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Book Review: Michael J. Weldon's Psychotronic Books

by Rob Gonsalves

When Michael J. Weldon's "Psychotronic Video" magazine folded in 2006, I took it like a death of a friend I'd only heard from intermittently in recent years but still held great fondness for. Infrequent though it had become, it still came home with me whenever it eventually hit the stands -- the few stands that still carried it. The death of "Psychotronic Video" felt like the end of an era, much as the demise of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" had.

Maybe you didn't realize it I didn't until too late but October 12, 2008 marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Weldon's magnum opus The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. This monolith of cult, exploitation, classic, mondo, and just plain cool films became the gold standard by which all other such compilations would be judged the schlock-cinema equivalent of The Trouser Press Record Guide, left atop coffee tables in slacker dens everywhere for friends to lose themselves in. Other movie books handled the mainstream stuff, the Mighty Films of Cinema, the ones you felt duty-bound to watch at least once. Weldon, with the help of Ballantine Books, legitimized the low, the weird, the obscure, the greasers and sluts and punks of celluloid. He made it okay for budding movie buffs to bundle in some Eurotrash sexploitation and teenagers-with-mutations flicks along with our Kurosawa and Bergman.

Hilariously, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia occasionally made a half-hearted effort to include mainstream hits Weldon's disinterested review of Star Wars misspelled Ben Kenobi's name "Ben Kanoby" (this was corrected in a later printing), showing us exactly how much Weldon sweated the details when it came to that phenomenon. My favorite example of Weldon's trying to find some point of interest in a scholar-approved work of cinematic art is the book's review of Fellini's 8 1/2; it reads in its entirety, "Barbara Steele is Gloria Morin." That's all he has to say about it because that's all that matters to him: Barbara Steele is in it. Weldon was also not shy about preferring a director's earlier, lesser-known stuff to the later hits: "It's good," Weldon wrote about John Carpenter's Halloween, "but Assault on Precinct 13 is even better." (Often, Weldon as much of a rock-music wonk as he is a movie geek sounds like one of those rock snobs who say "The Wall is good, but Animals is Floyd's true unsung masterpiece.")

Thirteen years and a sheaf of Psychotronic Video issues later, Weldon put together his sequel, The Psychotronic Video Guide. The new volume, which picked up where the first left off (no reviews of anything that had been covered back in '83), was by its nature more exhaustive, since it included every little video Weldon had been sent to cover in the magazine along with whatever gems or turkeys he'd stumbled across on his own. This time, the covers sported blurbs from the likes of John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of whom had prospered by taking the psychotronic aesthetic to the masses. (Weldon has said that Tarantino once visited Weldon's shop and gave him a duped videotape of the then-not-yet-released Reservoir Dogs.)

By 1996, psychotronic had long since gone mainstream, or mainstream had gone psychotronic; the biggest indicator of the sea change was probably the box-office triumph and quintuple-Oscar victory of a film about a psycho who eats people and a sicko who carves off women's skin and wears it. To this day, psychotronic continues to reign: Heath Ledger's Joker is nothing if not a psychotronic avatar, the sort of perverse, rugose monstrosity that never would've been allowed anywhere near a major motion picture let alone one that turned into the year's gigantic breadwinner twenty-five years ago.

Weldon noted the cultural shift in his intro to Psychotronic Video Guide, even though it didn't quite redound to his benefit. Tarantino's imprimatur didn't keep Psychotronic Video's advertisers from flaking out, or independently owned shops that carried the mag from closing their doors. Psychotronic Video folded roughly a year before Weldon's ultimate godchild, the Tarantino/Rodriguez psychotronic fetish object Grindhouse, hit theaters. But Weldon, you see, not only worshipped grindhouse before grindhouse was cool he made grindhouse cool.

By recent accounts, Weldon and his wife are still running their Psychotronic shop on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia. One still hears from him once in a while, on the radio or podcasts or in interviews. But he should be writing, he should be heard. Or, failing that, he should at least be remembered and revered.

A note on the back of Psychotronic Encyclopedia reads, "Warning: The author of this book has been watching these movies obsessively since the age of 6. He is now unfit for conventional employment." Well, conventional employment's loss was our gain. I ache for a third volume of psychotronic angel-dust maybe you do, too. (It's been twelve years, almost as long as the gap between the first two books.) But for now, we can simply raise a toast to the original gray brick's 25th birthday, perhaps take it off the shelf and swim around in it all over again, and give props to the man who was there before everyone else, without whom there wouldn't have been a Grindhouse or a Tarantino or a Film Threat or perhaps even a Hollywood Bitchslap. Michael J. Weldon, for those about to schlock, we salute you.

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originally posted: 10/29/08 03:41:36
last updated: 11/01/08 11:46:23
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