The interest in LSD in the late 1960s gave low-budget filmmakers an excuse not only to experiment with the drug, but to make films about it. Roger Corman, the king of the B-movie had found cultural credibility with his well-received Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, such as The Pit And The Pendulum (1961) and The Masque Of The Red Death (1964). Corman produced and directed The Trip, Hollywood’s first exploration of LSD. In a trippy choice, he hired Jack Nicholson to write the script. Nicholson had claimed in a Playboy interview that he was one of the first people in the USA to try LSD. The casting of Peter Fonda, Hollywood’s counterculture poster boy, in the lead role of a television commercial director was inspired. To ensure authenticity, Corman and the crew took LSD so that everyone would have a working knowledge of the film’s subject matter. Corman:
“There was no way we could reproduce an LSD trip on film, it is so complex.”
Yet, for the era and the budget, Corman achieved an impressive depiction of an LSD trip, convincing audiences of the film’s accuracy with style later dubbed “garage surrealism”: fish-eyes lens, painted women, op-art patterns, and multiple exposures. The Trip started a brief craze for acid movies, and very few have running times over 90 minutes because, like an actual LSD trip, it’s boring to everyone but the tripper.
The opening of The Trip uses a husky-sounding guy doing voice-over informing the audience that the film “deals fictionally with the drug LSD”, an issue which is of “great concern to us all”. Well now, an LSD film which “deals fictionally” with acid? The prologue was imposed by the studio American International Pictures, to appease critics who believed the film promoted LSD. Corman promised to quash any fears by depicting the downside of LSD use, but the studio didn’t buy it, adding the slap-dash prologue that annoyed both LSD fans and failing to pacify those who considered drugs an unfit subject for a Hollywood film.
Besides LSD, The Trip deals with three all-American concerns: religion, divorce, and advertising. Peter Fonda plays Paul, a television commercial director, who takes his first hit of LSD while experiencing the heartbreak of divorce from adulterous wife, played by Susan Strasberg. He starts his trip with a “guide,” John (Bruce Dern), but runs away out of fear.
As Paul is tripping, he wanders around the Sunset Strip, into nightclubs, and the homes of strangers and acquaintances. Paul considers the roles played by commercialism, sex, the role of women in his life. He meets a young woman, Glenn (Salli Sachse), who is interested in people who take LSD. Max, played by Dennis Hopper, is another friendly guide for his trip.
Glenn drives Paul to her Malibu beach house, where they have tantric, trippy sex, as his head experiences a kaleidoscopic of abstract images intercut with visions of pursuit on a beach by two black-hooded figures, a scene that is a sly homage to Ingmar Bergman‘s film The Seventh Seal (1957). Driven into the surf by his pursuers, Paul turns and faces them, and they reveal themselves to be his wife and Glenn.
As the sun rises, Paul returns to his normal state of consciousness, transformed by the trip, he steps out to the balcony to get some fresh air. Glenn asks him whether his first LSD experience was constructive. Paul defers his answer to “tomorrow”. His face is frozen in close-up, and his image cracks like glass via a trippy special effect.
Corman edited some scenes for The Trip to simulate the LSD user’s experience. He uses special effects, body paint on actors, and colorful patterned lighting, and included fantasy sequences including one where Fonda is faced with revolving pictures of Che Guevara, Sophia Loren and Khalil Gibran in a wildly lit room. For no apparent reason, a little person riding a carousel yells out: “Bay of Pigs!” It all plays out over a soundtrack of improvisational jazz and rock, heavy in the electric organ.
Released in August 1967, the height of “Summer of Love,” the film had a huge cultural impact and grossed $6 million, a good return on a film that cost $100 thousand to make. Along with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Fantasia (1940) it was a “must” for anyone into LSD, the kind of movies one can’t help but think “they must have been on drugs when they made this”.
Well, on The Trip, LSD was new. I took an LSD trip. My only problem after taking it was I had such a wonderful trip, if I based the picture on my trip it would be propaganda for LSD. So I talked to other people who had trips. Jack Nicholson who, at the time was a good writer and had written some good scripts for me. He had experience with LSD. So I chose Jack to write the script. We put together some experiences I had, some experiences he had and also Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper/s.