Who Mourns for Arch Hall?

The Mads Are Back

I just went to see The Mads Are Back (Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff) of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. They are doing live shows where they riff to low budget films. Last night it was The Choppers — the film Arch Hall Sr made before his more famous Eegah.

As can doubtless be guessed, it was a bittersweet event. The riffing was pretty funny. And the movie itself is quite good. But it is annoying to hear the film referred to as “bad.”

Idiot Hates This Island Earth

To make matters worse, This Island Earth (1955) came up during the Q&A after the film. It was used for MST3K: The Movie. Beaulieu noted that they had to do things to it. (For example, they removed an entire reel so that the film didn’t make much sense.)

The guy sitting next to me muttered, “It still sucked.” I wanted to punch him. This Island Earth is a science fiction classic — well received when released and even better regarded today. As usual, the MST3K crew didn’t like various aspects of it that were intentional like its lack of a standard hero’s plot.

Pandering to Idiots

But this idiot is the target audience for low budget films. It would be trivial to grow this website if my attitude was that these films were bad and only good for a laugh. But I’ve never been interested in writing for idiots.

And there is something that bothers me about anyone involved with MST3K referring to “bad” films: have they ever watched their hosted segments? They are embarrassing — generally worse than any film they riff to.

Show Some Respect

I’d really like it if the people who are using these films to create a different piece of art would show a little respect for the art that they would be nothing without.

But alas, they don’t. I’m not even sure that they know what they mean by bad. It seems to be nothing more than films that aren’t professionally produced dreck.

Toward the end of The Choppers an out-of-focus shot came on and Conniff riffed, “Look, Ed Wood’s taken over.” It got a big laugh because everyone “knows” Wood was a terrible filmmaker. Except his films were always well shot. William C Thompson was usually his cinematographer and he was quite good.

After that shot, there were several minutes of similarly bad coverage. This is almost certainly due to the print and not the way the film was released.

Support Art Especially When Riffing

I know this all sounds very petty, but it does matter. It isn’t that they are making fun of the films. But these films aren’t bad. And I’m really tired of complaints about films that are based on ignorance. (For example, not realizing that Death Bed: The Bed That Eats is a comedy.)

Worst of all, calling such films bad makes artists less likely to try to do anything but the same old thing. And it props up big budget films over personal and exploitation films.

I would gladly watch The Choppers again. I can’t say that of the $50 million Bohemian Rhapsody. Sadly, very few people agree with me. We are a society that cherishes mocking failure, even when there is none to mock.

Read: Pablo Casals on How to Appreciate Art

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Thousand Clowns, and the Dangers of Film Enthusiasm

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Thousand Clowns, and the Dangers of Film EnthusiasmI visited my sister over the weekend and we went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. It wasn’t a thrilling idea for several reasons. I don’t like biopics. I rarely like big-budget Hollywood films. I’ve never been a huge Queen fan. But going to lame films is something I have always done for my family. (They have learned not to reciprocate because of long — For Them — painful experience.)

The film turned out to be far worse than I had expected. The main reason biopics usually suck is because they are redemption stories. Admittedly, redemption stories can be fantastic; for example, Ikiru is one of my favorite films ever.

But in Bohemian Rhapsody it is the total cliche: artist finds success; artist goes on tilt; artist finds redemption by not going on tilt. For anyone who cares, there is an episode of Behind the Music about Queen. And it has the major advantage of ruining only 45-minutes of your life. Bohemian Rhapsody is well over 2 hours long. And it feels much longer. (Dunbar in Catch-22 would have loved it!)

But the main thing that struck me while watching the film was not that it was bad. Not that there wasn’t much badness to strike me. Although I once admired director Bryan Singer, it has been many years. He is now a typical Hollywood hack. Things might have been better if Peter Morgan had been kept as screenwriter, but instead, Anthony McCarten was brought on board — likely to pacify the remaining members of Queen who seem to have been determined the movie be as inoffensive and boring as possible. The whole thing is typical Hollywood nonsense, so I can hardly complain that my experience of the film was alternating boredom and outrage.

