Psychotronic Film’s Move to Television

Old TelevisionI doubtless got my start with psychotronic film through television, not films. When I went to the theater as a kid, it seems like I was always seeing some George Roy Hill film. (That’s no slight of him. I love him. He was one of those great directors who didn’t seem pretentious — like Edward Dmytryk and Michael Curtiz before him.)

But my first real experience with psychotronic film was a theatrical release, I just watched it on television: The Last Man on Earth. Too many people think it is a bad film, which I don’t get. There have been four screen versions of Richard Matheson’s masterpiece I Am Legend — the other three being The Omega Man (fun), I Am Omega (pretty fun), and I Am Legend (pseudo-serious dreck). Not surprisingly, I am Omega got mostly bad reviews and I Am Legend got mostly good reviews — yet more evidence of the fact that film “critics” are idiots.

The Last Man on Earth gave me nightmares for years! I find it rather sweet now. But man did it freak me out at the time. And it seemed to play at least once a month on Bob Wilkins’ Creature Features.

Kolchak Poisoned Me!

But what really got me going was Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Maybe it’s because it was such a silly show and that’s something I like about a great deal of psychotronic film: it doesn’t take itself very seriously. Also, of course, Carl Kolchak is the character I’ve based my entire life on. Not that I run into monsters every week. Of course, there was that one time…

As I wrote of Kolchak: “his pluses just barely offset his minuses.” And I think most of my employers would agree with that. They hate me, but they need me. It is something of a rush to be someone’s mixed blessing. Just like Carl Kolchak.

Psychotronic Television

As I put up the page for Kolchak: The Night Stalker, it occurred to me that I was once again adding a page for a television show. Out of 22 pages, 4 of them are for television series. And actually, that makes a lot of sense. Because by the time of my generation, the B-film had gone away. I went to plenty of double features when I was young — but always at specialty theaters. First run films showed trailers and then the feature.

(Note: this always bothered me. It bothered me even more on VHS tapes, “And now our feature presentation.” No! Now your only presentation! I don’t consider ads for coming films a presentation. But a Looney Tunes cartoon and a short B-picture, sure. Then you get to say, “And now our feature presentation.” Otherwise, don’t try to con me.)

As a result, psychotronic film really went to television. That was even truer once cable came around and all these stations needed content. You all know Mystery Science Theater 3000. It would never have been a national thing had it not been that Comedy Central had just started and the idea of two hours of cheap programming was just too good to pass up on.

Thunderbirds, Lost in Space and Star Trek

The Twilight Zone was psychotronic, although I could argue against that. But even if you question that, think about Thunderbirds, Lost in Space or the original Star Trek.

They are totally psychotronic! You doubt me? You think Star Trek was serious in any way? Watch:

Roger Corman’s Career

And then, of course, there is Roger Corman. But he’s just a symbol. There were others. He started in the movies but he moved increasingly to television. So none of this is too surprising.

Finally, there was the video revolution. In the early days of VCRs, a filmmaker could get just about anything distributed if they got a decent box design. And that didn’t stop those films from showing up on local television either.

The Best of It All

Now film (?!) producers have the best of all worlds. They can shoot feature films, get them distributed if they are lucky, otherwise release them on DVD, and license them to cable. A good example of that is District 13.

Many people make money just making videos for YouTube. I’m sure that if JR Bookwalter were 20-years-old now, that’s probably what he would be doing: shoot a $2,000 feature, get millions of YouTube views and make enough money off ads for a couple more films.

Of course, for people like me, it’s overwhelming. So many films are being made — especially horror films — that it’s like running around the world trying to see every high school play that gets produced. Luckily, there aren’t too many JR Bookwalters around, just as there aren’t too many good high school plays. Unluckily, there are still too many worthy productions for me to ever get around to — especially given my philosophy that if it’s worth writing about, it’s worth writing about in depth.

I’d still rather go out to a rundown theater and watch a nice print of The Last Man on Earth. But that ain’t the world anymore.

2 replies on “Psychotronic Film’s Move to Television”

  1. Lawrence says:

    Well, I do think the people who made Star Trek TOS took it seriously. And sometimes they made something really good, and at other times not so much. There was a real heart to that show and those characters. People wouldn’t love it otherwise. The rubber Gorn is a bad costume and a bad enactment of that idea. Perhaps even considering the limitations of the time and the budget constraints of the show. You are probably aware that the episode is adapted from a short by Frederick Brown of the same title, Arena. Read it, if you haven’t. It’s worth your time. You probably also know that the only Star Trek series to win a non technical Emmy award was the animated series. But you don’t think psychotronic is a perjorative, so I shouldn’t either.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I was being flip. But that is literally the first episode I remember seeing. I know I saw others because my much older brother was a fanatic. But it was that lizard monster that I remember. The reason the show works is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. There is some great writing too. The City on the Edge of Forever easily comes to mind. And so do some of the comedies like A Piece of the Action. And the show took on some of the social issues of the day. But the show doesn’t take itself seriously the way a Marvel’s Thor movies do today. When I’m saying it isn’t serious, it’s a compliment. They are working with what they have. They have no pretensions of great art. They are just trying to tell their stories as best they can.

      And that episode with the lizard isn’t bad. Yes, the lizard looks ridiculous. But the story’s pretty good. And Robot Monster is one of my favorite movies, so I can’t exactly complain about monster design. Although, let’s face it, Ro-Man cuts quite the figure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *