Reality Is a Deadly Place: LSD Cinema’s Short and Strange Trip

LSD Cinema - Head

As the 1960s progressed, mainstream Hollywood’s ability to capitalize on trends became increasingly dependent on a network of smaller studios churning out exploitation fare that served as proof of concept for the majors. From blaxploitation to beach party — and various cross-pollinations in between — the indies originated and sustained a panoply of genres, delving into corners that made the majors squeamish (until they realized it could be lucrative). The distance between the “Big Five” and their audience was never more apparent as the moral and aesthetic consensus engendered by the studio system eroded, and the aging men who ran the studios lost the common touch that made them their fortunes. The prestige Hollywood product of the early-to-mid 60s was stuffy, staid and stiff, incapable of addressing an LSD climate of social tumult, content to fall back on bloated epics and conservative musical trifles.

Drugs such as LSD were forbidden from the screen in any context beyond condemnation. Even when a star like Frank Sinatra and a director like Otto Preminger chose to address heroin addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), the film had to be released without a Production Code seal of approval, and led to United Artists resigning from the MPAA. Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) didn’t fare much better, with the strategy being scorn rather than censorship (though it is significant that the film was embraced by Europe’s young cineastes). In Hollywood’s moral cosmology, drug addiction was equivalent to errant sexuality or organized crime, and had to be punished accordingly; reform or oblivion awaited the transgressor in the final reel.

When LSD began to saturate the U.S. west coast in the mid-60s, the initial response was in keeping with the prevailing strategy — ignore or attack. It was another youth fad that fell outside the ambit of the Establishment’s codes and proscriptions. But as youth began to seize the reins and steer the cultural currents, those enterprising souls in the indies saw a fresh avenue for exploitation, and this time the majors were forced to pay attention. The timeframe was exponential; by the end of the decade the mood had changed again. It was an eruption which reconfigured the landscape in ways visible and subliminal, heralding new objects of adoration and terror. Drug culture and social upheaval became inextricable on the screen in the 60s; it was a belated recognition on the part of the industry’s tastemakers that American cinema’s scrupulously maintained state of grace was no longer sustainable as the contradictions mounted.

LSD Cinema - Psych-Out

But power concedes noting without an appeal from below, and American International Pictures (AIP) was at the vanguard. AIP’s subjects were drawn from the margins, and it championed unfashionable genres. Working for AIP served as an apprenticeship for many of the New Hollywood’s biggest names. With its emphasis on parsimony over artistry, AIP produced and distributed small but inspired works like Roger Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar (1973). The new generation was right at home with the teens, outcasts and monsters which populated the AIP canon; it was the perfect breeding ground for the LSD movie, and AIP took full advantage of its proximity.

It all began on the Sunset Strip. Local authorities proposed a strict 10 p.m. curfew for the bars and clubs on the Strip, which had become the locus of the burgeoning hippie scene. The resulting unrest between police and young protestors — known as the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots — has been immortalized as a seminal moment in the solidifying of a new youth consciousness. Ever eager to capitalize, AIP released Riot on Sunset Strip (1967).  Yet something was different about AIP’s first foray into the genre. It was exploitation cinema, no doubt, but of an altogether more daring stripe; there was a willingness to see the subjects as something other than archetypes; it was coming from within the milieu it was depicting (AIP players Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson were arrested for their participation in the Curfew Riots). Exploitation cinema’s gaudy hues were being used as camouflage for a cinema of personal exploration.

Riot on Sunset Strip hinges on its LSD “freak-out” scene. While there is still a cautionary edge to the trip experienced by Andrea (Mimsy Farmer), a naïf to the “Strip scene,” it comes from her having been dosed by one of her new “friends,” the predatory Herbie (Schuyler Hayden). The message is that a bad acid experience is a matter of being surrounded by bad allies, rather than the properties of the drug itself; that those embarking on an excursion to “the Milky Way” should be fully prepared and protected before venturing forth. The experience is still seen from the exterior; beyond some minor stylistic tweaks, the substance of the film itself is unaffected. Yet Andrea’s freak-out is oddly hypnotic, and certainly breaks boundaries in the depiction of the drug experience. AIP would not delve inwards until its next instalment in the LSD canon; it would immerse itself deeper in the pulse of the scene and the motions of the unconscious.