Noticing Technique

The main thing that bugged me was how technically I watched Bohemian Rhapsody. I was constantly taken out of the film by this or that directorial flourish. And I have always hated that! Any time some critic or other film enthusiast makes a big deal about the technical side of a film, I know that they are not worth listening to.

And this is what Hollywood is all about. The studios are convinced that people come to their movies to see the spectacle. This is not my experience at all. I can’t speak for teens, but adults want to see a good story well told.

There was one very impressive shot toward the end of the film. Queen is playing at Live Aid. The camera starts under Freddy Mercury’s piano. It is then pushed forward between his legs and over to Brian May. Finally, it tilts up to a shot of May’s guitar. It took me a good minute to figure out two ways to recreate what I will admit was a very pleasing shot.

The Thousand Clowns Paradox

If anything, the shots like this ruin the rest of the film. (Or would have done so if the rest of the film had been good.) I call it the Thousand Clowns Paradox. After the first cut of the film, the screenwriter Herb Gardner was horrified. He had first written it as a play. When he wrote the screenplay, Gardner tried to expand it for the screen, but ultimately, A Thousand Clowns looks like a play on film.

So Gardner worked with editor Ralph Rosenblum (both were also co-producers) to create more cinematic scenes using stock footage and music. And they are sublime! But in the context of the film, they only serve to highlight just how boring the other scenes are.

Without those scenes, the viewer isn’t unsettled. They are able to appreciate the exceptional story.

Technique Isn’t Storytelling

So it bothers me to be reminded that I’m watching a film. It bothers me even more that I do appreciate technique. But I fear that is something I’m just going to have to live with given how much of a film geek I am. And it will only get worse.

This is not what film-viewing and filmmaking should be. There is a common saying about editing a picture: you have to kill your darlings. The idea is that because of the filmmakers’ love of a scene, it stays in the edit, even though it is creating problem for the film as a whole. Usually, this is a matter of pacing. But I think this is also because of the Thousand Clowns Paradox. Sadly, fewer and fewer filmmakers hold to this.

Big-budget movies are made by huge egos. And that results in over-long movies filled with beautiful but worthless shots. It explains why I would rather watch any Howard Hawks or Russ Meyer film than almost anything at the local multiplex.

The Lie in The Human Centipede Trilogy

The Human Centipede 3 PosterI have not seen any of The Human Centipede films. Normally, I would. But I don’t even like fart jokes. Scatological material makes me sick just to think about.

As a result, this rumination is based on reports, not actual viewing. I’m more than open to publishing any positive posts or pages on any of the films or the trilogy as a whole. Just contact me.

I can deal with small bits of scatological material as in Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. But a series of films, which don’t seem to have much of a sense of humor about themselves, based on the idea of people eating out of the anuses of others? Sorry. I can’t deal with it. Is it psychotronic? Sure. Am I going to watch it? Well, maybe the first film at some time in the future.

But what I want to talk about is writer/director Tom Six’s claim that he always meant for The Human Centipede to be a trilogy. That’s doubtless true. But it’s also certain that he hadn’t thought it through very carefully. That, or he shows a complete lack of creativity.

A Brief Overview of The Human Centipede

The films break down as follows:

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Other than the scatological aspect of the film, this is a pretty straightforward mad scientist film that could have starred John Carradine or Vincent Price in the 1950s or 1960s. Or did star Tim Curry in the 1970s. A car breaks down, the stranded victims go to a local house for help, only to be caught in the mad scientist’s evil web.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)
The sequel is a meta-film: a fan of the first film either does it for real or imagines that he does. Instead of 3 people, as in the first film, this one has 12. And instead of a surgeon doing the operation, the main character uses a staple gun, which even without seeing it, I know would not work. Anyone who has ever dealt with plumbing knows just how big a problem leaks are — to the point where the entire system rips apart.
The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)
Is a 12-person human centipede not enough for you? Well, this film offers 500! And so much more! It isn’t even all that much the human centipede anymore. But it’s there — eventually. Mostly, the film could be titled, “The Psychopathic Warden.” So that’s the focus of the film. And you can see why. The truth is, a human centipede of that size rather loses its impact (even with amputations), which may be why Six found he had to disgust his audience in so many other ways.

