Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition

"White guys take acid. White guys take acid and go see the Exorcist." -- Richard Pryor (Saturday Night Live, season 1, Dec. 1975)
I was just eight years old when Pryor said that on my new favorite show, Saturday Night Live. Even then I "got it" - white guys were sick thrill seekers for whom extreme horror (and THE EXORCIST was considered the ne plus ultra extremis for the time) wasn't enough, we had to boost it up with this dangerous mind-melting drug, LSD. We liked to plunge into the heart of darkness abyss with eyes wide open, screaming. Pryor had yet to set himself on fire from freebasing and he was way ahead of the curve as far as openly discussing, live on TV, an array of drug effects without  condemnation. He made me want to be that brave. He planted the seed for this site. I was naturally far too scared and too young to even think about seeing THE EXORCIST but I never forgot Pryor's statement. As a white man I knew seeing EXORCIST on acid was my destiny. Twenty years later, home alone with a VHS, that destiny was fulfilled.

Now, if you think The EXORCIST would be less scary on acid then you don't understand acid. You might be afraid of your shoe, but no film can tap an unconscious dread that's already tapped. In point of fact, EXORCIST becomes funny on acid, if the film is no longer riding a zeitgeist wave of shock, which on acid you can tap into like an electric socket. The film was still in theaters when Pryor said those words, and it was considered the ultimate test of courage to go see it even dead-straight. It was considered cursed in a way, like the Samara's RING video (see my 2007 opus, Mecha Medusa and the Otherless Child.)

A good acid trip can change your life forever. You transcend notions of time and history. You notice how how we're all one giant orgasmic organism of consciousness that transcends illusions of time, space, and permanence. You realize that you're in a cosmic prison and only love can set you free, and it does... until around Tuesday, when you wake up depressed, the big payback for your endorphin expenditure. But for just awhile there's this exaggerated awareness that transcends the mundane minutiae of your setting. Everything is alive with potential danger and it's impossible to judge a true threat from a misidentified everyday happening. Someone pulls out a pen, and you jump as if it was a sword. Someone pulls out a sword, you laugh as if its a rubber chicken. Someone pulls out a rubber chicken, you suddenly get very serious... what are they hiding?

Now if it's a bad acid trip, on the other hand, all you see is dying and how humans are like decaying blood bags floating through a knife factory. Everyone's just waiting to be punctured, oblivious to their decay. A horror film seems relatively sobering by contrast; you feel every stab on the screen more vividly than you would if you were really stabbed (if you were tripping). It's cathartic because it distracts you from your own mortality, which thanks to acid is now staring you in the face like a member of the audience in a black robe who wont move his scythe so you can sit down. In that state you probably wouldn't even notice if you yourself were stabbed by some dope addict behind you in the Times Square grindhouse. You'd probably apologize for getting in the way of their rubber chicken, never harboring them any grudge.

The best 1970s horror films capture this metaphysical disconnect, the thousand yard stare of those gone beyond (or to Vietnam) and back again and the way not knowing if things are real or not can make you delusional. In LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1972, above) a schizophrenic young woman and her condescending bald husband (and a third wheel Meathead-type) move into a big old Victorian house out on an island off of New England, to "get away from NYC" which overstimulates the emotionally fragile and empathic Jessica (Zohra Lampert); she hears strange whispers in her head, and has an eerie interest in making brass rubbings at old graveyard. She comes to the New England island where their new home is, to make things extra "is she really dead this whole time?" weird, she's riding in the back of a hearse, the two dudes up front! When she sees a barefoot child staring at her during one of her many graveyard walks, she's scared only until other people see the child too. When the boys in her orbit see the weird shit she sees first, she smiles and acts like it's a personal victory; her fear of being thought of as nuts overrides her fear of the supernatural. When she doesn't know the right way to react, and we feel her pain, especially if we've ever had the LSD world tour of schizophrenia that is a bad acid trip.

Made at a time when psychedelic drugs had changed the face of American culture, LET'S SCARE .... DEATH (or LSD!) is nothing short of elegant in the way it blurs the line between subjective and the “real" to demonstrate how paranoia can bend the nature of reality itself, exposing even the most realistic objectivity as a paranoid conspiracy. Polanski set the bar high for this in ROSEMARY, by having Mia Farrow's paranoia be utilized to cast doubt on the reality of her situation (maybe she's just hallucinating!) at the same time as we know the supernatural is behind it all (she's not!). Polanski and the makers of JESSICA prove you can unsplit the difference between the real and the delusional, and that in fact, the difference is--as quantum physics proves--literally all in your head either way. Terrifying yet intelligent, supernatural yet psychological, poetic yet realistic... and just plain straight-up spooky, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH has it all. Even the enigmatic Dr. Mystery agrees with me from his Zombie Bloodbath blog: At once a fine example of the 1970s American film; a post-Manson, post-Altamont cultural fear of post-1960s life; a compassionate and empathetic portrayal of mental illness; a fine character study; and a freaky-ass scary movie, Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be more widely seen.

