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. And not 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.

What Is an Exploitation Film? Most People Are Wrong

What Is an Exploitation Film? Most People Are Wrong - Sweetback Eats a Lizard

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song launched the genre known as blaxploitation (can anyone explain that term to me?), which brought a slew of heroic black enforcers and sexy black women to the screen for the mass consumption of a large, previously ignored black audience.Marilyn Ferdinand

I can! But first we have to discuss what an exploitation film is.

I feel silly even discussing this issue because it seems so obvious to me. But based on many conversations with normal people (that is: people who aren’t psychotronic freaks like me), I know that most people think exploitation films are films that take advantage (exploit) the people in them.

What an Exploitation Film Is Not

It isn’t surprising they would think that given the years of nudie cuties and their followers that seemed mostly thin pretenses at showing off naked women. But even that is absurd. Do these people think the naked actors were kidnapped and made to perform in the films?

As I mentioned in Troma and Economic Inequality, the star of the film made half as much money as his female co-star because she did a number of topless scenes. That was true then too. I’m all in favor of trading in our capitalist system for something more humane, but the system is what it is. Don’t blame the people who have no choice but to live under it.

What an Exploitation Film Is

So what is an exploitation film? It’s a low-budget film where the filmmakers exploit whatever they can to make their film’s successful (often to get them made at all). It’s like Babes in Arms, “My pa’s got a barn; let’s put on a show!” The filmmakers are exploiting, as Herschell Gordon Lewis put, “Something the studios couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”

So if you have a thick forest in your backyard and friend who owns a gorilla suit, you might be able to make something like Bride of the Gorilla (which is a really good film). Or if you’re in a biker club (I don’t think they call them gangs anymore), you could make a biker film. Or whatever.

The Best Thing to Exploit

But the best thing to exploit is your own creativity. Certainly that’s what Lewis and David Friedman exploited in Blood Feast. It wasn’t the gore that made that film half almost a 20,000 percent return on investment in its initial run. It was that no one had seen anything like that before.

And that’s what brings us to Ms Ferdinand’s question about blaxploitation.

What Were the Blaxploitation Films Exploiting

Perhaps no other form of exploitation filmmaking has as bad a rap as blaxploitation. This goes back to the bare chested women in the nudie cuties. People tend to think that black people were being abused.

Quite the opposite was happening. In the late sixties filmmakers started thinking that just as sex and gore appealed to people in the southern drive-in circuit, films that focused on black heroes just might appeal to urban blacks. And they were right.

Blaxploitation Never Ended, It Went Mainstream

It’s funny that people talk about blaxploitation films ending by the mid-1970s. That really isn’t true. They were simply taken over by Hollywood, which began making movies targeted directly at blacks. True, those films have no political resonance, but then the Black Panthers are long gone and Black Power is more quaint than threatening. (That’s not to say that whites aren’t still terrified of blacks; just look at the hyperbolic denunciations of Black Lives Matter.)

Another Idiot “Critic” Doesn’t Know What “Exploitation” Means

Interestingly, Roger Ebert wrote that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song wasn’t an exploitation film. As people who have read me a long time know: I hate film “critics.” They’re idiots who watch a film once and then presume to judge the work that was the result of at least dozens of people and months of work (more likely hundreds of people and years of work).

But Ebert was always held up as somehow a good critic because, I don’t know, he wrote a middling screenplay for Russ Meyer and read a book on film history? His claim that Sweetback isn’t an exploitation film is betrayed by almost every sentence in the article (it’s a “review” of Baadasssss!). He had a 13-year-old son he could use for a sex scene (that I think could have been a lot shorter — it is disturbing), so he did. He had black friends so his crew could be all black, so he did.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song Was Exploitation Filmmaking

The truth is that Sweetback simply as cinema is an art film. (It has almost no transitions; little plot; and is mostly interested in experimenting with the interaction between music and visuals. It is also brilliantly edited, but in a way that will confuse and annoy most viewers.) But it is an exploitation film because of the way it was made, why it was made that way, and how that affected the audience.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, Sweetback was not the first blaxploitation film. But to my mind, it is the most true blaxploitation film: a film by blacks, for blacks. Many blaxploitation films were made by whites. But white, black, or green, these filmmakers were exploiting the fact that a significant part of the country had been largely ignored by the film industry, because the Big Brains in Hollywood were too stupid or bigoted to realize that blacks might like to see movies that reflected their lives and dreams.

