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Everything you need to know about psychedelic cinema

Everything you need to know about psychedelic cinema
We delve into the history and significance of psychedelic cinema with the help of lecturer James Riley 

RD: What is Psychedelic Horror Cinema?

JR: I use the term “psychedelic horror” as well as “acid horror” to describe a set of horror films—among them Vernon Sewell’s The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror (1970)—that make use of visual and photographic techniques more commonly found in psychedelic poster art and light shows of the mid-to-late 1960s. These include vivid colours, solarisation, distorting camera effects and themes connected to altered states of consciousness.
LSD and other psychedelic drugs were the subject of some horror films of the time, such as William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) and later, Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (1978). Equally, films dealing with LSD directly such as Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967) were not shy in drawing on horror film imagery (witches, haunted houses, shrouded figures) when depicting extreme hallucinatory experiences. Science fiction films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) also used visionary imagery akin to the stereotypical LSD trip during its head-spinning “Star Gate” sequence.
By contrast, what I have in mind with “psychedelic horror” is a slightly more ambiguous category: films that neither feature, nor are about drugs like LSD, but nevertheless incorporate the aesthetics and visual style associated with their use. This is the case with The Dunwich Horror and Curse of the Crimson Altar. Their gothic landscapes of old dark houses and crumbling temples regularly burst open into vortices of mind-bending colour, hallucinatory encounters and distorted electronic music. Both films are based on short stories by the American writer H P Lovecraft (1917-1937) and these elaborate effects are, in my opinion, attempts to convey on film his very distinctive brand of cosmic awe and terror.

RD: Where does it originate from?

JR: The term “psychedelic” was coined by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in the late 1950s while in correspondence with Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception (1953). Both had been experimenting with mescaline and LSD and were seeking a term that crystallised what they had experienced under the influence. “Hallucination”, they felt, didn’t really cover it. Osmond offered “psychedelic” from “psyche” meaning “mind” and “delos” meaning “clear” and “visible”. “Psychedelic” was thus intended to mean “mind-clearing” or “mind-manifesting”.

The cover of The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
Thanks to bands like The 13th Floor Elevators “psychedelic” made the leap, part way through the Sixties, from psychiatry to the public area and the pages of Life magazine. At this point psychedelic came to describe not just the perceptual effects of LSD but also the culture that grew up around its usage: art, music, multi-media performance and film.
Away from the counterculture both “psychedelic” and “acid” were increasingly used as adjectives to describe cultural works that seemed to reflect or represent this visionary mindset. The film critic Pauline Kael, for example, described Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) as an “acid western”, not because it featured drugs (Jodorowsky didn’t use them) but because its surreal violence seemed “trippy” and appealing to all the “acid-heads” who flocked to its midnight screenings.

El Topo (1970) 
For my part I’m using “Psychedelic Horror” in a similar way. The term doesn’t describe a “movement” or a specific group for film-makers but looks at the appearance of a particular visual style in British and American horror cinema; the absorption of techniques from the counterculture that blast away the genre’s stereotypical dark shadows with swathes of strange, vivid light.  

RD: Why do you focus on the period of those five years between 1966 and 1972?

JR: The manufacture and sale of LSD was banned in 1966. By this point though it was well established as a subject of public interest. Looking at films made from 1966 onwards and particularly 1967, allows you to see just how far psychedelic ideas had embedded themselves in popular culture after their emergence from the underground.
By 1972, after the Manson murders and the break-up of the Beatles, the cultural atmosphere we generally associate with the “Sixties” was waning. Psychedelic drugs continued to be used but the cultural mood was different—harder, more negative—and this filtered into the cinema of 1970s. 1972 and Ray Danton’s The Deathmaster—a film that which connects vampirism to the psychedelic experience and reflects almost wistfully on the end of the Sixties—thus seemed a useful end point.

RD: What are some of the most famous examples?

JR: Any list is always going to be incomplete and open to counter-examples, but for me, the key works are:
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves, 1967), Curse of the Crimson Altar (Vernon Sewell, 1968), Invocation of My Demon Brother (Kenneth Anger, 1969), The Dunwich Horror (Daniel Haller, 1970), The Deathmaster (Ray Danton, 1972).
It remains a cherished dream of mine to discover a hitherto unknown horror film from the 1960s imbued with psychedelic potency.  

RD: Who was the main audience for these films?

JR: Production companies like American International Pictures, the makers of The Dunwich Horror, were trying to key into the growing and increasingly lucrative demographic of young, hip film-goers keen to see anti-establishmentarian dramas.
The success of Easy Rider (1969) had shown there was a market for explicitly countercultural cinema. With films like The Dunwich Horror, AIP were trying to up-date their earlier gothic horror films (like Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)) with the style and sensibility of this new, turned-on and tuned-in audience.

RD: Did acid horror influence modern horror cinema in any way?

JR: Yes, it remains a useful visual language for film-makers wishing to evoke either a particular look and feel of 1960s cinema or to represent an intense, sensory experience. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013) does both with its stunning combination of Witchfinder General (1968) and The Trip. Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2019) takes the swirling palette of the psychedelic experience and applies it to the heavy imagery one finds on the covers of Conan the Barbarian paperbacks.

Mandy (2019) 
In the case of Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2019) and Richard Stanley’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Colour Out of Space (2019), both directors conjure up strange, dream-like landscapes that are suffused with shimmering purple. All these films come complete with suitably beguiling soundtracks and poster art that often harks back to the psychedelic graphics of the late-1960s and early-1970s.

RD: Did it trickle into any other film genres or art forms?

JR: The art of Steve Quenell and Luke Insect frequently brings together images of horror and / or the occult with the vibrancy and vision of psychedelia. Quenell’s photographic collages often appear like still from long-lost films. Similarly, Insect mines a rich seam of Hammer Horror films, Italian cinema and acid-tinged colours to create distinctive, sometimes sinister takes on classic psychedelic poster art.
“Psychedelic” still remains relevant as a term to describe a musical genre and a large number of bands—among them The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Black Angels—work within the style. However, it is the darker, heavier groups like Witch, Electric Wizard, and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats that pull together the sound of late-1960s hard rock and horror culture. Marc Morris’ video for “Crown of Burning Stars” (2015) by With the Dead is a brilliant distillation of this style. Check it out.

RD: What would you recommend starting with? 

JR: Curse of the Crimson Altar. The dream sequences featuring Barbara Steele as the 300-year old sorceress Lavinia Morley are utterly wonderful: weird and beautiful in equal measure. 
James Riley is a Lecturer and College Fellow at the University of Cambridge specialising in the literary culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. He is the author of The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties (2019), out now from Icon Books.
His talk on Psychedelic Horror was delivered at London’s The Horse Hospital as part of the autumn line-up of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies 
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