Category Archives: Film History

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

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.

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.

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

The Unfortunate Beginning of Psychotronic Film

The Fifty Worst Films of All Time - The Unfortunate Beginning of Psychotronic Film

There have long been admires of the strange and incompetent in film. But as a definable thing, we really have to go back to 1978 and Harry Medved’s The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Note that these were not primarily psychotronic films. Medved is a film lover (and I dare say a psychotronic film lover), so he didn’t primarily go after low budget films. Many of them were big budget films like the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon. And others were smash successes like Airport 1975. There’s not one Ed Wood film in the book, although it does have a fair share of independent cheapies.

But Medved writes in the introduction of the book:

At this point, we might as well come clean and make an embarrassing confession: we get a kick out of bad films. What’s more, we’re convinced we’re not alone. How else can you possibly explain the continued popularity of TV’s “Late Late Shows” unless you assume there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who take a perverse pleasure in particularly ludicrous entertainments?

Those who know me, will know that I shudder a few times reading even that small quote. But I believe that Harry Medved was about 16-years-old when he wrote it. And I can’t but think that he has matured in his thinking, even if he hasn’t reached my point of understanding that in these supposedly bad films, there are things to love.

Attack of The Golden Turkey Awards

Sadly, two years later, Harry Medved hooked up with his older brother Michael Medved to write The Golden Turkey Awards. It makes sense that Michael would go on to be a professional reviewer, because he has all the arrogance and lack of creativity that is required in a film “critic.” This book is far less academic than the first, and goes after low budget films much more. Most sad of all, The Golden Turkey Awards was much more successful than The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

The book even attacks Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a classic. If you can’t see the art in that film, I’m afraid that you are hopeless. I will doubtless discuss the book more later, but I simply can’t find my copy at the moment.

How Plan 9 From Outer Space Got Smeared

This led to everyone “knowing” that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time and that Plan 9 From Outer Space was the worst film. These aren’t even debatable claims; they are simply wrong. The main thing Wood lacked was a second unit director. And Plan 9 From Outer Space is actually a fairly enjoyable film if you just sit down and watch it. I suspect 90 percent of the people who complain about Plan 9 have only ever seen what was in Ed Wood.

But the main thing to remember about The Golden Turkey Awards is that it was hugely influential. Although Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic TV (started in 1980) was not based on it, it’s clear that the Medved brothers had opened a niche in film criticism. The fact that they did it in a grotesque way doesn’t really matter.

The Defining of Psychotronic Film

Although the Medveds made their money, it is Michael Weldon who stands as the king of the genre because his approach was the opposite of theirs. He appreciated them — warts and all — and sometimes because of the warts.

I do sometimes get a chuckle out of something going terribly wrong. When I watch Plan 9 and the headstones tip because the grass carpet is pulled, I always smile. But I also remember what Wood says in the movie Ed Wood when one of the backers complains about this, “Nobody will ever notice that. Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture!”

He’s right. When I first saw the film, I didn’t notice this or any number of other problems. That’s because I was involved with the story. And 90 percent of viewers are the same way. This is why films panned by “critics” are often huge successes. And anyone who listens to “critics” is a fool.

Most people will enjoy Plan 9 much more than Die Wand. I love them both. But most people will find Die Wand very slow — and too intellectual. Plan 9 From Outer Space, on the other hand, is action-packed. It is filled with that 1950s American plucky optimism, even while the theme of the film is subversive. But you’d have a hard time finding a professional “critic” recommending Plan 9 over Die Wand.

“Oh, the Pain”

It’s sad that psychotronic film as a genre had such unfortunate beginnings. This is especially true because most people are still stuck in The Golden Turkey Awards way of looking at these films. I, always tending toward messianic behavior, want to see that change. With it’s disreputable beginnings with the Medved brothers (although I understand that they weren’t focusing on psychotronic film, since the concept hadn’t even been invented yet), it is amazing that psychotronic film has come so far.

Here is a quote from Bill Warren in Flying Saucers Over Hollywood (available in some versions of Plan 9 From Outer Space) about the film that the Medveds would have us believe is the worst film ever made:

It’s interesting all the way through and that’s more than you can say about a lot of pictures, because the biggest sin a film can commit is being dull. And Plan 9, whatever it is, is not dull.

(Warren also says, “The fact that he made these pictures against all odds, including his total lack of talent as a filmmaker, I think is what speaks the best of him. I mean, he really wanted to do this. And he did it. And the big difference between Ed Wood and his detractors like the Medveds and other people who really put him down and said he was not just a bad filmmaker but a worthless filmmaker — which is two different things — is that he actually made these movies by God.”)

When a person laughs at poor quality filmmaking, it is usually a sign that they know nothing about how movies are made. But laugh at these films all you like — as long as you also respect them. Because they deserve to be respected, as Harry Medved understood. (The less said about his brother the better.) In the same documentary, an older and wiser Harry Medved reflects on Ed Wood’s later life, “I think that it really broke him, the fact that he ended up directing super-8 movies for some porno series called The Encyclopedia of Sex. This is not a job for a guy who made such classics as Plan 9 and Bride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda.”

Afterword: Ed Wood Box Set

Ed Wood BoxCheck it out: The Ed Wood Box. It contains a film that I haven’t seen (although I’m not a huge Ed Wood fan). This looks like a collection that every psychotronic film lover should own. It includes: Glen or Genda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls, and The Haunted World of Ed Wood (more a special features disc than a documentary).