Exploitation Is a Good Word In Film

Exploitation films are made by people who are smart, creative, and driven. I’ll pick an exploitation film over a Hollywood film any day. That’s a big part of what this site is about. Hollywood has the money to buy all the professionals they need to make a film. Independents have to live by their wits. Hollywood just makes what it’s made before. And it depends upon the exploitation filmmakers to add some new DNA to their commodities — by stealing it.

So to answer the original question simply: “blaxploitation” is a genre of film featuring black heroes, made explicitly for black audiences, who had been ignored by the studios.

How to Count IMDb Credits: It’s Harder Than You Think

William Kerwin - How to Count IMDb Credits: It's Harder Than You ThinkI have highly mixed feelings about the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). I have since the beginning. Soon after it appeared on the web, I wrote to them, begging that they do credits properly. It bugged me especially that they didn’t list screenwriters in credit order. It also bothered me when they started adding a bunch of (uncredited) entries. That’s fine for a minor actor that you can see in the film. But just because a screenwriter was paid to write a draft or punch up a script doesn’t mean a single word or idea made it into the final script. Leave it to the WGA to work out. That’s a big part of what they do.

And there are other problems with IMDb. The biggest is just how cozy they are with Hollywood. All the ridiculous, overblown advertising. And it bugs me that now the studios just feed them their complete credits. Certainly, it makes the site more efficient and profitable. It also makes the site less human and fills it up with a lot of garbage credits (the Hollywood style). And the site has shown no interest and going back to old and odd films and filling them in and correcting errors.

IMDb’s Biggest Practical Problem

But the biggest practical problem I have with IMDb is the way they list credits. And I’ll explain with character actor William Kerwin, but this is true of almost anyone who worked in any capacity in television. If you check IMDb, it says he has 132 acting credits: films and television shows. And that’s the killer. Because a film is equivalent to an episode of a television show, not the whole series. I’ll come back to Kerwin in a moment.

Consider Robert Clary, the actor who played LeBeau on Hogan’s Heroes. According to IMDb, he has only 22 credits! Yet he’s actually been in 219 films and television episodes. And in most of those he was a major part of the cast.

Now I know a lot of people think that television is very different than film, but it really isn’t. That’s especially true for character actors. Regardless what they’re in, they are usually going to be working for a day or two. So whether on film or television it doesn’t matter.

For the technical people, television is generally easier because the shows are shorter and they have established sets and so on. So directing for television shows is a whole lot easier. (Note: directing a television movie is in no way different than directing a theatrical film.)

I’m usually looking at actors and I want to have an idea of how much they’ve worked. And that “credits” number is often wrong.

How to Fix IMDb’s Credits Problem

But there is a relatively easy way to make the correct calculation. Scroll through all of the titles that the person has worked on. Make a note of any television show they were on more than once. In each case, note down one less than the number of episodes they were on. Add all these up and add them to the number IMDb reports as “credits” and you have the actual number of films and television episodes they worked on.

So returning to William Kerwin, we have Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (5), Play of the Week (2), Lancer (6), Blind Ambition (4), and Romance Theatre (5). So that’s 4 + 1 + 5 + 3 + 4 = 17. So we add 17 to the IMDb credits total of 132, and we get 149.

This Matters

I picked Kerwin both because of his association with Herschell Gordon Lewis, but also because he never starred in a series or played many recurring characters. So it was an easy example.

