From Inauguration of the Pleasuredome to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, here is the A-Z countdown of the very best of acid cinema
With California the hippie-era nucleus, acid made its morphing presence felt in much New Hollywood cinema - including Roger Corman's The Trip (1967), in which Peter Fonda plays a TV producer dropping acid for the first time, with Dennis Hopper as his dealer. Trying to replicate the effects for viewers, it's all shimmering curtains and occult sand-dune visions as he wanders round LA, freaking out. To mark the film screening in the BFI's Hopper season in London on July 6 and 12, we take a tour through tripped-out cinema past and present.
A IS FOR ANIMAL ANIMATION
The first trips in cinema were animated, and featured animals wigging out under weird circumstances. The title moggy of Felix the Cat (1927) fights an imaginary feline that keeps morphing into a sausage after eating a shoe and a tin can from the garbage, while the elephant in Disney’s Dumbo (1940) has fractal kaleidoscopic visions after drinking magical well water. Some of Disney’s chief artists in that era had participated in German mescaline experiments. Fast-forward to 1972 and Fritz the Cat, about an NYC feline who explores free-love hedonism and sociopolitical consciousness, was the first animated feature to get an X rating.
B IS FOR BARDO THODOL
This Buddhist funerary text – often known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead – was used as the basis for an acid-trip advice guide by Timothy Leary, who held research sessions on LSD’s spiritual potential. The psychedelic melodrama in French director and sensory extremist Gaspar Noe’s 2009 Enter the Void unfolds after a small-time drug dealer and hallucinogen enthusiast who’s half-way through reading the text is shot dead while tripping on DMT, entering an out-of-body intermediary realm in which he floats through Tokyo. The film’s swooning visual style echoes the Tibetan book, which brims with description of “shapes appearing, sounds vibrating, radiances illuminating”.
C IS FOR COLERIDGE
Underground legend Kenneth Anger’s 1954 Inauguration of the Pleasuredome is an opulently psychedelic short of pearl-swallowing and hallucinatory visions, which got its name from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced poem Kubla Khan. The path to mysticism through drugs pursued by the Romantics influenced many creative acid fans. In 1966 Anger screened the Scared Mushroom Edition of this short to a room of people on LSD (which was still legal in the US at the time) as a means to heighten their sensory experience of it.
D IS FOR THE DUDE
Acid-heads are now more often the brunt of satire than symbols of freedom in today’s age of irony and cynicism, and no-one exemplifies this more than washed-out stoner The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski, who bowls for recreation and has “the occasional acid flashback”. In one moment of mind-bent vision, he sees a rack of shoes at the alley perceptually tunnelling up to the moon.
E IS FOR EXPLOITATION FILMS
A lot of B-movies cashed in on the psychedelic movement at its ‘60s height, sensationalising hippie culture by revelling in nudity, wild acid-drenched parties and drugged-out communes. The Love-Ins (1967), about an LSD cult led by a philosophy professor, is one of the best known, and features Californian psychedelic rock band The Chocolate Watchband.
F IS FOR A FIELD IN ENGLAND
Brit director Ben Wheatley is responsible for one of the most wildly inventive psychedelic films of current times. Absurdist and unabashedly gruesome, A Field in England (2013) is set during the 17th-century English Civil War and shot in ghostly black and white. It throws an alchemist's assistant together with army deserters. After they consume hallucinogens occult, kaleidoscopic images of collective history flood forth.
G IS FOR GOLDEN TICKET
A highly coveted golden ticket gets Charlie in to one of the most tripped-out playgrounds ever committed to film - Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, a psychedelic kingdom of singing Oompa Loompas and luminously coloured vistas of candy. In Tim Burton's most recent version of the Roald Dahl tale, the eccentric Wonka is played by Johnny Depp - cinema's current go-to guy for wigged-out portrayals. Golden Ticket un-dipped blotter art is now an eBay staple.
H IS FOR HELL’S ANGELS
Enlisting the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, armed with pool cues and paid in beer, as security is in hindsight not the best idea for peaceful rock concert vibes. That was the set-up at the out-of-control 1969 Altamont Free Concert, the death knell of the hippie era captured by the Maysles Brothers in their 1970 doc Gimme Shelter, shot in a Direct Cinema “reactive” style that recorded events as they spontaneously unfolded. Amid the demented expressions of crowd-goers on bad acid trips, we see the mood grow increasingly dark before a fatal stabbing by a provoked, wasted Angel while the Rolling Stones are on stage.
