I don’t know how we found out about Jill Banner [for Spider Baby]. Somebody must have told us about her. She just came into the office for an interview and I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to get any kind of a leading role. We just chatted with her and she admitted she hadn’t had any experience. But she said, “I’m a lot of fun to have around.” And the way she said that, all of us in the room suddenly felt that this strange girl was just right for the picture. She just had this kind of presence.
It wasn’t until not too many years ago I had been trying to locate Jill Banner. I had a phone number on her, and I had no idea that she had died. And I learned that she had died in a terrible, terrible automobile accident on the Pacific Coast Highway. She was at that time living with Marlon Brando and, in fact, working on a screenplay with him. And I also heard from Jill’s manager that Brando that told someone that Jill was the only woman he had ever really loved. At her funeral, he remained long after everybody else had left — standing over her grave. So it must have been quite a relationship. And she was quite a remarkable girl, so I could understand very much why Brando would be fascinated by her.
In my last article on this subject, Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film, I discussed what I considered the three different kinds of psychotronic films: true, independent, and Hollywood. In this article, I want to discuss the importance of content in psychotronic film, because more and more, I think that’s probably the most important aspect of what makes a film psychotronic.
Psychotronic Film Is Not Static
A good example of this is Charlie Kaufman’s amazing film Synecdoche, New York. Most people would call it an art film. And in a sense it is. But it is also a horror film of the most unique variety. And it is a psychotronic film. It’s just that it is so much a psychotronic film — so far ahead of its time — that most people miss it. Most people don’t understand that it is a series of horrors one after the other — everything that terrified Kaufman. And that didn’t include zombies, because let’s face it: zombies really aren’t frightening anymore; they’re funny.
By saying that zombies aren’t frightening anymore is not to put down zombie pictures. They too are usually psychotronic films — and some of the most fun films around — Night of the Living Dead (1990) is one of my all time favorite films. (I would not classify The Walking Dead as psychotronic; it’s slickly produced melodrama; not that melodrama can’t be psychotronic; see, for example, Ed Wood’s quite good Jail Bait.)
There is a shocking experience that every serious psychotronic film fan goes through. You’ve finally got to the point of paying the unwarrented price for The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. At last, it is in your hot little hands — the Bible! And you leaf through it to find this:
That’s right, according to the psychotronic film bible, the family-friendly, barely science fiction Disney comedy The Shaggy Dog (1959) was a psychotronic film.
Yes, they are very different films. Yet there is something that binds them together. What that is I can’t yet say. But I do know that it says something about psychotronic fans. Things in films that other people hate, they love.
Personally, I find most conventional films boring. There’s nothing new — no surprises. What they offer me is professionalism, and in some cases, that’s great. But usually, it’s just movie-making by the numbers. A typical Hollywood film is professional, consistent, reassuring.
What I take away from Pablo Casals’ idea of focusing on the good in art is that the thrilling moments vastly outweigh the supposed bad parts. In other words, consistency is not all that important — certainly not when that consistency is mediocrity.
A good example of brilliant inconsistency (although there are so many) is The Dead Next Door (1989). I love JR Bookwalter — I love his cinematic sensibility. But I see that almost everything he’s done is uneven. Still, in The Dead Next Door, I was thrilled that zombies don’t die when you cut off their heads (Why would they?!) and that a character is killed by a zombie shortly after he cut its head off.
This is one of those moments that I would sit through multiple Michael (The Worst Director of All Time™) Bay films for. And there is much more to love than that scene in The Dead Next Door.
Content Really Matters
But regardless of my more theoretical considerations, I’ve begun to think that what really defines a psychotronic film is the content of the films. And that was always a big part how people defined the genre: films about bikers or monsters or women running around naked or The Man getting his just deserts and so on.
Freaking the Squares
There is a feeling in psychotronic film of empowerment of the outsider and of giving the mainstream middle-class world the finger. Psychotronic film is, perhaps above all, dangerous.
To put it in the vernacular of the 1960s, psychotronic films are ones that freak out (Night of the Living Dead (1968)) and confuse (Scanners (1981)) the squares.
I’m not suggesting idiosyncratic or niche content makes a film psychotronic. I still haven’t seen The Room (2003), but even though it seems like it falls under the idiosyncratic category, it looks like it was intended to be a standard film, simply one written, produced, directed, and starring a clinically narcissistic man.
