The Austin Chronicle


August 14, 1998, Screens

("Scanlines" wishes to thank Encore Movies & Music, I Luv Video, and Vulcan Video for their help in providing videos and laser discs.)

Earlier this summer, Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas opened in theatres where it promptly did a big belly-flop. Its by-the-numbers rendering of the psychedelic drug experience was an anachronistic coda to the fine old tradition of the LSD movie. I guess it failed because it came out today, the Nineties, the Just-Don't-Admit-It Nineties (don't ask, don't tell, "I never inhaled"), coming of course after the Just-Say-No Eighties ("this is your brain on drugs"). That still doesn't erase the fact that CIA operatives were dosing up their bewildered fellow stuffed shirts' Manhattans at spy-spook cocktail parties in the Fifties, and that Dr. Sandoz's creation was actually nice-n-legal until l966, giving it a firm foothold in the psyche of the Sixties. That, of course, had to be reflected in the movies of the period.

13 Ghosts
(D: William Castle, 1968; with Martin Milner, Margaret Hamilton)
is mainly remembered for its rather soggy haunted-house plot and the Master Showman's latest gimmick, the "Illusion-O" Ghost Viewer (a strip of colored plastic not unlike 3-D glasses which enabled audiences to see the ghosts on screen, or "remove" them when cowardice got the better of them). Few recall, though, that it probably had the first LSD segment committed to film, when Vincent Price ingested some of the drug and within minutes was reduced to a snivelling, gibbering mess cowering in the corner of his laboratory.

Satan's Sadists (D: Al Adamson, 1969; with Russ Tamblyn, Regina Carrol) is one of the director's genuine atrocities, featuring his then-wife Carrol and a bloated, stoned Tamblyn at his drug-riddled nadir. It's the story of a crew of bikers led by Tamblyn who go on a murder spree in the Southwestern desert until they tangle with clean-cut AIP regular Gary Kent, playing a returned Vietnam vet and former Marine MP. A mustachioed biker dude named Acid spikes the coffee of a group of coeds with about two ounces of liquid LSD (truly enough to dose the water supply of a city the size of Victoria). The puffy Tamblyn kills off the girls after a lame-oid hallucination sequence that consists of zooming in and out and cranking the camera in and out of focus. It's a sick, sick biker flick that would be genuinely chilling if it wasn't so damned amateurish and cheesy. "Ripped from the pages of today's headlines, a tidal wave of human garbage!" crowed the trailers. Yeah, right.

The pre-Reagan era Blue Sunshine (D: Jeff Lieberman, 1978; with Zalman King, Deborah Winters, Robert Walden) is an anti-drug screed that finds a group of Sixties hippie-dippies who grew up and got real lives; only problem is, they're having deadly flashbacks from their fave flavor of lysergic, the titular Blue Sunshine. Suddenly all their hair falls out, they holler "HOOOAAARRRGGGHHH!!!" and murder whoever happens to be close at hand. I don't know what's scarier, the chrome-domed killers at work, or seeing how they transformed from mellow-haired granola eaters of the Turned-On Generation into earth-toned earth-shoed turtlenecked career-mad Seventies proto-yuppie life forms. It's an anti-drug movie, a horror film, a thriller, a ... oh, who the hell cares, anyway? It stinks, but don't let that (or the studly presence of Seventies über-dude King) stop you from watching it as a Saturday-night six-pack and microwave-popcorn howler.

Ever wanted to see Groucho Marx puff a fattie with John Phillip Law? How about Carol Channing (in her mid-fifties) stripped down to her bra and panties?? Or have you ever imagined Jackie Gleason whacked out of his skull on LSD?!? These brain-spraining images and many more are in Skidoo (D: Otto Preminger, 1968; Grouch Marx, Carol Channing, Jackie Gleason), Otto Preminger's monumental misfire of a counterculture comedy. Gleason plays a retired hit man who's pressured by Cesar Romero and young snotnose Frankie Avalon into going to prison to rub out Mickey Rooney (so far, so good). Once in the joint, though, Gleason is accidentally turned on to acid, has some horribly hokey hallucinations, and experiences the great epiphany that all violence is evil, renouncing his mobster life. Along with his cellmates he hatches a scheme to spring themselves out of the thug jug; they wind up dosing the entire prison with LSD, and while everyone's baked to the gills, they make their escape in a balloon stitched out of potato sacks, with garbage cans for a gondola. Things only get sillier from there. A cast of Hollywood once-greats parades across the screen in roles that they'd probably not wish to be reminded of today, while Harry Nilsson sings and plays an acid-swacked prison guard. As the story goes, Timothy Leary himself turned Preminger on to hallucinogens in the Sixties (his reaction was to go home and turn on a bank of TVs tuned to different channels a la LBJ or Elvis) and personally helped produce the trailer for Skidoo. It's funny in a childish, asinine sort of way, but as off-base as a typical Laugh-In episode. Still, it's worth seeing just for the sheer jaw-dropping amazement of it all; a far cry from respected Preminger efforts such as Laura, The Man with the Golden Arm, or Anatomy of a Murder.

Would you want Bruce Dern to usher you through your first test flight of LSD? That's exactly what Peter Fonda does in The Trip (D: Roger Corman, 1967; with Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern). Fonda plays a director of TV commercials who feels unfulfilled after a career of making vacuous crap and decides that the answer lies inside a sugar cube of the stuff. He hangs out with Dern in his groovalicious pad, reaches cruising altitude, and ponders the aura of a grapefruit at great length, before going for a nekkid swim and imagining that he's gonna die. In between hallucinatory fantasies of being chased by the Knights Templar, Fonda ping-pongs between helpless euphoria and cringing horror as he reverts back to the goo-goo Gerber Strained Peas phase. He eventually freaks and ejects himself from babysitter Dern's pad like it was a burning car; time for some adventures on Sunset Strip. Fonda wanders over to a laundromat where he pesters a customer and fascinates himself with the dryers, walks into a house to make friends with a little girl, and eventually finds himself at dealer/guru Dennis Hopper's pad (where Hopper sets his first record for the number of times the word "man" is used in a sentence). Finally, he returns to Planet Earth, only to find that AIP inserted an ending that went totally against the wishes of Corman, Fonda, and everyone else involved. Jack Nicholson himself penned the screenplay, which at the time seemed earnest and sincere, but now is hilariously stilted with Sixties hipsterisms. Corman was compelled to gobble some psychedelics himself before making The Trip. Watch for Corman stalwarts Dick Miller and Barboura Morris, as well as ingenue Susan Strasberg and some once-groovy rock & roll.

– Jerry Renshaw

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