10.21.2011

The psychotronic diaries: “Whoever finds the secret of the South Sea Queen will live in great danger of assault!”



I end my education in psychotronic film with Lady Terminator (dir. Jalil Jackson, 1988), an Indonesian rip-off of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) that’s truly mind-boggling.  (The Brattle Theater advertised this movie on its calendar by writing: “Get ready for your face to melt completely off your skull.”)  This film has it all: Indonesian pop music, women with snakes inside their vaginas, epic mullets, a police detective who dresses like a frat boy, and priceless dialogue (“Stop calling me ‘lady’—I’m not a lady, I’m an anthropologist!”).

My mind is too foggy to say much more about the film itself, so I’ll simply put in a good word for Mondo Macabro, which has gone to the trouble of releasing gems like this film on DVD and even supplementing them with quality bonus material (Lady Terminator includes a short documentary on Indonesian horror films).  The existence of boutique labels like Mondo Macabro (along with Code Red, Scorpion, Blue Underground, and Something Weird) is proof positive that exploitation films have an audience, and that such audiences exist beyond the margins of the multiplex.  Psychotronia is largely a body of films defined by and looked after by its weird, maladjusted, obsessive fans, many of them non-professional film-watchers and writers like the young James Weldon, who self-published and distributed his psychotronic newsletter long before it became a well-known reference book.  Psychotronic films largely appeal to people whose cinematic tastes run counter both to mainstream Hollywood and highbrow art-house fare, who insist on the value of roughness, dirt, failure.  Its audiences work to shape and look after the psychotronic canon, which is why that canon is so amorphous; it hasn’t been defined by awards, accolades, places on the American Film Institute list of top 100 films, and it’s highly unstable. 

Audiences control psychotronic film.  They determine its pleasures and its success.  For proof of this, one need only consider Snakes on a Plane (2006), the disastrous attempt by Hollywood to consciously market its own exploitation hit.  Of course, audiences didn’t buy it—nor did they bite when, after it failed as a serious movie, distributors tried to re-package Mommie Dearest (1981) as a midnight movie by handing out wire coat hangers to its ticket buyers.  As John Waters later argued, the audience members have to bring the coat hangers themselves for a cult film to work.  Psychotronic audiences are, basically, a subculture, one that determines cinematic value on their own terms, reads films against the grain, and defies the logic of entertainment market research.  They usurp even the power of the filmmakers themselves, many of whom do not set out to make psychotronic movies.  (Did Otto Preminger know that Skidoo would become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic?  And if he had known, would he have been happy?)  The magic of psychotronic film doesn’t happen on the set or in a studio story conference—it happens during the act of viewing, as an audience confronts a cinematic object that has the power to make its face melt completely off its skull.    

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