The Film That Named a Genre
Most people who see The Psychotronic Man probably think it was trying to use the term “psychotronic” (roughly meaning: a “drive-in” film) to get some publicity. But that’s exactly wrong.
Co-writer (and producer and star) Peter Spelson coined the term for the film. “Psychotronic power” is a kind of telekinetic power that a very few people in the world have.
Michael J Weldon was a collector of film paraphernalia — especially that related to low-budget and odd films. In 1980, he started his photocopied zine, Psychotronic TV (later Psychotronic Video). So it was Weldon who stole “psychotronic” from Spelson rather than the other way around. Weldon would go on to write a couple of books, most notably, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. My bible in as much as I have one.
The term became used for filmed oddities like Plan 9 From Outer Space. But even by 1983, when Weldon wrote The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, he hadn’t seen it. The entire entry reads:
An extremely low-budget independent from Chicago. The producer, whose main occupation is running an insurance business, stars as Rocky Foscoe, the psychic barber. Unknown forces cause him to blink at people, who die instantly or jump out of windows. Reports suggest it’s good for laughs. Great title though.
What’s Interesting in The Psychotronic Man
There are a few things wrong with that description. It’s a low-budget film, but not extremely so. It features helicopter shots, car chases, decent acting, a solid score, acceptable cinematography, much artful direction, and crane shots. I figure the film cost something along the lines of $50,000 to make in 1980, which is roughly $200,000 today. And Rocky doesn’t blink and people don’t die suddenly. Most of all, it isn’t a film to laugh at. A rare instance of Weldon not giving films their due.
What’s most interesting about it is that it combines two genres: horror and police procedural. And it does it pretty well. I’ll admit, it’s a strange little film. But that’s what we expect from a psychotronic film. Zombies used to be strange too. Now they’re used in television commercials. And I’m pretty sure that this horror and police procedural combination has been done since.
Peter G Spelson was the mastermind behind the film. There is some confusion about his primary profession. In the website that once existed for it, it claims he was an insurance salesman. But his obituary indicates that he was a chiropractor. It’s possible he was both. But after becoming a chiropractor, he pursued a side career as an actor. The IMDb mentions him as performing in only two films: 1980’s The Psychotronic Man and a supporting role in 1983’s Blood Beat. He also worked in the theater and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild (which is not easy to get into).
Spelson raised what is clearly a decent amount of money for the film. And he hooked up with director Jack M Sell, who would go on to direct two more films, one starring Forrest Tucker. Spelson had a story idea, and the two of them wrote the screenplay. Based on the quality of the acting, I assume most of the cast came from regional semi-professional theater and industrial film. Behind the camera were people of equal quality.
But they had a problem: Chicago Mayor Richard J Daley. He was mayor from 1955 through 1976. And he hated films. He thought Hollywood was only interested in coming into Chicago to make films about gangsters. That bias against allowing film productions in Chicago lasted long past Daley’s death. So The Psychotronic Man was shot completely without permits. This is amazing to consider after you watch the film, because it features (among other things), a 9 minute-long police car chase. But as a result, The Psychotronic Man has the distinction of being the first feature film produced in Chicago since the far more easily hidden The Prime Time, in 1960 — 20 years earlier.
I have to admit that a lot of psychotronic films I write about don’t thrill me. I watch them several times for professional reasons. It’s malpractice to write about a film without watching it at least three times. But I’ve seen The Psychotronic Man well over a dozen times because I enjoy it. It says a lot of everyone involved, but most of all Peter Spelson and Jack M Sell.
The film starts with Rocky Foscoe in his small barber shop cutting a man’s hair. When he’s done, he calls it an early day and decides to drive the long way home. But we learn a few things about him immediately. He’s a nice regular guy, and he is a heavy drinker. He drinks out of plastic bottles, a fact that resonated greatly for me. My mother, who was an intense alcoholic, did the same thing. And I think the reason for it was that it allowed her to buy large bottles of vodka and then portion it out into her smaller bottles. So I see Rocky as the kind of guy who is running with all his speed toward his death.
