lilFed’s #CBR5 Review #7: ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film’ by Michael Weldon

psychotronicWith all due respect to the late Roger Ebert, along with all due ‘not-so-flattering’, but no less valid, criticisms of his work, it is not really a complicated, time-consuming chore to write your average movie review, if you do it all the time. With film critics as prolific as Leonard Maltin and the online Pajiba crew, or EW magazine’s Owen Glieberman (God, I miss Lisa Schwartzbaum!) churning these reviews out regularly, one can surmise that those thick, impressively small-printed film and video review ‘guides’ that Ebert published with such regularity were more or less simply a matter of cutting and pasting the reviews that were already written long ago, with maybe a few embellishments to update the original. And let’s be perfectly honest: most hugely-popular films are so embedded into the public’s consciousness, even people who have never actually seen the movie could write a fairly passable review about it, just from the knowledge gleaned from every other source under the sun – many a high school book report has gotten a passing grade for the writer who knew just how to bullshit properly in a creative writing assignment.

Michael Weldon, on the other hand, was a whole different animal from the standard movie critic, and remains so thirty years on from the publication of ‘The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film’. The back cover summarizes the overall concept of this ‘Encyclopedia’ as well as anything could:

The complete viewer’s guide to the weirdest movies of all time!

‘Psychotronic’ films range from ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to ‘E.T.‘.. from ‘Angel’s Wild Women’ and ‘Hellcats of the Navy’ to ‘I Dismember Mama’ and ‘Let Me Die A Woman’.
‘Psychotronic’ stars are ex-models, ex-sport heroes, dead rock idols, future presidents, would-be Marilyns, and has-beens of all types.

Out of the 3,000-plus movies reviewed in this 800-page encyclopedic ‘novel’, as I consumed it, you’ll find iconic mainstream fare like 1958’s ‘The Fly’(“A brilliant, sick, absurd hit based on a ‘Playboy’ short story”), 1975’s ‘Jaws’and 1951’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (with asides such as “The robot Gork was played by Lock Martin, a seven-foot-seven former doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.”)

But there’s also ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’, ‘Gog’, ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Johnny Cool’ and ‘Mesa of Lost Women’. Mr. Weldon, with some assistance from a couple of fellow ‘psychotronic’ film lovers, simply amazes at describing the most obscure and ‘forgotten’ B-films with a knowledge that leaves little doubt of the extent of his research, many of these which he was allowed to watch as a kid growing up in Cleveland movie theaters in the 60’s-70’s, but also “from poring through thousands of outdated ‘fanzines’ and promotion pieces – and, not surprisingly, from countless all-night marathons in front of the TV screen.”

Weldon had spawned a well-regarded ‘newspaper fanzine’, Psychotronic Magazine, also jam-packed with literally 100’s of movie mentions, which started before and continued after this book.

There’s so much more to comment on, but I’m trying to make a bigger point here:

Let’s take an example like ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) – anyone who knows the plot of this movie could give an instant review of it, without ever having seen it, but knowing enough through 20 – 30 years of hearing others talk about it, or seeing bits on their TV while switching channels, or reading a ton of entertainment media mentioning it whether you were searching for it or not.

Now try and b.s. through a review of, say, 1959’s ‘The Manster’. Ever hear of it? Probably not, though it’s been one of the regular late-night b&w ‘horror’ movies on local TV stations across the country for, oh, like forever. But Michael Weldon has seen it, and after providing us with the year, country, studio, director, and screenwriter who made it (as he does with every film), here’s his review:

“The world’s first double-headed monster movie! An American reporter (Larry Stanford) is given an injection by the mad Dr. Suzuki (who keeps his mutant wife in a cage). An eye grows on the reporter’s shoulder! It soon becomes an ugly head that resembles a carved coconut! The extra-headed monster kills people! Then it splits into two beings – man and ape man. Man throws ape man into a volcano! End.”

Michael Weldon has a gift of informing a person as to what a film is about. There is no personal opinion of this film mentioned in its description, unless one wants to assume that the exclamation points would denote a favorable attitude towards it – that, or just sarcasm. But it’s really left up to the individual, isn’t it?

This is but one example of a review in this book, but an underlying theme throughout, aside from some classics like ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, which are universally agreed and written about as such, is that the reviewers here don’t presume to tell you how good or bad a movie is, how much you will like or dislike it, or what its cultural or aesthetic worth is – they are merely described for the potential viewer’s benefit.. This device is what makes this huge, information-packed source so imminently readable, whether it be in certain parts or as a unique whole.

This book was followed up by TPVG in 1996, when most of the movies reviewed in the first book had been resurrected through home video. But the original is timeless, and establishes Michael Weldon as a very rare, but vital film historian who belongs with the greats, in film genres that have yet to be explored as thoroughly as he did 30 years previously. Get it if you can find it.