The Problem With the Third Film

This site is not about criticizing. It was never my idea to create a page for the first film or the trilogy simply because of my personal issues. I had thought of hiring a writer to cover it. But I finally decided not to (at least not the trilogy — maybe the first film) because of the fundamental problem with the third film.

The first film is classic horror — only with a really disgusting twist. The second film can at least be seen as postmodern in its meta-nature and unreliable narrator. (That’s charitable, but Psychotronic Review is nothing if not charitable!)

After being briefed on the second film, I was very interested to see where Tom Six was going to go with the third film. How do you go beyond meta? Well, apparently, he wasn’t thinking. I guess each film was just meant to get more disgusting than the last. But if that’s the case, why not do a fourth movie? Just have scene after scene where different people shit onto the lens of the camera?

Two Films Does Not a Trilogy Make!

But I don’t think that was what Tom Six was thinking. I think he had the idea for the second film in mind when he was making the first. And he figured he would come up with something for the third.

One thing seems clear: Tom Six did not have “The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)” in mind as his third film when he was making his first.

And he did! It just didn’t have anything to do with the first two films. The last film, as far as I can tell is simply torture porn.

Now that can be said of the first two films, but there is some wit to them. The last film seems to want to be campy. The trailer for it certainly is. The first two films are not campy. And reviews of the film make it sound as if Tom Six had simply run out of ideas.

And that makes me rethink even including the trilogy in the pantheon of psychotronic films. I know that psychotronic filmmakers very often just want to make a buck. But this seems like Hollywood thinking. Afterall, what’s left after the “full sequence”? The “final sequence”? If it had been a comedy, maybe.

The Pernicious Myth

But in addition to taking itself too seriously, it pushes a pernicious myth: the deterrence theory of crime prevention. It doesn’t work because (1) most violent crimes aren’t planned; and (2) people who plan crimes don’t expect to get caught. It also shows the warden murdering people with impunity. Is that really what the Dutch think the American justice system is like?

If the film had been made two years later, I might think it was trying to say something about Donald Trump, who seems to think he should have the same rights that the warden has in the film — that he is above the law. But it was released halfway through Obama’s second term. So what was the point?

What Does the Trilogy Mean?

You can call any three films a trilogy. John Carpenter refers to his “Apocalypse Trilogy”: The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). But he directed three other films between each of these and the films are in no way connected in the way that Tom Six’s trilogy is meant to be.

It’s only on the most simplistic level that these films build. The length of the centipede grows with each film. The explicit violence and degradation grow. In the second film, the action is based on the first film. In the third film, the action is based on the first two films. That’s pretty much it.

Does Tom Six Being in the Film Matter?

The one thing that makes The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) at all expansionary is that Tom Six has a major role in the film — as Tom Six. But this hardly makes the film more meta-oriented than the second, because the first film is so important in the second. We don’t need to meet the director to know that one exists.

Six’s appearance has been said to indicate that he’s being serious. I see it the opposite way. His appearance means to push back against the first two films: they were fantasy but this one is real. And that completes no arc. It doesn’t even make sense. It is fantasy, whether the director is in it or not. So how do these three films tell a single story?

I can’t say. I’m open to other opinions. But one thing seems clear: Tom Six did not have The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) in mind as his third film when he was making his first. He might have had the idea of setting it in a prison. But he must have thought he’d come up with something new that would pull it all together. He didn’t. A meta-meta-film is not basing a film on people watching two films instead of one.

And I’m left thinking ultimately all he has on his mind is new ways to disgust. And that’s fine. But no Tobe Hooper he.

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.

Money, Vision, and Psychotronic Film

Money, Vision, and Psychotronic Film

There is an interesting distinction between exploitation filmmakers. There are those who are just in it for the money — people like Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then there are visionaries (who were often con men) who would do whatever they could do to get their ideas on film — people like Ed Wood.