But this has always bothered me. In his case, it isn’t that big a deal: 132 vs 149. But in the case of Clary, it’s huge: a difference of almost 200: 22 vs 219. Or consider Valerie Harper, who has 70 “credits” but starred in 110 episodes of Rhoda alone. Or Julie Kavner with 69 “credits” but 110 episodes of Rhoda and 643 episodes of The Simpsons.

So this can be a very big deal. And since Psychotronic Review takes film (especially low-budget film) very seriously, we will always provide the right number and not just take IMDb’s lazy and offensive number.

James Cameron: No Actor’s Director

The TerminatorI have had various connections to Hollywood in my life. And I’ve come to see it as an awful place. It is offensive that “normal” (non-Hollywood) people get so excited about celebrities. I was once a minor celebrity, so I saw it from the inside. And it was pathetic. These people thought I was super cool, but I was just the same loner nerd I had always been.

So I thought that people in Hollywood would be lackadaisical about stars and directors and such. No. It’s the opposite. They are even worse than people outside that dysfunctional environment. If David Foster Wallace can be believed, the porn industry is much more mature. And most successful stars and directors (and studio heads and on and on) are very much in agreement. They’re great!

Normal People vs Hollywood “People”

But I never got that from Herschell Gordon Lewis or David F Friedman, men who actually changed the way films were made. They have a humility that’s, well, human. Maybe those people who believe in alien lizards living inside human “suits” are right. If they are, all those alien lizards live in Hollywood.

There are so many examples I could use, but today I want to talk about James Cameron because it really shows off not just his horribleness but also his conviction that he is never at fault. He’s like God, if it’s good, he gets credit. If it’s bad, it’s on someone else — maybe all of us.

It Came From a Commentary Track

I am something on a connoisseur of commentaries on films. Of course, most are quite awful because they are done by directors who are surprisingly ignorant of how movies are made (at least big-budget Hollywood directors). Generally, I would rather listen to a writer or a historian discuss an film. But when it is a director, you often get to see what jerks they are.

(I recently listened to John Carpenter do a commentary on the great In the Mouth of Madness with cinematographer Gary B Kibbe, and Carpenter was so nice about including Kibbe, it was charming. But then, Carpenter isn’t a Hollywood kind of guy. I also listened to Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F Friedman comment on Blood Feast and they were such regular guys, you would never know they invented the splatter film. Again: not Hollywood. 100 percent pure human!)

Enter James Cameron

Many years ago, I listened to the commentary for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It includes Cameron and screenwriter William Wisher. And during it, Cameron really shows the dick of Hollywood legend that he is. It is amazing to listen to Wisher play omega to Cameron’s alpha. I know they are friends. But that makes it even more sad, because Wisher is as much a professional in his field as Cameron.

I felt sorry for Wisher but mostly it just made me think that James Cameron was an awful person.

Cameron Blames Bad Actors

I think the problem is that James Cameron didn’t care about the scene and didn’t really try. So he blames the actors.

One moment in the commentary really stood out.

Cameron mentioned that there was a deleted scene at the end of The Terminator where two guys from Cyberdyne Systems pick up a chip from the remains of the terminator.

He said (more or less) that the scene was deleted, “Frankly, because the acting was terrible.” My first reaction was (and I’ve had this with many directors), “Doesn’t he fear that the actors he’s talking about will hear about this and feel bad?” In Cameron’s case, of course not! Who in the world matters but James Cameron?

My second reaction was: I’ve got to see that deleted scene. I had to see what God James Cameron thought of as terrible acting.

The Bad Acting Cameron Had No Control Over

Well, here it is, all 33 seconds worth:

He’s right: the acting is weak. But it isn’t bad. And I certainly don’t present it as, “Hey: look at the bad acting!”

Acting on film depends upon a whole lot more than just the actors. And most actors get it wrong a lot more than they get it right.

How the Acting Could Be Improved

This scene strikes me as awkward more than anything else. Certainly a few more takes and, you know, some direction, and a perfectly acceptable performance could have been squeezed out of these actors.