His last customer, Keith (Phil Lanier), teases him that he’s going to meet a girl, but Rocky explains that he’s just going to get away. After Keith leaves, Rock takes a drink of what looks like whiskey and has a premonition of his car blowing up. Then he walks out to his car and takes off.
The Floating Car
He drinks as he drives and finally parks and passes out. After waking himself up by falling onto his car horn, he tries to drive away. But the car isn’t going anywhere. So he opens the door to see what’s going on, only to find that his car is far in the air. He struggles to hold on to his car door handle and finally makes his way back into the car.
What happens next is not clear, but he wakes up the next morning in his bed. In the bathroom, he has his second premonition of the film. He goes to the kitchen, looking pretty bad. His wife (Lindsey Novak) accuses him of having a hang-over, which he (rightly) denies, so she tells him to go to the doctor, which he does.
His doctor (Paul Marvel) tells him that he has a brain abnormality, but Rocky isn’t much interested in that. He wants to know why he had this incredibly vivid dream of being in his car floating over Chicago. The doctor brushes it off to his drinking.
Back at work, a woman (Shirl Marchinski) brings in her grandson for a haircut and prattles on. This causes Rocky’s powers to go a little crazing causing the chair to go up and down and cause various objects to move around. Rocky flees and the woman, apparently more interested in her inane story notices nothing and pledges not to use Rocky ever again!
Rocky drives back to the scene of his floating car and meets an old man (Bob McDonald) who lives nearby. The man mentions some strange things going on, so Rocky accepts his invitation to come to his place for a cup of coffee. The man tells the story of Rocky’s “dream” — but from the old man’s perspective. This causes Rocky to start coming apart. But the old man freaks Rocky out, thanks to a wide-angle lens seen in the image below. And clearly without intent, Rocky begins to kill the man with his mind. In the process, the old man grabs his rifle and shoots in a random direction before dying. Rocky runs away.
The Police Procedural
At this point, the police procedural of the film starts. Lt Walter O’Brien (Christopher Carbis) shows up at the cabin along with a whole bunch of media figures. This leads to the story showing up in the local paper. It is seen by Rocky’s doctor, and he remembers that Rocky’s dream took place on the same street as this murder, so he calls O’Brien who is eager to meet him at the doctor’s office, even though it is the evening.
(I’m not a lawyer, but I think what the doctor did was unethical. If a patient tells you that he killed someone, you need to report it to the police. And if a patient tells you that he is planning to murder someone, you report it. But if you have a hunch because one of your patients was on the same street where a murder took place — but at a totally different time — I think medical ethics dictate that you don’t say anything. But given that the doctor was already developed as kind of a jerk, this helps drive home the point.)
So the doctor is waiting for O’Brien, but Rocky unexpectedly shows up with a gun powder burn on his arm. Rocky is clearly freaked out. He wants help. He didn’t mean to kill the old man. Something is happening to him that he doesn’t understand. But keeping with his character, the doctor puts him in a room and tells him to take his shirt off. Then he calls the police station to make sure that O’Brien is really coming, because in addition to being a really awful person, the doctor is a coward.
Meanwhile, Rocky has opened the door and heard enough of the conversation to know that the doctor is no friend of his. For the first time in the film, Rocky is angry. But it still isn’t clear that he means to kill the weaselly little doctor. But Rocky’s brain throws the doctor around the room, eventually through a window where he is badly cut up, and finally down several stories to his death. And Rocky again runs away.
We next find him in a bar, doing the main thing that Rocky knows how to do: drink. A hair dresser who he is having an affair with, Kathy (Robin Newton), finds him and the two of them go back to her place (I assume) where there is a tender love scene.
Around that time, O’Brien visits a professor of parapsychology, who tells him about psychotronic power, which the Soviets are way into. Clearly Rocky has this power. But the professor will not say much of anything about it. Nonetheless, O’Brien at least has some idea of what he’s up against.
The Car Chase
The next morning, O’Brien goes to Rocky’s house, but Rocky’s wife lies and says he didn’t come home the previous evening. So they stakeout the house. When Rocky wakes up, he knows he has to flee. But before he can, he gets into an argument with his wife. Rocky pushes her away using his psychotronic abilities, but doesn’t appear to kill her. (See below for more on this.)