I IS FOR ISOLATION TANKS
Ken Russell’s bizarre 1980 Altered States, adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s novel,is based on sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of LSD and ketamine by psychonaut (yes, that’s a thing) John C. Lilly (who also advocated the use of acid to communicate with dolphins). In the movie, mind experiments cause professor Edward Jessup (William Hurt) to experience physical biological devolution, at one stage emerging from the tank as a feral and small-statured Primitive Man. As non-physical proto-consciousness seems the next logical step, his concerned team try to intervene.
J IS FOR JODOROWSKY
The high priest of psychedelic surrealism has to be Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky – aficionado of alchemy, the Tarot and hallucinogens. His most tripped-out, visually stunning masterpiece is The Holy Mountain (1973), which was bankrolled by John and Yoko and follows a thief on his quest for enlightenment. Guiding by Bolivian mystic Oscar Ichazo, Jodorowsky took LSD while producing the film, and also took part in one of Lilly's isolation tank experiments around the same time. He has said of directing: "I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs." He wanted to make films that didn't just reflect what people saw when tripping – but induced their own trip.
K IS FOR KALEIDOSCOPIC
Kaleidoscopic and fractal patterns, patterns that breathe and morph, heightened, shimmering colours, depth of pulsating detail, swooning spirals… The visual effect of psychedelic drugs on perception has of course left its legacy in cinema aesthetics, as directors attempted to recreate the sensory experience for viewers, were inspired by their visions or wanted to fuel onlookers to more expansive states. Ken Brown's psychedelic Super-8 films for the Boston Tea Party light show of undulating double and triple exposures that accompanied swirling guitar from the likes of The Who exemplify such visual experimentation.
L IS FOR LAS VEGAS
The trashy gambling resort city of Las Vegas is a monument to the dark side of the American Dream, so it's fitting that Hunter S. Thompson's rumination on the failure of US counter-culture ideals, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, plays out here. Adapted by Terry Gilliam into a cult classic, it sees Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter-ego complete with his extreme diet of drugs, who heads into the Nevada desert with his equally debauched lawyer to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Having dropped super-strong Sunshine Acid, he's already seeing the hotel clerk as a moray eel by the time he reaches check-in.
M IS FOR MESS
Just like a druggy night out itself, what resulted from hallucinogen-influenced filmmaking was often just a grand mess - or, at least something indecipherable to bemused, straightlaced onlookers. The New York Times said of Head, the panned 1968 psychedelic adventure comedy Jack Nicholson reportedly penned on LSD, that it "might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass, or if you like to scream at The Monkees, or if you are interested in what interests drifting heads." Eh? Meanwhile, it called Zardoz (more on that mentalism below) "more confusing than exciting, even with a frenetic shoot-em-up climax".
N IS FOR NEON
Harmony Korine’s teen outlaw fever dream Spring Breakers is the ultimate in pop-culture psychedelia for current times. Funding their vacation through a hold-up and out-toughing the gangster they take up with, the neon bikini-wearing girls see their trip as a spiritual quest to find themselves through any extreme means necessary, but amid pink-streaked sunsets and a hallucinatory, oneiric mood, they face an America ruled by money and pre-packaged pop sentiments.
O IS FOR ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 headfuck has been called an “Oriental psychedelic noir”. Starring Ryan “hey gurl” Gosling as an American expat running a muay thai club in Bangkok as the front for a drug-smuggling operation, it shows like Enter the Void the remnants of acid-era cinema in current times: exoticising fetishism of the East channeled through lurid visuals and vibrantly patterned interiors, and a taste for extreme experience – but with an ironic, post-modern indulgence of gore and genre entertainment.
P IS FOR PREP-SCHOOL BOUNTY HUNTER
Tony Scott described his 2005 film Domino - a hyper-kinetic, far-fetched barrage of bizarre plot turns - as "bounty hunting on acid". It's based on the strange life and times of Domino Harvey (played by Keira Knightley), a British prep-school girl who relocates to Beverly Hills but rejects a modelling career to become a bounty hunter. Mescaline-spiked tea, former 90210 stars and Tom Waits in the desert are all jammed in to this mess, which critics loved to hate and is the kind of garish mulch-up the acid era if it were judgy could be less proud of spawning.