It doesn’t much matter to the final result. Lewis would never write anything as breathtakingly personal as Glen or Glenda. Yet in many ways the two men were quite similar. Wood certainly wanted his unique vision to be profitable. And Lewis was quite willing to tackle the social issues of his day in his later films.

Realism in Filmmaking

The issue, I think, is the realism of the filmmaker. Lewis famously said that he felt sorry for filmmakers who were trying to make art. Now, like so many things Lewis said, I think it was more for effect than anything else. But there is no doubt that Lewis was, as the Mothers put it, “only in it for the money.”

Wood, on the other hand, would have made his films if he knew that there was no money in it.

If Lewis Had Made Glen or Glenda

I focus on Glen or Glenda because it is Wood’s most pure vision — from his id on to celluloid. And this is why I consider it one of the greatest films ever made and the greatest idiosyncratic film ever made. (Oh, if he were only alive to see me write that! And sorry, George Barry: you still made a great film.)

But Lewis would have had no problem making Glen or Glenda himself — so long as he thought it would have made money. But I doubt it would have been as good — at least to viewers like me.

Wood was down on his knees begging society to understand him and those like him. Lewis would have been down on his knees looking for dropped dollars at the drive-in entrence.

Different Ways to Make a Great Film

Anyone who’s read more than a couple of sentences by me knows that I fall into the Ed Wood camp. Art? Professionalism? These are fine things in their right place. But they aren’t very important in psychotronic film. What I most love about psychotronic film is that it surprises me. When I first saw Glen or Glenda, I felt like I had entered Ed Wood’s brain — a wondrous place to spend an hour.

With Lewis’ films, I don’t get that experience. He never let’s me inside because his motivation is money, even if what he produced was often great.

An Aside: Ed Wood Was a Good Director

The idea that Ed Wood was a bad (much less the worst) director is nonsense. Most people who have seen any of his films have only seen Plan 9 From Outer Space — and only after being told it is a bad movie. And the rest just take it as a fact, having never seen it. (This is similar to Gary Larson’s “Hell’s Video Store,” which only had Ishtar for rent — a cartoon he created — and later apologized for — having never seen that great comedy.)

Plan 9 is not a bad film! Although hardly a great film, it is interesting throughout. What’s more, it’s subversive!

Focusing on Stupid Things

Yet people focus on things like the tombstones falling over. Why? Because they’ve been told to! I’m a movie fanatic. Now I mostly watch them alone, but I’ve watched hundreds with audiences, and they don’t notice things like this.

I think it wasn’t until my own fifth watching of Plan 9 that I noticed the tombstones. Why? Because I was concentrating on the story — like most viewers.

Who Does Professionalism Impress?

The exceptional amount of professionalism put into Hollywood films is put their for the filmmakers themselves. And this is why we end up with films like the first Star Wars looking so bad after a couple of years that Lucas was driven to replace all his special effects because two years later they were embarrassing. (I think doing that is an artistic sin; art exists in its own context; but I guess it isn’t a sin for Lucas because he is no artist.)

But most filmmakers don’t have that kind of money or power. So we have countless films that turn from live-action to cartoons and back. I personally find it distracting. Tombstones falling over on a tiny part of the screen is much easier to overlook than the fact that half of the third act of The Matrix Revolutions is a cartoon — and one that looks worse ever year.

Watch Jail Bait (which Ed Wood made between Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster). You will see a perfectly competent writer and director. Indeed, in terms of professionalism, he was easily as good as Herschell Gordon Lewis. But Wood had a personal vision that Lewis did not. And maybe Lewis is right: we should pity Wood.

But had Wood been an art painter, it is exactly this vision that would have made him a star. But since film is commodity to most people, Lewis is the success and Wood the failure.

Luck and the Movies

Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Lewis was just lucky. It’s not like gore wasn’t in the air. As I pointed out in my discussion of Blood Feast, Akira Kurosawa was already playing with gore in Yojimbo (1961) and in a spectacular way in Sanjuro (1962).

