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Director: Richard Rush
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Susan Strasberg, Dean Stockwell, Bruce Dern
Length: 101 min
Label: Olive Films
Release Date: Feb 17, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
A.I.P cult entry, the hippy-flavored Psych-Out has recently seen restoration to Blu-Ray via Olive Films. The question is, is it groovy enough to stop us from tuning out? Take a trip with Diabolique to find out…
The year, 1968; While Charles Manson was leaving the vicinity — picking up his Family members and putting them all on an old school bus to ship off to Death Valley — the rest of the world was looking in at Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco as the area had now become the central hub of Flower Power in action. Manson and his crew would later deliver a damning blow to hippiedom, their actions ripping through the shallow core and innocence of the movement. But in all fairness, by 1968 the reality of drug culture was turning everything a bit stale anyway. However, while still at its peak curiosity value for the mainstream, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of the action. Not least the film industry, with companies like A.I.P embarking on a cycle of hippiesploitation films that focused on flower child living and peddled a romanticized notion of San Franciscan peace ‘n love, under the guise of educating or warning audiences of the consequences of illicit behaviour. Of course, this might have all seemed a little bit exotic to those on the outside of those happening times — the main demographic for these pieces were teen drive-in audiences living in the bland suburbs of Middle America. As with most incidences of counter-culture, it is very difficult to translate anything of substance to celluloid once studios and money become involved, and sadly Psych-Out isn’t out to prove anything different.While the cycle wasn’t very big, it did give off some interesting additions — culminating in the hippy/biker masterpiece Easy Rider (1969) — with most of the films involving the same clique of young actors — Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern. At the time these films were hardly breaking any boundaries — given the total lack of lurid content or real violence and/or nudity — but the graphic drug use throughout did serve to raise some eyebrows of the day. With today’s sophisticated palettes, getting strung out on LSD is just all so last century but the films do still serve some purpose as exploitation fodder; even now; with the corny, often cringe-worthy innate straightness and dated dialogue that gives these pieces a whole new dimension of entertainment value for the modern age.
Cue Psych-Out as one such artifact of the short but sweet cycle of hippy-based films. The story focuses on Jenny (Susan Strasberg), a deaf girl who has run away to Haight-Ashbury to look for her crazy brother, an acid casualty, who has set himself up as some sort of religious guru and renamed himself The Seeker (Bruce Dern). En route Jenny hooks up with Stoney (Jack Nicholson) and his psychedelic rock band, and she becomes embroiled in a relationship with him; swiftly learning that rock guys don’t make great boyfriend material and super strong hallucinogenic drugs aren’t the thing to take when you are feeling on a bit of a downer. Director Richard Rush had previously made the bikersploitation number Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), and just as he had real bikers for that show, here, he took his camera and crew down to soak up some of the authentic Haight-Ashbury vibe with his lens. Just as the aforementioned piece Hells Angels on Wheels, this little number provides further proof that having real life players or settings means nothing in the hands of Rush, when it comes to establishing something that feels genuine — the director would later strike gold when he was Oscar nominated for his film The Stunt Man (1980) (but just not yet with Psych-Out demonstrating this was a young director learning his trade).However, not everything lies in the hands of Rush. It is difficult to get down with the kids, when the bulk of your ‘youthful’ cast are already in their early 30’s (Strasberg 30, Nicholson 31, Dern 32). What this translates to is the cinematic equivalent of that Uncle you had when you were a kid — the one who was a bit old but thought he was cool. The fact they have strapped a fake ponytail on Nicolson for the proceedings does nothing to convince either; that is if his embarrassingly twee-bass moves (mimed) aren’t enough to send you to cringeville. Strasberg has a cutesy doe-eye glow going on but her presence does nothing to live up to the frail, vulnerable, and genuinely youthful figure she presented some years earlier in her similarly afflicted role for Hammer’s Scream of Fear (1961). She was more suited to the small role she had the previous year in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), as Peter Fonda’s character’s ex-wife. She had clearly left her teen years far behind when she ventured on to this shoot. Bruce Dern, however, is the star of the show. No one does crazed mentalist quite like Dern. It is a shame he appears criminally underused here with only a handful of scenes to his name, but what scenes they are.
What we are left with is a candyfloss drama, that tries to stuff some hard issues in as an afterthought to Rush’s almost orgasmic fascination with a kaleidoscope lens. But damned if it doesn’t all look quite pretty; love scenes take place with a bunch of body parts swirling round in a psychedelic light show, and nude painted ladies appear in the LSD-hewn collage that bursts forth via some typical editing techniques. The colors are gaudy and bright, and it’s all very nice to look at, but one would imagine it would be even better if you were stoned at the time of watching. Things don’t quite hit the avant-garde notes of The Trip — with the narrative here attempting a more conventional route — but there is some attempt to add certain flair, even if most of the central concepts are a little ill-fitting. This all said, we do have the benefit of the legendary sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock to smooth things over, and an appearance from real life rockers The Seeds, as well as people fornicating (metaphorically) over shiny beads and some happy people with flowers in their hair skipping through a surreal funeral set piece.
Psych-Out is one of those films that needs to be seen in its cinematic glory. It is a visually bold film, with a focus on weird, trippy set pieces in lieu of a hard-hitting story. The Olive Film restoration to Blu-ray looks newly-minted, like a lurid oil painting come to life. The print does demonstrate minor instances of age-related flaws, but appears detailed, and the original grain is intact. There is a gain in image depth; colors look realistic, but still fairly grungy, and there is no attempt to beautify, or jack up the sometimes murky color palette. Best of all, there is no sign of DNR, or edge sharpening.
This release features the 101 minute Director’s cut, which was missing from the previous DVD edition. This extended cut gives the viewer the benefit of being able to bathe in the atmosphere as Rush intended. At times, however, this version does feel a bit self-indulgent on the director’s part.
The disc is furnished with the original mono audio track for the film. The sound is generally free from flaws, showcasing some of the fantastic sounds of the sixties contained within.
This is a barebones release and comes with the main feature only.
A bit of a silly curiosity piece, Psych-Out is one of those films that could have only been made in its time and place. Looking groovy on Blu-Ray for those who dig its kitsch charm, and for those who want to have a chuckle over how Hollywood saw hippy counter-culture or one of Jack Nicolson’s more embarrassing early performances.