Then he gets in his car and what follows is a nine-minute car chase. Toward the end of it, O’Brien thinks he has him, but Rocky causes his car to float over O’Brien and so Rocky gets away. But other police cars continue to follow him to the point where Rocky crashes his car, causing it to burst into flames — his first premonition at less than 2 minutes into the film.
Third Murder and the Foot Chase
It’s not clear how Rocky survives the crash. We don’t see him thrown from the car before. And we don’t see him emerge from the flaming car (which would have been great, but clearly asking too much for a low-budget film). But suddenly the car chase becomes a foot chase. This goes on for six minutes until Rocky gets away by getting a train between himself and the police officers. But during this period we see Rocky getting more and more control of his powers.
In one scene, rather than kill a police officer, he simply rips his gun away from him. And Rocky appears to be shot, which causes him to fall but causing no other injury. And, of course, his control the the flying car showed great skill.
This allows Rocky to escape to the top of a hotel or fancy apartment complex. The police find and surround him, but Rocky pushes them all away. Unluckily, one of the officers (Jeff Caliendo) — who spends most of the film eating doughnuts and other pastries — gets electrocuted to death.
Rocky hides in some place very high up. He falls asleep. He’s tired. He’s been on the run for a long time. He’s used his psychotronic powers on several occasions. But O’Brien seems to know where he is. So he gets his entire team in the right place and orders a SWAT team. When they’re all set up, a Special Intelligence Agent (SIA) Gorman (Corney Morgan) shows up. He tells O’Brien in no uncertain terms that Rocky is to be taken alive. His psychotronic abilities are critical to national security.
But O’Brien goes away and tells the head of the SWAT team not to miss. Rocky gets up and they do not miss. He is riddled with holes and falls, apparently to his death. But when they look for him, they can’t find him.
The scene cuts to a man walking in the woods. He turns around. It is Rocky, completely unharmed.
Discussion of the Murders
When SIA Gorman tells O’Brien that Rocky must be captured alive, O’Brien balks, saying, “Do you realize this man is responsible for the murders of three people?!” It is possible to assume that O’Brien simply doesn’t know about Rocky’s wife and that Rocky has actually killed four people. But this seems unlikely. The police heard Rocky’s wife scream. They immediately followed him. But they certainly would have sent some other officers to check on her and provide any necessary assistance. So if she were dead, O’Brien would have known about it.
Thus, the murders Rocky has committed are: (1) the old man; (2) the doctor; and (3) the doughnut-eating cop. Let’s go through these to determine Rocky’s culpability.
In the case of the old man, Rocky is clearly not in control and has no wish to kill him. So we know that wasn’t intentional.
The doctor could have been killed just as the old man was killed — that is: directly. But instead, his anger causes his psychotronic powers to push the man around — sort of the psychotronic equivalent of slapping him around. The fact that the doctor deserves it isn’t really relevant.
But what is is simply that he’s thrown out of the window on accident. Had they been in a different environment, the doctor would simply have been thrown around as Rocky’s wife and the police men were.
And in the lead-up to the final murder, Rocky is shot at multiple times. Finally, he finds himself surrounded by six police officers, all with their guns trained on him. He does not kill one of them, as the first murder showed that he could. Instead, he pushes them away.
The doughnut officer has the bad luck to be pushed back into something like a transformer. (Having an open electrified device in an area where people go strikes me as a huge OSHA violation.) But there is no way Rocky would even know such a thing existed, much less that it was his plan to kill one of the officers in this way. What’s the point of killing one officer anyway; there are still five officers with guns.
The Potential Murder of Rocky’s Wife
Almost no film time is given to this incident. But other than the first murder, every murder is the result of Rocky pushing someone. It’s an indication that Rocky is getting more control of his powers. So it seem most likely that Rocky just pushed his wife away. And given she couldn’t fall to her death or be pushed into an open electrical circuit, she was almost certainly safe.
And as I will discuss below, Rocky has shown real care for his children. Given that he will at least be on the run from that point, it is unlikely that Rocky would want to deprive his sons of their mother.
