The psychotronic diaries

Isabelle Mejias bonds with snake in Julie Darling (dir. Paul Nicholas, 1983), just one of fifteen truly mind-boggling films that I’ll be looking at in the next few months.  My new viewing project focuses on “psychotronic” films—exploitation flicks, cult favorites, forgotten B-grade duds, and the generally weird.  I’m borrowing the term from James Weldon, whose Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was a book that I picked up at age fourteen or so, mainly intrigued by its impressive number of horror film entries.  I was happy to find that the capsule reviews also had considerably more personality than, say, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide—Weldon was funny and idiosyncratic, and he knew how to discern the wonderfully bad from the real so-bad-it’s-bad dreck. 

What is a psychotronic film?  Weldon offers this definition: “the releases that used to be called ‘B’ features and were later popular in inner-city grindhouses, at drive-ins, and on local late-night TV. [...]  It doesn’t matter when or where they were made, whether they’re ‘good’ or not, whether they cost a few thousand dollars or over $100 million.  They can be barely released obscurities, acknowledged cult items, or over-hyped and over-merchandised household names.”  He adds:  “All of this stuff is out there.  You should know about it.”

As a child of the cable TV generation, I have fond memories of seeing this stuff on late-night programming—particularly USA’s “Up All Night” (hosted by Rhonda Shear); TNT’s MonsterVision (hosted by the inimitable Joe Bob Briggs); and TNT’s “100% Weird” series (not to mention, of course, the great Mystery Science Theater):

For the purposes of this project, I’m hewing fairly close to Weldon’s definition of what constitutes a psychotronic film.  For the most part, I’ll be reviewing low-budget gems from the golden age of exploitation cinema (roughly 1963-1985), though my first entry will concern a particularly out-there anomaly from 1941.  My list is inspired by several other sources in addition to Weldon: J. Hoberman’s essays “Bad Movies” and “Vulgar Modernism,” Hoberman and Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies, and the Brattle Theater’s archive of Grindhouse programs from the past several years.  I’ll be appreciating these films’ offensive charms while also trying to understand what function they serve as cultural objects.  What sorts of pleasures do these films afford, and for what kinds of audiences?  Can we understand them as texts that deploy dominant ideology (to throw around a fancy theoretical term), or as texts that operate “from below,” addressing and working through issues such as race and sexuality that mainstream cinema has traditionally been afraid of touching?  Are these movies offensive, and, if so, why?  Lest this make it all sound too dreary, I’ll also be recounting their most head-scratching moments (and Julie Darling, the only film on the list that I’ve seen before, has several).  I realize that these are films that many will not have seen, but I’m hoping you’ll enjoy reading anyway.  Because, you know, this is some of the craziest stuff you’re likely to see on film.  Welcome to psychotronia…  

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