Alice in Acidland (1969)

US / 54 minutes / bw and color / Unit 10, Bernhard Dir & Pr: John Donne (i.e., Donn Greer) Scr: Gertrude Steen (yeah, right) Cine: uncredited Cast (according to IMDB): Sheri Jackson, Julia Blackburn, Roger Gentry, Janice Kelly, Donn Greer (voice).

Others may tell you that Alice in Acidland is a seedy sexploitationer, and a particularly lousy one at that. But I know better, because I’ve watched it.

It’s an earnest, sober appraisal of the damage that the use of prohibited hallucinogens can do to society. In case we can’t work this out for ourselves, we’re told it right at the outset by the Narrator (Greer), “a psychiatrist for the state,” who informs us that

“These are the eyes of a young girl barely out of high school. Her name is Alice Trenton, and she’s been on a long, long trip. Unlike the fabled Alice in Wonderland, this Alice never saw the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter or the Queen of Hearts. This Alice traveled through the dark and endless caverns of Acidland. The place for her was no fairytale.”

The action starts when a tall young lesbian printer called Frieda Hamilton (Blackburn) encounters Alice (Jackson) and her apparently blonde-wigged (although I may get letters from angry wigs) pal Kathy Wilson (Kelly)—”a nymphomaniac who looked like an angel,” we later learn—in a parking lot, and invites them to a pool party at the home of PE teacher and hunk Bob “Animal” Fletcher (Gentry).

Alice sums this up in a seeming attempt to win a Lousy Pun Contest:

“Frieda invited us to a real out-of-sight party at Bob Fletcher’s pad. Just a few intimate friends high in the Hollywood Hills.”

Once there, the two newbies strip down to their bikinis (Kathy’s looks as if constructed from the wig-maker’s leftovers) and in due course, getting rid of those pesky bikinis, Frieda introduces Alice to liquor, cigarettes and—although it’s clear that by this time Alice would rather throw up and pass out, preferably in that order—lesbian sex in a bathtub that would seem rather too small for anything beyond the basic maneuvers.

It’s all downhill from there for Alice. There’s a protracted sequence in which she changes her clothes in a service station restroom—as an erotic venue it’s not exactly the sheikh’s tent—and then comes the bulk of the movie, the long sequence in which pairs of cast-members, almost all uncredited, writhe around unconvincingly together in (a) someone’s pad and (b) various stages of undress. (Unless I got my brunettes mixed up, Alice herself seems on occasion, bizarrely, to put some of her clothes back on during foreplay.) These sex scenes are so authentic that the moviemakers had—quite literally—to dub in the heavy breathing. The couples are certainly simulating something, but I’m not certain it’s sex.

Julia Blackburn as Frieda Hamilton.

I have to confess that, about forty minutes into Alice in Acidland, I decided I’d had enough: this wasn’t so much softcore as limpcore, and even for me the tenuosity of the movie’s connection to noirishness was approaching vacuum-like proportions. I’d assumed Alice in Acidland would be an erotic thriller of sorts, which would obviously make it of interest to the genre, but there was no attempt at thrills—or even at criminal activity, unless you count illicit undressing in service-station lavs as criminal activity. (I can’t really see Bogie in the role.)

So I switched my VLC Player off and stared ruefully at the notes I’d taken about the movie. I’d wasted my time and effort on this.

But, just before I zapped those notes, something decided me to finish watching Alice in Acidland—in the same way, perhaps, as one often finishes a bad book, however much of a dismal haul it might be, simply in order to be able to tell oneself one’s completed the task.

And, you know what?

Uncredited actress in foreground, Sheri Jackson in background.

About two minutes after I’d restarted the movie, it abruptly shifted from black-and-white into color (a sort of limited color; I’m not sure if the restriction of the palette was a product of the makers’ budget or the crappiness of the copy I was watching). Moreover, there was a complete change of artistic genre—from Quondam Times Square Dirty Raincoat to Yer Art.

Gone are the tediously writhing couples; instead we have two naked young women, one of them Alice, posing or occasionally moving around, all backed by a poetic voiceover from (presumably) Alice. The poetry is dreadful—of the twelve-year-old’s I’m A Poet and You Bet I Bloody Well Know It variety—but the women’s bodies are lovingly observed, the cinematography’s just dandy and there’s imagination to the various setups. In short, all traces of sexploitation seem to have vanished, unless you count the mere fact of the actresses’ nudity as sexploitational in itself.

Sheri Jackson as Alice, tripping.

In short, this last little section may not be what you’d call good art, but its aspirations earn it the description “art.” (Bearing in mind the context, I was going to make a joke here about high art, but for once I’ve chickened out!)

Right at the end there’s a reversion to the Grindhouse roots of the earlier part of the movie—

Narrator: “Yes, this is Alice Trenton, a mental vegetable. For this Alice there was no looking-glass to come back through. . . .”

—but I couldn’t help wondering if this ten minutes or so of quasi-surreal stuff—representing Alice’s acid trip, I guess—wasn’t the movie that director Donn Greer and his star, Sheri Jackson, actually wanted to make. It would have been a great student project and, who knows, perhaps that’s what it originally was . . . only for the beancounters to point out that, if it were tucked away at the back behind forty-five minutes of crapola exploitation, everyone could make some money out of it.

I have absolutely zero evidence that this is what happened, but, if our president can rely on his “instinctive sense for science” to deride rock-solid scientific evidence, I can surely use my “instinctive sense for cinema history” to make wild, unfounded guesses about cheapo bits of Grindhouse.

Sheri Jackson as Alice.

That’s what we very smart people do, after all.

Whatever the case, Alice in Acidland is worth a watch purely on the grounds of its curio value. You’re probably best advised to fast-forward through the dutiful writhings of the first three-quarter hour (though you might want to pause to sample the dubbed heavy breathing just out of anthropological interest), but that last ten minutes or so makes up for quite a lot. It’s not what you might call actually good—as noted, the poetastic monologue is pretty dire—but it shows an ambition that’s refreshing after the woeful grime of what’s gone before.

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4 thoughts on “Alice in Acidland (1969)

  1. I’ve heard of this but never laid eyes on it. You note the flaws but still advise a look-see, one I’d be more willing to take!! Fascinating review here John! Brilliant.

    • I’m not sure it’s worth making any great effort to track down, but it’s more interesting than it might seem on the surface to be. On the other hand, that’s starting from a very low baseline.

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