Psychedelic cinema is part of the broader psychedelics movement that began as a subdivision of the 1960s counterculture. The best psychedelic films span many genres and styles, united by experimentation, bright colors, and dazzling narratives. They tend to be non-linear and feature visual distortions, often aimed at undermining the audience’s idea of reality. The aesthetic is inspired by the distorted sensory perception of psychotropic drugs, especially LSD.
Over the years, the topic of psychedelic movies has come up several times on r/movies, the largest movie subreddit. Here are some of the subreddit’s most popular psychedelic movies. They certainly make for an unforgettable viewing experience, if not always a relatable one. Switch off your mind, relax and float downstream…
“A Field in England” (2013)
“What do you see, friend?” “Nothing. Maybe just shadows.” Set during the English Civil War, this historical, psychological horror film follows a group of army deserters as they search for a pub. However, an alchemist takes the men to a field full of mushrooms, which he cooks and serves for dinner. The mushrooms are hallucinogenic and the men spend the next few hours in a frighteningly intense trip that blurs the line between reality and hallucination.
Although it has many of the trappings of a historical piece, A field in England primarily examines perception. It’s unusual for a psychedelic film because it was shot in black and white. When the color is gone, the texture and contrast are more pronounced. This is underlined by the rapid processing with collapsing images and many mirrored shots. These techniques serve to put the viewer into the protagonist’s world of thought. “If you get two streams of images and show them at the same time, you perceive both images at the same time,” says director Ben Wheatley. “And that actually makes you think differently.”
daisy is a surrealist comedy film directed by Vera Chytilová and a key work of the Czech New Wave; It follows two women, both named Marie (played by Ivana Karbanova and Jitka Cerhova) as they find themselves in a series of bizarre situations. The film is also a political satire. The Maries regularly embarrass authority figures, particularly the various uptight middle-aged men they encounter.
The film has been interpreted as a critique of Soviet Czechoslovakia and authoritarianism in general. Unsurprisingly, the communist government banned it for years, but it still made its way to the west. Janus Films released a 4K restoration for daisy earlier this year. It packs a lot of weirdness into its meager 76-minute running time.
‘3 Women’ (1977)
3 women is a crime drama directed by Robert Altman. He is perhaps best known for Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and MASH. It explores the mysterious relationship between two roommates played by Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek. Along the way, the film packs some intense dream images.
The characters themselves live a dreamlike existence. It’s unclear what’s real and what’s not, and even their personalities seem to blend into one another. It’s unlike anything else in Altman’s filmography. “I’m trying to achieve an image that is completely emotional, not narrative or intellectual,” Altman said 3 women. “Where an audience goes out and can’t say anything but what it feels.”
‘Easy Riders’ (1969)
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper Star in this road drama as two bikers traveling across America carrying money from a drug deal. Along the way, they’ll meet a cast of intriguing characters and explore the changing cultural landscape of hippies, communes and drugs. Lots of drugs. There’s a particularly wacky sequence that takes place in a graveyard.
Quentin Tarantino called Simple rider “In every respect the finest example of 1960s cinema […] Finally, a film and the counterculture have teamed up. It captures the 60’s tangibly. If you’re trying to describe the 1960s to someone in terms of movies, you could show them Simple rider and never have to show them anything else.”
‘The Congress’ (2013)
The Congress is one of the most unique and boundary-pushing films of the past decade. It’s playing Robin Wright as herself in a near future where a hallucinogenic drug allows people to live in an idealized fantasy world. The film begins as live-action, but then switches to animation to depict the visions conjured up by the drug. Directed by an Israeli filmmaker Ari Folmanwho also made the animated war film Waltz with Bashir.
The film has a gripping plot and great performances, but beyond that it’s a sensitive commentary on issues such as online worlds and curated personalities. The fantasy world in the film is a beautiful place where the sky really is the limit. Anyone can be anything at any time. Folman’s genius is showing that this place is also ominous and deeply sad.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998)
“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro star in this legendary road trip movie based on the gonzo journalist’s novel Hunter S. Thompson. The duo use drugs aplenty, from mescaline to LSD, while traveling through the Nevada desert. After taking LSD, Duke (Depp) hallucinates in the hotel lobby, believing that the clerk is a moray eel and the other guests are lizards.
It bears the director’s crooked, black comedy signature Terry Gilliama former Monty Python member and director of the similarly surreal sci-fi Brazil. Losing at the box office, it has rightly become a classic. It remains a career highlight for its leading actors.
‘Yellow Submarine’ (1968)
That’s what this animated film was made for The Beatles‘ Album of the same name, a contractual obligation. It has a fantastic plot: the Beatles are recruited by a submarine captain to save Pepperland from the rule of the music-hating Blue Meanies. Artistic Director Heinz Edelman‘s surreal animation influenced Terry Gilliam and Schoolhouse Rock!
Pixar co-founder John Lasseter also cited the film as inspiration. “Visually Yellow Submarine captures the anti-war, counterculture and psychedelic spirit of the 1960s perfectly,” he explains. “For kids like me who were too young to directly experience what was going on in this generation, the film conveyed the look and feel of the time in a way that we could understand.”
“Fantastic Planet” (1973)
On a distant planet, giant blue humanoids called Traags rule and treat humans like animals. The film follows two humans trying to replicate Traag technology so they can escape the planet for good. The film has a vibrant aesthetic, courtesy of the director Rene Laloux and Illustrator Roland Toporan associate of the experimental filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The animation style is reminiscent of the editing style created by Terry Gilliam for the Monty Python films. But it takes this look to a new level of weirdness. No other film looks like it. Almost fifty years later Fantastic planet still impresses as a unique fantasy world.
‘Waking Life’ (2001)
Richard Linklater‘s most intriguing project is this rotoscoped experimental film consisting of a series of philosophical talks about consciousness, free will, the nature of reality and the meaning of life. It’s like a dorm chat between some very smart (and very stoned) students.
awakening life is also full of references to Linklaters films like looser and the Before sunrise Trilogy. Ethan Hawke and Julia Delpy appear for a scene where they discuss relationships. Linklater shows up at the end for a final chat with the main character. Roger Ebert included awakening life on his Great Movies list, calling it “a cold shower of empowering, clarifying ideas.”
“The Holy Mountain” (1973)
The Holy Mountain is a film by the oddball visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky. It follows an alchemist who leads a group of characters to a mountain in search of enlightenment. It’s a psychedelic film, both in story and visuals. It shares some similarities with Jodorowsk’y Acid Western El Topo but is rather satirical and political. According to r/movies, it’s “just about the weirdest movie ever made”.
The Holy Mountain was produced by the Beatles manager All small after John Lennon and George Harrison had become fans of Jodorowsky’s earlier work. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the right viewers will get a kick out of it. Fans of Jodorowsky or anyone interested in learning more about him should also stop by Jodorowsky’s Dunethe excellent documentary about the unique filmmaker.
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