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