What “Critics” Say
Overall, “critics” don’t like the film because it isn’t what they want it to be. My favorite review comes to us from Bill Burke at HorrorNews.net. It’s a classic example of an “I’ve Decided Not to Like This Film” review. For a thorough take-down of this kind of review, see what I wrote about Eric D Snider’s review of Krippendorf’s Tribe. The funny thing about that is that Snider found what I had written but didn’t learn a thing from it.
Bill Burke’s Idiotic Take
In this case, Burke starts by complaining about how slowly the film starts. Now if he had decided to like the film, he would have waxed poetic about how the film was steady and took its time. He repeats this again and again. That’s just what these idiots do. The other thing they do is get things wrong in the film. I didn’t even start thinking about writing about The Psychotronic Man until I had seen it three times. At this point, I might have watched the film a dozen times, because I really enjoy it. But it also helps me not make bizarre errors about the plot.
For example, Burke writes, “Eventually, he meets an old codger who claims to have heard strange noises the night before and then politely serves him up some baked beans.” No he doesn’t. He serves Rocky his special brew of coffee. (There is an opened can of beans on the table, but they weren’t given to Rocky.) This is a big part of the scene. It’s critical in the way the man’s death is shot. How can someone miss this? Well, I know: by not paying attention to the film because just 22 minutes into the film, the “critic” had already made up his mind about the film.
He actually writes, “Finally, at the nine-minute mark, (which is only four and a half minutes of the actual movie) Rocky passes out in his car, which didn’t help in my own battle against boredom.” So I guess he stopped paying attention even earlier. And he’s complaining that the main titles are at the beginning of the film. (This is odd, given that the titles take up 3 minutes, not four and a half.) The ending credits (the actors) are only one and a half minutes. Apparently, where the credits are placed in this film is super important.
But the worst thing about this “review” is that Burke thinks that Rocky is a terrible guy who abuses his wife. There’s nothing in the film to indicate this. It’s clear they are in a loveless marriage, but that’s it. He also claims that Rocky tells her he isn’t drunk when he actually says he doesn’t have a hangover. The point is that his wife thinks he has a hangover because something is really wrong with Rocky. He has developed psychotronic abilities, which is probably why he drinks so much. And now they are getting totally out of his control.
In the first half of the film, Rocky kills three people. Burke, apparently spending more time looking at his watch than the screen, thinks that Rocky intends to kill these people. He doesn’t. The first murder is clearly out of his control. The second murder, where his doctor rats him out to the police just because he suspects that Rocky may be responsible for the first murder clearly shows him angry. But it is not at all clear that Rocky means to kill him. And the third murder is, as already explained, simply an accident.
The Bad Movie Bible Shows Some Appreciation
Rob Hill Runs The Bad Movie Bible. I disagree with much of what he says. For one thing, he calls it egosploitation, which it is most clearly not. But he gives the film a rating of B-, and shows that he actually gave the film a try. He watched it. He knows what happens in it. He points out many of its fine points. I think I most disagree with him about Spelson as an actor. He says that Spelson as Rocky is not “completely horrible” but that he is “badly miscast.” I think it is Spelson’s on-screen fragility that makes me keep watching it.
But it was such a joy to read his review because it was honest. There were no complaints that the film wasn’t some other film (implicit in Burke’s entire review). And I believe him when he praises one thing and complains about another. The Psychotronic Man is not a great film. But it is a film with much to appreciate — especially given its limited resources.
There are 5 user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but one of them is a guy who clearly hasn’t seen it. The average rating is a half a star out of five. They are exactly what I expect from most people. Wayne N writes, “Without a doubt, the worst movie ever made in the entire history of the silver screen, avoid it at all costs, & only bring out if you are suffering from extreme insanity!!” Not really a review. But even if you don’t like the film, claiming this is the worst movie ever made is so hyperbolic that it shows the “reviewer” hasn’t seen many films — and very likely not even The Psychotronic Man.
