By Roger Berrian
“TONIGHT!” roared the ad, “You are invited to a PILL PARTY. You will experience every jolt, every jar of a psychedelic circus… The Beatniks… Sickniks… and ACID HEADS… Their ecstasies, their agonies, and their BIZARRE SENSUALITIES…You will be hurled into their debauched dreams and frenzied fantasies!”
Sort of whets the appetite, doesn’t it? The copy was written for a classic 1966 exploitation film, Hallucination Generation. Most viewers did not realize, however, that the drug LSD actually made its screen debut six years earlier in The Tingler, a Vincent Price thriller in which the horrormeister employs the mind-bending drug to scare his wife to death in order to remove a slug-like parasite from her spine.
But The Tingler doesn’t really qualify as an acid flick because its focus is horror, not headtrips. The first true example of the genre is probably The Evil Pleasure, which hit the screens early in 1966. Set in the hippie ghetto of Haight-Ashbury, the film zeroed on the sex and dope lives of San Francisco’s Flower Children.
Acid and bellbottoms were next dropped in The Acid Eaters, a 1966 release that opened with scenes of dreary office workers performing daily routines in quiet desperation—typing mountains of paperwork, kissing the boss’s ass, etc. By flick’s end, the same group of uptight squares gobbles down enough micrograms to collectively hallucinate a 50-foot mound of pure LSD in the Mohave Desert.
In spite of its grand-slam finale, The Acid Eaters should not be confused with The Big Cube, the first cheapie to capitalize on a growing public hysteria over “acid contamination.” By 1967, the media prophets of doom were predicting that food supplies, soft drinks and even entire city reservoirs were in imminent danger of being spiked by acid-crazed maniacs. The unwitting spikee is played—of all people—by Lana Turner.
More than two dozen cheapies were filmed during the acid heyday, which lasted from 1966 to 1970. The LSD revolution proved a godsend for many producers of low-budget trash films. The box-office take from vampire movies was dwindling, and soft-core comedies set in nudist camps were losing their zipper-busting appeal. Desperate, the fly-by-nighters turned to the six o’clock news for inspiration. Hippies, Haight-Ashbury, long hair, free love, and drugs—particularly LSD—were selling soap on the tube. The producers smelled an easy buck.
“Porno filmmakers wasted no time exploiting the sexual aspects of the countercultural revolution,” notes Jim Morton, the 36-year-old author of Incredibly Strange Movies. When asked the title of the worst LSD movie ever made, Morton does not hesitate to answer: “Hippie Temptation,” he says gleefully. “I still drop by and see it when it shows up at the Red Victorian Theater.”
Hippie Temptation was not a drive-in trash film, but an hour-long CBS documentary made in 1967. “I think it was reported by Mike Wallace,” says Morton. “CBS sent a camera crew into Haight-Ashbury to report on hippies and the drug culture.” A copy of the show was later unearthed by dope film enthusiasts and released on the midnight circuit. According to Morton, it is far worse than any of the theatrical releases.
In the late 60s, the uninformed public was regularly assured that LSD would turn its consumers into permanently raving nutjobs. The angle was exploited in the horror-porn-acid reel Mantis in Lace, a 60s rendering of the old Jekyll and Hyde plot. Mantis details the sordid night/knife life of a hippie stripper turned acid-whacked ripper.
Low-budget acid flicks quickly became a staple at mosquito-infested drive-ins, where local yahoos arrived in eight-cylinder asskicking machines and budgeted their Buds through a barrage of such acidsoaked garbage as Alice in Acidland, Psychedelic Sex Kicks, and Depraved. Of the latter, Morton observes that shoestring director Andy Milligan managed to include practically every sexual activity in the film, climaxing with a girl high on LSD leaping from a window—a fairly common fate for hippie ingénues who dared experiment with the mind-blowing chemical.
Other acid cheapies from the Golden Age include: Unholy Matrimony, Wanda: The Sadistic Hypnotist, The Tale of the Dean’s Wife, Psychout, Satan’s Sadists, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. These films frequently shared the marquee with low-budget movies about other drugs like Mary Jane, 1967’s answer to Reefer Madness. The film starred fading teen idol Fabian as a do-gooder attempting to keep curious high-schoolers away from herbal temptation. Trashier still was Synanon, which hopelessly miscast Chuck Conners and Ossie Davis as heroin addicts struggling to kick the junk habit.
In late 1967, exploitation film pioneer Roger Corman took the psychedelic cinema to the masses with the first widely released acid epic, The Trip. Written by Jack Nicholson, The Trip starred Peter Fonda as an advertising executive who scores a hefty dose of micrograms from his groovy pal Dennis Hopper. The balance of the film details Fonda’s stoned-out visionary experiences. Michael Weldon, author of
In late 1967, exploitation film pioneer Roger Corman took the psychedelic cinema to the masses with the first widely released acid epic, The Trip. Written by Jack Nicholson, The Trip starred Peter Fonda as an advertising executive who scores a hefty dose of micrograms from his groovy pal Dennis Hopper. The balance of the film details Fonda’s stoned-out visionary experiences. Michael Weldon, author of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, believes The Trip is the number-one attitude flick of the 60s. He particularly enjoys the scene in the laundry room “in which Fonda sits on the floor making cosmic comments.”
The selling point of The Trip was not zen enlightenment, however, but inspired cinematography and special effects. “Corman admitted to having experimented with LSD before making the film,” says Weldon. Could be. But the inspiration for the retina-shattering effects used in The Trip probably stem more from Dali and Disney than Kesey and Leary. After the film’s success, acid film producers opened their wallets for even greater special effects budgets and the tripping experience became even more identified with richly kaleidoscopic colors. Morton is quick to point out that the most popular acid film of the late 60s wasn’t even about acid—it was 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It’s worth noting that although Hallucination Generation was filmed in black and white, the film’s high-attitude sequences contained blinding, multicolored, Pop-art vortexes.)
LSD movies, like the initial market for LSD itself, vanished in the early 70s. “Charlie Manson took all the fun out of it,” laments Morton, who also speculates the psychedelic comeback of the 80s will create an audience for new movies about an old but faithful chemical. This is a staggering concept. The special effects revolution generated by films such as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and others, opens the door to a brain-blowing Acid Film Renaissance. How about a sequel to The Trip filmed with such high-tech effects that the audience gets stoned just looking at the screen?! Now there’s an experience well worth waiting for! In fact, chemical-induced hallucinations have played a major role in such recent films as Altered States and The Emerald Forest.
On the schlock front, Invasion of the Girl Snatchers represents the first low-budget acid flick to appear in years. It opened in 1985. Like The Tingler, Invasion is really a monster movie, but if acid flicks are going to make a serious comeback, many may have to sneak back into the theaters disguised as horror pics. Nevertheless, judging by Invasion‘s promo hype (“teenage acid heads battle freaked out zombies!”), the future looks kaleidoscopically bright!
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