I tried to get anybody to go with me to the Philadelphia Psychotronic Film Society (PPFS). I texted all of my friends. I put in in the GroupMe. I talked to my roommates, days in advance. Everyone asked the same question: “What’s ‘psychotronic’?”
I failed to get anybody to go to the PPFS meeting with me.
This film–screening club for cult and B–movies is run out of PhilaMOCA, an arts venue run out of a shuttered mausoleum showroom. It makes sense, then, that this joint would screen a movie that's dead in every sense of the word. PPFS's choice of screening for this bimonthly meeting was Static (1986), a film about a Southwestern man who claims to have invented a TV showing that transmits images from heaven. It was apparently so bad of a movie so bad that its own director disowned it as "embarrassing juvenilia." I was excited.
The venue and audience were piercingly quiet. The sound of me settling into my seat and flipping open my notebook echoed through the theater. On the side a collection of sodas, snacks, beer, and other noise–making foods stood unpurchased. There were to be no whispers, no muted commentary in this screening. This was not a place to make friends.
It’s hard to talk about a club where everyone sits in one direction and stares noiselessly at a screen in the dark. So I’ll start by describing the film. Static was directed by Mark Romanek, now famous for his music videos for Nine Inch Nails and more. The soundtrack pulls out of '80s hits, '50s classics, and synthesizer, and the cinematography is dramatic and expressive. The story hooks you immediately into the world of Ernie Blick, a town celebrity, collector of deformed crucifixes, and archetypal B–movie mad scientist. The entire film is proudly B–movie material, with half–baked explanations for sci–fi inventions, jeremiad preachers, and repetitive and simplistic dialogue (“This invention will make people happy... and not sad”).
Despite, or maybe because of this, the movie starts out enjoyably. As if reading angsty poetry you wrote your 6th grade crush, your grimaces are equally as mirthful as your smiles and laughs.The cast of characters is compelling. The mystery around the invention is truly suspenseful. And there’s just something about watching a classic B–movie, is there not? The wavy image, the distorted sound, the inexplicable premises, are something that’s missing from the Hollywood obsession with standardized perfection. For forty minutes, I could not understand why Romanek disowned this film.
Then Act Two started, and it became immediately obvious. The tone changes dramatically, and with it the quality the entire movie. Over a span of sixty seconds, the film changes from a so–good–it’s–good drama to a so–bad–it’s–a–masterpiece comedy, one that involves a band of criminal old ladies, a police standoff, and an ending so absurd and abrupt you actually could never see it coming. The sudden transition changed the tone of the movie, as well as its crowd as well. The audience went from mute to riotous as the film’s quality dipped faster with each new scene. Reserved chuckles turned to mocking scoffs, which turned to deep belly laughs as the film gave up entirely on the story of its first half, in pursuit of a worse one.
As the mood lightened, I glanced around the crowd. Everybody looked different. One man was in a suit; there was a woman in flannel; in front of me was a couple in ratty shirts and piercings from head to toe. When Static was seriously good they all leaned forward into their seats, and when Static was seriously bad they all laughed and shook their heads. The spirit of the group was dependent on the spirit of the movie.
The film ended, and so did the society’s meeting. There was no socialization as everybody filed out one by one and went on to the next part of their night. Maybe during the next meeting, they’d recognize someone in the crowd from this one. Maybe they wouldn’t.
I’m still not sure what “psychotronic” means. But from my experience at the Philadelphia Psychotronic Film Club, I’ve learned about the lovers of psychotronic movies. They aren’t people who like watching good movies with friends, and they aren’t people who like watching bad movies with friends. They’re just people who like watching movies.