One of the greatest things about the departed-but-not-forgotten Psychotronic Video magazine was its reliably great interviews. Cult film personalities at all levels of fame were covered but the best and most educational interviews often came from the least-known sources. One of Your Humble Reviewer’s favorites was an interview with William Rotsler, who is a cult figure with sci-fi freaks of a certain age for his novels and regular presence at 1970’s-era sci-fi festivals.
However, that wasn’t the thing that made the Rotsler interview so fascinating. The real hook was his long-standing association with another genre, the softcore skin-flick. Rotsler shot, directed and acted in several shorts and features as well as being the editor for Adam Film World, a skin-mag renowned for its quality photography (often done by Rotsler himself). His most famous work as a director is Mantis In Lace, a movie about a homicidal stripper that is big favorite with Psychotronic‘s Michael Weldon, but anything he did is guaranteed to feature gorgeous girls au naturel and skillful photography.
Psychedelic Fever (called Like It Is on the title card) is a particularly interesting example of Rotsler’s work because it can be called both an exploitation quickie AND a work of avant-garde cinema. There are no characters or narrative to speak of. Instead, the film prowls its way through the hippie subculture circa 1968 as various interviews with kids from the scene form a stream-of-consciousness verbal counterpoint to what we see.
The footage itself was drawn from loops that Rotsler sold on a mail-order basis, most likely via the ads section of men’s magazines. Thus, this is a rare example of a filmmaker editing together a feature from his own ‘found footage.’ There is no storyline to speak of but the interviews and footage interconnect periodically to create a series of short scenarios: there is a commune sequence where naked revellers scarf down slices of watermelon before watching an all-nude-girls band jam out, prowls through a renaissance fair and down Haight-Ashbury and hippies hanging out in their bohemian dwellings as they ponder the ramifications of dropping out of society.
A lot of it is obviously staged (you can usually tell because the hippie girls are actually enjoyable to look at naked, i.e. strippers) but the interconnective tissue is on-the-street verite-type stuff that’s worth its weight in gold for those who want to see what California was like during the hippie era. Rotsler’s camerawork is fantastic from start to finish: his handheld photography is fluid and often lyrical, making great use of natural light to create the hazy atmosphere of those drug-dazzled times.
Even better, there are scenes where the unseen narrators discuss their psychedelic experiences that lead us into the avant-garde portions of the film. Specifically, there are two amazing, epic sequences where Rotsler uses every psychedelic-optical trick in the book to bring the narrator’s acid-trip experiences to life on screen. He uses double and triple exposures to create eye-scorching collages like naked go-go girls dancing over found footage while fireworks go off over them or a girl on a bad trip being bedeviled by visions of skulls and strippers in chains. These sequences further benefit from a wild psych-jazz score by that mixes jamming and experimental electronics.
The end result is multipurpose schlock: Psychedelic Fever succeeds as a sexed-up faux-documentary on naked hippies, a glimpse into the attitudes and appearance of a lost time and a captivating display of experimental film editing and optical techniques. It’s a real find for anyone who enjoys exploitation fare of this era and well worth a look for anyone who enjoyed Mantis In Lace. William Rotsler deserves greater prominence in exploitation film circles and Psychedelic Fever makes a good case for his schlocky greatness.
(Note: this is one of four films in VCI’s Drive-In Grindhouse set – the other three are Summer School, Up Yours – A Rockin’ Comedy and The Farmer’s Other Daughter. All four will be reviewed at Schlockmania)