A psychotronic film wants to be a psychotronic film. And that usually begins with the very idea for the film.
Psychotronic Film: Step-by-Step, Inch-by-Inch
But we are still left with psychotronic films being defined largely as obscenity, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it!”
Still, the effort goes on. And I believe we will come to a definition. But it will never be so clear that there won’t be fights about whether this or that film qualifies. But I think even today with no suitable definition, psychotronic fans would agree 95 percent of the time.
And I don’t believe anyone really thinks that The Shaggy Dog is a psychotronic film.
Zombie Head Biting Fingers cropped and enhanced from frame of The Dead Next Door. Licensed under Fair Use. The Shaggy Dog still taken from Movies Unlimited, which is probably a publicity photo used without permission that I am using under Fair Use.
I think that the psychotronic film community can roughly be divided into two: the “serious” camp and the “so bad it’s good” camp. By “serious,” I mean that these people take the films seriously. They certainly will laugh at things from time to time, but they understand when watching a low-budget film that if something is wrong, it was almost never the result of incompetence but of lack of resources. The “so bad it’s good” camp is made up of people who mostly don’t know how films are made.
There should be no question which camp I’m in. I take these films extremely seriously. That doesn’t mean they are all good by any means. But they always have something typical Hollywood films normally lack: originality, unusual themes, or simple enthusiasm. Above all, they usually do not do things the “right” way, which means that they hold my attention better.
Plan Nine Is a Good Film
But there’s something else: I don’t think one person in a hundred would notice the tombstones fall over in Plan Nine From Outer Space if it hadn’t been pointed out so much. The first time I saw the film, I certainly didn’t notice, because my focus was on the characters and the stories. What’s much more amusing in the film is the tendencies for the cops to scratch their faces with their guns. But ultimately, it is a classic film because it is subversive. The happy ending is that the aliens win, because as it is, within a few years, humans will develop the Solanite bomb and destroy the universe.
That’s not very funny. But it is bizarre. Ed Wood made a monster movie with a theme that could have come straight from the Kremlin.
Shocker: Ed Wood Was a Competent Director
So it’s not like Ed Wood was an idiot. And he made a perfectly respectable B-movie in Jail Bait — right after making what I consider his masterpiece, but others consider a monstrosity, Glen or Glenda. When things went wrong, he didn’t particularly care. It wasn’t like it is now where people can watch the film dozens of times. They might see it once at a movie theater. Eventually, they might catch it on television.
But much of Plan Nineis amusing. But it’s also interesting, if bizarre, throughout.
The Beginnings of “So Bad It’s Good”
The truth is, I think the whole “so bad it’s good” philosophy was originally just a cover: something someone came up with to justify enjoying enjoyable, but weird films. But then it became a thing. And instead of laughing with the filmmakers, ignorant people thought they were laughing at them.
The Real “Worst Director”
It also got Ed Wood labeled the “Worst Director of All Time.” That’s just not true, as anyone who has watched all of his films can attest. In fact, he’s so far from the worst filmmaker that it is more bizarre than anything he ever put in any of his films.
If I had to pick the worst filmmaker of all time off the top of my head, it would be Michael Bay — a man who is given hundred million dollar budgets, the best artists and technicians in Hollywood, and still can’t make a film that isn’t predictable, repetitive, and boring. But his films look good, so no one questions him. I’d like to see what he could do with a $100,000 budget and no professional friends to work for free. It would probably be awful, but it might be the best thing he ever did.
These Films Aren’t Bad
Much of the purpose of this site is to convince people in the “so bad it’s good” camp that it’s okay to take these films seriously — it’s okay to enjoy them because they are enjoyable. They are sometimes profound. Above all, they are generally just weird. And that’s great!
This isn’t affectation. After seeing Attack of the 50 Foot Woman the first time, I knew the plot. I’ve written three articles about Iron Man 3 and at least one article on the first two. All I can remember is that in the first one he’s captured by some “bad guys” and has to have some special thing for his heart. Otherwise, nothing: just a rich guy playing around in his lab except when he has to put on his suit and fly around. Attack tells a compelling story. Iron Man is just eye candy.
By the way, I can say the same thing about all the super hero films I’ve seen. Their plots are as ridiculous as their characters. All they have to offer is professionalism, which I don’t find that compelling unless it is combined with creativity. That’s rare, but wonderful. I love Chocolat and Dean Spanley — of course, both of those are British productions. But they are both made by the highest caliber of professionals. I’m sure if Michael Bay had shown up on either set, the universe would have collapsed on itself.
