of them were not available to be out when they could most make an impression. Case in point: Zabriskie Point, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's observation of the spirit of revolution and self-indulgence in America of the late sixties, and the eruption of emotion and violence that occurred when the two came in to clash. When it was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, there had been a dreadful event that had made even the most benevolent in society reassess their views on the hippies, as no longer were they the peace-loving folks with the flowers in their hair, nope, they could be murderers too.

Not in the way that dismayed the hippies, the state-sanctioned bloodshed of the Vietnam War, but the more anarchic violence of the Manson Family slaughter that had claimed, among others, the life of actual Hollywood star Sharon Tate. With both in the news, a film promoting anti-American thought as Antonioni did here, albeit in his own obscure fashion was never going to find an audience, and to cast two genuine hippies as his leads meant the naturalism he was aiming for simply came across as amateurism. Nevertheless, Zabriskie Point (the lowest in the States) has gathered a cult following down the years, mostly from Pink Floyd fans who liked what he did with their music soundtrack (largely ditch most of it, but still), and those who like the would-be revolutionary Mark Frechette's outer exploration of society contrasted with the other lead's.

She was Daria Halprin, who would start a relationship with Frechette during filming, though their chemistry is tough to discern; she would go on to marry counterculture icon Dennis Hopper for a while. Daria is more concerned with the inner life, and when they meet at the titular point in the desert they spark one of two sustained sequences of the fantastical, where after he steals a plane on being falsely hunted for murdering a cop and she drives out to her boss Rod Taylor's swanky home, they are plunged into an expression of the love-in that the youth were supposed to want. When the last scene of the movie depicted her imaginings of the consumerism that has destroyed any chance for that love as a bunch of objects exploding, you get the idea Antonioni did not enjoy his time in America, not as much as his time in London for Blowup, which kicked off this trend.

Speaking of Europe, the surrealist spirit of the age was alive and well in Czechoslovakia where the creative burst of the nation's New Wave had led to a selection of imaginative movies, among them Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from Jaromil Jires in 1970. It could be summed up as "Alice in Wonderland gets her first period", as the Lewis Carroll stories of the Victorian era had been greatly influencing the psychedelic movement, stretching back to the surrealists of the nineteen-thirties, which is where this tale came from, the work of Vítezslav Nezval who was long gone by the time this was filmed. Alice had intermittently shown up in cinema and television, most famously as a Disney cartoon, but even that, like Fantasia before it, had offered something of value to those exploring their consciousness through mind expansion.

Jonathan Miller had then-recently directed a more grown-up variation on Alice in Wonderland for television, but Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (that title deliberately echoing Carroll) would inspire other pieces too, such as the American Lemora, a Child's Tale of the Supernatural in the seventies, or Britain's The Company of Wolves in the eighties, not to mention Jan Svankmajer's own concept of Alice slightly afterwards. So there was some pedigree here, not just from Carroll but from Jires' more folk tale-based imagery, a pastoral series of visuals where the presence of Mother Nature prompts all sorts of pressures the thirteen-year-old lead character (Jaroslava Schallerová) can barely grasp. Her sexual awakening was not presented in a prurient manner, more something deeply strange and difficult to understand in rational ways.

Some have identified this as part of the folk horror genre that was particularly emerging from Britain, but you can get magic mushrooms all over the world, and that's what this resembled, a trip that makes a kind of primal sense to your subconscious but set about explaining it in clear terms and you would find yourself confusing both you and your audience. There were elements of horror, mostly vampires who appear as, variously, spectres or members of Valerie's family as she tries to work out the relationships between herself and those around her, who to trust and who to keep some distance from, but even then she feels emotion for the supposed monsters since they may be members of her family after all, including her long lost father and mother, though the grandmother she lives with is pretty kinky too, in a film that certainly looked exquisite, but oddly remote.

The dominant genre in Europe at this time was the Spaghetti Western, so naturally some of those followed the psychedelic suit, most popularly Django Kill! in 1967, but one of the more obscure entries in the cycle may have summed up that style better. This was Cesare Canevari's Matalo! from 1970 (they were big on exclamation marks in this era) which was drawn from a script actually filmed three years before, the differences being largely in the technique. Now many exploitation pieces were coming under the influence of the hippy era, and though you would be hard pressed to find one of these Italian Westerns pushing for peace and love, you would nevertheless find a lot more long hair on men, wild camerawork, rock soundtracks and a general air of revolution in the air, as if Mark Frechette himself had set a trend.

He hadn't, he was more a follower, though like Zabriskie Point, Matalo! was made by Italians who had it look as if their opus had been crafted under the influence of more than the hippies. You know that feeling you get when you see a movie and the best word to describe it is "druggy"? It's there from anything from Easy Rider (which had its own LSD session in a cemetery) to The Big Lebowski (which came across as being penned with the assistance of certain substances), and it's assuredly here. The plot was as basic as you liked for this type of affair, simply a ghost town populated by a handful of ne'erdowells after a stash of gold, yet it was the manner in which Canevari went about delivering that storyline that made for a thickly disorienting experience, even though the hardest drug seen here was occasionally tobacco.

