“The Psychedelic Priest”: William Grefé’s 1971 film about a priest’s journey of self-discovery among hippies, heroin and hatred

By on October 4, 2016

In 1971, Florida-based independent filmmaker William Grefé came to Southern California to direct a film written by his friend, producer “Terry” Merrill, who had no script and no money — he had about $100,000’s worth of trading stamps and a basic idea about The Psychedelic Priest, a countercultural film that follows a priest who leaves the church and embarks on a journey of self-discovery that puts him in touch with hippies, heroin and hatred. Watch the film now — originally titled Electric Shades of Grey and now part of our Something Weird collection — on Night Flight Plus.

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We’ve mentioned before that the Sunshine State of Florida has long been considered a key locale for exploitation films, where a wide variety of films in multiple maniac genres — horror, biker films, nudies, etc. — have been produced, mostly in the 1950s and ’60s.

South Florida, in particular, was considered the home base for many of independent films legends too, of course, many of them transplants from other states, like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, Barry Mahon and others, and we should add to that list of independent film giants someone who was actually born and raised in Florida, Miami-born producer/director William Grefé, who directed 1971 Electric Shades of Grey, later re-titled The Psychedelic Priest.

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At the time he made this film, Grefé was actually the president of the Miami-based Tors Studio, a production company that produced several of TV’s memorable 1960s-era marine-oriented television shows, 1962’s “Flipper” and its 1964 sequel, “Flipper’s New Adventures,”, in addition to “Sea Hunt” (starring Lloyd Bridges), “Daktari”, “Adventures Under the Sea” and others.

The head of the company, Ivan Tors, was a playwright and journalist, originally from Hungary, who emigrated to the United States in 1939 and began writing screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before starting his own company in Florida, which also produced a lot of wild animal-centric series for television too (“Science Fiction Theater”, “Aquanauts”, and others, focusing on action and adventure but not violence).

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Grefé (born in 1930) had originally wanted to be an actor, and by the time he was out of high school he was working in summer stock theater, off-Broadway productions, and all over Greenwich Village and other areas, mostly in New York.

He began writing screenplays, and finally sold his first one in 1963, called The Checkered Flag, and he was invited to be on-set for re-writes, but when the original director had a nervous breakdown and collapsed on the very first day of production, he was asked to take over the direction of the film, learning all he could about cameras and equipment, and the regular in’s and out’s of production. The next year he would work second-unit on a zombie flick (I Eat Your Skin), doing all of the second-until exterior shooting because the director, Del Tenney, didn’t like being outside in the Florida heat.

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He would go on to direct more than a dozen other features (he also directed TV commercials), and he produced many more too.

Grefé never limited himself to any one genre, and is today known for helming racing films (Racing Fever, 1964), biker films (The Wild Rebels, 1967), and lots of horror flicks — including Sting of Death (1965), and Death Curse of Tartu (1966).

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These last two were distributed on a double-bill together after the first film’s distributor, Thunderbird, couldn’t find a second horror film for the double-bill (horror films were often screened at drive-in’s and small, neighborhood theaters in pairs), so Thunderbird financed the second picture, which was shot in record time and rushed out to screens across America. Grefé wrote the screenplay in twenty-four hours, and shot it in seven days, with a budget totaling $27,000.

He also made quite a few films in which savage man-eating animals prey on humans, like the rattlesnakes in Stanley (1972), and killer sharks in Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), which had actor Richard Jaeckel controlling the sharks telepathically. He also directed William Shatner in 1974’s Impulse.

We should probably also mention that the same year he worked on Electric Shades of Grey he also directed The Naked Zoo, starring Rita Hayworth, and The Hooked Generation, both of which we’re also featuring in our Something Weird collection. (Perhaps we’ll have future posts about those films for you to check out someday).

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Grefé — like so many of the independent filmmakers of the 1960s — did quite a lot of the work himself, working with shoestring budgets. He wrote, produced and directed Racing Fever, shooting on weekends with Cuban crew members who during the week worked as dishwashers and valets. His favorite cameraman, Julio Chavez, shot at least ten of Grefé’s films.

After working at Tors Studio for six months as the head of their production, he was promoted to president of the studio, but he didn’t want to be purely an executive, and so he continued to direct and work as a hands-on producer. All of his films — except for one, a black & white horror pic, The Devil’s Sisters (1966) — were shot in vibrant, splashy color, with lots of exterior footage lit by the bright South Florida sun.

Grefé ended up in Southern California in order to make some of his films, which brings us to the story behind Electric Shades of Grey, a film shot during what the director called “the hippie days” by winging it without a script.

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The original story had been an idea of producer Stewart “Terry” Merrill, who had come up with the project for Allied International Pictures. He contacted his friend to see if he’d come to the west coast to direct the movie, but instead of sending Grefé the screenplay, he sent him a roundtrip ticket to Los Angeles.

When Grefé arrived, Merrill explained that he’d raised about $100,000 in trading stamps, but he had no actual cash (for those who don’t remember trading stamps, they were used as currency, and often accepted by companies instead of cash who would turn around and trade them to someone else).

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It turned out to be a very haphazard project from the start, with no money to work with. Grefé was put up at a Ramada Inn on Sunset which turned out to be another of Merrill’s trading stamp deals, and eventually he got tired of eating his meals at the Ramada Inn’s attached restaurant, and told Merrill that he would buy dinner, right across the street at the New World.