LSD Cinema - Riot on Sunset Strip

While the majors were starting to show an interest in counterculture signifiers with lightweight offerings like The Love-Ins and The Happening (both 1967), sprinkling a layer of hippie cred on creaky genre pieces, AIP was forging a new American psychedelia. Released four months before Magical Mystery Tour confounded British TV viewers on its Boxing Day broadcast, The Trip (1967) represents a parallel track to the aesthetic The Beatles were constructing in the wake of their own experimentation with LSD. The Trip gathers together the nucleus of the crew that would remould American cinema a couple of years later to tell the story of Paul Groves (Peter Fonda), an advertising director who is guided through his first acid experience by John (Bruce Dern), a Timothy Leary-esque guru figure. There is an invigorating dissonance at play in The Trip; director Roger Corman’s economy of form serves to stabilize a work which eschews accepted story modes in its attempt to replicate the experience from the perspective of the user; its tension lies in the simultaneous attempt to uphold and dismantle structures.

Discursive segments are broken up by interludes which span Hammer Film Productions, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman in their gothic palette and vast symbolic expanses, a jumble of imagery charting the journey towards self-revelation. The Trip conceives of cinema as the clearest analogue to that passage, an attempt to trap that light. Cinema is the first medium to give shape to our mental vistas, to bring the reality of the self into relief, to mirror the speed of our perceptions. Yet Corman and writer Jack Nicholson reserve the right to be profound and playful in equal measure, to claim a space between European introspection and American exuberance. The Trip presents an existential LSD carnival which exalts the heroism of the American spirit in its triumphant century, carving out fresh psychic territory and declaring an empire of the head. But once you open these doors, they can never be closed. Nicholson’s script is keen to point out that acid is the only drug capable of tracing a reality that has become unreal; where multiple planes of existence merge, where conflicting selves interact; where the terms of address become garbled and alien; where nightly epistles from the jungles of Vietnam are beamed into the home.

Where does this rupture leave the individual? Because individualism is at the heart of this struggle. For all their mythic status in the annals of the counterculture, the Curfew Riots were fundamentally a leisure revolt, a uniquely Hollywood insurrection concerned with what Peter Fonda’s character in The Wild Angels (1966) sums up as the right “to be free to do what we wanna do,” to “have fun and get loaded.” To abandon the self is to cease to be a fully realized American; this is the contradiction the counterculture could never resolve, and it is played out in Paul’s peregrination through the dimmest recesses of his psychological terrain. Untethered from his guide, Paul is at the mercy of warring psychic factions, grasping towards “the insight” that will disentangle “the real from the trip.” The distinction ceases to be meaningful to Paul as the lines of comprehension merge into a single block; outward and inward assume equal weight, and Paul’s initial bliss is tempered by a nebulous dread. The Trip is the first serious cinematic attempt to explicate the LSD phenomenon, to outline its power, potential and perils.

LSD Cinema - The Trip

Acid freaks replaced outlaw bikers as the AIP staple of the late-60s, but the depictions were inflected with a personal dimension that set them apart from previous genre excursions. Psych-Out (1968) relocates from L.A. to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the new centre of hippiedom, where countless young people flocked to drop out and be part of the scene. Psych-Out centers on one such runaway, a deaf girl called Jenny (Susan Strasberg) looking for her brother, Steve (Bruce Dern), who has gone missing. Along the way, Jenny tries to evade the attentions of “the Man” looking to track her down and falls in with the movers and shakers of the Haight. Jack Nicholson is at his magnetic best as rock musician Stoney, rising above the requirements of a limited role, but the most remarkable element of Psych-Out is the photography of László Kovács, whose style would come to define the look of mainstream cinema’s take on the LSD counterculture aesthetic. Kovács’ realist yet elegant tendencies embed the characters in the street scenes, with crowds of onlookers occupying the background of shots; while subtle adjustments to focus and framing create lambent, jarring traceries, drawing out the splendour and squalor of the city’s demimonde with equal clarity. Kovács treatment of San Francisco gives Psych-Out the feel of Nouvelle Vague vibrancy, a site of nervous energy.

American Bandstand host Dick Clark’s involvement in Psych-Out as a producer is telling; his interest signifies the official formalization of the hippie as a cultural type; “peace and love” and “flower power” are emergent slogans, and acid is not exempt. In the short time since The Trip, LSD had gone from being something a select few did under controlled conditions to a lifestyle accessory. Philosophy had given way to sexuality. The extended trip scene in Psych-Out is accompanied by a Jimi Hendrix knockoff soundtrack where shifting shapes are projected onto — exclusively female — flesh. Whether knowingly or not, Psych-Out raises the issue of the misogyny that pervaded the 60s counterculture; female sexuality is seen as subordinate to the requirements of the male seeker; the female frame is an aide to a fully realized trip. Even on acid, certain social boundaries persist. Psych-Out is a trip movie rather than a movie about tripping; it has a somewhat cynical awareness of its audience’s disposition and expectations.