Had it not been for Blood Feast, Lewis would be remembered fondly by people like me for films like Scum of the Earth! and The Gruesome Twosome, but he would not be the icon he became.

The same is true of Wood, of course, but in a horrible way.

Some people decided to focus on Plan 9 From Outer Space and decide that it was the worst film ever. I don’t know where they got that idea — maybe just because Michael Bay hadn’t started making films yet. Most likely, they just didn’t understand what Wood was doing. And they probably hadn’t seen that many films anyway.

But it caught on. Ed Wood was “the worst director of all time” based upon seeing only one of his films and not understanding it. Sorry, but this is great writing and directing:

The Psychotronic Filmmakers Curse and Blessing

One thing you hear again and again in director commentaries on psychotronic films is disappointment. The directors wish they could have done this or that. Or they made a bad decision here. Or they really wish they had been able to go back and re-shoot this scene or shoot a missing transition. But they couldn’t. You never hear this from Hollywood directors because they aren’t constrained in that way. They’re constrained in a much worse way: in what the kind of film they can make to begin with.

Whether for money or vision, the psychotronic filmmaker is artistically free to make the kind of films they think people want to watch — whether they are right (as Lewis was) or wrong (as Wood was). In the end, we get films that delight us if we are open to them. All the “art” and professionalism in the world will not stop me from passing out before the first reel is finished.

The Short Life of Jill Banner

Jill BannerI don’t know how we found out about Jill Banner [for Spider Baby]. Somebody must have told us about her. She just came into the office for an interview and I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to get any kind of a leading role. We just chatted with her and she admitted she hadn’t had any experience. But she said, “I’m a lot of fun to have around.” And the way she said that, all of us in the room suddenly felt that this strange girl was just right for the picture. She just had this kind of presence.

It wasn’t until not too many years ago I had been trying to locate Jill Banner. I had a phone number on her, and I had no idea that she had died. And I learned that she had died in a terrible, terrible automobile accident on the Pacific Coast Highway. She was at that time living with Marlon Brando and, in fact, working on a screenplay with him. And I also heard from Jill’s manager that Brando that told someone that Jill was the only woman he had ever really loved. At her funeral, he remained long after everybody else had left — standing over her grave. So it must have been quite a relationship. And she was quite a remarkable girl, so I could understand very much why Brando would be fascinated by her.

–Jack Hill
Interviewed in The Hatching of Spider Baby

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.

So Bad It’s Good? So Good It’s Great!

So Bad It's Good? So Good It's Great!

I think that the psychotronic film community can roughly be divided into two: the “serious” camp and the “so bad it’s good” camp. By “serious,” I mean that these people take the films seriously. They certainly will laugh at things from time to time, but they understand when watching a low-budget film that if something is wrong, it was almost never the result of incompetence but of lack of resources. The “so bad it’s good” camp is made up of people who mostly don’t know how films are made.

There should be no question which camp I’m in. I take these films extremely seriously. That doesn’t mean they are all good by any means. But they always have something typical Hollywood films normally lack: originality, unusual themes, or simple enthusiasm. Above all, they usually do not do things the “right” way, which means that they hold my attention better.

Plan Nine Is a Good Film

But there’s something else: I don’t think one person in a hundred would notice the tombstones fall over in Plan Nine From Outer Space if it hadn’t been pointed out so much. The first time I saw the film, I certainly didn’t notice, because my focus was on the characters and the stories. What’s much more amusing in the film is the tendencies for the cops to scratch their faces with their guns. But ultimately, it is a classic film because it is subversive. The happy ending is that the aliens win, because as it is, within a few years, humans will develop the Solanite bomb and destroy the universe.

That’s not very funny. But it is bizarre. Ed Wood made a monster movie with a theme that could have come straight from the Kremlin.

