‘The Trip’ (1967): As in, an acid trip, man

Groovy. Olive Films and M-G-M have released on Blu-ray AIP’s The Trip, the 1967 psychedelic LSD freak-out, man, from director Roger Corman, written by soon-to-be superstar Jack Nicholson, and starring Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, man, Salli Sachse, Susan Strasberg, Katherine Walsh, Barboura Morris, Dick Miller, and Luana Anders.

By Paul Mavis

A massive box office hit (comparative to its tiny cost) when first released, The Trip didn’t exactly thrill pooh-poohing squares like Bosley Crowther. However, a case can be made that The Trip’s big b.o. success was an important stepping stone in changing the way mainstream Hollywood made (some of) its movies.

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Seen today…if The Trip isn’t as “heavy” as its makers thought it was in ‘67, it’s still visually impressive. Now, I’m not sure what’s going on with Olive Films’ marketing department, but nowhere on this disc or case, or indeed on their website, is it noted that this Blu-ray disc features a “director’s cut,” if you will, of The Trip…but it does (see below for more specific details). Why they aren’t touting this longer version is anyone’s guess, but it’s here, along with an original trailer.

Hell-A, 1966. Big-shot TV commercial director Paul Groves (Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda) is too wrapped up in his job to even remember to attend his own divorce proceedings. His gorgeous wife, Sally (Psycho-Out’s Susan Strasberg), can’t seem to reach him emotionally—a personal failing of Paul’s of which he’s well-aware. Hence, his desire to trip out on LSD under the experienced guidance of friend John (Tattoo’s Bruce Dern). Maybe, just maybe, with the help of a pill, Paul can break free from his shallow existence and exorcise his demons. But first John has to score, so he and Paul go to blissed-out dealer Max’s (Blue Velvet’s Dennis Hopper) hippie pad, where Paul briefly connects with Glenn (Ski Party’s Salli Sachse), a striking blonde who’s interested in “beautiful” people who trip on acid.

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Back at John’s groovy hilltop house, Paul begins his trip, and it’s like…WOW, man, with flashing lights and colors and weirdo rock music and sexual fantasies involving Sally and Glenn. But then the trip is like…WHOA, man, with spooky castles and menacing black-clad horsemen and dwarfs and puffy shirts and lots of fog. John does his best to cool Paul out, but he makes a big mistake when he momentarily leaves an increasingly paranoid Paul all alone. Paul promptly wigs it and goes tearing out into the night, tripping on neon-soaked Sunset Boulevard, experiencing suburbia when he walks into little Alexandra’s (Caren Bernsen) home; experiencing lonely drudgery when he meets older, closed-off Flo (The Wasp Woman’s Barboura Morris) doing her laundry; and experiencing hedonistic delights at topless go-go club The Bead Game. Will Paul find enlightenment when he comes down from his trip…or will he be destroyed?

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In a 2003 director’s commentary track for The Trip (unfortunately not available on this Olive Films Blu-ray release), Roger Corman makes a good case for The Trip’s box office success being a critical step in mainstream Hollywood moving towards embracing counterculture subject matter and experimental filmmaking techniques—an evolvement begun, he claims, with the release of his earlier biker epic, The Wild Angels, and solidified with the iconic critical and box office smash, Easy Rider, in 1969. Certainly there’s no denying that Hollywood always follows the money, and when the studios saw the profit ratios for those two Corman movies and for director Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, money began flowing out to any dirty long hair who talked a good game at a pitch session.

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What many critics don’t know is that most of those subsequent big-studio counterculture efforts flopped at the box office (Hopper’s and Fonda’s directorial follow-ups to Easy RiderThe Last Movie and The Hired Hand—failed spectacularly at the box office), while Hollywood still focused most of its resources on old-fashioned, traditional entertainment. The cliché that, to this day, keeps getting handed down in these movie history books is that “everything changed” for American moviegoing audiences with Easy Rider’s stunning popularity in 1969…while those same writers conveniently forget that the very next year spawned massive—and totally “square”—hits like Love Story and Airport. Still, there’s no denying that when a little $350,000 (give or take) American International programmer like The Trip took in $10 million at the 1967 box office and became the 25th most successful movie of the year, beating out the much-ballyhooed, Best Picture-nominated $18 million family musical flop Doctor Dolittle (26th for the year), the suits in Hollywood took notice.

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If you’re at all familiar with The Trip, you’ll remember the opening pre-credit “warning” that scrolls up the screen, as the deadly serious narrator tells us of the dire consequences awaiting America should LSD use become more wide-spread (“This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to all,”). That caveat, imposed against Corman’s wishes by AIP’s supposedly nervous Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, is missing from this “director’s cut” (and I put that in quotes because I have no idea what input—if any—90-year-old Roger Corman had with this reconstruction for DVD).