Notice something else about the scene: the blocking is terrible. The whole scene, in addition to everything else, is boring.

I think the problem is that James Cameron didn’t care about the scene and didn’t really try. The fact that he wants to blame the actors makes him a terrible person and it really makes me question him as a director. I get the idea he depends a lot on other professionals (especially editors) to make his films work (when they do).

Afterword

A similar dynamic is going on in a deleted scene from Remains of the Day. But James Ivory is enough of a man to place the blame on himself. He admits that he didn’t want to shoot the scene and only did it because Anthony Hopkins insisted. As I recall, he said, “I didn’t really try.”

Troma and Economic Inequality

Troma and Economic Inequality

I’m preparing a page on perhaps Troma’s best film, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (and one that is, well, not). And I happened upon a “making of” documentary, Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. And it was awful to watch. For one thing, it made me hate Lloyd Kaufman.

But it’s funny, because even though the documentary is hard on Kaufman, it is especially hard on the cinematographer, Brendan C Flynt. But I didn’t see it that way at all. Flynt just thought they were making a professional film. And Troma doesn’t really make professional films. (Not that Flynt doesn’t seem to have the same kind of annoying arrogance that I’ve noticed in everyone I’ve ever met who has “made it” in Hollywood.) The end result of Troma might be of professional quality. But the company depends upon a lot of naive young people to work for free under terrible conditions with people like Kaufman abusing them.

Don’t get me wrong. If some struggling filmmaker came to me, I would be happy to be their production manager or extra or whatever for free. But when a company that has made many dozens of successful films is making millions of dollars, getting 200 young people to pay to go to the shoot, work for free, and live under terrible conditions, it’s wrong.

Troma’s Volunteers Don’t Know What They Are Getting Into

And the documentary makes clear that most of the volunteers had no idea what they were getting into. Even the star of the film was paid only $900. The secondary star was paid $1,800 — I assume because she did much of the film topless. Regardless, this isn’t non-union work. This is exploitation.

But sure: that’s what “exploitation film” means: the producers exploit whatever they have. But in general, that means nudity, gore, a great location, and countless other things. It also means exploiting free labor. But at some point, you grow up. Exploiting massive amounts of free labor is the main part of Troma’s business plan. The company is almost 45 years old and it is still doing this. It’s not just that it’s pathetic. It’s that it ought to be illegal.

Some Friendly Advice

So let me give you all some advice: there are filmmakers everywhere trying to get their stories told. If you want to have the experience of being on a film set, help one of them out. Don’t help out Troma! Don’t help a guy sitting on at least $5 million make yet another film so much like every other film he’s made. He’s not an artist; he’s a businessman. That’s who you are giving your summer up for.

The funny thing is that when I was trying to make my own film, there were always people who glommed onto the production. But they never did anything. I did have a cinematographer, but he was there mostly because it gave him a chance to work with a camera that was better than anything he had ever used. (And he was relentless in not doing what I asked for — something I would only find out after paying a fortune for development and work print.) Otherwise, it seemed to be me: I was the director, assistant director, production manager, gaffer, and anything else that was necessary. I got tired of it after a while.

People love to be on film sets. I don’t get it, actually. Even before I started trying to make a film, I knew that it was incredibly boring. It’s mostly a bunch of people waiting for something to happen. If you shoot two minutes of film in a day, you’re doing well.

But people weren’t working for me because I wasn’t a tyrant. If I produced the Troma way, everyone would have been working.

How Troma Works

On Troma’s FAQ, they say:

Unpaid Enterprise Observer/Volunteer positions are almost always available at Troma…

Now “observer” doesn’t sound that bad. But they put that in because they know they will be able to badger anyone around into doing something. And I have little doubt they get young women who would never imagine doing it to be in their films topless. I don’t know that, of course. That just seems to be the Troma way.

