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Psych-Out (1968)

The Hippie movement of the mid-sixties, which first flourished in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, has rarely been captured accurately in Hollywood feature films but there have been a few exceptions and one of the most notable is Psych-Out (1968). Filmed on location in San Francisco by cinematography Laszlo Kovacs, under the director of Richard Rush (The Stunt Man, 1980), the American-International release captures a moment in time as well as any documentary on the same subject. On a visual level, you couldn't ask for a better snapshot of the period from the clothes to the hair styles to the social behavior and counterculture attitude. Even the now dated hipster jargon, some of which will make you cringe, seems true to the period. If only the musical acts featured had been less a top forty fabrication than the real thing (Only The Seeds have any credibility among the groups on display), Psych-Out might have had a more significant impact upon its release.

Produced by American Bandstand host Dick Clark (it was his feature film debut as a producer), Psych-Out was made to capitalize on the success of Roger Corman's previous counterculture film, The Trip (1967) and even recast two of the main actors, Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern. Jack Nicholson was also involved with both productions. He wrote the screenplay for The Trip and also pitched his scenario for Psych-Out to director Rush who decided it was too experimental for a commercial movie. Instead, Nicholson's initial concept was reworked into a new script with contributions by Betty Tusher, E. Hunter Willett, and Betty Ulius. As part of the agreement, Nicholson was cast in the role of Stoney, a part he wrote for himself.

Susan Strasberg, who had previously played the wife of LSD experimentee Peter Fonda in The Trip, stars as Jenny, a 17-year-old deaf runaway who comes to San Francisco in search of her brother Steve (Dern). Known around town as "The Seeker," Steve is a mysterious, enigmatic sculptor who remains elusive while Jenny is pursued by the authorities. She is soon befriended by members of the psychedelic band, Mumblin' Jim, led by guitar star Stoney (Nicholson), and offered refuge in their crowded Victorian crash pad. Jenny is quickly immersed in the San Francisco hippie scene and is eventually reunited with her brother in a dramatic finale which involves a fire and a drug freakout.

Audiences seeing Psych-Out for the first time will be fascinated, amused or even embarrassed by the presence of so many up-and-coming actors and directors in such low-budget drive-in fare. Besides Nicholson (in a ponytail and not even bothering to fake his own guitar playing), Dern (in a wild man wig), and Strasberg,Dean Stockwell makes a memorable impression as Dave, the long-haired, headband-wearing guru of the group who plays devil's advocate to Nicholson's rock 'n' roll hero. Adam Rourke, who had already appeared in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) with Nicholson, would go on to specialize in other biker flicks and exploitation films such as Frogs (1972) and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974). Max Julien, one of the most talented African-American actors of his generation, scored a cult hit with The Mack in 1973 and added producer and screenwriter to his credits with Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Thomasine & Bushrod (1974). Future directors Henry Jaglom (A Safe Place [1971], Sitting Ducks [1980]) and Garry Marshall (Young Doctors in Love [1982], Pretty Woman [1990]) also show up in supporting roles with Jaglom stealing the show as an artist with Elvis Presley-like sideburns who flips out on a hallucinogen and threatens people with power tools.

As previously noted, the music score for Psych-Out is a major disappointment with The Strawberry Alarm Clock, the one-hit wonder who recorded "Incense and Peppermints," being given the showcase treatment in their number "Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow." The other featured songs include "Ashbury Wednesday" by Boenzee Cryque, "Beads of Innocence" by The Storybook and "Two Fingers Pointing To You" by Sky Saxon of The Seeds.

Even though no one at American-International Pictures expected Psych-Out to find favor with any critics, it actually received favorable coverage from many mainstream critics such as Renata Adler of The New York Times who commented that the movie "has considerable elan" and noted, "What is most interesting, though, is that the demands of plot seem to make it necessary to superimpose the structure of a Western onto hippie life." Variety was impressed the performances of the main actors, but also with the direction and cinematography: "Rush's direction is quite exceptional. Considering what coin he had to play with, it is worthy of 20 times the apparent budget. Overlaps, transitions, chases and hallucinations are inventive, telling and lucid. Were he a foreigner - Canadian, British or French, per the vogue - he might be greeted by 'auter! auter! cries. Leslie Kovacs' fluid and responsive Pathecolor photography is first-rate."