One thing Altamont taught us was that following your lovelight too trustingly can really lead you down some dark dangerous corners. That's what the LSD horror movie is all about, in fact I think it can be broken down into a few key points:

1. A lead character who can't distinguish reality from fantasy, leading to ambiguity (is she really trying to kill me? Or is she coming onto me? Or am I just nuts?)
2. A feeling of helpless dependence on the establishment gradually giving way as said patriarchy collapses.
3. The "pod people" feeling, that those around you don't understand or are in on some massive conspiracy. They're all laughing at you, or planning to replace you.
4. Fear of children going wild or becoming possessed or endangered or a threat and not knowing how to save them, stop them, or get away from them.
5. Feminist subtext!

THE EXORCIST plays to nearly all these phenomena, as we slowly are made to realize the patriarchy has no clue how to tame the wild unconscious of a fatherless girl as she reaches the age of menstruation and poltergeist projection. Ditto CARRIE (1976), where again a fatherless child (Sissy Spacek) has to deal with menstruation issues and the latent unearthly powers they bring. In EXORCIST, the single mom (Ellen Burstyn) is the hero; in CARRIE, the single mom (Piper Laurie) is the villain, and for my mind, CARRIE is the more painful of the two to watch, just because poor Carrie has nowhere to turn; not even home life can help, as her insane mom is waiting to dispense draconian punishments in the name of keeping Carrie's soul "pure." At least Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST is, like, cool. But at the same time Carrie has her night of vengeance and dies to fight another day. All Linda Blair can hope for is a level seven memory wipe.

Aside from devouring moms, devil children, and traumatic menstruation, feminist heroines had to contend with their disbelieving, condescending husbands. THE STEPFORD WIVES (above, 1975, from the novel by ROSEMARY scribe Ira Levin) finds Katherine Ross trying to avoid being replaced by a passive android after her robotics engineer husband moves them into a closed, flower-strewn upscale community. In THE SENTINEL (1977), fashion model Christina Raines is roped into becoming a zombie nun on behalf of those who would keep the demons in their place. Similarly, fashion photographer Faye Dunaway finds herself seeing through the eyes of her would-be killer in EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), as a kind of punishment for her masculine fascination with violence. And in THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (1976), Millie Perkins can't tell if she really killed the men whose deaths she sees on the news, or someone else. All she knows is that their being on TV means they are as gods. Her memories of her seafaring father are clouded in nautical mythology that clears only to realize macabre horrors (like--in the most genuinely surreal and chilling scene--dad waiting naked for her to return home from school by hiding naked in the closet where she hangs her coat) that show how father-daughter incest is like driving a mirror shard straight down the center of a girls' psychosexual development, where reality is even more horrific and surreal than the fantasy generated to cloak it. Her cutting off men's testicles in bed is both a rebellion against sexual conscription and a mythological reference to the birth of Venus (after Poseidon's testicles were cut off and cast into the sea).

In short, women in these 70s horror films find freedom from patriarchal encirclement only to wind up in some new level of hell (i.e. LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, 1977), as if what awaits women who reach beyond the white picket fence is a freedom to succumb only to pagan sacrifice, either as victim or perpetrator, and the whole point of such sacrifices--in a way--is to erase the distinction.

A really cool and relevant TV movie, I think (my parents made me go bed before I could see the ending), that is currently unavailable on DVD, is THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1978) starring Bette Davis and a very young Michael O'Keefe and Rosanna Arquette. This one is awesome because it's not a patriarchy, but a matriarchy! The women rule things and make, um, sacrifices? to ensure the harvest? You dig? Camille Paglia-style? We wouldn't see another good matriarchy movie for another couple decades (i.e. JOHN CARPENTER'S GHOSTS OF MARS ) so for god's sake, send the harvest home... to DVD! Tell me you read this and I'm not just talking to a voice in my head from taking too much acid while watching... you know... the world turn like a worm through an empty skull socket universe!


  1. Good stuff; can't wait for more.

  2. Good call on LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH which such an underappreciated film. Nice to see that it was finally released on DVD with a decent transfer. This film has always creeped me out for some of the reason you mentioned above. It is one of those rare horror films that just has an unsettling vibe to it that you can't necessarily explain, it just does.

  3. I've never seen the TV movie but I do recall reading the novel HARVEST HOME when I was a teenager. Since it's from the early '70s it doesn't have that Stephen King pop-culture vibe, but it was quite chilling. Don't remember the specifics of the ending, but no, things did not work out well for the male protagonist. You could probably find this book for about $1 in a used bookstore or online, it's by Thomas Tryon.

    And always great to see love for LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH!

  4. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is an excellent film that really shows how powerful some folklore can be. My review here: http://bit.ly/bRofGr

  5. 1. Just a Heads Up: Let's Scare Jessica To Death will be on TCM on 5/12/12 at 1:00 AM Central Time. 2. The first time I ate acid was in Germany in 1982, dead of winter, we had peaked while walking in the snowfall for hours, and were on that long slow exhale phase and had to retreat to the barracks or freeze. A room mate was watching The Exorcist on VCR, and I my mind told me "Richard Pryor prepared you for this." Given that I had seen it several times already, the first time when I was 11 or 12 at a drive in with my sister and her boyfriend, I knew everything that was going to happen, and was able to digest it. It's such an amazing movie! However, room mate plugged in "I Spit On Your Grave" afterwards, and I had to go back out into the snow.


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