Roger Corman’s Electric Kool-Aid Tangerine Dream: THE TRIP (AIP 1967)

“You are about to be involved in a most unusual motion picture experience. It deals fictionally with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Today, the extensive use in black market production of this and other so-called ‘mind bending’ chemicals are of great concern to medical and civil authorities…. This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to us all.” – Disclaimer at the beginning of 1967’s THE TRIP

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“Tune in, turn on, drop out”, exhorted 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary. The hippie generation’s fascination with having a psychedelic experience was a craze ripe for exploitation picking, and leave it to Roger Corman to create the first drug movie, THE TRIP. Released during the peak of the Summer of Love, THE TRIP was a box office success. Most critics of the era had no clue what to make of it, but the youth of suburban America flocked to their theaters and drive-ins in droves to find out what all the LSD hubbub was about.

Corman also wanted to know, so he and some friends dropped acid one balmy night and headed to Big Sur to trip. Having had a good experience, Corman sought to translate it into film (and make a buck in the process, no doubt). He solicited his pal Jack Nicholson , who’d experimented with LSD himself, to concoct a screenplay depicting what it was like to do acid. Nicholson came up with an acceptable script, and Roger went to work translating it for the big screen.

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It begins as TV commercial director Peter Fonda, in the midst of a divorce from wife Susan Strasberg , decides he want to try acid to “find out something about myself”. Pal Bruce Dern brings him to drug dealer Dennis Hopper’s pad, they cop and return to Fonda’s place, where he takes a 250 microgram dose, Dern staying straight to act as his guide.

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Dern advises Fonda to “turn off your mind, relax, and just float down the stream” (paraphrasing The Beatles), and soon he’s off on a journey to the center of his mind. THE TRIP then turns into a visual and aural assault on the senses filled with kaleidoscopic imagery, stunning light-show effects, and hallucinogenic nightmare sequences as Fonda gets deeper and deeper into his trip. The plotless structure now becomes pure film, with quotes from Fellini, Bergman, and Corman’s own Poe films. The “Psychedelic Special Effects” credited to Charlatan Productions, bold cinematography by Arch Dalzell (in ‘Psychedelic Color’), rapid-fire editing by Ronald Sinclair, and Corman’s knowing way behind the camera, combine to dazzle the viewer and, if it doesn’t quite truly capture what it’s like to trip, comes pretty damn close.

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The music soundtrack is provided by The Electric Flag, a 60’s San Francisco-via-Chicago band featuring Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Barry Goldberg, and Nick Gravenites. Their trippy raga-rock sound serves as the perfect backdrop for Corman’s visual feast. They are not the group shown at the club, though; that’s Gram Parson’s International Submarine Band, whose music Corman didn’t feel was  “far-out” enough. Corman regulars Dick Miller (as a bartender), Barboura Morris (hilarious as a woman Fonda meets at a laundromat), Salli Sachse, Luana Anders, and Beach Dickerson all appear, as do (briefly) Angelo Rossitto , Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), and Tom Signorelli. Look fast for Peter Bogdanovich, Brandon DeWilde, and rock scenemaker Rodney Bingenheimer.

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Fifty years later, THE TRIP remains a film lover’s delight, something that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson tacked on that opening disclaimer, as well as superimposing a “cracked glass” effect over Fonda’s face in the film’s final shot, implying he’d been permanently damaged by the experience. This pissed Corman off, and after they later butchered his 1969 satire GAS-S-S-S!, he struck out on his own and formed New World Pictures, where he and others could enjoy artistic freedom (on a low-budget, of course). Whether you’ve ever tripped or not, this film is worth seeing for its technical mastery and daring concept. Also, it’s downright groovy, man!

   

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My Living Doll: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (AIP 1958)

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Oh boy. TCM is running a salute to AIP every Thursday this month. Now I’ll never get that DVR cleaned out! American International Pictures released some of my favorite films of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and TCM’s showing everything from Vincent Price/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe horrors to outlaw biker flicks to Beach Party teen shenanigans. Expect to see lots of AIP posts in the near future, starting right now with 1958’s ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE.

One of my earliest movie memories is watching this on the local “Four O’ Clock Movie Matinee” when I was about five years old. For some strange reason, it resonated with me. I haven’t seen it in years, and my recent re-viewing had me wondering just why it did. Maybe I was a strange kid! Anyway, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE was the brainchild of Mr. B.I.G. himself, producer/director/effects wizard Bert I. Gordon. Well, maybe “wizard” isn’t the right term, as Gordon’s special effects were mainly using super-imposing techniques and rear projection screens to create his movie magic. Mr. B.I.G.’s DIY style was popular with the “Monster Kid” generation (that’s me!), and his low-budget masterpieces include THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and its sequel WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, EARTH VS THE SPIDER, THE MAGIC SWORD (a fantasy with Basil Rathbone as an evil wizard), VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, FOOD OF THE GODS, and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. (As of this writing, Bert Gordon is still with us at age 93).

