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.

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.