Psychotronic Films Are Usually Just Weird
No film is so bad it’s good. Many psychotronic films are so good they are great, like Videodrome. Others are good solid films, like Don’t Look in the Basement. Many are riddled with problems but have so many touches of brilliance that they must be seen, like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. But they are all enjoyable, unless what you think what is enjoyable is seeing the same thing you’ve seen hundreds of times before.
Image cropped from frame of Plan Nine From Outer Space. It is in the public domain.
When Michael Weldon wanted to start his zine about unusual films, he stole a word made-up for a film he hadn’t even seen, The Psychotronic Man. The resulting zine was called “Psychotronic TV.” Later, it turned into an actual magazine called Psychotronic Video. It all ended in the publication of his classic book The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
Michael Weldon’s Definition of Psychotronic Film
But it is clear that Weldon was never clear on what exactly a psychotronic film was. In the introduction to his book, he provides something of a definition:
The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film celebrates over 3,000 movies often treated with indifference or contempt by other movie guides. Most of them are considered exploitation films. Some of them where made with such impossibly low budgets that they have never been released through regular channels of distribution. Many are now considered classics or cult films despite unfavorable critical response or initial box office failure. Critics searching for art condemn most of these features for the very reasons that millions continue to enjoy them: violence, sex, noise, and often mindless escapism.
That’s not a bad starting point for a definition.
Weldon Contradicts His Own Definition
But it’s hard to take seriously when you consider that a large chunk of the films in the book don’t qualify at all. For example, Dracula (1931 — English Language) was a huge hit with both audiences and critics. It was also a big budget film for its time and made by a major studio (Universal Pictures).
And Dracula is hardly alone. The same is the case for pretty much all of those early horror films. But it wasn’t just the early films. William Castle generally got good reviews and so did Roger Corman. What’s more, the book includes Disney movies like The Shaggy Dog (1959). It includes the Stanley Kubrick classics Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1972), and The Shining (1980).
It includes the Samuel Fuller classics Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), both of which were extremely well reviewed and popularly successful. And the list could go on. So what the hell does Michael Weldon really think a psychotronic film is?
It Can’t Be Just the Films We Personally Like
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that for him, a psychotronic film is any film he likes. Or if you want to look at it more cynically, any film he had movie paraphenelia from that he could put in his magazine. Regardless, his idea of a psychotronic film is fuzzy at best, random at worst.
I’ve seriously toyed with the idea of taking the lead from Weldom and saying that a psychotronic film is any film that I don’t think other people appreciate enough. But I gave up on that idea because that would include pretty much every film I like. And as much as I love Dean Spanley (2008), it is not a psychotronic film.
But maybe it’s like obscenity: we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.
I don’t think so. That’s too easy.
The Three Kinds of Psychotronic Films
The more I’ve thought about this question, the more I’ve come to see that there are really three kinds of psychotronic films:
Independent Psychotronics: films with classic psychotronic themes (eg, horror, bikers) or other odd content generally made by established independent filmmakers. Examples: Shock Corridor (1963) and Videodrome (1983).
On this site, I’d like to focus on the True Psychotronics. But the truth is, the Independent Psychotronics are usually better. And the Hollywood Psychotronics are often excellent. (I’d much rather Hollywood co-opt True Psychotronics rather than yet another comic book or graphic novel.) Note that Hollywood rarely steals from the Independent Psychotronics because they really can’t do any better. For one thing, no studio is going to risk much more than the Independents use on an unknown property.
I like all of the films I mentioned above as examples. (Well, Close Encounters hasn’t aged well, but it’s gotten to the point of being campy, so it’s quite watchable.) This isn’t about liking or not liking a film. It’s about process and purity of vision.
I intentionally titled this article “Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film.” That’s because I haven’t finished this process. I may never. But I am getting closer.
There are a couple of things that are clear, however. The first is that Michael Weldon is useless in this quest. The second is that trite definitions like Google’s won’t do at all: “denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics.” By this definition, Videodrome isn’t a psychotronic film. And if Videodrome is not a psychotronic film, no film is.
This discussion is not over.
Image taken from a frame of Videodrome. Licensed under Fair Use.