Q IS FOR QUEST
Spiritual quests predominate in the cinema of acid, mirroring trippers' mind frames. Canadian director Peter Mettler's fascinating 2002 experimental documentary Gambling, Gods and LSD explores within a fragmented narrative what people do to discover themselves and find happiness. Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist who discovered LSD, is interviewed, and the director stops by a Zurich techno rave.
R IS FOR RAVE CULTURE
Writer Irvine Welsh got into Britain's '90s rave scene, with recreational drugs a constant in his work. He adapted three of his short stories from The Acid House for a 1998 Paul McGuigan-directed film of the same name. In one of the tales, a guy is struck by lightning while tripping on acid, causing him to switch bodies with a newborn baby. LSD is also in the toxic mix in Party Monster (2003) from directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, which recreates the party scene and downfall of NYC Club Kid turned murderer Michael Alig (Macaulay Culkin).
S IS FOR ST LOUIS CEMETERY
One of cinema’s most iconic acid-trip settings is this cemetery of ramshackle crypts in New Orleans, where bikers Captain America and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) have a seriously bad trip with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) during Mardi Gras in Easy Rider (1969). A female voice speaks snatches of prayer about crucifixion in voice-over as the girls strip naked and sob about dying, and Captain America implores a Madonna statue for having left him. Director Hopper convinced the actor to speak to it as though she were his mother, who’d committed suicide when he was ten. Macabre vibes!
T IS FOR TREE OF LIFE
The staggering kaleidoscopic visuals, reverence for spiritual meaning and meditation on our place in the universe of Terrence Malick's 2011 epic experimental family drama The Tree of Life, aided by 2001: A Space Odyssey special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, could be seen as harking back to the ideals of the psychedelic era. Darren Aronofsky's equally polarising The Fountain (2006) is another visually pulsating, mystically inclined epic. About a man trying to cope with the imminent death of his ill wife, it sees life regenerate in a Mayan outer-space tree.
U IS FOR URBAN MYTHS
There have been numerous urban myths circulating about LSD over the whacked-out years, one of the most famous being about a man who after taking strong acid thought he was a glass of orange juice – and years later, still does. Some of these fears have been attributed to anti-acid propaganda or government-commissioned “public service” films from the ‘60s, which sensationalised the risks to deter curious youth.
V IS FOR VIETNAM
If you're going to drop acid, a jungle warzone is probably not the ideal place. But that's exactly where surfer-turned-GI Lance takes his last tab in Frances Ford Coppola's visionary 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. The whole film has the sinister existential and hallucinatory atmosphere of a bad trip as it captures the madness of the war the era's counterculture protested against. "Apocalypse acid" later became slang for dropping LSD in the least conducive of settings.
W IS FOR WESTERN
The Acid Western sub-genre emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s, riffing on earlier Western conventions for a crazed version of an America hankering after its lost origins, from Monte Hellman’s existential The Shooting (1966) to German director Roland Klick’s Deadlock (1970), soundtracked by krautrockers Can, and Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970). Jim Jarmusch’s hallucinogenic Dead Man (1995), which sees Johnny Depp as a meek accountant and potentially reincarnated poet on a visionary quest beyond frontier town Machine, is another brilliant instance.
X IS FOR EXPERIMENTATION
Let's not forget archive film. Among all the experimentation being done with acid, military researchers considered its potential as a drug weapon - but decided it would be too unpredictable under battlefield conditions (you don't say?) Check out this army footage of LSD experiments on British troops in 1963. As the narrator observes: "One hour and ten minutes after taking the drug, with one man climbing a tree to feed the birds, the troop commander gave up, admitting that he could no longer control himself or his men. He himself then relapsed into laughter."
Y IS FOR YELLOW SUBMARINE
The Beatles agree to journey with Captain Fred in his Yellow Submarine to Pepperland to free it from the music-hating Blue Meanies and return it to joyous paradise in this animated musical directed by George Dunning. Sounds kinda trippy? You bet. The visual splendour and innovation of this landmark film has made it recognised as one of the essential gems of the psychedelic era, its soundtrack including Fab Four LSD tribute Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
Z IS FOR ZARDOZ
If there was ever a terrifying vision to warn you off acid, it’s Sean Connery’s look in sci-fi-with-a-soft-porn-vibe mentalism Zardoz: red nappy with braces, thigh-high boots, long plaited hair and handlebar mo while legs astride on the beach with a pistol. He is Zed, a mortal stowaway who arrives in the luxurious grounds of the Eternals and finds the secret to his people’s salvation within an old copy of tripped-out fantasy classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s amazing Connery was still credible as Bond after this mess.