Producers: Dick Clark, Norman T. Herman
Director: Richard Rush
Screenplay: Betty Tusher, Betty Ulius; E. Hunter Willett (screenplay, story); Betty Tusher (story uncredited)
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Art Direction: Leon Ericksen
Music: Ronald Stein
Film Editing: Renn Reynolds
Cast: Susan Strasberg (Jenny Davis), Dean Stockwell (Dave), Jack Nicholson (Stoney), Bruce Dern (Steve Davis), Adam Roarke (Ben), Max Julien (Elwood), Henry Jaglom (Warren), Linda G. Scott (Lynn), I.J. Jefferson (Pandora), Tommy Flanders (Wesley), Ken Scott (preacher), Gary Marshall (plainclothesman), Geoffrey Stevens (Greg).

by Jeff Stafford

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Psych-Out (1968)

Jack Nicholson wrote the original screenplay which would eventually evolve into Psych-Out. It was first called Love is a Four Letter Word, then was changed to Love and Money and went through many revisions before being given to Betty Ulius for a final rewrite as The Love Children.

American-International Pictures mogul Sam Arkoff didn't like the title The Love Children because he felt audiences would assume the movie was about illegitimate children so it was switched to Psych-Out.

Prior to I>Psych-Out, Nicholson had had little success in winning auditions for roles he badly wanted such as the lead in The Graduate, which went to an actor (Dustin Hoffman) who had less acting experience than him. Richard Rush, however, was one of the few directors willing to take a chance on him and agreed to cast him in Psych-Out as Stoney, a part Nicholson had clearly modeled on himself. Rush had previously directed Jack in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967).

Rush would later remark, "Jack was a very clever writer, a very articulate writer...His script had an interesting verbalization of ideas. But it was too way out, too experimental, for the commercial mainstream, much too adventurous, different, cerebral." Nicholson would end up receiving no screen credit for his script for Psych-Out but his performance in the film was noticed by many in Hollywood and led to better offers.

Nicholson had done such a good job of fleshing out the character of Stoney in the screenplay that his part and dialogue were barely altered in all of the many script revisions. Co-star Adam Roarke said, "Jack had packaged the film for himself...Thirty years ago, he knew how to package. Jack was way ahead of us at understanding the ways in which Hollywood was a business."

Some autobiographical details from Nicholson's own life were used for the Psych-Out script, such as his own experiences with therapy and LSD as well as his wife-at-the-time Sandra Knight, who had a particularly bad LSD reaction.

American Bandstand host Dick Clark became involved in Psych-Out as a producer in the early planning stages. It was his first foray into feature film making.

Clark took an active interest in the day to day aspects of filmmaking, personally selecting the pop acts that appear in Psych-Out and orchestrating the product placement of Dr. Pepper cans.

Psych-Out was filmed in and around the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco in twenty-two days in October of 1967.

The cast and crew members of Psych-Out noticed that the beatific vibe of San Francisco's Summer of Love had already faded by the Fall. Commercialization of the hippie scene was already under way and many local residents resented the presence of the film crew, suspecting the worst of them.

At one point, some film crew members were threatened with knives by local panhandlers. In response, director Rush hired Sonny Barger and some of his Hells Angels to patrol the shoot and act as their bodyguards during the filming of Psych-Out. Rush had worked with Barger previously on Hells Angels on Wheels.

Because the once topical script began to seem dated in the current climate of San Francisco's changing counterculture, Rush ordered some on-the-spot rewriting, which reflected the more negative aspects of the scene, particularly the destructive effect of hard drugs and hallucinogens on young people.

Nicholson and Susan Strasberg were both uncomfortable with their lovemaking scene in Psych-Out. According to Strasberg, "When we did our love scene, I was wearing a minidress and Jack wore his jeans and boots...I asked him if he could take his boots off. Peter Fonda had played his [role] in the nude in The Trip. Neither one of us wanted to show our thighs, but I had to."

Strasberg was also uncomfortable during that scene because she and Jack were being watched intently by Nicholson's jealous girlfriend Mimi Machu, who went by the screen name of I.J. Jefferson and had a supporting role in Psych-Out (as Pandora). Machu had also appeared with Jack in Hells Angels on Wheels and would also make appearances in Head, the Monkees' feature film satire which Nicholson wrote, and Jack's directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971).

In Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson by Patrick McGilligan, Strasberg also recalled "I kind of admired the way Jack was able to bring everything down to the bottom line...He didn't complicate things in the way that some actors do. When we were filming [the sex scene], for example, I discussed Reichian therapy with him. I had been in Reichian therapy, and so had Jack, I believe. Reich was a brilliant man with complex theories, far ahead of their time, about the bio-energy of the body. And I remember Jack distilling it all down to 'You f*ck better.'

Co-star Bruce Dern credits most of his acting ability to learning his craft on his own in B-movies. "In Psych-Out," he wrote in his autobiography, "Dick Rush was a serious filmmaker, but he had no conception of how to deal with an actor. He just didn't know what to say to you; he'd just say, "Do it again," or "Try it again," and any kind of enthusiasm or energy he would mistake for talent, and he would love that. He was the most sensitive of the early directors that I worked for, although he wasn't the best. Corman was far superior to him. So what you did was to learn to do it yourself. You learn how to survive and be real and be good and be interesting and exciting and to promote your career and continue on."

Psych-Out was not one of Dean Stockwell's favorite films. In an interview for Psychotronic Magazine, he said "I did not enjoy that very much. On the positive side, I think that was the first time I met Jack Nicholson, but that's the only time I ever worked with him."

by Jeff Stafford

The Films of Jack Nicholson by Douglas Brode
Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson by Patrick McGilligan
Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times by Dennis McDougal
Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have by Bruce Dern (Wiley)
Dean Stockwell Interview by Craig Edwards, Psychotronic Magazine
Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'N' Roll Movies by Marshall Crenshaw (HarperPerennial)IMDB

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Psych-Out (1968)

The taglines on the poster for Psych-Out announced: "These are the Pleasure Lovers! They'll ask for a dime with hungry eyes...but they'll give you love - for NOTHING!"

Other taglines for the film include "Taste a Moment of Madness...Listen to the Sound of Purple" and "Have you ever TASTED FEAR or SMELLED MADNESS?"

After the immense success of The Trip (1967), American-International Pictures realized there was boxoffice gold in "psychedelic movies" and rushed Psych-Out into production before rival studios began exploiting the same idea.

Jack Nicholson made Psych-Out after an appearance on The Andy Griffith Show TV series but before his star-making turn in Easy Rider in 1968. At the time, he still considered himself a screenwriter more than an actor (even though he still struggled to win roles) and would go to work on the screenplay of Head for director Bob Rafelson immediately following Psych-Out.

The daughter of New York City acting coach Lee Strasberg and stage actress Paula Strasberg, Susan Strasberg made her Broadway debut in the title role of The Diary of Anne Frank in 1955 and her film debut in 1955 with supporting roles in two films, Picnic and The Cobweb.

After her marriage to actor Christopher Jones in 1965, Strasberg began appearing in more unconventional films (The Name of the Game is Kill, 1968) and B-movies such as The Trip (1967) and Psych-Out (1968) for AIP which was also the studio that released Wild in the Streets (1968), starring Strasberg's husband Jones in the lead. She died of breast cancer at the age of 60 in 1999.

During the early part of his film career, Bruce Dern was typecast as psychos or weirdos in many films and TV shows. Directly after making Psych-Out, he played one of several villains in the Clint Eastwood western, Hang 'em High (1968). He would begin to receive better film offers and marquee placement after his performance in the Oscar®-winning They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) which led to major roles in Jack Nicholson's directorial debut, Drive, He Said (1971), Silent Running (1972), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), opposite Jack Nicholson, The Great Gatsby (1974), and Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976).

Dean Stockwell enjoyed a highly successful career as a child actor at MGM and transitioned successfully into an adult career giving critically acclaimed performances in Compulsion (1959), Sons and Lovers (1960) and Long Day's Journey into Night (1962) with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards, Jr.

Stockwell's film career as a leading man faltered in the mid-sixties and he concentrated more on television work while occasionally accepting parts in offbeat films such as Psych-Out, The Dunwich Horror (1970) and The Last Movie (1971), directed by Dennis Hopper.

