DIRECTED BY: Roger Corman
FEATURING: Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Salli Sachse, Susan Strasberg
PLOT: A director of commercials headed for a divorce takes LSD hoping for insight into his life; he gets it, while seeing plenty of pretty swirling colors and getting into trouble when he wanders away from his trip-sitter.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Trip is a trendsetting lysergic journey, but it’s weirdness suffers because it takes itself too seriously, and handles itself too competently. Compare the derangement of 1968’s Skidoo, which, by casting the past-their-prime Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Carol Channing as the turned-on, comes at the acid fad from a bizarrely oblique angle.
COMMENTS: One of the vanguard films exploring (or exploiting) the LSD craze of the mid to late 1960s, The Trip was a seriously-intended and visually pioneering film from an unlikely source (B-movie impresario Roger Corman, previously best known for monster cheapies and Poe adaptations). While prior films—Movie Star, American Style or; LSD, I Hate You, Hallucination Generation, and even 1959’s The Tingler—had dealt with the effects of this remarkably cinematic drug, The Trip feels like the start of the psychedelic cycle. Despite a disclaimer pasted to the front of the first reel by the producers (“the illegal manufacture and distribution of these drugs is dangerous and can have fatal consequences”), the film’s tone is intended to be objective and non-judgmental. Inevitably, however, it feels very pro-drug; who wouldn’t want to have the insides of their eyelids temporarily tie-dyed while going on a fantastic interior adventure like Peter Fonda, safe in the knowledge that Bruce Dern will bring you back to Earth with a shot of Thorazine if things get too intense? True to its serious intent, the movie proposes the paradigm of LSD as a self-psychotherapeutic tool rather than LSD as an opportunity to chat with God or LSD as the ultimate party drug—though, if the film is to be believed, it can also get you laid by groovy disinhibited chicks.
Little of what happens in The Trip occurs outside of Fonda’s skull. We are quickly introduced to his character, a dude on the fringes of the establishment but hip enough to have Dennis Hopper as his connection, and within fifteen minutes he’s setting off pharmaceutical fireworks inside his cranium. The Trip settles into a rhythm of subjective hallucination montages followed by returns to normalcy as we check in on the blissed-out (or paranoid) Fonda from the perspective of a neutral observer. Fonda sees pasty-faced Bergman death figures on a beach, meets with a hallucinated guru played by Hopper inside the tinseled carnival of his mind, and makes love to Strasberg and Sachse while projected paisleys play across their nude bodies. Fractured images assault us in speedy montages that whirl by in a psychedelic blur. The liquid light and solarization effects seem kitschy and cliched today, but they were cutting edge (though inexpensive) at the time. Fonda’s acting while straight isn’t impressive, but his stoned temperament is believable, particularly when he wanders into a laundromat and is awestruck by a Whirlpool washing machine. What psychological depth the film might have is suggested rather than achieved; we don’t know enough about Fonda to relate to his self-discovery, and there are no shocking psychological insights. In that way, The Trip seems more like a sketch or a template for what an artistically successful trip film might eventually look like. But there’s an energy and an anarchy to this pioneering effort that makes it watchable despite its flaws, and it’s Corman’s most experimental film—and one of his best.
The screenplay was by acid enthusiast and future Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson. Feeling that he could not direct the film competently otherwise, Corman (along with most of the rest of the cast, minus health-nut Bruce Dern) dropped LSD before filming. The Trip is overdue for a decent Blu-ray release, but it can still be found on an old double-sided DVD release along with Psych-Out. The disc has several featurettes and a Corman commentary, and although the picture is good, the soundtrack could be clearer. If buying the overpriced out-of-print double feature is too much of a plastic hassle, The Trip can be rented on-demand.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Corman has simply resorted to a long succession of familiar cinematic images, accompanied by weird music and sounds.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)