The ostensible star was Lou Castel, who was more or less the good guy by default as he is captured by the gang and tortured, mostly through tying him up and denying him water. What was distinctive was how he exacted his revenge, reluctant as that was supposed to be for a preacher's son as he was playing. Not for him the shootout at high noon, nope, he had brought along his collection of decorated boomerangs (Castel was Colombian, not Australian, if you were interested) which he deploys at frankly too late a point in the film, but once he did, you could honestly say there was little like it among the countless Westerns made in Italy. Otherwise, you were in for a lot of acid rock, weird sound effects (such as dubbing artists going "Sheeeoooochooooeeech" to simulate, er, wind or something), the cameraman getting motion sickness and a lot of casual loose ends.

But a far higher profile psychedelic Western arrived the same year, and not from Europe either, as the Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky made El Topo in Mexico, proof that what had become known as the acid Western was spreading across the globe, or at least in those parts of the globe that filmed cowboy pictures. This was intended as an underground movie, as if they weren't bothered if it made a profit for their endeavours, but once John Lennon and Yoko Ono clapped eyes upon it they had to share it with the wider world and it earned distribution as that then-new phenomenon, the midnight movie. Efforts like that were tailor made for watching in some fleapit at the end of a Friday or Saturday night, and so El Topo joined the likes of Night of the Living Dead or Pink Flamingos as perfect viewing in those circumstances.

Whether you brought along your own substances to enhance the experience was up to you, but many a psychedelic movie was seen, if not under the influence of LSD, then under a cloud of marijuana smoke so that even if you were not partaking yourself, the amount of people who were around you would get you high off their second-hand fumes. Perhaps seeing El Topo stone cold sober would not have the same effect, and its reputation was made by its potential for opening doors of perception that if you were digesting it without the drugs would pass you by. Then again, it could have been the most prominent example of the drugs working a certain magic that in the light of day would be revealed as, well, twaddle basically, Jodorowsky's imagery so out there that it would really only make sense to himself and anyone else was bluffing.

He was happy to talk about his canon, and he could be very articulate, but the definite eccentricity of his personality was overwhelmingly present in something like El Topo, where he played the title character ("The Mole") who travels across a baking desert to find inner enlightenment through... er, violence, to be honest, his gunfighter status leading to some of the bloodiest bullet wounds ever seen in a Western, even including Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch of the previous year. As the carnality and bloodshed contrasted with the spiritual concerns, the protagonist transforming from killer to victor to fool and points in between, it might have been simpler to appreciate this as a series of surreal visuals and mull over what it could all possibly mean later on. Nevertheless, it had a hallucinatory quality unmatched by many pretenders to that approach: the real deal.

Which brings us to the genre, if you can call it that, already starting to peter out as 1970 drew to a close, not that Tam Lin was much seen in that year, having been recut as The Devil's Widow a couple of years after and marketed as a horror. It was far less easily classified than that, as the directorial debut - and directorial farewell - of popular child star turned character actor Roddy McDowall, who wished to pay tribute to one of his many showbiz friends Ava Gardner, and cast her in this updating of the Scottish folk ballad Tam Lin, as essentially the faerie queen who enchants "Tam", or Tom here, played by Ian McShane. She keeps him in her mansion house north of the border along with a bunch of pals/hangers-on, who included many fresh faces who would go on to great success in the entertainment and arts, indicating McDowall had an eye for the promising.

Among them were Joanna Lumley, Bruce Robinson, Jenny Hanley, Sinead Cusack and Madeline Smith, though they were present to inspire the ostensible villainess, Gardner, to fly into a fit of jealousy when McShane fell for Stephanie Beacham's minister’s daughter and got her pregnant. So far, this could pass for an off-kilter domestic drama, and for much of its too-long running time it was caught up in a love triangle, it was true, except there was a sinister undercurrent of Gardner's mysterious influence. Therefore, when Tom told her he was leaving her for someone his own age, the stage was set for her to manipulate not merely people but apparently time and space to ensure he would stay by her side whether he wanted to or not. After all, as we have learned from the previous films, when young people got together from this era onwards, they took drugs.

Although not quite comparable to another horror tale from this year, the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Dunwich Horror where Dean Stockwell attempted to sacrifice Sandra Dee to Cthulu, there were curious similarities in that they both had psychedelic finales. So spoiler alerts ahoy, but McShane was captured by Gardner after trying to make good his escape, and made to drink a strange potion which had him hallucinating all over the shop as a new "coven" of young folks hunt him down through the forest. This entailed envisioning himself as a bear, attacked by a multicoloured snake, and finally bursting into flame, a turn of events that had to be seen to be believed and almost popped up out of nowhere as if McDowall had opted for a more conventional conclusion it's likely Tam Lin would be a forgotten drama rather than an occasionally recalled item of weirdness. But you could say this about plenty of its brethren, from 1970's Performance onwards illustrating that feeding your head might not go out of fashion in the ensuing years, but its representation certainly changed.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018