Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Psychotronic Connection

So, why am I completely obsessed with movies – especially the zero-budget stuff that no one else gives a hoot about?   It’s been a two-decades-long slow burn, ignited by Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and its evolutionary follow-up, The Psychotronic Video Guide.  Although they’re seldom mentioned today, I don’t think the influence of these two seminal volumes can be overestimated.  Weldon’s relative absence from the web belies the fact that his groundbreaking books paved the way for writing about the unloved films, and that his lasting legacy resides in the soul of virtually every blog that has devoted space to the love of B movies.

Michael Weldon virtually created a template for spreading the word on cinema’s hidden treasures and trash in a digestible format.  1983’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film is evocative of an era not too long ago, when movies weren’t so accessible.  Until the last couple of decades, most of these movies were out of reach, and you had to be content with reading the descriptions.  Unless you had your own movie theater and could secure film prints for your private collection, you were prisoner to the whims of others for your viewing choices.  Either you caught it the first time around in the theater, waited for it to hit the revival circuit, or maybe on late night TV.  It was often by sheer chance that you might actually stumble upon one of the movies mentioned in the guide.  Obviously, the advent of home video changed all of that, and Weldon reflected this paradigm shift in a new volume, 1996’s The Psychotronic Video Guide. 

If you wanted to learn about what existed beyond the mainstream in the pre-internet world, books and magazines were your primary sources of information.  Both volumes opened my eyes and mind to a bigger world, serving as the definitive guides for my exploration of overlooked cinema from the last century.  It was here that I learned about the lesser-known works of the smaller studios including Hammer, Amicus and Monogram, to name just a few, and came to appreciate the contributions of Roger Corman and William Castle.  The Psychotronic guides were part encyclopedia to underground film, part film history, and part B-movie tribute, loaded with obscure behind-the-scenes facts.  It’s a testament to the depth of Weldon’s research that he was able to compile such a dense and comprehensive overview of film without the benefit of Google or Wikipedia.

I still regard both Psychotronic guides as the definitive sources for B-movie information today.  Flipping through their worn covers and dog-eared pages are sheer film geek bliss.  Their wealth of information remains unmatched by anything else in print or on the web.  When I read about an obscure title on the web, I’ll invariably cross-reference it in one of the Psychotronic guides, and probably nine times out of ten, there will be an entry.

Weldon’s views were not infallible, but it’s his DIY approach that lent the Psychotronic guides their charm.  Some of his opinions were dubious -- He held Battle Beyond the Stars in higher esteem, compared to the much bigger budget Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  His reviews could also be inconsistent.  Some provided the bare facts, while others would provide a tidbit of background information or a snippet of trivia that wouldn’t be covered in a more polished critique.  What consistently shined through was his bias for championing the little-seen or underappreciated films that the rest of the world, especially the snobbish mainstream press, overlooked.  He obviously wasn’t interested in the standard mass-appeal Hollywood blockbusters, but did not necessarily dismiss big-budget productions and uniformly praise low-budget movies.  He especially valued ingenuity and originality, elements that were often lacking in Hollywood’s more mainstream offerings.  Bigger was not always better, and low budget did not always mean cheesy. 

There was a refreshing lack of judgment in Weldon’s reviews.  He did not often delineate between “good” and “bad” films.  Weldon treated John Waters or Herschell Gordon Lewis with the same sort of respect that more “highbrow” writers would have devoted to Akira Kurosawa or Francois Truffaut.  This reflects a more inclusive, eclectic definition of what makes a great film.  He did not necessarily overlook the time honored classics, but redefined what constituted a classic.  The Psychotronic approach to movies was a very personal, singular vision.  Weldon often wore his preferences on his sleeve, with his fondness for what others deemed “schlock cinema”: low budget horror, mondo documentaries, depictions of the youth music scene, B-thrillers, and 70s exploitation.  He also shrewdly identified the cyclical nature of certain film trends.  Even though times changed, tastes were cyclical.  Things went in cycles with regard to 3D movies, teen rebellion flicks, manufactured movie stars (he once alluded to Arnold Schwarzenegger as Steve Reeves with a better agent), or pushing the boundaries of what’s regarded as good taste.

Will we ever see a third Psychotronic guide?  Judging by the space between the first and second volumes, it should be due just about now, although it’s debatable whether this will ever see the light of day.  Will we ever see another Michael Weldon?  Likely not, but we’ll always have these two volumes that serve as his legacy, and I’ll always be grateful for the unofficial education they provided about neglected pockets of film history that refuse to fade away.

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