The Bottom Shelf

Bad Trips

“The illegal manufacture and distribution of these drugs is dangerous and can have fatal consequences. Many have been hospitalized as a result.”

This disclaimer kicks off 1967’s The Trip, exploitation king Roger Corman’s candy-colored foray into psychedelia. Leaving aside the grammatical issues raised by this statement (Many have been hospitalized as a result of fatal consequences? Too little, too late, no?), its scolding tone points up the paradoxical nature of the drugsploitation picture. The visionaries behind the short-lived spate of LSD movies in the late ’60s wanted to have their acid and eat it, too.

Corman was never slow to jump on a trend, so it’s no surprise that he was first out of the gate when the LSD craze hit. Penned by Jack Nicholson, The Trip hit theaters in the Summer of Love, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still riding the top of the album charts. Ever the consummate professional, Corman sampled the drug while camping at Big Sur and by his own account, had a mighty fine time doing so. Nevertheless, in the course of his diligent research he had come across some mentions of what the hippies termed “bad trips,” and felt compelled to present a more balanced picture of the hallucinogen’s effects than his own experience had provided.

Peter Fonda stars as TV commercial director Paul Groves, a straight-arrow type who decides to take an acid trip as a means of dealing with his pending divorce. Even for a novice like Groves, certain ground rules should be self-evident, the primary one being: when tripping for the first time, you do not want Bruce Dern to be your guide. The man is not possessed of a soothing bedside manner, to say the least. Nonetheless, Groves agrees to take the drug under the supervision of Dern’s unnerving weird-beard character, and we’re off to the races.

The appeal of the psychedelic movie to the exploitation filmmaker soon becomes apparent: for once, he has the opportunity to get artsy and self-indulgent — in fact, it’s almost a requirement of the genre. Corman here subscribes to the lava lamp school of druggy filmmaking — pretty colors and shapes, strobe lights and colored gels. All seems to be going well for Graves at first; he stares at his hands and entertains deep thoughts about the significance of the phrase “living room,” and experiences vivid hallucinations in which he runs around the sets from Corman’s old Poe movies. (Even while experimenting, it seems, Corman never took his eye off the bottom line.)

Groves’ trip takes a turn for the worse when he convinces himself he’s killed his creepy guide and, panicked, races out into the Hollywood night. He proves to be an even worse judge of character than we’d previously suspected when, at the height of his freaked-out paranoia, he turns to Dennis Hopper for solace. He also has a proto-Robert Downey Jr. moment when he wanders into a Hollywood Hills mansion and watches TV with a little girl until he is chased away. None of this strikes me as a ringing endorsement of the drug, but apparently it was still too ambiguous for distributor AIP, which added a “shattered mirror” effect to the film’s final shot of Fonda, against Corman’s wishes.

Still, The Trip kicked off a cycle of psychedelia, and many of the movie’s principles reunited the following year for another acid-washed exploration of hippie culture: Psych-Out. Roger Corman may have been a bit of a square, but he was Timothy Leary compared to the producer of Psych-Out, world’s oldest teenager, Dick Clark. Clark’s film is the most authentic portrait of the late-’60s Haight-Ashbury scene ever produced, assuming that scene consisted mostly of desperately unhip men in their 30s, all wearing bad wigs and spouting incomprehensible jibber-jabber at each other.

A handful of these faux flower children make up the world’s lamest acid rock band, Mumblin’ Jim, including subtly-monikered guitarist Stoney (Jack Nicholson). These wacky hippies are all about the free love and the Happenings (like a mock funeral in Golden Gate park), but they’re not above making fun of a deaf girl fresh off the bus from Squaresville. This is Jenny (Susan Strasberg), who has come to town looking for her brother Steve (Bruce Dern again, here looking like he’s wandered off the set of a homeless shelter’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar).