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I personally miss that foreword. It’s a direct historical link to all those other great exploitation movies, including classic Warner Bros. gangster movies like Little Caesar, that piously warned us of the dangers we were about to vicariously enjoy on the big screen. It whets our appetite for taboo fun, if nothing else (as for the validity of that admonition, which Corman states he completely disagrees with…just like today’s deadly heroin crisis, I can’t imagine the majority of Americans back in 1967 really believed it was a good idea to encourage, by Corman’s non-judgmental tolerance, even more people to trip on acid).

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In post-production and again despite Corman’s strong disapproval, AIP also inserted an optical effect on the movie’s final freeze-frame shot, where Peter Fonda’s face appears to shatter like a piece of glass, indicating his trip would ultimately be a negative experience. That effect is gone in this version of The Trip, which is the right choice for this restoration, since the movie makes it clear that, like…everything’s everything, baby, with Fonda’s experience. We can’t figure out why his face would break apart…after having all that fun.

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Corman has stated that to properly direct The Trip, he took his own trip with LSD, and had an extremely enlightening experience (he thought he could see down into the center of the earth, where he could create a new art form that was only accessible…to other people staring down into the ground at the same time. Okay). In a stab at balance, Corman included moments in the story that showed the downsides of a trip, to avoid having the movie become just a commercial for taking acid, and no doubt also to provide some dramatic tension in the plot. However, Corman’s and screenwriter Nicholson’s unquestioning pro-acid feelings, as well as Corman’s own acknowledged straight-laced, conventional outlook, deliver a LSD happening here that’s visually arresting, to be sure, but intellectually unadventurous…and certainly far too upscale and safe to feel truly dangerous.

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In other words: we should all have “bad” trips like the one Fonda endures here. Fonda, a rich, successful purveyor of advertising pap, has a beautiful, sensitive wife he won’t relate to, and the groovy kind of good looks that instantly attract other pretty, attractive hippies that want to sleep with him. His friends are wealthy, too, as well as sensitive and caring, and after a few relatively minor freak-outs and some mildly painful emotional navel-gazing, he liberates his superficially tortured psyche by having no-strings-attached sex with a beautiful blonde at her beachside house. Oh, heavens. There’s no seediness or grunge or dirt in Fonda’s trip; everything’s clean and pretty and damn-near SoCal perfect.

Contextually, The Trip’s aesthetic environment is no different than the ones Doris Day was inhabiting at the same time over on her studio sets. This is hippie liberation, Hollywood style, with nice clothes and good manners and a happy ending to a not very unhappy beginning. When reality does try to impinge on this fantasy—Fonda’s interaction with lonely, bored worker drone Morris (terrific here) doing her laundry, and cynical, seen-it-all waitress Anders—we get the two best scenes in the movie. If Fonda thinks being a successful commercial director is so emotionally unfulfilling…try standing in line at an aviation factory like Morris, or standing on your feet all night, waiting tables for tips from stoned patrons, like Anders (she’s only on for about a minute, but she delivers). Had Corman and Nicholson actually elaborated on these two brief, intriguing moments of reality amid all the glossy silliness of Fonda’s trip, The Trip might have had some weight to it.

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After Corman’s failed attempt at direct social justice moviemaking (1962’s The Intruder), he’s often stated that his subsequent movies still contained social commentary, but on a subtextual level. For instance, when Fonda intrudes on the suburban home here, he watches a scrambled TV (the visuals optically scrambled at AIP’s insistence, states Corman) that features a news report on Vietnam casualties. Nicholson’s original, ungainly script reportedly had references to every perceived social ill in America at the time. However, short of that dwarf incoherently yelling out, “Bay of Pigs!” during Fonda’s circus-like flashback, none of Corman’s offhand jibes at American consumerism or the superficiality of American culture work the way he intends them to, mostly because they’re so fuzzily put forth.

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Corman stated he deliberately left The Trip ambiguous, so each viewer would see the movie he or she wanted to see—a way of moviemaking he admits he may not have pulled off. That method works fine with the “trip” montages—you can make whatever connections you like with the jumbles of seemingly unrelated sequences and images…although Corman is specific when he states the desert sequences with Fonda represent his “free” spirit; the Poe-inspired set pieces represent the conventional, inhibited aspect of Fonda’s character; and all those pursuits of Fonda by horsemen—horsemen who turn out to be Strasberg and Sachse—represent Fonda fleeing his personal demons (pretty specific, after all…).