(I should point out that the lower level Troma employees seem pretty nice. But they also seem to know that what they are doing is wrong.)

But again: my point is that you have this super successful film company. And their business depends upon tricking people into giving them huge amounts of money in unpaid work.

Troma Doesn’t Look Good Compared to Other Companies

At the same time, more reputable production companies will often advertise for extras on Craig’s List. If you happen to get into a big budget movie, the money’s not bad. A friend of mine was an extra for Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). She worked for 3 days and was paid $50 per day. That would be over $110 today — for mostly sitting around.

Troma Should Be Put Out of Business

If Troma can’t produce films with all paid people by now, I don’t think they should be in business.

If you get a chance, watch Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken, because there is a lot more to hate about Troma. Of course, the documentary is a Troma film too. So they are proud of this.

Blood Feast and the Brilliance of Paucity

Blood Feast and the Brilliance of PaucityI recently bought a fantastic book, Regional Horror Films, 1958 – 1990. The truth is that I’ve been fairly stuck in California. Even when you talk about the films of Ed Wood, they were still made in Los Angeles. They look like Los Angeles. And this is at a time when different parts of the country really did look different. But my interest is more about how these films got made. And as the author, Brian Albright, notes: much of what makes these films shocking is that the filmmakers are making the best of their limited resources.

I’ve noticed this very often in literature. I don’t consider William S Burroughs a great writer. Junkie and Queer show him to be a competent pulp writer — on par with Ed Wood but certainly not as good as Jim Thompson. (I should admit that I’m something of a Thompson fanatic. And I believe that Pop 1280 is one of the great novels of the 20th century.)

William S Burroughs Accidentally Produces Greatness

Then Burroughs comes out with Naked Lunch — one of the great novels of the 20th century. Burroughs was so high on alcohol and opioids that he has no memory writing it. Many of the pages were spattered with blood. And it was a mess. If it weren’t for Jack Kerouac‘s exquisite editing of the manuscript, it would have been nothing more than the ravings of a madman. I personally think that Kerouac’s greatest literary contribution to the 20th century was this editing and not his books, which I find rather dull. (His poetry is better.)

It was Burroughs’ lack of traditional literary skill that made Naked Lunch a masterpiece. I remember my mother (who was only happy when reading) trying to read the book and finding it impenetrable. So I sat down with her and went sentence by sentence explaining exactly what this madman was saying. She eventually grokked it, and was able to read the rest. It’s one of my favorite memories of my mother.

Filmmaking Is Harder Than Writing

The situation is so much worse with film. I am not a great writer. But I can write a competent novel. If you want, I can write in the style of Fitzgerald or Stein. But to make a film — a short one, not even a feature length — is beyond me. I’ve tried. For one thing, making a film is something that is almost impossible for one person to do. And I don’t have a lot of friends.

Blood Feast is, in many ways, an amateurish film. It looks much like the first couple of films of John Waters. Yet it is one of the most important films ever made. It invented the splatter picture. Yet most viewers couldn’t tell that. No violence is ever done on screen. For example, the villain rips the tongue out of a woman. But all we see is (in reality) a sheep’s tongue in the hand of the villain.

Shocking Then, Tame Now

It’s tame stuff by today’s standards, but it was shocking for 1963. And it was the result of a lack of resources. All the filmmakers had that would attract an audience was young women in their underwear and blood. And they used those to the best of their ability. And they scored. According to Wikipedia (no reference), the film cost $24,500 to make ($200,000 today) and made $4 million ($33 million today) without the aid of any home rentals.

The producers also used William Castle style promotion. For example, they took out a lawsuit against it in Florida claiming it was obscene. The point was to get publicity, which worked very well.

Professionalism Can Be Limiting

But after Blood Feast, many imitators came along. In fact, after their third splatter picture, the producers decided not to make any more because the genre was getting too crowded (and thus unlucrative). But the point is that no Hollywood production would have made such a film. They didn’t have to. They had good writers and actors and lots of money. The producers of Blood Feast (basically Herschell Gordon Lewis — a psychotronic icon — and David F Friedman) didn’t have these things. They didn’t even have much talent. But they managed to make a film and create a genre.