Jenny falls for Stoney, but he, like, can’t be tied down to one chick, man. This leaves Jenny susceptible to the manipulations of Dave (Dean Stockwell), a devilish oracle type who speaks entirely in conundrums. One of the (most likely unintentionally) hilarious things about Psych-Out is the way its hippie characters all get off on talking in “heavy” riddles, but get really pissed off whenever anyone else does the same thing. It’s one of the most persuasive explanations for the implosion of the flower-power movement I’ve seen, and indeed, it doesn’t take long before these idiots are annoying the living shit out of Jenny. (And she can’t even hear them.)

It’s not much of a surprise when Psych-Out turns out to be a heavy-handed morality tale dressed up in psychedelic trappings. “Warren’s having a freak-out down at the gallery!” one character breathlessly announces, and Stoney and gang run down there to find a bad trip in progress. Warren sees them all as zombies, and when he looks at his own hand, it is a rotted, bony claw that wants to kill him. The gang is able to stop him before he removes the offending extremity with a power saw, but tragedy still awaits.

Dave doses Jenny with some experimental STP, a powerful hallucinogen that causes her to see fire everywhere. She finds herself in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the oncoming car headlights look like fireballs shooting out of Hell. In a rare display of conscience, Dave saves her, and for his trouble is creamed by an oncoming car. “Reality is a deadly place,” he muses, but it’s clear the filmmakers disagree. A brief flashback of goofy hippies frolicking in the park ends the film on a thudding note of innocence lost.

Neither The Trip nor Psych-Out were big-budget productions, but they were Ben-Hur and Cleopatra compared to some of the penny-pinching efforts that followed. Wizard of gore Herschell Gordon Lewis made a brief foray into psychedelic exploitation with 1968’s Something Weird, which deals with a property of LSD rarely explored by the popular media — its effectiveness as a crime-solving tool. Cronin Mitchell is struck by lightning, an accident that both disfigures him and grants him extra-sensory perception. He uses his new powers to solve murders, but when he needs a mental boost to solve a particularly tough case, he decides to try a dose of acid. Lewis’s palette of far out special effects includes a red filter, some blurry camerawork, and … well, that’s about it, really.

Another 1968 release, Alice in Acidland, does an even better job of proving that mind-blowing head trips aren’t necessarily suited to movies financed with change found under the couch cushions. Shot in black-and-white with no synch sound, Alice is a softcore nudie posing as an anti-drug parable. Alice is a high school student corrupted by her friend Frieda, who introduces her to the evils of smoking, drinking and nude lesbian bathing. Horrific suburban orgies ensue, in which burly men in boxer shorts and black socks paw at plump women in grannie undies.

Then, the point of no return: Alice takes her first acid trip. “All of my most sensitive areas were enflamed,” she confides in voice-over. Suddenly, the film bursts into full color! The soundtrack fills with frenzied bongo playing! This is sheer madness, I tell you! And to prove it, we are left with a final shot of Alice in a straight jacket, locked away in a rubber room. Alice has all the depth of an ABC Afterschool Special, but what it lacks in nuance, it makes up for in titty.

Counterculture confusion reigns in Wild in the Streets, a movie that can’t seem to make up its mind which audience it wants to pander to. The suits were afraid of those smelly longhairs out there burning their bras and draft cards, but dammit, they were a market, too! “We don’t know what these weirdos want! Just give us a movie with the hippies and the drugs and the yeah-yeah-yeah music!”

And so was born the tale of Max Frost, multimillionaire rock star by the age of 24 and guru of the alienated youth. A senator with presidential ambitions approaches Max for help; he wants the voting age lowered to 18, figuring to capture the youth vote in the process. Max decides 18 is still too old, but his anthem “Fourteen or Fight” is a bit too incendiary for the senator’s taste. They compromise, and after massive protests in many American cities, 15 becomes the legal voting age.

Unfortunately for the senator, Max now has presidential ambitions of his own. He’s too young to be elected, so his supporters dose the Washington, D.C., water supply with LSD, then propose lowering the age of electability to 14. The tripping senators, stumbling and giggling and banging their gavels pell-mell, are all too happy to comply. Thus, Max is elected president and his reign of hippie fascism begins.