The cynicism may well be warranted, as dark clouds were already starting to gather on the horizon, the scene teetering on the precipice of frenzy. When Andy emerges, he bears a striking resemblance to Charles Manson (who was active in the Haight during this period), a budding cult leader proclaiming that “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.” Stoney’s world-weary friend, Dan (Dean Stockwell), is chillingly prescient in his estimation of where things are heading. Dan sees the emotional stratagems in motion, the incompatibility of universal brotherhood and what Stoney describes as “the individual against the collective conforming society.” It’s almost as if Dan emerged from a later film, cognizant of the chaos to come. The film ends with Dan’s death, his final words lamenting that “reality is a deadly place’.” Psych-Out introduces a mysterious new drug called STP, the noxious inverse of the Summer of Love, sending users on a long punishing trip, “like driving a Ferrari with the gas pedal strapped to the floor.” A fresh weapon is introduced; a new front in the war opens up; a nation of free spirits is easier to manipulate. Drugs as a catalyst for disruption is something AIP would return to.

LSD Cinema - Psych-Out

Wild in the Streets (1968) strips away any remaining optimism that the LSD counterculture could retain its autonomy and integrity in the face of relentless mainstream curiosity (ironically, it was nominated for an Oscar for its editing). The film mirrors Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967) in its pitch-black commentary on the culture wars, but brings a more irreverent spirit to its satirical swipes. Writer Robert Thom anticipates with deadly accuracy the leveraging of the boomers’ cultural allegiance in service of political expediency (Bill Clinton, the first boomer president, would trade on his status as a member of the hippie generation, playing saxophone at every available opportunity, and having Fleetwood Mac perform at his inaugural ball). It charts the final stage of commodification in the form of Max Frost (Christopher Jones), a pop sensation/businessman who uses his charm and acumen to mould a new constituency from the fact that “52 percent of America is under 25 years old” and “we make big business big.” Max enters into an alliance with Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook), a young RFK-like reformer who is running for the Senate in California on the promise of lowering the voting age to 18.

Music and drugs function as a transmission device for this marriage of convenience between youth and power; Max marshals his “troops” to push Fergus towards demanding a voting age of 15; thousands of teens take to the streets at the behest of their idol.  When political horse trading falls short, when the parameters of the pact become apparent, the teens converge on Washington, and 12 of them are shot down while storming the Capitol. Unable to secure the two-thirds majority necessary for the passage of the voting age bill, Max resorts to spiking D.C.’s water supply with acid, to “turn them all on.” Acid is the social accelerant, inaugurating a cult of youth which idolizes “the eternal juvenile son,’ conceiving of youth as “America’s secret weapon,” soft power solidifying into perennial adolescence at the barrel of a gun. Heeding “the clarion call of youth,” Max runs for president — a bumptious, uncouth celebrity candidate taking on the Establishment as the Republican candidate no less — and the film culminates in an acid coup, with LSD re-education camps for over-thirties. This may sound comically dystopian, but AIP’s final entry in the genre speaks to an unease with the co-option of counterculture values, the harnessing of its symbols by those looking to maximise profits and consolidate power. It wouldn’t take long for these symbols to be irretrievably subverted.

Psychedelia was in the air; new players were emerging, chief amongst them Bert Schneider and Rob Rafelson, who were about to take their popular TV property through the looking-glass. Schneider and Rafelson founded Raybert Productions; they’d made their millions with the Monkees, and they were determined to do something meaningful with them. The Monkees’ big-screen debut, Head (1968), is part mea culpa, part appeal; its assemblage of trippy skits takes great pains to connect with a new youth consciousness; the generation that had bought Monkees lunchboxes was now turning on and asking difficult questions. Head is an attempt to deconstruct the product Raybert had built. Its experiments in sound design, visual effects and composition clearly owe a debt to the AIP house style; it consciously lingers, stretches, juxtaposes and jumbles in an attempt to highlight the ways in which the machine absorbs all emotion and packages it as entertainment, obliterating all context. Pop promos are intercut with footage of atrocities from America’s ongoing foreign entanglements, and while many of its observations are facile, the fact that “God’s gift to the eight-year-olds” are articulating them is significant in itself. Head serves as a cleansing, expiation for the pinnacle of 60s cynicism the Monkees had come to represent. For Schneider and Rafelson, it was a way out of the box they’d constructed, of clearing the decks before Raybert Productions became BBS Productions with the arrival of Stephen Blauner to the fold, and an astonishing run of era-defining works.