Private U gives it a half star and writes a very telling “review,” “I don’t even know what this is.” It makes me wonder, if you don’t know what it is how are you in any position to judge it. The lack of humility among professional and amateur film “critics” is amazing. When I see a film that makes no sense to me, I want to see it again. I obsess about it. This is because I know one thing about the film: the people who made it put far more thought into it than I have. So it is much more likely that I’m missing something rather than that a bunch of people got together to make something bad that made no sense.
And then there is Joshua M, the most informed of the lot. He also gave it its highest rating: one and a half stars. I have to credit him: he knows the plot better than professional “critic” Burke does. But his review is all over the place. At times he indicates that it is very good and at others very bad. And he opens with such a tired observation, “This is another film that’s so bad that it’s good.” Really?! Then why did you give it such a low rating? I hate the idea that hip film lovers should watch low budget films and laugh at them. But even if I accepted it, it wouldn’t apply to The Psychotronic Man, which is competently made.
He also writes, “The Psychotronic Man’s combination of acting, cheap effects, and spare, sluggish editing creates a dreamscape environment that the director couldn’t have intended.” Really?! I’d love to hear his interview with Jack M Sell where he learned this. Because I think its slow, deliberate pacing is quite intentional. I think there is something to Rob Hill’s claim that the film was padded (although I think he overstates it). But just because Joshua thinks all films must move briskly along does not mean that everyone agrees. Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone are two filmmakers who would have disagreed. They are also two filmmakers that I’m sure Joshua wouldn’t dream of making the same claim about.
It’s too bad that The Psychotronic Man wasn’t a commercial success because I’m really interested in where the plot goes from that last shot. The police have shown that they are powerless against Rocky. At the same time, Rocky really is a good guy. When the officers had him surrounded, he could have killed them all. But instead, he simply pushed them away, and one of them had the bad luck to die as a result.
On the other hand, how would Rocky be important for national security? I imagine a sequel being about Rocky trying to escape from all the people who want to use his powers. In fact, it could even make an interesting television show — something like The Incredible Hulk.
Ultimately, I think the film is about loneliness. Rocky is one of the most lonely characters to ever show up in a movie. His psychotronic powers can be seen as an analogy of alcoholism: something that makes him feel powerful, yet out of control. And something that ultimately isolates him from those he loves.
But if you want to see the film in a more straightforward way, it’s the dark side of the superhero genre. Because what is life like for these freaks? They can’t have a normal life. Super-powers would be a curse.
What to Watch For
There are two things that make this film so watchable. The first is Peter Spelson as Rocky Foscoe. He is more or less the bad guy, yet he’s hard to dislike. The world is coming down on him hard and he’s really trying his best. If ever a man had an excuse for being a drunk, that man was Rocky. The second aspect of the film that makes it enjoyable is that it is deliberately plotted. It takes it’s time and it doesn’t apologize for it.
Certainly, there are times when this is the last film I want to watch. But it’s more often the case that I want to soak in a film. And The Psychotronic Man provides that.
Even though The Psychotronic Man is (almost by definition) a psychotronic film, it isn’t much of an exploitation film. You can’t go into it thinking you will get the kind of thrills you do in The Evil Dead, much less Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. What’s more, this film has no sense of humor. It’s deadly serious.
Still, it has some very cool aspects:
- A scene in an actual medical lab with students working on actual cadavers.
- A totally creepy doctor who I’m pretty sure violates his code of ethics and is then thrown out of the window of a office building. There could be more blood, but it’s pretty cool.
- An excellent shot of the doctor hitting the ground. It’s done in slow motion, and I’m still not sure how they managed it.
- A funny-looking, doughnut-eating cop.
- An amazing car chase for a low-budget film, which includes lots of helicopter shots. It also intercuts with the police talking to each other so it makes more sense than most car chases. Then, just when you think that Rocky is caught, he uses his psychotronic abilities to make his car fly in order to get away. At the 8 minute mark, Rocky crashes his car, which explodes, but doesn’t kill him. Burke complained that the car chase was too long, something I doubt he would have complained about in Ronin or Matrix Reloaded.
