Monthly Archives: January 2020

Is Psychotronic Film Relevant?

Elm Road Drive-In Theatre

Last week, work was going well. For a change, I wasn’t behind. So I decided to go out and watch some matinees at the second-run theater. And it got me thinking about what the meaning of “psychotronic” is in our current cinematic environment.

I first saw Joker and then I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. These are both films that could traditionally be called psychotronic. Joker is more or less a combination Taxi Driver[1] and the original Tim Burton Batman. And Hollywood is a Quentin Tarantino film, which almost by definition means it was a brilliant collage of other people’s psychotronic films.

I enjoyed both films. But they also made me sad. They have all the style of psychotronic film, but none of its subversion. How could it? Both films cost tens of millions of dollars to make. No one puts up that kind of money without expecting a return on it.

Drive-Ins

A common definition of psychotronic is a film that plays at a drive-in. The problem is that any film can play at a drive-in. I first saw Terminator 2 at a drive-in. And both the films I saw last week will play at the few hundred remaining drive-ins.

It’s probably better to say that a psychotronic film can only be played at a drive-in (or something similar). This is why psychotronic films are almost always low-budget films. Even the worst Hollywood bomb is going to make more money on the stadium theater circuit than Blood Feast cost.

The lack of budget also allows filmmakers to say exactly what they want. I don’t think there’s any doubt that David Cronenberg would have been far more successful if he had checked his obsession with biological functions. Of course, if he had done that, he would be a pretty boring filmmaker.

Marketing

Another aspect of both these films is that they had huge marketing campaigns. The rule-of-thumb for Hollywood films is that they need to make twice their budgets to be profitable because as much money is spent marketing them as making them.

I don’t doubt that both of these films would eventually have found an audience even without a massive marketing campaign — although it may have taken a while. But neither would have the kind of mass appeal they do have. Is there really a large group of people begging for a film about a mentally ill clown? Or an alternate-reality version of the Manson family murders?

Same Old

But the main thing that bugs me is that there really is nothing new here. Joker is the story of an unstable young man’s descent into madness. And that’s the best part of the film. But in order to make it sellable, it was grafted onto a comic book universe.[2]

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is harder to parse. Is it all just in service to the revenge fantasy against the Manson family? If so, it’s Dirty Harry. If it’s all just an excuse to watch Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, then it’s just another buddy picture.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this. But there isn’t anything particularly interesting about it either. That same theater was also showing Ford v Ferrari and Cats. I doubt it would have been much different. In fact, I should go to see Cats, because everyone says how horrible it is and everyone is usually wrong about everything. Then again: Andrew Lloyd Webber. Ugh!

Better Films

Last week, I also discovered He Never Died. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in the last decade. I love everything about it. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that it had perhaps one percent of the budget of these two perfectly fine, enjoyable, professional films.

Psychotronic Review was started as a way to advocate for unusual films that didn’t have multi-million dollar marketing budgets. So that’s why I don’t generally talk about Tarantino or Marvel films around here: they aren’t unusual and they don’t need my help getting the word out.

But it does remind me that I need to remove my article about Demolition Man, given it’s only here because of the elements Daniel Waters (Heathers) added to it.


[1] Yes, I see the homage to The King of Comedy. But other than the plot elements, it isn’t much like it.

[2] The film implies that the main character is not the Joker, given it is someone else who kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. The things you have to do to get $60 million for your film!

Elm Road Drive-in Theatre by Jack Pearce. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Maggie Mae Fish and the Problem With the Better Critics

Maggie Mae Fish

Maggie Mae Fish is an actor, producer, and writer. She is also a YouTube film critic. She is generally quite insightful when it comes to analyzing mainstream films. Even when she provides ridiculous takes, I find them interesting.

Where she fails is anytime she mentions lower-budget films. I’ve seen this a number of times where she’s dismissed Ed Wood as a director. This always makes me think that she hasn’t watched much of his work.

She notes that Ed Wood’s acting in Glen or Glenda is “heartwrenching and honest.” But later in the same video she says, “Ed Wood, the notoriously bad director, managed to tackle the subject of his own cross-dressing with more dignity than the auteur Tim Burton.” In addition to calling Wood a bad director, in what world is he not even more of an auteur than Tim Burton?!

This is a backhanded compliment at best and ultimately only present to attack another filmmaker. She doesn’t ever say why Ed Wood is bad. It’s just an assumption that she has that informs all of her work. And it’s a shame because there is very little other than conventional wisdom to back it up.

Christmas Evil

I wouldn’t have brought this up except that she made a video about one of my all-time favorite films, Christmas Evil. I want to be fair, though; she clearly likes the film. Yet the video is filled with cutting remarks that don’t make much sense.

She says:

This film is simultaneously all the things we love about the bizarre horror/Christmas subgenre, while also being a critique of capitalism, while also being bad.