This is one of main reasons I love psychotronic film. Professionalism is often the death of creativity. How many romantic comedies have you seen? Is any one of them much different than any others? No. That’s not to say I don’t like them. I’m very fond of It Happened One Night and French Kiss, although those two films are so similar (separated by over 60 years) it’s almost embarrassing.

Even with all the copies of Blood Feast, I’ve never seen a film quite like it. And I’m glad. Because I find it more disturbing than the technically better films that came later. It’s easy for me to laugh along with Dead Snow. Blood Feast seems almost like a documentary compared to it. And that’s why (as much as I like it) Dead Snow will be forgotten, and Blood Feast will be studied by film students fifty years from now.

Afterword

You can find this film on Daily Motion with lots of commercials. I’ve just ordered the special edition DVD and will create a page for it. At this point, I haven’t watched it enough and don’t know enough about it to write a page for it. I’m using it here only as an example of how a lack of resources can produce brilliance.

Subtitles Suck

The Bicycle Thieves - Subtitles SuckI’m a big fan of foreign films — especially French comedy and Japanese action. But I hate subtitles. Most film fanatics feel the opposite way. Actually, in my experience, most all Americans feel the opposite way. They think that dubbing somehow destroys the the integrity of the film. Leave it to Americans to be simultaneously ignorant and arrogant.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t always prefer a dubbed films. As I noted about Bloody Mallory, the English language voice acting was so weak that you are pretty much required to watch it in French.

And there are times when so little care is taken with the technical side of dubbing that it is distracting (but not nearly as big a problem as bad acting). But this is rarely the case. I think dubbing got a bad reputation when cheap Japanese monster movies from Toho and Daiei were quickly dubbed with both bad technique and bad acting were dumped onto the American market.

The Technical Side of Dubbing

Good technical dubbing, where the dubbed voices match the actors’ lips has been easily accomplished since at least the 1940s. And with the advent of digital sound, it’s been trivial. I was shocked just recently to see how well Dead Snow was dubbed into English. As I noted when writing about Dead Snow: Red vs Dead, I think very few American film-goers would even notice that the film had been dubbed.

There are two parts to the technical side of dubbing:

  1. The dialog has to be translate in such a way that it fits what was said in the original language. There is far more than making the dubbed language last as long as the original. Sounds like “B” and “P” need to be lined up as much as possible. Doing this is a great art, and it can take a translator a long time to do it. I remember hearing an interview with a translator of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly where he said it took him over a day to get one particularly important line translated.

  2. The dialog must be matched to the film. This is where digital audio really helps. Maybe you have a 4 second line, but the voice actor says it in 4.5 seconds. In the old days, it might take a long time to get that right. Now you can digitally compress the line and the actor can be home by 5:00.

Obviously, if you don’t care, you can just throw it all together. And really, if you’re watching a Gamera film, good dubbing probably doesn’t matter that much.

Voice Acting

To me, good voice acting is far more important. When I’m watching a film, I see the big picture. I don’t pay much attention to lip movements. And the best situation is where the original actor does the English dub. But that’s hardly necessary. There are a lot of great American voice actors. The problem with them is that they tend to cost more than actors in other nations.

One funny thing is that Italian films were, for decades, shot without sync sound. The recorded sound would then be used for reference in the studio to dub the film. A great example of this is from 1948’s The Bicycle Thieves, where the Italian voice actor was not even the actor on the screen. So if you see the film, it will be dubbed. If you want to watch it dubbed in Italian and read English scrolling on the bottom of the screen, do ahead. You’ll be an idiot, but it’s your right. I don’t know if the same actor dubbed the original English or not, but that was common in the Italian film industry.

