There’s a scene in the 1968 film, Psych-Out, in which a group of hippies are talking to be a liberal-minded minister, asking him if a mysterious figure known as “The Seeker” has even come by his church. The minister tells them that he has not seen the Seeker, though he has heard of him. As the hippies politely leave the church, one of them accidentally brushes past a middle-aged woman. Though the hippie politely apologizes, the woman is still obviously disgusted by his presence in the church. She asks her companion how the minister can possibly allow people who “dress like that” into the church.
As the woman complains, the camera focuses in on the stained glass window directly over her shadow. There’s Jesus and the disciples. They’ve all got beards. They all have long hair. They’re all wearing simple clothing …. oh my God, they’re hippies!
That’s actually one of the more subtle moments to be found in Psych-Out, an entertainingly heavy-handed film about hippies and wanderers in California. Psych-Out was made at the height of the counter culture. It was filmed on location in the San Francisco neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, where both the love and the clothes are free and no one is about judging anyone else’s thing. Into this neighborhood comes Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg), who has run away from home and who is looking for her brother, Steve (Bruce Dern). Jenny may have been raised in a conservative household but she’s eager to embrace the counter-culture. Jenny is also deaf but she can read lips. She also has the police looking for her but fear not! The residents of Haight-Ashbury look after one another! They have to, considering that there are still cops and even a few rednecks hanging out around the neighborhood.
No sooner has Jenny arrived in San Francisco than she falls in with a 30-something hippie named Stoney (Jack Nicholson, with a pony tail). Stoney is a member of a band, along with Elwood (Max Julien) and Ben (Adam Roarke). Even though Stoney says that he doesn’t care about material goods, he’s still eager to become a rock star. Stoney also says that he doesn’t want to get tied down by any commitments. He wants to do his own thing. He may sleep with Jenny but that doesn’t mean that either one belongs to the other. Stoney may say that but he certainly gets jealous when he sees Jenny talking to the local guru, Dave (Dean Stockwell). Dave calls Stoney for being a phony. “You may be righteous but you’re not hip,” Dave tells him. Can Stoney become both righteous and hip before the film ends? Can Jenny find her brother? Will the band get signed to a recording contract and will the menacing junkyard rednecks ever see the errors of their fascist ways?
Today, of course, Jack Nicholson is probably the main reason why most people would want to see Psych-Out. Ironically, for a figure who is so identified with the counter-culture, Jack Nicholson did not make for a very convincing hippie. A lot of that is because Nicholson’s trademark sarcasm (which is on full display in Psych-Out, as this is a far more typical Nicholson performance than the one that would make him a star a year later in Easy Rider) owed more to the beats than to the hippies. Nicolson’s persona always had more in common with Jack Kerouac than Abbie Hoffman. In Psych-Out, he comes across as being too much of a natural skeptic to fit in with the free-spirited hippies all around him. Nicholson is fun to watch because he’s Jack Nicholson but you never buy him as someone who would really want to live in a commune where no one has any possessions and money is frowned upon.
Dean Stockwell, on the other hand, is a totally believable hippie guru though, to his credit, his still brings some welcome wit to his role. The script may call for him to recite some fairly shallow platitudes but he does so with just enough of a smile to let use know that not even Dave takes himself that seriously. As for the rest of the cast, Bruce Dern gets to do his spaced-out routine and Henry Jaglom, who would later become an insufferably self-important director, plays an artist with huge sideburns who tries to chop off his hand while having a bad trip. Jenny is horrified but everyone tells her not to judge. Susan Strasberg is sympathetic as Jenny and is convincing as a deaf character. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give her much to do other than walk around San Francisco with a dazed expression on her face and stare lovingly up at Jack Nicholson.
Psych-Out‘s greatest value is probably as a time capsule. It was filmed on location and it features actual hippies. Watching it is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and go back to San Francisco in 1968. Of course, judging from this film, San Francisco in 1968 wasn’t that appealing of a place but still, Psych-Out remains an entertainingly silly historical document. Just a year after the release of Psych-Out, Charles Manson and his followers would come out of the canyons and the Altamont Free Concert would end in murder and the 60s would come to an abrupt end. Watching Psych-Out, it’s hard to believe all of that was right around the corner.