It was at this restaurant that Grefé met a hippie girl and offered her a part in his film based solely on the way she looked and the “vibe” she had (she had no acting experience whatsoever).

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The very next day, an actor named John Darrell was enjoying breakfast at the Ramada In when Grefé was doing the same, and when the director saw him he realized the young man looked like he could be his leading man, a”psychedelic priest,” and approached him, likely offering up points in the film just as he had with his hitchhiking hippie girl “Sunny” (Carolyn Hall), who he’d met the night before.

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He had a cast, but no script, and decided to shoot guerilla style in a lot of scenic SoCal locations — like Topanga Canyon and out in the Mojave Desert — without obtaining permits. His soundman was an alcoholic who hadn’t worked on a film in years, and his gaffer was on a permanent acid trip the entire shoot.

Plotwise, as you might expect, we don’t have much to tell you other than what you see onscreen seems to have unfolded naturally, without being forced from the actors, and likely was improvised on the spot, to a certain degree.

Darrell’s “John” is a young priest who approaches a quartet of class-skipping, pot-smoking students sitting on a lawn at a local college, and he begins to tell them they should ditch the drugs and focus on getting their diplomas, and — you can tell they’re somewhat annoyed with the preacher man bumming them out — they offer him a sip of a soft drink, which he takes. It turns out to have been spiked with LSD.

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Father John goes on a wild trip, stumbling around the college campus, before ending up at his church, but he’s confronted there by wild strobe lights and freaked-out organ music, and the disembodied voice of his own father (we learn that it wasn’t exactly his idea to become a priest), and he decides to abandon the church and go off on a journey of drug-induced self-discovery to find a different reality, or at least one he’d been ignoring all along.

Much of what happens in the film seems to have been influenced by Dennis Hopper’s seminal Easy Rider, the famous hippie road movie starring Peter Fonda, because the Psychedelic Priest’s journey is similar in the way it opens Father John’s eyes to a countercultural, “alternative” lifestyle that he’d been ignorant about. One reviewer describes what follows this way: “He winds up encountering hate, prejudice and personal tragedy as he witnesses the death throes of the hippy [sic] movement.”

He picks up a pretty young blond hitchhiker (the aforementioned “Sunny”) and after they smoke some pot, he really begins to see how uptight his thinking had been. She ends up falling in love and together they travel on to their destination, L.A., but along the way, he ends up being abandoned by Sunny after he rejects her love. He runs across racist killer cops and hippie haters, and he helps deliver a hippie girl’s baby in a VW van.

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There’s a lot of bloody death scenes along the way — this “enlightenment” trip also comes with a heavy price — and Father John ends up hitting rock bottom, abusing drugs and alcohol both, and finally scoring smack from a black pusher man who drives a Cougar muscle car with a leopard skin top.

There’s footage of a couple of rock bands — The Stone Fence are seen in the opening and closing scenes — that were likely shot at an outdoor music festival (looks more like South Florida than Southern California, but we honestly have no idea, and the film’s title tune is sung by a nightclub singer named Mitch Mitchell (apparently a different Mitch Mitchell, and not the English drummer who was best known for his work in the Jimi Hendrix Experience).

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Despite all of the exploitation-style stuff going on, we have to warn you that there’s a pretty heavy and serious Christian tone throughout the film too. You have to remember, lots of exploitation flicks from this era were also cashing in on the “Born Again” movement that came along in the early 70s immediately after the crash-and-burn of the late Sixties hardcore hippie era, and so what we have here is rife with a lot of typical themes that were being preached to burnouts in the Haight district running as subtext throughout the film.

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This was the kind of no-budget film that was often screened for free in churches and A.A. meetings and what-not to hippies who hadn’t had a come-to-Jesus moment in their lives yet, to show them that the crucifix and all that it was supposed to mean was a better personal symbol than the needle and spoon, or joint, or bottle of Jack.

That may be one reason, in fact, why the producers of Electric Shades of Grey — producer/director Stewart Merrill and Joe Solomon — ended up getting into what’s been described as an “ugly screaming match” and the film was left sitting on the shelf since the early 70s.

For the film’s onscreen title card credits, Grefé ended up taking a director of photography credit, rather than that for director or screenwriter, because he’d recently been named president of Ivan Tors’s production company and didn’t want his name associated with some wild hippie drug movie (writer Stewart “Terry” Merrill received the directorial credit instead).

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It’s unclear whether the film was screened at all, except we do have one clue that it was, and that’s because there’s a scene that may have actually inspired something called “the California Dog.”

In one of the film’s forgettable scenes, Father John slices a hot dog length-wise and peels it apart with his fingers, then squishes a bun inside the split frank, and squishes it back together, comparing this newly-created hot dog dish to the many forms of religion that exist in the world (notably, Catholicism, Judaism, and (even though it’s not a religious belief), “Atheism”).

This food concoction later caught on and we’ve read that whenever you order a “California Dog,” that this film’s Father John’s split-frank scene was the inspiration for it.

Many years later, in 2001, Something Weird would resurrect this forgotten film and pair it together with The Hooked Generation on a two-fer DVD title, re-titling the movie The Psychedelic Priest in the process, which is what we’re offering up to you even though the film’s original title is clearly seen at the beginning.

Check out The Psychedelic Priest and other films in our Something Weird collection today on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.