Wednesday, 22 June 2022

The Psychedelic Priest

Road Trip

The Psychedelic Priest
aka Electric Shades Of Grey
USA 1971/2001
Directed by Terry Merrill and William Grefé  
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers here.

Okay, so although The Psychedelic Priest (aka Electric Shades Of Grey) is solely credited to Terry Merrill, who was actually the producer, I’m piecing together from William Grefé’s introduction to the movie that it was solely Grefé who directed this. I’ll get into that in a minute but let me give you a brief synopsis of this one first.

A teaching Catholic priest moans at four of his students for having a good time and taking drugs instead of attending their lessons. One of the kids give the priest a coca cola but it’s laced with LSD. The priest, John (played by John Darrell) goes on a weird trip and God talks to him in a drug fuelled vision. So he takes off and goes on the road to experience America and giving the old ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’ ethos a go. He picks up a lady hitch-hiker, Sunny (played by Carolyn Hall), who’s wary of men and life in general and they get friendly on a long trip to Los Angeles. They do drugs together with a load of hippies who tell stories. On the way to LA they find a pregnant lady about to have a baby on the side of the road. They get her to a local ‘hippie hospital’ (a van) where a dropped out, turned on doctor delivers the baby and everybody is happy. The doctor decides to come with them but the cops don’t like that he’s got black skin so they beat him to death. John and Sunny are sad.

Sunny declares her love for John but John, being a crazy, mixed up priest, is harsh with his confused rejection of her. She leaves in the night and goes back to hitch-hiking. John is distraught... he goes to a private detective to find her, selling his car so he can afford his services. He finds that Sunny was so upset that she went back on acid and drove her car off a cliff. When he goes to hospital to be reunited with her, she dies of her injuries before he can see her. He then turns to drink, gets beaten up a few times and then finally does some heroin. Then some people find him and take him to church and then he finishes up hanging out at a live gig in a park. The end.

Well now that I write it, I find that there’s actually a lot happening in this movie, although you wouldn’t know it from just watching it. There’s actually no real story and I was surprised at Grefé because, well, the style is so loose and free. I actually quite liked it although, this is definitely a rescued print, being in a 4:3 aspect ratio (quite probably it was shot like this) and being in quite poor condition (despite being a great transfer). It’s kind of a footnote in his work but I enjoyed it anyway. The trip scenes where shapes are cut out of black and the camera zooms in and out or pans around are... acceptable. The songs are okayish too (although I couldn’t find any of them available to buy commercially, I’m sorry to say).

Surprisingly, compared to some of his earlier films, the two lead actors are pretty good and so are pretty much everybody else, although there weren’t many actual actors in the film, just people found in the street is the vibe I’m getting from this. Grefé explains in his intro that there was no script for the film so he told the producer, who wanted him, he would only do it if he sent his round trip fayre and half his fee. Well, that all turned up and he went down to see him and there was still no script, although the producer had to deliver a finished film very soon. So Grefé went on the road with a crew of just three people (shooting it himself) and they all just made it up as they went along... which actually, despite his obvious lack of comfort about doing that, is possibly not a bad way to shoot a movie about the counter culture of the time, with its relaxed and laid back attitude to life which, I have to say, really comes across in the movie.

It’s not a significant film in any way and I suspect the rag tag lack of a solid narrative structure might well put most people off but I certainly enjoyed The Psychedelic Priest. It’s not necessarily a good document of the hippie and drug movement of the time but it does live within the general malaise of that kind of diminished lifestyle and it may just give a taste of the truth of the people on the street (quite literally, on the street). It does have this kind of downward spiral of bleakness to it too, which is interesting given the subject matter and the fact that the central character is a priest so... yeah, there are things of interest here. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody but it you’re interested in this particular period and expression of a specific way of thinking, it might be of value to you and you might get something out of it. My take is that it’s worth a watch.

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