Film Is a Visual Art Form

Everyone knows that film is a visual art. You go to see a film, not to read it. So subtitles really detract from the experience of watching a film. I often watch films with my father who is hard of hearing. As a result of this, I put on the English subtitles, even though the film is in English. And still, I find myself having my eyes move down to the words.

So if English words are blinking at the bottom of the screen when I do not know the language being spoken, it’s even worse. At best I get half the view of the film that I do when I don’t have subtitles to deal with.

Film lovers should hate subtitles. They degrade films. And since we can now create good subtitles easily, we should get rid of them.

Film Length and the Death of Entertainment

Robot MonsterWhen it comes to psychotronic films, you will often find short films. For example, Robot Monster, which is just 62 minutes or Bride of the Gorilla, which is 70 minutes. But this is unusual. When The Reduced Shakespeare Company got their first contract, their act was one hour long and the company that was going to be booking them told them that they had to make the show at least 90 minutes. That’s the key. If people are going to pay for a play, they expect at least an hour and a half.

But things used to be different at the movies. You go into the theater. You see a newsreal. Then there’s a cartoon. Next comes the B feature and then the A feature. That’s entertainmaint! That’s perhaps three hours of entertainment. It sure beats what you get today: one or more commercials, as if you hadn’t paid $8.50 to get into the theater and then paid $7.00 for some stale popcorn. Then you get a bunch of trailers for movies you don’t want to see. And finally, the “feature presentation” — as if there were any presentation other than ads.

So in the 1950s, you could get away with an hour long film, because there would be two of them. Today, you just get one film. And it isn’t just one and a half hours long. Sometimes it is two and a half hours. Sometimes it is four hours.

Okay, sometimes it’s worth it. Schindler’s List was over three hours long, and that’s not even counting the ten minutes you sit in the theater seat sobbing. Long films can be great! But usually it is something more like Marvel’s The Avengers, two and a half hour green screen action that is hard to follow and pointless if you do manage.

Brief Introduction to Dramatic Structure

Regardless of how you chop a film up, it has three acts. (Forget Shakespeare and five acts; they could all be divided into three acts.) The first act sets up what’s going to happen. The second act is just wasting time because you don’t want the story too short. And the third act resolves everything.

In an hour and a half film, that comes down to this:

  • First act: 20 minutes
  • Second act: 60 minutes
  • Third act: 10 minutes

I’m sure you see the problem. That second act is way too long. A good writer will make it interesting. But generally, a whole hour to fill is dull.

But look at how it is for an hour long film:

  • First act: 20 minutes
  • Second act: 30 minutes
  • Third act: 10 minutes

Now you only have a half hour to fill with the characters running around looking for an ending. You sit in the theater and before you know it, the film is over! Something goes wrong, the characters have to overcome it, and the film ends. With the hour and a half film, there has to to be two, three, maybe even four unbelievable conflicts that have to be overcome. If you came to the theater tired, you slept through at least a third of act two. And if you’re unlucky, it was the last third and you missed the end of film. Hopefully, you came to the film with a friend who can explain the whole thing.

I love short films because they get on with the story. Longer films go on for no reason. Especially in an action film, I don’t need to see another fight scene. And I certainly don’t need to see a 15 minute fight scene when a 2 minute scene would do. (I’m talking to you John Woo!) Because I like a little reality in my films.

Usually, in real life, something goes wrong, you deal with it, and then you move on. Real life isn’t: something goes wrong, you deal with it, but then something else goes wrong, so you deal with it. But then something else goes wrong. That kind of writing is designed to justify the ridiculously large budgets of modern films that you don’t want to see anyway.

A New Movie Experience

If I had my druthers, I would go back to the old days. Start with a 10-minute documentary on something — anything. Then a cartoon — maybe one with that animal and an acorn (those never get tired). And then a low-budget hour-long film. And then an hour long film with some stars. I’d pay $15.00 for that. I’d certainly pay $15.00 for it before I would Avengers: Infinity War in 3-D.

–Frank Moraes