Thirty becomes the mandatory retirement age, and those 35 or older are relocated to internment camps where they are given enough LSD to keep them docile for life. (This policy has since been adopted by the management of MTV.) As a young boy reminds Max, however, youth is a relative concept — and his short-sightedness may be about to backfire on him.

The tone of Wild in the Streets wobbles unsteadily between satirical and reactionary, which is probably an accurate reflection of the spirit in which it was made. In retrospect, the wisdom of targeting the youth culture with a movie that’s actually a cautionary tale about youth culture is hard to fathom, but the movie was a box office hit nonetheless. Of course, it’s important to remember that all the people who saw it were stoned out of their fucking gourds at the time.

Last but not least, there is the great white whale of LSD movies, one that technically doesn’t even qualify for the Bottom Shelf, given that it’s never been officially released on video in any form. For the true connoisseur of ill-conceived flapdoodle, however, it cannot be ignored. I am, of course, referring to Otto Preminger’s 1968 descent into madness, Skidoo.

As an illustration of the dangers of abusing mind-altering substances, Skidoo may never be topped. For once there is an answer to the age-old question, “What were these people on when they made this thing?” Best known for bloated prestige projects like Advise and Consent and Exodus, Preminger reportedly experimented with LSD under the guidance of Timothy Leary himself. Judging from the evidence on the screen, the experience turned his brain to oatmeal in record time.

Preminger assembled a cast better suited to a Friar’s Club roast of Buddy Hackett than an acidhead comedy: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, George Raft, Slim Pickens and Arnold Stang and are but a few of the groovy, with-it youth culture icons assembled for this monument to befuddled irrelevance. No less than three Batman villains — Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin — are on hand as well. Last but most assuredly not least, Groucho Marx makes an appearance as the mob boss known only as “God.”

Gleason is Tony Banks, an Archie Bunkeresque suburban dad given to cranky pronouncements like “No lousy hippie is gonna make it with my daughter!” But Tony is also a hit man for the mob, and when God makes him offer he can’t refuse, he goes undercover at the local prison in order to “kiss” (that’s ironic mob-speak for “kill”) inmate Blue Chips Packard (Rooney). While he’s in the can, his bubbly wife Flo (Channing) invites all of their daughter’s hippie friends to stay at their house.

Tony’s roommate is a dazed and confused draft dodger played by Austin Pendleton, one of the few cast members ineligible for social security at the time of production. Pendleton’s stationery has been soaked in LSD, and when Tony licks an envelope, he embarks on the sort of acid trip that makes you want to stick with gin and tonics. As Pendleton recites from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Tony hallucinates all manner of wonders: giant eyeballs, rubbery guns, Groucho’s head atop a floating screw. When the drugs wear off, he realizes he no longer wants to kill. This is a quaint touch, a reminder that some folks used to think altered consciousness would lead to positive social change rather than people just staring at their hands for a really long time.

This lumbering anti-comedy is the polar opposite of psychedelic; it’s like watching your grandparents get sloshed at a wedding reception and try out some new moves on the dance floor. Skidoo is a clammy, unpleasant experience for the most part, but it’s almost worth a look just so you can tell people you’ve seen:

  • A fiftyish Carol Channing posing “seductively” in her lace bra;
  • An eightyish Groucho Marx curiously puffing a spliff;
  • Jackie Gleason in decidedly non-slimming prison stripes;
  • The proto-Stomp! garbage can dance number that ensues when the prisoners and guards are all dosed with LSD; and
  • Channing’s show-stopping performance of the insidiously catchy theme song, followed by the film’s one true moment of brilliance — Harry Nilsson singing the entire end credits.

Should you decide to watch any of the movies described above, the Bottom Shelf cannot condone the use of any illicit substances in order to enhance the viewing experience. Drinking heavily, however, is always encouraged.