Republishing this in honor of the late Peter Fonda who passed away on August 16, 2019
In 1966, Roger Corman was enjoying the surprising success of The Wild Angels (1966), a trailblazing biker film that he directed and produced for American International Pictures. The studio had made the film for a mere $360,000 and it netted more than $10 million at the box office thanks to a burgeoning counterculture eager to see a world they recognized depicted on screen.
The Wild Angels starred Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, children of Hollywood’s old guard, along with a cast that included genuine Hell’s Angels. The plot is based on actual stories the rowdy bikers relayed to Corman on set and the nihilistic nature of the film, as well as the extreme violence and sexual deviance depicted on screen, sparked global outrage among American diplomats as well as sanctimonious film critics.
Naturally, American International Pictures wanted to further their headline-grabbing success and asked Corman to helm a second biker movie but the independent-minded director had other ideas. His follow-up film was The Trip (1967), another groundbreaking depiction of bohemian youth culture but this time he explored the effects of experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Like The Wild Angeles, The Trip caused a minor uproar when it was released. Executives at American International Pictures were so concerned that the film might encourage LSD use that they decided to make some edits, including the addition of a message in the opening minutes that warned of the potential dangers of taking drugs. Nearly 50-years later the movie was finally restored and thanks to Olive Films, Roger Corman’s original psychedelic vision is now available on Blu-ray.
The Trip revolves around Paul Groves (Peter Fonda), an aspiring director working in advertising who is in the middle of a messy divorce. Paul’s predicament motivates him to experiment with LSD with help from a bearded ‘trip sitter’ named John (Bruce Dern) who acts as a sort of guide and shepherds him through the experience. Paul’s drug-induced visions include encounters with his estranged wife (Susan Strasberg), philosophical conversations with a character called Max (Dennis Hopper), spectral figures on horseback, medieval torture, dwarfs, nude women wearing nothing but body paint and lots of colorful flashing lights. Things get complicated when Paul hallucinates that John has been killed and flees the ‘safe house’ in terror. Afterward, our antihero wanders around the streets of Los Angeles in a psychedelic haze that includes barging into a stranger’s home to watch news reports from Vietnam and tripping out in laundromats and nightclubs until he meets a beautiful bottle-blond (Salli Sachse). The woman escorts our strung-out anti-hero back to her swanky California beach house where the two make love until the sun rises. In the morning we see Paul stumble out of the beach house alone and refreshed suggesting he has undergone a hypothetical death and rebirth following his drug experience.
Conceived by Corman and written by cohort Jack Nicholson who had appeared in five of the director’s previous films (The Cry Baby Killer; 1958, The Little Shop of Horrors; 1960, The Raven; 1963, The Terror; 1963 and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; 1967), The Trip was one of the first movies to explicitly deal with drug use without moralizing the act. Intentionally or not it also acted as a sort of road map for anyone considering taking their own drug-induced ‘trip.’
At the time LSD was infiltrating L.A. cocktail parties and Hollywood thrill-seekers such as Cary Grant, John Huston, Rita Moreno, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn were reportedly experimenting with hallucinogenics. Jack Nicholson also enjoyed using LSD and his personal ‘happenings’ embellish the script but he wasn’t the only one involved with the film who had dabbled with drugs. The movie’s stars, including Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, and Dennis Hopper all had experience with psychedelics and director Roger Corman took his own ‘trip’ before shooting started so he’d have a deeper understanding of the material he was working with. In his insightful biography How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, Corman goes into great detail about his experience with LSD and how it colored the making of The Trip explaining:
“My trip was so good, in fact, I decided that when I shot the movie it would have to show some bummer scenes or else the film would seem totally pro-LSD. So I consciously went back to some of the imagery of horror from my Poe films to represent the bad end of acid tripping. When I came down I thought: There is no reason to exist in the real world. This is better. It was such a wonderful, heightened experience that I thought about just taking acid again and going right back in there and not worrying about the stuff out here.”
Corman went on to add, “I frankly assumed that acid was going to become a major part of my life. But I never took it again. I wasn’t foolish enough to believe I could actually direct on acid, but I thought it could unlock my mind, make me freer to create images and ideas that could be translated into the reality of films. It wasn’t reality though. It was chemically induced nirvana.”
Having experimented with drugs myself I’m probably more inclined than the average viewer to appreciate the film’s offbeat vision and technical accomplishments, although my own involvement wasn’t as clear-cut and carefree as Corman’s. I’ve seen the positive as well as the negative effects of drug use up close. The director wisely chose to present the use of hallucinogenics as something more neutral, a mind-altering ‘experience’ that can verge in any direction depending on the individual and their surroundings. It’s up to viewers to decide if Paul’s ‘trip’ was good or bad.
One of the most impressive aspects of The Trip is the use of filters, creative lighting effects, merging montages and manic editing used to convey Paul’s acid-washed mind. At first glance, the kaleidoscope of images may seem erratic and ill-timed but they contain their own distinct rhythm and logic that is accompanied by an experimental soundtrack provided by Mike Bloomfield and The Electric Flag band. The music occasionally falls short of the film’s dynamic vision but when it works it all meshes together beautifully in a frenzied, rainbow-hued dream summoned from the wilds of Roger Corman’s imagination and shaped by Jack Nicholson’s verbose script, Peter Fonda’s fantasies and Dennis Hopper’s rambling outbursts. It’s a phantasmagoria of inspired ideas and new beginnings that would lead three of the film’s key participants (Nicholson, Fonda and Hopper) towards forging their own artistic identities in the New Hollywood that was emerging from the ashes of the old.
Two years later Fonda, Hopper, and Nicolson would go on make their seminal counterculture classic, Easy Rider (1969), a biker movie much like Corman’s Wild Angels which includes its own drug scenes that resemble some of the best moments from The Trip.
“He (Roger Corman) gave a whole new generation of moviegoers films that weren’t products of their parents. No way The Wild Angeles and The Trip was made by anybody’s parents!” – Peter Fonda
“It (The Trip) was the best movie Roger ever made, and that’s something.” – Jack Nicholson
“The Trip amounts to very little more than an hour-and-a-half commercial for LSD.” – Judith Crist
“Judging the result from the purely cinematic standpoint, it can be said that The Trip is technically and visually one of the most spectacular pictures ever made.” – American Cinematographer Magazine
“A Lovely Sort of Death… It will blow your mind… in Psychedelic COLOR.” – Film Advertisement
Corman’s film was shot in just 15 days and reportedly cost about $400,000 to produce. It made back an impressive $4 million at the box office and despite the pushback from conservative corners and mixed reviews, it was generally well-received and played to overflowing crowds at the Cannes Film Festival where it was honored with a standing ovation.
This isn’t surprising when you consider that the Summer of Love was about to get underway. It was 1967 and Jimi Hendrix was asking radio listeners, “Are you experienced?” while Jim Morrison begged them to “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and Grace Slick screamed, “Feed Your Head!” as John Lennon described his encounter with “A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” A drug-fueled cultural revolution was underway and The Trip was part of it.
Olive Film’s new Blu-ray accentuates the film’s swirling colors and pop art-inspired visuals which have never looked so sharp or vivid thanks to the high-definition transfer and 1.85.1 widescreen presentation. The sound is also impressive allowing The Electric Flag’s music to better resonate with listeners. In fact, after I watched the Blu-ray I immediately sought out a copy of the film’s soundtrack. Besides the original trailer, the release doesn’t come with any extras which would have enhanced the disc. But for Roger Corman fans eager to get their hands on an uncut print of the film that both looks and sounds terrific; this new Olive Film’s release is certainly worth a look.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published on TCM.com in 2016.