Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film 2: Content

The Dead Next Door - Head Biting Fingers - Toward a Definition of Psychotronic Film 2: Content

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:

The Shaggy Dog

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.

Really?!

I’m not putting down The Shaggy Dog. I love all those old formulaic Disney films like The Love Bug, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, and Return from Witch Mountain. I’ve seriously considered calling The Cat From Outer Space a psychotronic film. These are all wonderful films that everyone should force their children to watch.

But psychotronic? Not if the term is to mean anything at all.

As I discussed in the previous article, films that most people would consider psychotronic — Dracula (1931), for example — do not fit with Michael Weldon’s own definition in his grand opus.

But if Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein are not a psychotronic films, the genre doesn’t mean much.

What Psychotronic Fans Like

The kind of people who have seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a dozen times will also enjoy The Hired Hand.

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 desserts 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.

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