Stockwell's film career enjoyed a resurgence in the early eighties when he appeared in Wim Wenders' critically acclaimed Paris, Texas and David Lynch's Dune

(both 1984). He later was featured in Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Jonathan Demme's farce, Married to the Mob (1988). His cult status was also given a boost by his regular appearance in the TV series, Quantum Leap (1989-1993).

Director Richard Rush has had a very uneven career but is generally perceived as a strong action director, due to his work on several better-than-average exploitation films such as Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), starring Jack Nicholson. The Stunt Man (1980) is generally regarded as his best film and the pinnacle of his movie career.

Cinematography Laszlo (aka Leslie) Kovacs, emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary with fellow cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in the late fifties and both found work in Hollywood, shooting low-budget features. Kovacs' collaboration with director Rush began with A Man Called Dagger (1967) and continued for five more features, ending with Freebie and the Bean (1974). Kovacs was never nominated for an Oscar® despite his acclaimed work on such films as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), What's Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), Shampoo (1975) and New York, New York (1977). He died in 2007 of an undisclosed illness.

by Jeff Stafford

The Films of Jack Nicholson by Douglas Brode
Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson by Patrick McGilligan
Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times by Dennis McDougal
Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have by Bruce Dern (Wiley)
Dean Stockwell Interview by Craig Edwards, Psychotronic Magazine
Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'N' Roll Movies by Marshall Crenshaw (HarperPerennial)IMDB

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Psych-Out (1968)

" above average programmer about San Francisco hippies. Thin story sufficient as the medium for a series of incidents, including drug-induced hallucinations, all directed in excellent fashion by Richard Rush. Production is strong on realistic location values, as well as special effects..Most principals register strong impact, Strasberg via reaction, Nicholson via action, and Stockwell through a combination of both. Dern's flamboyant performance is partly justified by script.Rush's direction is quite exceptional. Considering what coin he had to play with, it is worthy of 20 times the apparent budget."
- Variety

"..the film, directed by Richard Rush, has considerable elan...There are a lot of beads and spangles and prisms and fabric and pads. The onturnage and the outfreaking leave room for a lot of surreal and science-fiction effects - although Miss Strasberg's STP delusions are not ver imaginative. What is most interesting, though, it that the demands of plot seem to make it necessary to superimpose the structure of a Western onto hippie life."
- Renata Adler, The New York Times

"Any serious intentions have long since vanished; gloriously goofy dialogue ("C'mon! Warren's freakin' out at the gallery!") and psychedelic Laszlo Kovacs camerawork make this - depending on your age and sensibility - either amusing nostalgia or a campy embarrassment."
- Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

"This film is a must-see. It's populated with so many names that would go on to far better projects that curiosity alone should attract viewers. In addition, it's not that bad a film...Direction by Rush...gets inside the world of San Francisco's hippie culture, giving a fairly accurate portrait of the place and times. His use of overlap and creations of hallucinations are good without seeming the least bit forced. He shows all sides of the hippie world, the good and the bad. Be-ins, dope, and the foraging of food from garbage cans are all included with directness and a good realistic feel...The single biggest detriment to the film is the "acid rock" played by such underground luminaries as the Seeds and the Strawberry Alarm Clock."
- TV Guide

"...It's a lot of fun. This is the best of all the biker and drug films that AIP produced during the era...Also, it's interesting seeing what Hollywood's conception of Haight-Ashbury was when it was the mecca for the counterculture."
- Danny Peary, Guide For the Film Fanatic

"The best Haight-Ashbury drug film...With lots of bad rock music by phony bands plus one terrible real band - the Strawberry Alarm Clock."
- Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

"Good, fun Haight-Ashbury drug movie...The film delves only superficially into the hippie problem and tends to be more exploitational than insightful."
- Alan Betnock, The I Was a Teenage Juvenile Delinquent Rock 'N' Roll Horror Beach Party Movie Book

"A Typical AIP quickie put together in an instant bid to cash in on the 'Summer of Love', its action eventually amounting to a slam-bang compendium of every hippy clich from the bad trip to the redneck rumble. The plot, which has a deaf girl (Strasberg) scouring San Francisco's Haight Ashbury for her missing brother (a crazed Dern), is hard to take. But if you can accept the clichs and archaisms, as well as some third-rate acid rock from The Seeds and Strawberry Alarm Clock, there are compensations: some beautifully baroque performances (Dern and Stockwell in particular), Laszlo Kovacs' effective visualisation of Strasberg's bad STP trip, the spectacle (as irresistible as it is preposterous) of Jack Nicholson sporting lead guitar at the Fillmore." - David Pirie, TimeOut Film Guide