Shocker: Ed Wood Was a Competent Director

So it’s not like Ed Wood was an idiot. And he made a perfectly respectable B-movie in Jail Bait — right after making what I consider his masterpiece, but others consider a monstrosity, Glen or Glenda. When things went wrong, he didn’t particularly care. It wasn’t like it is now where people can watch the film dozens of times. They might see it once at a movie theater. Eventually, they might catch it on television.

But much of Plan Nine is amusing. But it’s also interesting, if bizarre, throughout.

The Beginnings of “So Bad It’s Good”

The truth is, I think the whole “so bad it’s good” philosophy was originally just a cover: something someone came up with to justify enjoying enjoyable, but weird films. But then it became a thing. And instead of laughing with the filmmakers, ignorant people thought they were laughing at them.

The Real “Worst Director”

It also got Ed Wood labeled the “Worst Director of All Time.” That’s just not true, as anyone who has watched all of his films can attest. In fact, he’s so far from the worst filmmaker that it is more bizarre than anything he ever put in any of his films.

If I had to pick the worst filmmaker of all time off the top of my head, it would be Michael Bay — a man who is given hundred million dollar budgets, the best artists and technicians in Hollywood, and still can’t make a film that isn’t predictable, repetitive, and boring. But his films look good, so no one questions him. I’d like to see what he could do with a $100,000 budget and no professional friends to work for free. It would probably be awful, but it might be the best thing he ever did.

These Films Aren’t Bad

Much of the purpose of this site is to convince people in the “so bad it’s good” camp that it’s okay to take these films seriously — it’s okay to enjoy them because they are enjoyable. They are sometimes profound. Above all, they are generally just weird. And that’s great!

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a far more enjoyable film than Iron Man 3 (see my articles on its politics, physics, and use of Ben Kingsley).

This isn’t affectation. After seeing Attack of the 50 Foot Woman the first time, I knew the plot. I’ve written three articles about Iron Man 3 and at least one article on the first two. All I can remember is that in the first one he’s captured by some “bad guys” and has to have some special thing for his heart. Otherwise, nothing: just a rich guy playing around in his lab except when he has to put on his suit and fly around. Attack tells a compelling story. Iron Man is just eye candy.

By the way, I can say the same thing about all the super hero films I’ve seen. Their plots are as ridiculous as their characters. All they have to offer is professionalism, which I don’t find that compelling unless it is combined with creativity. That’s rare, but wonderful. I love Chocolat and Dean Spanley — of course, both of those are British productions. But they are both made by the highest caliber of professionals. I’m sure if Michael Bay had shown up on either set, the universe would have collapsed on itself.

Psychotronic Films Are Usually Just Weird

No film is so bad it’s good. Many psychotronic films are so good they are great, like Videodrome. Others are good solid films, like Don’t Look in the Basement. Many are riddled with problems but have so many touches of brilliance that they must be seen, like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. But they are all enjoyable, unless what you think what is enjoyable is seeing the same thing you’ve seen hundreds of times before.

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.

Is It Time to Buy a Blu Ray Player?

I have avoided getting a Blu-ray player for years.

Why I Avoided Blu-ray All These Years

Almost a decade ago, I bought a laptop that just happened to have a Blu-Ray player in it and someone loaned me the first Despicable Me film on a Blu-ray disc, so I played it. Given the small screen size, the only thing I really noticed was that it loaded really slowly.

But there was another reason I preferred DVDs over Blu-Ray discs: DVD Shrink.[1] My preference is to put a disc on a hard drive and then just put the disc in my cabinet. I hate having to find any particular disc.

Is It Time to Buy a Blu Ray Player?

Digital Copies Don’t Cut It — Yet, at Least

I know: I can get digital copies. And as soon as digital copies come with all the extra features that the discs do, I’ll switch. But they don’t.

(Regardless, this is very important: don’t steal films. I could hardly give a jellybean for the lost revenue of Hollywood. But especially now, psychotronic filmmakers can only make films if we all buy them and don’t make or download illegal copies.)

As a result of this, Blu-ray was not a technology that I was keen on.