The Psychotronic Man is really more of a film for adults. That’s not surprising, given that Spelson was almost 50 years old when he made it. A great example of this is that Rocky is having an affair on his shrew of a wife. After a love scene that focuses almost entirely on the two kissing, his lover, Kathy (Robin Newton) asks why they can’t run off together. Rocky responds, “Well damn it Kathy, what do you want me to do? I got two kids…” It’s not common in a kiddie Holliwood film that a man stays in a loveless marriage because of the kids.
But there are many things to like in this film. It’s surprising that Jack M Sell didn’t go on to be a successful film director (I believe he became successful in various capacities of industrial filmmaking, judging from his LinkedIn page), because he has a lot of talent.
- After establishing that the film takes place in Chicago, there is a shot of Rocky’s barber shop, which is zoomed in on. It provides a nice introduction to the fact that weird things will be happening in banal places.
- The film establishes Rocky’s premonitions (a car exploding) and need to drink from the start. It creates a very disturbing undertow to the following driving scene. It’s been criticized as padding because the normal thing would be to put the credits in there. But credits would have made the driving lack anything haunting. Nothing happens during credits. Is Rocky’s car going to explode? It turns out: not yet, but it sets the tone of suspense.
- A very nice scene where it really does look like Rocky is in his car floating over Chicago.
- Rocky is portrayed totally alone throughout the film. Even his doctor rolls over on him. The only person who tries to understand him is his girlfriend, Kathy, but Rocky doesn’t understand what’s happening to himself well enough to even communicate with her.
- The Psychotronic Man combines two genres. First there is the horror sub-genre where someone finds they have special powers, which they do not want. Think: Carrie. Second, there is the police procedural. It’s an interesting combination where there are no good or bad guys.
- The car chase scene is better than films with much larger budgets. And it’s all the more remarkable that it was done without permits. This is one of the best examples of guerrilla filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
- The killing of the old man is done with a very short focal length lens, giving it a very disturbing look.
- Exceptional score.
- Overall, the acting is pretty good. And the technical work is professional.
Don’t expect the film to be super exciting. But it is almost the cinematic equivalent of Ravel’s Bolero. It builds and builds and builds to a very exciting conclusion.
Information about the movie itself:
- Release date: April 1980
- Length: 81 minutes
- MPAA Rating: NR
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Film: 35 mm Astro color Panavision (anamorphic)
Obviously, so many more people are involved in the making of a film. But here are some of the most important. The credits on the film are terrible. They use a red font on a background that is mostly red. So please send corrections if you have more information.
- Production Company: Spelson Productions, Inc and Jack M Sell Associates
- Director: Jack M Sell
- Producer: Peter Spelson
- Screenwriters: Peter Spelson (story), Jack Sell and Peter Spelson (screenplay)
- Cinematographer/Camera Operator: Jack M Sell
- Crane Operators: Robert Griffiths, Joseph Francasso, and Joseph Foerner
- Art Director: Fred Becht
- Editor: Jack M Sell
- Composer: Tommy Irons (additional: Craig Vlasic, Jack M Sell)
- Helicopter Pilot: Bob Gaylord (it looks like he was a Colonel in the US Army)
- Actors: Peter Spelson, Christopher Carbis, Curt Colbert, Robin Newton, Paul Marvel, Jeff Caliendo, Bob McDonald, and others
Note: The DVD release of the film adds “The Revenge of” to “The Psychotronic Man.” It’s unclear why this is done other than the creation of the punk band Revenge of the Psychotronic Man in 2004. The producers and the band have worked together. But it is clear that the original film was called The Psychotronic Man. And this makes sense, because it is not a revenge film.
Full length images taken from single frames of The Psychotronic Man. The Psychotronic Man DVD case image taken from Amazon. All these licensed under Fair Use. Image of rotten tomatoes from publicdomainpictures.net and is in the public domain.
 It is often reported that The Psychotronic Man was the first feature film shot in Chicago since World War II. I know that’s not true. But I don’t know if there wasn’t a film between The Prime Time and The Psychotronic Man. None of this should take away from the impressive feat of shooting this film. Just watch it and you will be amazed that no one got arrested.
F Moraes, 12 March 2018