The Trip

Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Jack Nicholson
Stars: Peter Fonda (Paul Groves), Susan Strasberg (Sally Groves), Bruce Dern (John), Dennis Hopper (Max), Salli Sachse (Glenn), Barboura Morris (Flo), Judy Lang (Nadine), Luana Anders (Waitress), Dick Miller (Cash)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: U.S.
The Trip Blu-ray
The TripHaving spent most of the early 1960s making Hammer-inspired gothic horror films like The Terror (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), by mid-decade the always enterprising producer/director Roger Corman was looking for new subject matter, and he found it in the burgeoning counterculture. He first exploited the mainstream’s fear of youth motorcycle gangs with his hit The Wild Angels (1966), which helped make actor Peter Fonda not just a star, but an icon of the counterculture. Corman’s employer, the maverick indie outfit American International Pictures, wanted him to make another biker film, but he resisted, choosing instead to exploit another aspect of ’60s youth culture, the recreational use of psychotropic drugs. Thus was born The Trip, one of the first major druggie films.

Written by then-29-year-old actor Jack Nicholson, who had previously starred in Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and had written the script for Monte Hellman’s offbeat Western Ride the Whirlwind (1966), The Trip was a milestone of sorts, as it committed to celluloid (in “Psychedelic Color,” as the marketing campaign promised) a nearly feature-length cinematic recreation of tripping on lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. LSD was a much talked-about topic at the time, having already been established as a cornerstone of the California psychedelic lifestyle. In the early ’60s Owsley Stanley established an underground LSD factory; Harvard psychologist-turned-psychotropic drug guru Timothy Leary coined the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” at the Human Be-In, a hippie gathering of 30,000 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967; and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had been road-tipping across the country for several years in a psychedelically painted schoolbus staging Acid Tests (Tom Wolfe’s journalistic account, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was published in 1968, a year after The Trip was released). LSD was, in a sense, everywhere, although it was something that few people had actually experienced firsthand and was still a taboo within mainstream “straight” culture—which made it a perfect exploitation topic. (Not surprisingly, the film ran into plenty of controversy, with AIP forcibly adding a prologue at the beginning of the film to counterbalance the perception that the film is a positive depiction of drug use and the British Board of Film Classification refusing to issue it a certificate for decades.)

The story takes place over a 12-hour period and centers on the experiences of Paul Groves (Peter Fonda), a relatively straight-looking director of TV commercials who is on the cusp of divorce from his wife Sally (Susan Strasberg) and is descending into a life crisis. He thinks that taking LSD might help him somehow—find answers, find himself, whatever—and he turns to his friend John (Bruce Dern), who is an experienced user of LSD. John takes him to a psychedelic, vibrantly painted mansion in the Hollywood Hills that serves as a hippie crash pad lorded over by a drug guru named Max (Dennis Hopper, natch). They buy LSD from Max, return to John’s pad, Paul takes the two pills, lies down on a sofa, and thus begins the trip, which takes up pretty much the next 60 minutes.

Personally, I have no interest in taking psychotropic drugs, and the idea of watching someone else tripping on them is about as appealing as watching someone play Minecraft—something I have no desire to play myself, and even less desire to watch being played by another. I can imagine that for audiences in the late 1960s, particularly young viewers who were intrigued by the counterculture lifestyle and the emancipatory potential of “dropping out,” watching a feature-length recreation of a drug experience was quite appealing, especially in the way it provided a means of experiencing something illicit without any real danger. Thus, as a historical piece, The Trip is certainly an important movie, even if it isn’t a very good one.

Credit should be given to Corman and his crew who, working on a limited budget and short shooting schedule, managed to assemble a visual experience that is nearly worthy of the title. The Trip is an impressive compendium of visual tricks, almost all done in-camera, to suggest complete sensory abandon. Fluid lava lights, strobe effects, kaleidoscopic images, rapid cutting, distorted lenses, and handheld camerawork are employed with great frequency to heighten the surreal nature of the images on screen, which at times are meant to suggest a “good” trip and at other times a “bad” trip. For all the exhilaration that Paul feels (at one point he goes on and on about all the life he feels emanating from an orange he’s holding), parts of his trip are characterized by fear and paranoia and guilt. He constantly sees himself being chased by black hooded figures on horseback, which gives Corman the excuse to employ some of the visual tactics he used in his gothic horror films (not surprisingly, Paul finds himself at one point in a manor reminiscent of any number of gothic chillers). The film cuts back and forth between Paul’s sensory experience and what is really happening to him physically, which takes a turn when he leaves the safety of John’s house and goes out into the city, wandering through a Laundromat, in a dance club, and the crowded city streets.

However well Corman pulls off the experience, though, it is inherently doomed because of the limits of the cinematic medium. While the first lines of the film are “Anything is possible,” the truth is that movies can only manipulate image and sound, and any of other potential sensory experiences have to derive from those (unless you’re going to pull out some William Castle-style extracinematic gimmicks). Despite the trade ads promising that the film would allow us to “Listen to the Sound of Love,” “Feel Purple,” and “Taste Green,” what we mostly get is a lot of trippy lighting and subliminal editing and funky rock music. There is only so much that can be done to recreate a chemically induced psychotropic experience on film. In a concentrated small dose, there is potential for effectiveness, but when strung out over more than an hour, it starts to feel redundant, tiresome, monotonous even, which is not helped by the relatively wooden acting (Hopper and Dern acquit themselves well enough, but Fonda is incredibly stiff, even when he’s running in his own mind across sandy beaches). Given the times, The Trip was a film that was destined to be made by someone, somewhere, and while Corman gave it his all (even dropping acid himself to experience it firsthand), the resulting film is little more than a historical curiosity that would soon be eclipsed by superior counterculture films like Easy Rider (1967), Woodstock (1970), and Alice’s Restaurant (1970).

The Trip Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
DistributorOlive Films
Release DateMarch 22, 2016

The new 1080p/AVC-encoded high-definition transfer of The Trip looks quite good and is easily superior to the 2003 MGM DVD, which paired it with the similarly themed Psycho-Out (1968). It definitely looks like a late-1960s period piece, and Olive Films should be commended for not trying to smooth out the image too much. It looks very clean, with little to no signs of age and wear, and there is plenty of grain on display. Colors are appropriately strong and bold, although somewhat short of the “psychedelic color” promised by the ad campaign. Blacks look good, although some of the darker scenes, especially those shot out on the city streets, tend be a tad muddy due to the original cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural soundtrack does its job well, presenting all the trippy sound effects and funky rock music (mostly from Electric Flag) with as much depth and range as the format will allow.

The only supplement on the Blu-ray is a rough-looking theatrical trailer, which is unfortunate because the British Blu-ray from Signal One has a commentary by Roger Corman, the original prologue and alternate ending, and several featurettes.

Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Olive Films / Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Overall Rating: (2)

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