"...a surprisingly realistic slice of countercultural life, Haight-Ashbury style. Like the better American International films of the period, it was made quickly with little time for screenwriting, yet it shows authenticity and sincerity in its treatment of the hippie lifestyle."
- Jay Schwartz, Hollywood Rock

"That's 'psych' as in psychedelic, man, and 'out' as in far. One of the last independent exploitation films made before the hippies took over Hollywood and got all serious...Worth watching for a pony-tailed Nicholson's attempt to fake a Purple Haze style riff alone, this is a surprisingly well realised low budget freak out."
- Channel 4

"With an adventurous (if occasionally clichd) script, strong performances, and excellent camerawork by the legendary Lazlo Kovacs, this film moves beyond what could have been a semi-sleazy expose of the free-loving flower children. Instead, it's an engaging hybrid of AIP's horror/biker flicks...and the experimental, character-driven 1970s cinema to come. Best of all, it is neither anti- nor pro-drugs. In depicting both the spiritually liberating and destructive aspects of LSD, it's still years ahead of its time; the psychedelic effects are at once scary and hilarious in a way that will captivate the kitsch crowd, the best of both worlds."
- Erich Kuersten, PopMatters

"Rush has made some good films (The Stunt Man, The Savage Seven) and some stinkers (Color of Night) in his very sporadic career. The screenplay by E. Hunter Willett and Betty Ulius is chock full of stupid, unrealistic dialogue, often poorly organized and doesn't make sense. Yet Rush and a good cast that includes Nicholson, Dern, Susan Strasberg, and Dean Stockwell manage to make a decent movie out of practically nothing."
- Bill Treadway, DVD Verdict

"...Dick Clark and Richard Rush's Psych-Out is a laughable and embarrassing attempt to cash in on the hippie craze....The hippie jargon is so thick and overdone, with everyone decked out in full flower-power regalia, that pros like Bruce Dern and Dean Stockwell look silly. The fun is seeing the fave actors of David Lynch and other latter-day directors make utter fools of themselves...Two reels longer than The Trip, as soon as the novelty of seeing the stars play flower children wears out, Psych-Out can't end soon enough."
- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

"Of all the films that have tried to sum up the atmosphere of San Francisco in the late sixties, the one that really made an effort to plant the viewer there at the time was Psych-Out, a Dick Clark production after he expressed the wish to make a snapshot film of the era....But there's an agenda, and that's to show all this drug experimentation is not necessarily a good thing; whether that was the decision of the filmmakers or a sop to the censors I don't know, but there is an oh-so-predictable tragic ending....If this sounds depressing, it's actually kind of exciting, and gags like the one which compares the peace and love generation to Christ and his disciples at least show a sense of kidding irony. Psych-Out may be a relic of the sixties, but it's also highly enjoyable."
Graeme Clark, The Spinning Edge

Compiled by Jeff Stafford

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Psych-Out (1968)

Dave: It's all just one big plastic hassle.

Stoney: C'mon, man! Warren's freakin' out at the gallery!

Dave: Reality is a deadly place. I hope this trip is a good one.

Old Hippie: The message is beads.
Young Hippie: Beads.
Old Hippie: The message The message is staring at crystal.
Young Hippie: You mean like, searching for the truth, wherever you may find it?
Old Hippie: No, man.

Dave: Why so happy? Is it the fame or the fortune?
Stoney: Oh man, Dave, you are relentless.
Dave: Tell me a philosophy stone. Let's talk about something important. What color Continental are you going to buy?
Stoney: Cantaloupe, man.
Dave: That's interesting. Let me ask you this. How do you stand on monogrammed shirts?
Stoney: Love 'em, man, love 'em. Wear 'em for underwear all the time you know. Anything with my initials on it. Individual against the collective comforming society and all that.
Dave: Well, I don't care what your bag is man, as long as you're honest about what you want.
Stoney: Well, I'm honest Dave, really honest.

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