Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film

Videodrome - Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film

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:

  1. True Psychotronics: films with low budgets and crazy ideas about filmmaking. Examples: Glen or Glenda (1953) and The Evil Dead (1981).
  2. 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).
  3. Hollywood Psychotronics: films financed by large studios or distribution companies designed to co-opt true psychotronics. Examples: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Grifters (1990).

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.

No Conclusion

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.

11 replies on “Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film”

  1. I like the categories, and especially the observation that Hollywood doesn’t rip off Independent Psychotronics. What they usually do, instead, is hire those successful low-budget filmmakers and give them huge budgets, which almost never works out well. OTOH, when big-budget filmmakers do smaller-budget films, the results can be wonderful; think of Scorsese’s religious movies.

    One problem there is that every artist has their own motivations. Some low-budget filmmakers are essentially using independent film as a resume to get bigger jobs; naturally, once they get bigger jobs, they’re happy to churn out generic product. Others simply love making movies (working with technicians & performers), so if they get bigger budgets they go hog wild. “Wheee! Let’s do this! It’s Paramount’s money, why not!” The results can be very entertaining but often lack narrative sense.

    • I wouldn’t say that Hollywood doesn’t rip off psychotronic filmmakers. But you are right that they would rather just hire the filmmakers — it’s cheaper. The problem is that the best filmmakers won’t generally stay around. But even someone like Tobe Hooper who fled Hollywood was big enough that he could get backing for his later independents and get name actors. For example, Spontaneous Combustion with Brad Dourif. Of course, for a while, in between the time when movie theater ownership was consolidated and before video became big, Hollywood got a cut anyway because it was almost the only way to get a film distributed. There were, of course, filmmakers who would do it in a limited William Castle way by traveling around, renting a church, and showing their films. (This is still very similar to how Christian films are distributed — and they make quite a lot of money this way, even though they are largely dreadful — but by most definitions, they too are psychotronic films — just like early porn films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door.) Video was the greatest thing ever for psychotronic filmmakers. But it was the worst thing for people like me who want to study them. After about 1985, there were so many psychotronic films being made that it was impossible to even hear about them all, much less see them.

      More and more I don’t even like the term “psychotronic” and would prefer “unusual” or “idiosyncratic.” But I’m afraid we are stuck with psychotronic; and I do like the sound of. It fits so perfectly for films like Videodrome, which I have defined as almost the Platonic ideal of a psychotronic film.

      • Yes, “idiosyncratic” doesn’t sound nearly as cool. Although it’s closer to what you’re aiming at.

        If you haven’t seen it, my favorite movie of the last few years was Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” It was made for virtually no money (by Hollywood standards), yet it satisfied the genre expectations so wonderfully that I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t love it. My wife loved it, and she dislikes spooky movies. Her sister loved it, and she hates anything remotely about modern social issues. (It’s Peele, of course it’s about racism.)

        Is “Get Out” a psychotronic film? It cost about $5 mil, which is peanuts for a premium cable episode, serious money for an independent filmmaker. It fits in the genre, although I’d categorize it as more “suspense thriller” than “horror movie.” And it was a huge popular success.

        What about Sergio Leone? His movies were made on low budgets, often featured crummy overdubbing, yet they were passionately constructed. (As a strict formalist, I know of few directors more visually genius than Leone.) Do the cheap budgets and lazy attention to overdubbing make them psychotronic? They all made a ton of money.

        So, I don’t think it’s an apt word, but it does sound pretty wicked cool.

        • You are correct: I’m most interested in idiosyncratic art of all kinds. The problem is, I’ll bet most people don’t know what the word means and most of the rest consider it pretentious. Not that they know what “psychotronic” means. Ultimately, I want to commune with the artist, not just see a story — especially since I’m really good at predicting plots.

          I haven’t seen Get Out. I will try to get to it, but it’s really hard these days. Right now I’m working on an article on the films of JR Bookwalter. And I’ve only seen about 60 percent of them. I will tell you of a rather good horror film made by someone who clearly isn’t a horror freak, but has studied the classics and knows how to make a horror film: Absentia (2011). In general, horror films don’t scare me. This one actually made me jump once. There’s no real gore. In fact, almost everything that is frightening is off-screen. I have my problems with it. It’s half melodrama, half horror. From my perspective, Kingdom of the Vampire is better. But it isn’t really scary. It’s more a coming-of-age film — just about a vampire. Most people will really like Absentia and I know your wife won’t be mad at you for having her watch it!

        • I would qualify Get Out definitely as horror simply because it has the supernatural element. I think of thrillers and suspense as a genre of films taking place in a world resembling ours, with the same rules of physics, thermodynamics, life and death–our mundane world. Whereas movies that are creepy/scary/spooky/thrilling that involve supernatural or speculative-fictional elements, like ghosts, monsters, vampires, aliens, insect hordes, giant animals, curses, mad scientists with lurid potions or maniacal contraptions, zombies, demonic possessions, devils, nasty faerie folk, etc. etc., those I would put in horror(even if they are broadly comic rather than scary, or if they deconstruct horror in amusing ways, like Tucker and Dale, Final Girls, Cabin in the Woods, and Shawn of the Dead).

  2. Michael Weldon does give the perfect definition in the Forward of The Psychotronic Video Guide. He writes “There are alphabetical reviews here of more than 3000 features (and select TV shows on video) that are considered Psychotronic. That means horror, science fiction, fantasy, and exploitation movies.” And so I believe the best definition of Psychotronic films are horror, science fiction, fantasy, and exploitation movies. Exploitation includes blaxploitation,spaghetti westerns, women in prison movies, juvenile delinquent and rock and roll movies, kung fu, mondo, biblical and historical epics, adults only movies, roadshow movies, nudie films, and so on.

    • Ah! I agree! But when I wrote this, I didn’t have The Psychotronic Video Guide. I thought it was just an update of The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

      At this point, I have to admit that my true obsession is horror — especially low- and no-budget films.

      Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write another post about this. I’ve been meaning to. Now that you’ve called me out, maybe I’ll get around to it! Thanks!

  3. Were you actually being serious that you believe that hollywood makes films DESIGNED to co opt small obscure movies with tiny niche audiences? What do you mean by co opt?

    • I was being serious. But I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I gave as examples two films I admire. But neither seem psychotronic to me even though they mimic the aesthetic.

  4. I understand the issue with the definition, maybe we can define them as genre movies that go beyond the conventional parameters of what a movie should be and take risks in both content and form without limitations. Maybe thats one starting point. My two cents.

    PD: The “True” Psychotronics are almost always much better than the other two categories but the Independent ones are very close (dont know why they are called independent ones since most of the “true” ones are independent but its not relevant).

    • Interesting idea. Recently my thinking is that psychotronics is more about viewers than producers. That is: it’s about how we approach watching a film. I’ll think about it!

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