What Got Me Interested in Blu-ray

But I was at our only remaining video store (and the only one that was ever good), Video Droid. They were playing some film I don’t care for too much (which is unusual, because they have good taste). And I noticed that it looked particularly good on their enormous screen. So I asked the clerk, “Is that Blu-ray?” And she said, “Sure. The players are the same price as DVD players.”

That got me thinking.

There had been a little problem I’ve been running into recently: films on Blu-ray discs are often cheaper than films on DVD. And sometimes, you can only get things on Blu-Ray.

For example, Something Weird Video released The Blood Trilogy on Blu-ray (it says multi-format, but it isn’t — typical Amazon). That’s Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and Color Me Blood Red on a single disc! And when I bought it, it was only $9.99!

Well, that was it! I needed to buy a Blu-ray player. So I went over to Amazon and bought a refurbished Blu-ray player for just $36.99.

My Personal Blu-ray Problems

It turned out to be a bit more complicated for me than I had hoped. I had a monitor with a VGA and two HDMI inputs. So I figured there would be no problem. There was — but just one.

My monitor was so old that it didn’t have speakers in it. So I could watch Blu-rays, but I couldn’t hear them. So I bought a better monitor, with sound, for half the price I paid for my old monitor.

Success!

I was happier than a psychotronic film fanatic with The Blood Trilogy on Blu-ray and nothing to do all Memorial Day.

The great surprise is that even on my little 20", the picture quality is notably better. The sound is not as good as it could be, but sound on the films I most watch is usually the lowest quality aspect.

If You Can, You Should Get a Blu-ray Player

If you are poor, well, you’re poor. But if you aren’t, it’s time to trade in your old DVD player for a Blu-ray player. (Make sure it also plays DVDs, because sometimes — very rarely — they won’t, given it does require an extra laser.) It gives you more options.

And if you buy as few as a dozen films on disc per year, you will likely make your money back within too long. For example, right now, a new release of Bubba Ho-Tep on Blu-ray is available for half-the price of the original DVD. And it has a number of new extras, including a commentary track with Joe R Lansdale, who wrote the original short story. The price difference is well over half the cost of my new Blu-ray player.

DVD Is King — For Now

But yes, you can buy used copies. I’ve just had problems with used discs. People treat them like hell and they often skip or won’t play at all. And there is no point sending them back, because if you purchased a disc used, it’s because it was cheap. Are you really going to spend all that time and effort to send it back just to net $2.00?

DVDs are still king. And for the time being, you can often get very good deals on used copies. Used Blu-ray discs are still unacceptably expensive, but that will change.

I don’t care what the format is. My main problem with VHS is that almost all films were panned and scanned (the edges were cut off on anything other than films shot in 4/3 aspect ratio). Also: very rarely did they have any extras. Otherwise, whatever. You still need a VCR!

The Future Is Blu-ray

But I’m afraid Blu-ray is the future. And it’s reached the point where it will often save you money or allow you to get a film that you couldn’t otherwise.

A Blu-ray player is a good investment. And if you need to replace a DVD player, there’s no question: get a Blu-ray player.


[1] Be very careful if you try to download DVD Shrink. Most sites are just scams. You can spend hours trying to find the link to the program and only be taken to every other site imaginable offering you every kind of software imaginable.

The last release is version 3.2.0.15, although the install program will just say 3.2. Even Wikipedia, as I write this, lists a scam site for DVD Shrink. It is free software. If someone is trying to sell it to you, it is a scam. They will likely take your money and there is no assurance you will even get the software.

The link I provided is good as of the day this was published (27 May 2018). There is a simple link to “Download DVD Shrink 3.2.” If that page has become spam, use the Archive.org link on The Wayback Machine.

Note that DVD Shrink stopped development back in 2004 for legal reasons. So there is no point paying to “support” its development. Also, there are discs it won’t work on. What’s more, it’s use is illegal in some countries. It shouldn’t be. People don’t outlaw garden rakes just because you could commit a crime with them. But this is typical of the power that Hollywood has and our totally out of control copyright system.