"Jess Saes: God is alive and well and living in a sugar cube."
--cryptic postcard sent by Jenny's missing brother
The late 1960s saw a string of Hippie Exploitation Flicks, most of them hilariously dated and largely forgettable. Psych-Out, while no masterpiece, proves an exception. It features a talented, soon-to-be-famous cast and a rare-for-the-era physically-challenged protagonist. Despite its place in a fast-fading milieu-- hippie Haight-Ashbury, 1968-- Psych Out holds up remarkably well.
Our story, enhanced with much location shooting and occasional psychedelic side-trips, concerns a young, deaf runaway named Jenny (Susan Strasberg) who heads to San Francisco seeking her missing brother. She meets "Stoney" (Jack Nicholson) and the members of his rock group, "Mumblin' Jim." They protect her from searching police, and then decide to help with her quest. Their journey takes them to a church, a rooftop, a hip art gallery, and a junkyard. They also pass a fair bit of time at Stoney's pad, where a wild party seems continuously in progress. The band, meanwhile, get invited to play a big-time gig. Jenny finds herself attracted to Stoney, but she also sees his darker sides.
Strasberg gives a strong performance as the strong-willed young woman seeking her brother, though, at thirty, it's a stretch to imagine she's a "runaway" young enough that the police want to find her and return her home. Her real-life age also helps us overlook the fact that adult men have sex with her. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern have not achieved their future fame yet, but we see signs of what will emerge. Dean Stockwell has a smaller role than either, but gets billed above them. Likely, his past fame as a child star made him a draw in producer Dick Clark's eyes. Future TV impresario Gerry Marshall, meanwhile, has a cameo as a detective who clearly recalls the time before the hippies as happy days.
The film questions that straight-world perception, but it doesn't let the counter-culture types off. Nicholson's "Stoney" can be a complete dick at time, especially to women. That is not entirely a #MeToo-era judgment. The film holds the hippies up to criticism for their often less-than-pure attitudes and hedonism. Typical of the genre, we see a few bad trips. However, the main characters grow and, even from the shaky start, we see their potential for heroism.
The straight world likewise faces criticism. The film begins, in fact, with a video-collage depicting the horrors to which the counter-culture ran counter. A redneck gang also seeks the missing brother, and wants, for inadequately explored reasons, to kill him. Along the way, the thugs spout mainstream sentiments, revealing the intolerance beneath commonplace attitudes. An over-the-top scene at a church exposes the hypocrisy of many Christians, who likely would have condemned Jesus as a dirty hippie. The preacher, however, gets a pass as an understanding fellow who wants to connect with the youngsters, and has vital information about the missing brother. Dick Clark, clean-cut, mainstream purveyor of rebellious music, occupied an excellent position to oversee a balanced if cockeyed view of the Haight.
It wouldn't be a Hippie Exploitation Film without groovy tunes. The filmmakers managed to land two noteworthy names, The Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Seeds. They receive prominent billing but make brief appearances. We hear the Alarm Clock's iconic hit, "Incense and Peppermints," and see the Seeds in a fun scene that has no real connection to the plot. Most of the music was actually performed by a less well-known bay area band, Storybook. Their music isn't especially memorable, but it scores the film nicely. Mumblin' Jim, on the other hand, gets stuck with obvious rip-offs of songs the producers, I surmise, ran short of bread to license. One of their numbers plays the main riff from "Purple Haze" backwards. "Fire" features an organ and, given its use to underscore a key scene, probably stands in for the Doors' "Light My Fire."
Psych-Out features impressive visual style, with cinematography by László Kovács, who would go on to work with many of the top directors of the 1970s. The film's low-level effects work surprisingly well. One bad trip becomes body horror and actually looks disturbing, instead of dated and silly. We also get impressive cross-cutting when Mumblin' drummer Elwood takes on the redneck gang while imagining/hallucinating that he is a knight battling dragons.
The film has its flaws, and grows increasingly melodramatic as it progresses. Never mind. Psych-Out elevates its genre. A person wanting a glimpse of a gone era could do much worse.
Director: Richard Rush
Writers: E. Hunter Willett, Betty Ulius, Betty Tusher
Susan Strasberg as Jenny Davis
Jack Nicholson as Stoney
Dean Stockwell as Dave
Bruce Dern as Steve
Adam Roarke as Ben
Max Julien as Elwood
Henry Jaglom as Warren
Linda Gaye Scott as Lynn
Mireille Machuas (as I.J. Jefferson) as Pandora
Tommy Flanders as Wesley
Ken Scott as Preacher
Garry Marshall as Detective
Geoffrey Stevens as Greg
Susan Bushman as Young Jenny
Madgel Dean as Mother
William Gerrity as Young Steve
Bob Kelljan as Arthur
Gary Kent as Head Redneck Thug
John "Bud" Cardos as Lt. Redneck Thug
Beatriz Monteil as Landlady
Tony Vorno as Minister
The Strawberry Alarm Clock as themselves
The Seeds as themselves
Some online sources claim Jimi Hendrix makes an appearance in this film. If he did, I couldn't find him. Other online sources claim that online sources making the claim must have been smoking something.