“I suppose this is as good a time as any to state that I am a movie fan. I like movies, all kinds of movies. The big ones, the little ones, the westerns, love stories, tragedies, spectacles, all of them. I like movies in Cinemascope, Todd-AO, 16mm, 8mm, and in 3-D. I like the successes, the stinkers, and the in-betweens. Of course, I am unhappy when a movie is lousy, and I am glad when a movie is good. But I like movies.”
– Charles Willeford, The Woman Chaser
That statement by Willeford’s doomed antihero illustrates my attitude just as well. And of all the movies in the world, I like psychotronic movies best. But there is a great deal of confusion as to what we mean when we say “psychotronic,” even for those familiar with the term, so in order to explain what the Psychotronic Film Society is we need to go back to the beginning.
Everyone pretty much agrees that psychotronic encompasses the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres, what Forrest J Ackerman called “SFantasy” or “Imagimovies”. But even those genres are indistinct and hard to define. Fans of science fiction used to say that SF was “what I point to when I say it”. And psychotronic goes well beyond those boundaries – for example, no one questions our devotion to 1950’s pin-up model Bettie Page as a psychotronic star, but she only came close to pure fantasy elements once or twice in her career.
The word “psychotronics,” as defined by the US Psychotronics Association:
The science of mind-body-environment relationships, an interdisciplinary science concerned with the interactions of matter, energy, and consciousness.
Just goes to show you how language is always evolving. Psychotronics used to be a word describing alteration of the mind using electronic devices. Studies of the subject were initially made in an effort to cure diseases of the mind – from the employment of ‘lie detectors’ to shock therapy. In more recent times you come across the term more often in reference to weapons, the use of technology to cause mental trauma, often used covertly and from long range.
Michael Weldon apparently didn’t know the word “psychotronic” as a scientific term, but first used it in print around 1980 as title to his weekly New York City area unofficial TV Guide supplement. It was meant to describe something that didn’t yet have a label, like “punk” as a genre of music. Taken from the trash sci-fi film The Psychotronic Man, according to Weldon the word was “originally meant to suggest a combination of weird horror films and electronic gadget-filled science fiction movies… After a while, I began to use the term ‘psychotronic’ as an adjective, to describe all the different kinds of movies that interest me…. 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…”
A small group of film fans in Chicago got the idea. So when they began to meet regularly to watch videos of these cinema oddities, they decided to make the group a bit more official. Founders Del Close and Pam Smith dubbed the organization the Chicago Psychotronic Film Society. Co-founder Mike Flores recalled:
There was no B-movie appreciation group anywhere on earth at the time, and we needed a name. I ran into a copy of Michael Weldon’s book, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, and called him. I was stunned to discover that he was working at a used record store and was down on his luck. The book was not selling as he had hoped it would. So we flew him to Chicago and put him up on the couch. We did a weekend at Chicago Filmmakers, which sold out, and suddenly there was media interest in our film society and Weldon’s book again. The first issue of our society newsletter, It’s Only A Movie!, contained an article by Weldon, as did the next eight issues. Over two hundred people attended a party for Weldon at our home, and suddenly we had to do a follow-up.
We became a mainstay in Chicago, featured in articles and interviews on the radio, TV and in newspapers – exposure which Weldon’s book company had failed to gain for him.
At first our public film parties were at art galleries, but I got tired of fighting political correctness, so we moved our monthly events to bars where I could show anything I wanted. As the years went by, we began to touch other people who would create their own scenes. … There is a big psychotronic market here, created largely by the PFS.
As the PFS moved from small gatherings in private homes to public screenings in pubs, nightclubs, theaters and other venues, debate over defining our obsession continued.
My editor at VideoHound Books did a pretty decent job of nailing it in the intro to our Videohound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics (which originally used a title I like better, Mongrel Video): ” — the masterpieces, the misfits, and the misunderstood…. cult movies, trash film, underground flicks, alternative cinema, and camp outings — movies so bad they’re good, as well as movies so bad we don’t want you to think they might have some camp value, and movies so good the truly cool people watch them over and over again.” Loose, but as good a description as I’ve heard.
In the mid-’90s we phased out our print version of It’s Only A Movie! and phased in the PFS website, a repository for reviews, editorials, interviews, galleries and whatever insanity we decided to unleash worldwide. The clunky first draft website was redesigned after the first year to look more like an online magazine, but retained an endearingly funky flavor.
Meanwhile, we continued to host regular shows in a wide variety of venues. One bar had two PFS shows per week for a while. We broadcast a closed circuit show into a restaurant equipped with widescreen TVs at every table. Celebrities visiting Chicago would come to our shows to just unwind unobtrusively and catch one of our unusual flicks. We even did a series at a small movie theater inside the Chicago Civic Opera House. PFS sects, both “authorized” and otherwise, cropped up all over the country, and even overseas. One such group told us they drove 50 miles from their small town to rent movies to project onto a sheet hung up inside a church.
But society caught up with the Society. Since the 1970s, Baby Boomers raised on psychotronic movies, TV and music began to make these things themselves, and increasing numbers of Boomers and their Gen-X and Gen-Y offspring (the psychotronic 2.0) bought them. By the turn of the century, psychotronic had become the mainstream.
With the films of Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dario Argentio and Doris Wishman widely available on DVD, any schmo or schmoette could have their own psychotronic show anytime they wanted. More importantly, the information made easily available on the internet (by us and those following in our club footsteps) made a lot more people aware of psychotronica. We’d become victims of our own success. And at the same time, members of the Society became too successful and busy in their own careers to keep up with organization functions. Psychotronic.info fell into neglect.
But with the economy in the toilet, people need trashy entertainment more than ever. And so in 2010, after 15 years on the web, we decided to initiate Psychotronic.info 3.0, the heavy meta ugly redheaded stepchild of mongrel cinema fandom. We’re here to highlight that taint of disrespectability that has crept into every facet of modern culture. Look at the number one movie at the box office each week and you’re likely to see a picture that 50 years ago could only have been made as a B-movie or cartoon.
The aesthetics have become muddled – it’s no longer all that easy to embrace the “good” and reject the “bad” with a simple turn of the thumb. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
However, there’s still plenty of “the masterpieces, the misfits, and the misunderstood.” Or to quote Criswell in Night of the Ghouls: “Monsters to be pitied. Monsters to be despised.” Dear friends, we’re here to share our twisted viewpoint with the world. Because the future is still where you and I will spend the rest of our lives.