When Corman and Nicholson do become overtly declarative, such as the “circus” flashback where Fonda is interrogated over his moral transgressions by an otherworldly Hopper, the movie tips into obviousness—something again, to Corman’s credit, he acknowledged. Unfortunately, The Trip’s themes and ideas, explicitly stated or not, were not all that unique or special in ’67 (let alone today). The story’s central crux—Fonda’s angst over a successful-yet-superficial advertising career and a failed marriage, and his search for personal liberation—was a cliché by this point in time, anyway: the only difference, really, between The Trip and, say…the 1950s’ The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, is that Gregory Peck didn’t drop acid. The angst is all the same. And since Corman intended for Fonda’s character to view his trip positively at the end, Fonda’s coming down off his high by banging the absolutely sublime Salli Sachse is one hellava way to exercise any lingering existential doubts one might have (but if you’d rather buy AIP’s ending, that Fonda will continue to agonize after having sex with blonde, tanned Sachse in her million dollar beach pad…then sign me up for that lifetime of misery right now).

The Trip’s lasting legacy isn’t what it has to say, but rather how it says it. Corman seems to think most viewers came to the movie because they didn’t want to take LSD, but rather to vicariously experience what it might be like. I suspect, though, considering the times, that quite a few patrons did indeed come to The Trip high as a kite (and more probably high on the safer, more readily acceptable pot, rather than acid). And if they did, Corman’s trip sequences had to have blown them away; they’re the movie’s highlights. With remarkable special lighting effects created on-set by Bob Beck, Allen Daviau, and Peter Gardiner, along with Arch R. Dalzell’s cinematography and Dennis Jakob’s and Ronald Sinclair’s fractured, frenetic editing, Corman executes several stunning sequences that still pack a visual wallop today.

Corman may have intended the use of liquid light projectors (featured in live rock concerts back then) to help obscure Strasberg’s and Sachse’s nudity during the sex scenes, but whatever the intention, the outcome is a sensuous overload that looks, strangely, quite modern. For instance, Corman has Fonda start making love to Strasberg, before he pans back to find Sachse on the bed watching, before Fonda makes love to each of them as they switch back and forth in his arms—it’s a palpably sensuous visual approximation of a person’s dream state. Other notable moments like Fonda staring into a mirror as kaleidoscopic shapes emanate from his and Strasberg’s mouth, the coat closet freak-out, scarily strobe-cut to American Music Band/Electric Flag’s jarring music cues, and the color-treated stop-motion sequence of Fonda on the Strip, are the most alive pieces of film that the sometimes-stolid Corman ever created, and for their impact alone, they make The Trip more than worthwhile. It’s just a shame they weren’t in service of equally expressive, envelope-pushing ideas.

To compare this longer Blu-ray cut, I got out my old 2003 M-G-M Midnite Movies disc of The Trip/Psych-Out and watched it first, to spot any differences in the Blu-ray. The old M-G-M release timed out at 79:09, while the Olive Blu-ray times out at 81:38. Although many sources list the movie as having an original theatrical run time of 85 minutes, the AFI catalogue gives the copyright length as 81 minutes. So if the pre-credit “warning” (:43) is missing from this Blu transfer (the length of the final freeze frame of Fonda is the same with or without the optical effect of shattered glass)…what makes the Olive transfer longer?

Well, there’s 1:11 worth of footage added to the “Bead Game” strip club scene, with lots more nudity and dancing, including the hot, topless go-go dancers Susan Walters and Frankie Smith hoisted up on someone’s shoulders, getting (ahem) caught up in all those hanging beads. There’s also some incidental “cool out” music, playing over a black screen, after the final credits roll (I almost missed that). That music is not on the M-G-M release, which cuts out after the last credit rolls (pretty cool that Corman had “Exit” music for one of his theatrical runs). So, if you add the 1:11 strip club shots and the 2:01 exit music to that old 79:09 run time, minus the :43 seconds of opening doom and gloom, you get Olive’s 81:38.

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As for this Blu-ray’s anamorphically enhanced HD widescreen 1.85:1 transfer…it’s miles above the old M-G-M transfer, most notably in color and image fine detail. Colors absolutely pop here, with true, bright reds and deep blues and yellows that by comparison look muddy over on the Metro transfer. Grain structure is improved, brightness levels are considerably better (a lot of those dark sex scenes now make more sense), while image fine detail is impressive: you can count the wales on Dern’s expensive corduroy jacket, and see more of that obscured Strasberg/Sachse nudity (thanks, god). The DTS-HD mono audio track’s re-recording level has been boosted over M-G-M’s tinny one; dialogue is clear, but Olive’s lack subtitles. No other extras here other than an original trailer you might find on the obscure, no-words menu—a big disappointment since the Metro release had a wealth of them.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY.

The Edpionage Filmography by Paul Mavis

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