She then goes on to note various things that make the film bad. But she does it in a way that makes it unclear whether she’s serious. This is good because everything she mentions is either trivial or untrue.

The only substantive claim she makes is about the editing of the company’s Christmas party. While this may be how it was edited on the VHS release of the film, this is not how it is edited in the excellent Vinegar Syndrome Blu-Ray edition.

(I’ve noted elsewhere a tendency for critics to complain about filmmakers when the problem clearly could be — and very often is — the fault of the print. This comes naturally from the critic’s inclination to nit-pick when they are determined to justify their complain that a film is “bad.”)

Just Admit You Like It Because It’s Good

Most of the rest of the review is laudatory. There are some complaints. She mentions that one scene goes on too long because of course, she’s the ultimate arbiter of that and knows far better than writer/director Lewis Jackson.

And she calls it a B-movie, which isn’t really accurate. Adjusted for inflation, it had a budget of almost $3 million. It’s lighting budget alone was over a million dollars. I consider Christmas Evil an art film that just happens to use the slasher genre.

But overall, Maggie Mae Fish shows a sincere appreciation for the film. I just wish that she and the relatively few critics like her (the rest are hopeless) would be more secure and defend what they like forthrightly. The whole “I like it but it isn’t good” pretense was annoying decades ago.

It’s now completely unacceptable.


Image taken from Maggie Mae Fish YouTube channel under Fair Use.

Strange but True Football Stories

Strange but True Football Stories With Vincent Price

I don’t have much use for the NFL but a lot of people love it. They have the wrong idea about it, though. They think it is a sports organization. It isn’t; it’s a media company. And from early on, it has produced a stream of barely watchable documentary films about the game. One of them was 1987’s Strange but True Football Stories. It is only noteworthy because it features Vincent Price.

I learned about this odd thing from Chris Ameigh at The Full Price Podcast. He tweeted out that he would love to see it. I immediately bought a copy on VHS (the only format it is available in). But it is available online in one form or another — see below.

(By the way, you should check out the podcast. It approaches Vincent Price very differently than I do. I wrote a 10,000-word article about my favorite Price film, The Last Man on Earth — because I’m a freak. The podcast deals with films but also a lot about Price himself like in Ep 6 Price and the Nazis. Check it out!)

What’s in Strange but True Football Stories?

Outside of Vincent Price, this is an entirely standard NFL documentary. Price introduces each section, speaking from a vaguely expressionistic set (really one of those faux-3D CG sets that were so popular on PBS at the time). It is only during the final segment that there is any indication that the narration he is delivering was written before they knew what was going to be in the football segments.

And none of the stories are particularly strange. You know: if you play enough games there are going to be unusual occurrences like a couple of fumbles leading to a touchdown.

Here are the segments that Price does on the VHS:

  • Introduction (1:29)
  • Coaches (0:50)
  • The Double (0:33)
  • Sideshow (0:45)
  • Mirage (1:12)
  • Immaculate Reception (0:34)
  • Conclusion (0:37)

Check out the video I’ve embedded below. It seems to be what was originally broadcast on television. It is distinct from what was released on VHS where all of Price’s narration over the football sequences was replaced by some John Facenda sound-alike.

What Was Price Doing in an NFL Documentary?

Based on my reading about Vincent Price, he had entertainment interests fairly similar to mine. So I don’t see him as much of a football fan. Apparently, his daughter said that he hated the game.

But I grew up watching Price doing similar kinds of gigs. One of my favorites was introducing a horror magician. (I’ve never located this and if anyone can provide information, I’d be most grateful!)

So I’m sure he did it for the money. People tend to forget that stars of Price’s era weren’t rich the way stars are today. Price didn’t make 3 films in Italy in 1961 because he loved the bitter cold in Rome that year! I’m sure he was doing better in 1987, but he also had a bit of an art habit by then. I like to think that he got ten grand for a few hours’ work, but I suspect it wasn’t that much.

A Review?

To me, watching Strange but True Football Stories is bittersweet. He was in his late 70s at this point. He was still very good, but it’s hard to watch our heroes age. And there’s something inauthentic about it too. What made Price so great in films like House on Haunted Hill is that his effortless elegance was itself menacing.

Here, he knows he’s supposed to be The Merchant of Menace. And he plays the role well enough. But he comes off more like a kindly old man.[1] Which I’ll take! This works really well in Edward Scissorhands.

If you are a Vincent Price freak, you’ll certainly want to own this tape. Otherwise, it isn’t worth it. Price only has 6 minutes of screen time. There are far better things he did for television like An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe.


[1] watching it, I was thinking, “It would have been great to have dinner with him and nerd-out about art.” I’m sure he would have had some insights into RH Ives Gammell.

Image taken under Fair Use.