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE is the opposite of Gordon’s giant monster movies, as it concerns shrinking people to doll-size. Sally Reynolds (June Kenny, EARTH VS THE SPIDER) answers an ad for an “office girl” at Dolls Incorporated, run by kindly, eccentric Mr. Franz (character actor John Hoyt ). Franz has a habit of talking to his dolls, especially some particularly lifelike ones he keeps in a glass case. Sally meets Bob Westley (the overacting, eyebrow arching John Agar , star of many a sci-fi schlockfest), the self-proclaimed “best salesman this side of St. Louis”. Bob and Sally don’t hit it off at first, and soon they’re engaged, with Bob promising to tell Franz the good news.

When Franz’s old friend Emil (Michael Mark… more about him later!) pays a visit, we learn the dollmaker’s wife left him, and he now suffers from an exaggerated case of separation anxiety. He can’t stand when people leave him. He tells Sally that Bob has left for St. Louis without her. But when Sally spies a lifelike Bob doll, she fears the worst, and runs to the police, claiming Franz has “made Bob into a doll”. Sgt. Paterson is skeptical of course (wouldn’t you be?), but when she rattles off the names of other recent missing persons, the cop goes with her to confront Franz, who burns the Bob-doll before their very eyes! It seems it’s “only made of plastic”, and Franz has a suitcase full of Bob-dolls he’s made. The cop leaves, and Franz now has Sally in his clutches. Using his ‘molecular disintegration ray’, he turns Sally into one of his doll-people! Now Sally and Bob, along with brassy Georgia, 50’s teens Laurie and Stan, and Mac the Marine, are miniature versions of themselves, and forced to entertain Franz as his ‘Puppet People’, kept in a state of suspended animation until he wants to play with them.

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE isn’t very frightening, nor does it achieve any dramatic heights. It’s silly and loopy, and its “shrinking” theme was done much better in DR. CYCLOPS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. But it’s still fun, and Gordon gives us a nice touch when Bob and Sally go on a date to a drive-in. The film they watch is Gordon’s THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. The scenes where the doll-people are surrounded by giant props are well done, and the rear projection special effects aren’t all that bad, considering the budget limitations. Hindsight being what it is, I probably enjoyed this movie more when I was five than I did now. Having said that, I recommend ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE for the inner five-year-old in all of us. And that’s not such a bad thing after all!

Trivia Time!

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Michael Mark, who plays Emil, is best known as little Maria’s father in the 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN. Eagle eyed Cracked Rear Viewers can spot him in uncredited roles in THE BLACK CAT, MAD LOVE , THE MUMMY’S HAND, and even CASABLANCA ! Mr. Mark appeared  in four Universal FRANKENSTEIN films altogether, tying him with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Dwight Frye for second place in the series. Can you name the two horror icons who appeared in the most Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies, with five? (Hint: one of them played the same role four out of his five times)

 

That’s Blaxploitation 2: BLACULA (AIP, 1972)

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The distinguished actor William Marshall starred on Broadway, played Shakespeare’s Othello on the London stage, sang operas, and later became beloved by 80s kids as “The King of Cartoons” on PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE. But he’s best remembered today as Prince Mamuwalde in the first Blaxploitation/horror film, 1973’s BLACULA. It’s the late 1700s, and the Prince and his wife have traveled to Transylvania on a diplomatic mission protesting the European slave trade. When their host, Count Dracula (Charles Macauley) insults them, they get up to leave. But Dracula has other ideas, putting the bite on Mamuwalde and damning him to a fate “torn by an unquenchable thirst. I curse you and give you my name. You shall be called….BLACULA!!” With that, Dracula locks the Prince in his coffin, and leaves his wife Luva to rot to death in their cell.

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After a cool animated title sequence (by designer Sandy Dvore), we’re in 1973. Two (flamboyantly stereotyped) gay antique dealers purchase Count Dracula’s estate. Bringing their treasures back to Los Angeles, they open up a coffin, and…out pops Blacula! He dispatches the two dudes and returns to his bed, his hunger satisfied. Dr. Gordon Thomas, his girlfriend Michelle, and her sister Tina were friends with the guys, and when they visit the funeral parlor, Thomas, who happens to be a police pathologist, notices two puncture marks on his neck. Blacula is there behind a curtain, waiting for his new servant to arise. He lays eyes on Tina, and she’s a dead ringer for his long-dead wife! Blacula follows her, but she runs, dropping her purse along the way.

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