Saturday, May 26, 2012

What is a Psychotronic Film?

By Ed Garea

Thus begins a new column for this site that will contain only reviews of psychotronic movies. This, of course, begs the question: What is a psychotronic movie? The answer may surprise you.

It all began in 1983 with the publication of a paperback book entitled The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by then as yet unknown film critic and historian Michael Weldon. Weldon is to unusual cinema what J Michael Kenyon is to pro wrestling history: part archaeologist, part chronicler, and part narrator. The book soon took on a life of its own with fans such as Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Walken and John Waters singing its praises. In the book Weldon defines psychotronic film as follows: 
“Well, monster and science-fiction films, of course. But exploitation films of any sort, really: biker movies, rock ‘n’ roll movies, musclemen movies, 3-D movies, ‘60s beach movies, Mexican movies with subtitles – you get the idea.” Weldon thought he made up the term, “but it later turned out I’d stolen it from The Psychotronic Man, a Chicago-made film about a maniac barber who kills people with psychic energy.” No matter, though, for Weldon had coined a name to encompass a variety of films that, until now, really seemed to have nothing in common. 
Does a movie have to be termed “Grade Z” to fit the category? No. Readers will find many films made by Poverty Row studios such as Monogram, PRC, Tiffany, and Invincible that cannot be called “psychotronic” by any stretch of the imagination, for they are usually melodramas, westerns or lame comedies. It is only when they present subject matter such as noted above that they become psychotronic. In other words, there is one word that truly marks a psychotronic film: offbeat.
“Ah,” says the reader, “but when I paged through this book, I found, to my great surprise and consternation, that Casablanca was listed. Why is this? Why is Casablanca considered psychotronic?”
There are two reasons: One is the presence of psychotronic stalwarts such as Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Conrad Veidt. The other, more compelling, reason is that, for all its awards, Casablanca is an exploitation film, made to cash in on the myriad headlines generated by the Casablanca confab between FDR and Churchill.
Warner Brothers bought the rights to an unproduced play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” dressed it up in patriotic colors, and paraded it as a love story set during World War II and a parable against isolationism. It was originally supposed to have been a quickie production starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan, but after Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis got a look at the script by Julius and Philip Epstein, with help from Howard Koch, they decided they really had something and upgraded the production accordingly. But, at its base, Casablanca is an exploitation film.
"Okay,” says our skeptical reader, “then what about The Song of Bernadette?” Simple: it’s the subject matter, which is otherworldly, making the film offbeat enough to be classified psychotronic. What must especially be kept in mind is that "psychotronic" is not a denigrating term. It is merely a descriptive term, and the fact that it ranges from films such as Casablanca to The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters is descriptive, not judgmental. Science Fiction movies range from the wonderful Metropolis to Creature With the Atom Brain; Horror films from Bride of Frankenstein to Frankenstein’s Daughter; and Westerns from Red River to Last of the Wild Horses; yet, no one thinks to call these categories “denigrating.” And so it is with the category of “psychotronic.” 
In the future we will publish reviews of psychotronic films and tell you if they are on DVD and from where they might be obtained for your collection. In the meantime, as with all our features, you, the Readers, are certainly welcome to join in. Is there a favorite psychotronic film about which you wish to tell us, or perhaps a Top Ten Psychotronic film list?
Join in the fun; it’s better that way.

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