Haight is love
Jack Nicholson, Susan Strasberg and Dean Stockwell
By The Strawberry Alarm Clock
(via Mr. Barf)
In a screenplay by the one-shot-wonder team of E. Hunter Willett and Betty Ulius, its tale of a deaf runaway (Susan Strasberg) searching for her spiritually-challenged brother, “The Seeker” (Bruce Dern), is chock-full of perceptive character silhouettes. From the coffee houses and galleries to crash pads and be-ins, we encounter the giggling burn-out (Max Julien, one toke over the line when proclaiming “Owsley is a saint!”), the beads-and-sandals realist (underrated b-movie player Adam Roarke), a capitalist-in-denial with control issues (pony-tailed Jack Nicholson as “Stoney”), a jittery poster artist (Henry Jaglom, taking a circular saw to his wrist during a lysergic meltdown), and the cosmic intellectual (an absolutely mesmerizing Dean Stockwell, one step ahead of “the plastic hassle”). Even the police, er, uh, pigs are represented, headed by a young Garry Marshall who sighs, “I can’t wait until this costume party is over!”
Although it pokes fun at outmoded racist attitudes (“You sho’ do gots rhythm,” Nicholson winks at the black Julien), Psych-Out is sexually archaic, confusing “free love” with the Playboy philosophy. Its female characters are intrusive, helpless mannequins when not lusted after by Stoney’s trippy troupe. (They’re a rock band called Mumblin’ Jim aiming to get a gig at ‘the Ballroom.’) So aggravated by their games, Strasberg downs an oversized batch of STP and blows her mind while standing alone in the middle of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge—a memorable slice of hippie noir.
In an interview in American Film magazine during the release of The Stunt Man (1980), Rush reflected on his years with American International Pictures (the distributor of Psych-Out and most of Corman’s work), observing the knack that Roger had for breathing life into genres, but gave himself credit for making better, or perhaps more coherent, pictures. (I haven’t read that interview in years, so please forgive my paraphrasing from memory.) While Psych-Out is competently made, it still lacks the ambition and drive which motivates The Trip, a noble, albeit flawed, attempt to recreate an hallucinatory acid experience. And it’s mostly out of nostalgia do I consider Psych-Out something of a necessity. I’ve fond memories of seeing it in the late ‘70s in San Francisco, at the Strand Theatre on Market Street, just a few miles from where it was shot, and a rare opportunity to experience those effervescent Lazslo Kovacs images in crisp 35mm on a big screen.
Flash forward to the late ‘90s, and MGM Home Video pairs Psych-Out with The Trip on a double feature DVD, complete with interviews with Corman, Rush, Kovacs, and Dern, trailers, and a Corman commentary (on The Trip). In terms of print quality, Corman’s picture looks alright (the sound is slightly low), but Psych-Out is a shocking disappointment. The source material used for the DVD is not only scratched in the last reel, but it’s cut by nearly seven minutes. Among the missing items: Max Julien’s line about Owsley; Strasberg’s amusing thrift store fashion show; and at least half of Pandora’s (I.F. Jefferson) bead segment, a Kovacs hand-held tour-de-force. Luckily, I never scrapped my original VHS copy. It may not be widescreen, but it hasn’t been trimmed, either.