Jenny (Susan Strasberg) arrives in San Francisco, the Haight Ashbury district to be precise, looking for someone yet not knowing where to start. She wanders into the street feeling overwhelmed by the sights and sounds until a car almost bumps into her. The driver shouts at her for getting in his way, but is chastened when Jenny yells back that she's deaf. She ends up in a cafe where the members of a local rock band are sitting around discussing this and that, and they take an interest in her, gradually realising, as guitarist Stoney (Jack Nicholson) does first, that she can't hear. She thinks they are making fun of her, and goes to storm out, but they persuade her to stay and buy her a cup of coffee. It's only then that the band notice the plain clothes cops asking questions and showing a photograph around - they're looking for a runaway, and that runaway is Jenny.
Of all the films that have tried to sum up the atmosphere of San Francisco in the late sixties, the one that really made an effort to plant the viewer there at the time was Psych-Out, a Dick Clark production after he expressed the wish to make a snapshot film of the era. It's also notable for the amount of talent passing through on the way to better things, from Nicholson with a pony tail pretending to play guitar to celebrated cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs behind the camera and seventies star Bruce Dern, future directors Henry Jaglom and Garry Marshall, and one time child star Dean Stockwell (standing in for Stoney's conscience) in front of it.
As for the plot, it's as basic as they could make it, with Strasberg our innocent guide through the hippies as she searches for her sculptor brother, known enigmatically as "The Seeker" and played by Dern, but staying out of the action until a couple of bits in the final half hour. In the meantime, Stoney and his band, Adam Roarke and The Mack himself Max Julien, offer to help out and a kind of loving relationship develops between Stoney and Jenny. However, she's more interested than he is, and he has a tendency to guiltily push her away after their night of passion deepens her romantic feelings for him.
Stoney's band, bearing the unlikely name of Mumblin' Jim which they proudly paste up posters of around town, is simply a way into the burgeoning music scene, which is represented by other, real bands on the soundtrack such as The Strawberry Alarm Clock (yes, "Incense and Peppermints" is heard, quelle surprise) and The Seeds, with Sky Saxon seen grooving at a happening taking the form of a mock funeral apparently led by Brian Blessed. As for Mumblin' Jim, one of their numbers may sound unexpectedly familiar, mainly because it's an uncredited rewrite of "Purple Haze". All this aids immeasurably, and if not representing the very best of psychedelic rock overall, the film gets away with it.
But there's an agenda, and that's to show all this drug experimentation is not necessarily a good thing; whether that was the decision of the filmmakers or a sop to the censors I don't know, but there is an oh-so-predictable tragic ending. Before that, artist Jaglom "is freaking out at the Gallery", and nearly cuts his own hand off when he sees pre-Night of the Living Dead zombies instead of his concerned friends. But the biggest acid casualty is Jenny's brother Steve Davis (no, not the snooker champion), who emerges as a wild-eyed hopeless case; even Jenny gets her own bad trip at the finale. If this sounds depressing, it's actually kind of exciting, and gags like the one which compares the peace and love generation to Christ and his disciples at least show a sense of kidding irony. Psych-Out may be a relic of the sixties, but it's also highly enjoyable. Music by Ronald Stein.
Cult American director who never quite made the most of his talents, mainly due to circumstances beyond his control. He spent the 1960s working on exploitation films of increasing stature, some of which have become cult favourites, such as Hell's Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out and The Savage Seven, until he gained recognition with counterculture drama Getting Straight. The 1970s followed with one other film, buddy cop comedy Freebie and the Bean, until in 1980 The Stunt Man, which many consider his best work, was released. After that he had just one more credit, for unintentional laugh fest thriller The Color of Night. His fans wish Rush had enjoyed more creative opportunities.