Roger Corman’s The Trip is exactly what one would anticipate an exploitation film made in 1967 about an LSD experience to be, offering its only pretext for its psychedelic indulgences during a madcap credit sequence where hack commercial director Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) is visited on a beachfront set by his wife, Sally (Susan Strasberg), with whom he’s going through a divorce. Despite nearly being swallowed up by a jagged Electric Flag fusion number blaring away on the soundtrack and interfered with by title cards set against what looks like swirling colored molasses, the brief exchange between the couple is lovely in its understatement, with currents of regret and longing coursing implicitly through their shared glances as lines of communication are interrupted by the chaos of the shoot.
It’s just about the only moment in the film that dramatizes Paul’s emotional state in a straightforward manner. Shortly thereafter, The Trip leaps down a rabbit hole of phantasmagoric tomfoolery in which the only threadbare connection to dramatic realism is the repeated suggestion that Paul’s trippy and often dismaying visions—hooded figures carrying his comatose body to a shoreline, a carousel twirling in a neon nightmare world, femme fatales beckoning him toward darkness—are partly a byproduct of breakup blues.
More to the point, they’re a result of a filmmaking team as high on technical experimentation as Paul soon is on lysergic acid. A sorcerer of cheap thrills, Corman is nonetheless capable of restraint and elegance as a director—as in Bucket of Blood’s subtle atmosphere of unease, which set in relief the script’s blunt death-as-creation theme. But in The Trip, where Corman was surely under the goading influence of upstart screenwriter Jack Nicholson and supporting actor Dennis Hopper, the filmmaker’s excesses are set loose, for better and for worse. When Paul leaves his stressful Malibu ad shoot, he ducks into the lavish hillside pad of Hopper’s dope guru, Max. There, he agrees to take the edge off by popping his hallucinogenic cherry under the guidance of a turtlenecked soothsayer named John (Bruce Dern), at which point the film quickly drifts off the rails into formless avant-garde kitsch masquerading as an excursion into Paul’s interior depths.
The Trip’s cockamamie riffing, however, has its pleasures. The film’s cyclical imagery is hypnotic: the 360-degree pan that accompanies the passing of a joint between a group of stoners; the spin of a washing machine that the spaced-out Paul observes in rapt fascination; the surfeit of prismatic lens effects that multiply faces across the screen in whirling spherical collages. Appropriate enough as a metaphor for Paul’s mental acrobatics while under the influence, an ouroboros could just as easily serve as a symbol for the film’s own structuring handicap: Corman will often get so immersed in the lights and sounds of a given vignette, such as in a drawn-out sequence where Paul finds himself at an epilepsy-inducing dance club, that the plot and the protagonist fall away into the background.
But just when the film threatens to float off into dizzying catatonia, Corman splashes cold water on the audience, as in a running police getaway (like many of the events here, potentially imagined) that’s realized with enough flicker-frame mayhem and unruly urban movement to evoke Maria Menken’s Go! Go! Go! Other insights are admittedly extricable from what the film is aiming to accomplish. Tawdry sets built of shiny paper products and littered with rainbow knickknacks, for instance, don’t suggest otherworldly realms so much as birthday parties for the children of hippies, but there’s still a jolt to be had in seeing such gaudy art direction presented with conviction.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine anything more illustrative of the ’60s countercultural zeitgeist than the film’s belief in the spiritual and psychological utility of the drug experience. In repeatedly imagining hauntings by Sally, her doppelgangers, and various seductresses he encounters prior to putting tab to tongue (Salli Sachse’s blond waitress is an enduring mental temptation), Paul undergoes a tortuous self-therapy, the result of which is left ambiguous by the filmmakers, but which nonetheless wrestles him from his midlife ennui. Irresponsibly romantic as this vision of tripping out may be, it charges the film with a genuine artistic faith missing from some of the more self-serving noodlings delivered by this same New Hollywood bunch as their egos inflated in the subsequent years.
It’s hard to ascertain the degree to which Roger Corman intended to bury the dialogue in favor of the roaring score by the Electric Flag (easy artistic justifications could be made, after all), but shoddy mixing is immediately noticeable on this Blu-ray. Initial discussions between Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern about the logistics of the drug trip require some straining to be comprehended, and that’s with minimal background sound; when the music’s present, as in the credit sequence, voices are barely audible. In any case, the predominance of Electric Flag in the mix makes The Trip feel more like a concert film than a dramatic narrative, which Corman and company would probably sanction. The molten, kaleidoscopic visuals are the main draw anyway, and Olive Films did a bang-up job pumping saturation and uncanny clarity into both the landscapes of coastal California and of Paul’s mind.
All that’s included is an original trailer, cut to the voice of Peter Fonda (and some others inexplicably weaving in and out) asserting that The Trip will be an important, talked-about film, and that it will "blow your mind." The spot is heavy on psychedelics and light on plot, suggesting the filmmakers had a good idea about what they were really selling.
Olive Films’s lackluster presentation of Roger Corman’s alternately groovy and goofy LSD drama The Trip seems to take a cue from the hallucinogenic drug experience: No distractions, just the main course.