LSD Cinema - Head

Not everyone’s intentions were so honourable. Top to bottom, the hippies were now it. From cheap sexploitation fare like Mantis in Lace (1968) to Buck Henry’s misbegotten adaptation of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s novel Candy (1968), everyone wanted their piece. Skidoo (1968) was the nadir. So spectacularly did Skidoo miss the mark that is has attained cult status, but viewed in relation to what Raybert, AIP and their ilk were doing, it is a reflection of how drastically out of touch the Big Five had become in the late 60s. For its director, Skidoo was a humiliating fall from grace; Otto Preminger had gone from the cutting edge to a laughing stock in the years since The Man with the Golden Arm. Skidoo is a limp, lascivious caper populated by a parade of Golden Age relics and Central Casting longhairs; it is paced like the average Doris Day comedy, with hippie trimmings. Skidoo is only engrossing to the extent that it expresses the drift the industry was going through; it can’t quite commit to an audience, and in the process alienates everyone. To see a sweat-soaked Jackie Gleason as an aging gangster in the grip of LSD, reacting with bug-eyed incredulity to the disembodied head of Groucho Marx rotating on a floating screw, is as close as Skidoo comes to being a trippy experience. 

LSD Cinema - Skidoo

Acid as moral menace and generational weapon is a theme that would recur in The Big Cube (1969), an anachronistic melodrama in which Lana Turner’s retired stage actress is dosed into psychosis by her conniving daughter (Karin Mossberg) and a “groovy” medical student (George Chakiris), with some of the most unintentionally hilarious freak-out scenes committed to film. For all its camp value, The Big Cube signified the last gasp before the longhairs seized the means of mythologisation. The kids’ minds had already been blown by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and with the runaway success of BBS Productions’ Easy Rider (1969), the transition was complete. A new young audience had spoken. But the triumph was short-lived. The Tate-LaBianca murders by members of Charles Manson’s “family” in August of 1969 signaled the brutal denouement of the 60s, and cast a shadow of suspicion over the counterculture. LSD was now synonymous with crazed killers who had lost all contact with reality; acid was no longer perceived as a passport to liberation, but a tool of control for messianic cult leaders. 

Dread hung heavy in the air, and the cinematic landscape reflected this. I Drink Your Blood (1970) is typical of the disturbing turn horror took in the early 70s, a grisly grindhouse offering with all the syrupy gore, sexual violence and animal cruelty that characterized the period. It was an indication of the dark new mood that had overtaken the American psyche. I Drink Your Blood follows a group of devil-worshipping hippies, led by the charismatic Horace (Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury), who tells his acolytes that “Satan was an acid head.” The parallels are unmistakable: the gang holes up in an abandoned hotel that has echoes of the Spahn Ranch where Manson and his followers waited out the impending apocalypse; they scrawl “pig” on their offering to “the mighty one in hell.” When confronted by an elderly resident of the sparsely populated village, they dose him with acid; the practice now has an altogether darker connotation, stripped of the levity it was intended to inspire in Skidoo . What LSD can do to a fragile mind was clear to all; it can open a frightening portal, fracturing the self irrevocably.

LSD Cinema - I Drink Your Blood

In I Drink Your Blood, the effects are equated to rabies, a return to a savage state that can only be met with violence; this madness is compared to “the spirit of evil,” a moral infection that drives the afflicted wild. Bands of psychotic hippies stalk the hinterlands; the madness overtakes the village; the contaminated devour each other, and fall to a hail of police gunfire. A new reaction was incipient, growing through the 70s, and reaching its apotheosis with the election to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the bête noire of the Berkeley radicals during his tenure as governor of California. The theme of hallucinogenic peril would re-emerge in Blue Sunshine (1977), in which a rogue strain of acid taken 10 years earlier triggers hair loss and homicidal impulses. The ghosts of the past refused to be quiet, but by this point there were other specters to keep the silent majority awake at night. LSD had receded into a troubling memory, throwing disconcerting shapes at the edges of the flower children’s reminiscences.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.