Every Saturday at Midnight, beatniks Zelda, Bird, and Theodore show the movies that must be shown! It’s a journey into the good, the bad and the foreign on “Off Beat Cinema!” – right after “Svengoolie” at 10p.m. for a double feature of fun!
This nationally syndicated late night movie show is produced right here at WBBZ-TV in Buffalo, featuring hometown actors Constance Caldwell, Anthony Billoni, and Jeffrey Roberts.
This week, the beatniks offer up “Psych-Out” – tune in, turn on, and tune out!
Psych-Out is a 1968 counterculture-era psychedelic film about hippies, psychedelic music, and recreational drugs, produced and released by American International Pictures. Originally scripted as The Love Children, the title when tested caused people to think it was about bastards, so Samuel Z. Arkoff came up with the ultimate title based on a recent successful reissue of Psycho.
Jenny (played by Susan Strasberg) is a deaf runaway who arrives in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, searching for her brother Steve. She encounters the aptly named Stoney (Jack Nicholson) and his hippie band “Mumblin’ Jim” in a coffee shop. The boys are sympathetic, especially when they discover that she is deaf and can only understand others through lip reading. They hide her from the police and help her look for her brother. She has a postcard from him which reads “Jess Saes: God is alive and well and living in a sugar cube“. The band is approached by a promoter who arranges for them to perform at “the Ballroom”, clearly the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore West.
Artist Warren (Henry Jaglom), who designs the psychedelic posters advertising the band, freaks out badly in his gallery, apparently on STP. He sees everyone, including himself, as walking dead and tries to cut off his own (to him festering) hand with a circular saw. While they help him, Jenny notices a large sculpture resembling abstract flames in a corner and recognizes it as her brother’s work. The gallery owner says the artist is known as “The Seeker”, an itinerant preacher. Ex-band member Dave (Dean Stockwell) may know The Seeker’s current whereabouts.
Dave left the band because he felt they were too concerned with worldly success and “games”, rather than serious focus on music for its own sake. His information leads the gang to a junkyard. Nearby is a sign reading “Jess Saes” — “Jesus Saves”, with some letters missing. The “sugar cube” slogan is painted on the side of a car which Jenny recognizes as her brother’s. However, a group of thugs who frequent the junkyard accost the group. They have it in for The Seeker. They dislike his street preaching and his themes of love and peace (perhaps they are Vietnam War veterans). They threaten to rape Jenny. Violence ensues, and the group barely escape with their lives.
Jenny’s friendship with Stoney has become sexual. She does not know his reputation for one-night stands and lack of commitment. She attends a mock funeral staged by a large group of hippies, with background music by The Seeds; the theme of their play is that death is not the end, and that love and a refusal to hurt others are what keep us alive. In Stoney’s crowded home, everyday hippie life is less than ideal. The residents are all involved in contemplation, sex, sleeping, dancing, or decorating, but little cleaning or maintenance. Jenny tries to wash the mountain of dishes in the kitchen and finds that the plumbing is broken, but everybody just continues dancing. Frustrated, she interrupts Stoney’s band practice to inform him she is going to take a walk. He answers angrily that he has no leash on her. Dave, sitting quietly in the next room, is distressed at the way Stoney treats Jenny. Concerned in spite of himself, Stoney later goes to find her. He ends up at the art gallery, where he hears breaking glass and slips inside.
The Seeker (Bruce Dern) has returned to the art gallery to pick up his sculpture. Challenged by Stoney, he pleads that the work should not be touched; it is actually not art, but a shrine. He believes that God spoke to him and asked him to create the piece. He is glad Jenny is looking for him, but says he is on drugs and wants to be sober when they meet. Jenny’s deafness is pathological; their mother was cruelly abusive, and burned Jenny’s beloved toys. Jenny was violently traumatized and apparently had a stroke; she was deaf from that moment.
The performance at the Ballroom is a success; Mumblin’ Jim play, along with the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Steve the Seeker shows up, hoping to see Jenny, but the junkyard thugs are also present and chase him back to his home. Steve runs right behind Jenny without her noticing, since she hears nothing. At an after-show party Dave remonstrates Stoney over his ambition for commercial success, as well as his cavalier treatment of Jenny. Stoney saunters off with another woman, and Dave consoles Jenny. She sees him put STP in some fruit juice. He offers himself to her, but Stoney charges in and angrily shouts at Jenny, calling her a “bitch”. Heartbroken, Jenny accepts Dave’s glass of fruit juice and drinks nearly all of it.
She again explains her search for Steve, and Dave pulls a note from his pocket: “God is in the flame,” and an address. Jenny runs out and takes a streetcar. Stoney rouses Dave, now tripping on STP, to help find her. Pursued by the junkyard thugs back to his home, Steve lights a fire inside his shrine. Soon the entire house is ablaze. Jenny arrives to find a crowd gathering near the house; she runs in just in time to see him standing in the middle of the flames, absorbed in prayer; he sees her, but merely smiles and waves.
In her grief and confusion, she runs up to the roof, hallucinating wildly. She apparently jumps into a reservoir. She then sees fire bombs heading towards her barely missing her. She is standing in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, cars coming at her from both directions with their horns blaring. She has her hands over her ears, indicating perhaps that she has regained her hearing. Dave and Stoney find her. Dave shoves her out of the way of an oncoming car and is struck and killed. As he dies, he murmurs that he hopes this, too, will be a good trip. Sickened and angry, Jenny tries to leave, but Stoney embraces her. The film ends with the two holding each other and crying, while an image of the mock funeral reappears.