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Movies for the mind
Good, bad and ugly: The Psychotronic Film Festival's got 'em all
"The Wicker Man," 1973, is a little-seen cult classic

There is a presumption, Jim Reed believes, that his weekly film screenings at the Sentient Bean are nothing more than kitsch, with titles like Beach Blanket Mutants From the Planet Picard and The Nazi That Ate Chicago.

Reed’s Psychotronic Film Society does, to be sure, occasionally feature cult movies that are – in the parlance of the film geek – so bad they’re good.

But there’s much more to it than projecting some cinematic cheese on the wall, as he wants to prove with this week’s seventh annual Psychotronic Film Festival.

“The overwhelming majority of films that I show are not bad,” Reed explains. “They’re not even ‘so bad they’re good.’ They’re actually really interesting, good films that have fallen through the cracks, for whatever reason. They didn’t have a famous star, or the proper distribution, or they were misunderstood in their time.”

The technical definition of the word psychotronic – it’s an umbrella term used by movie aficionados – is “quirky and obscure.” They are, to the reel, independent films.

The 2010 festival, featuring one movie per weeknight Jan. 18-29, includes Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, Paul Bartel’s scathing comedy Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, 5 Million Years to Earth, from England’s legendary house of horror Hammer Films, and the original version of The Wicker Man (a rarely seen cult classic).

Alongside these are titles like Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea, Spider Baby and At Midnight, I’ll Take Your Soul.

So there’s something, quite literally, for everybody. Reed takes his work very seriously, screening a dozen films every month before settling on the four or five that make it to the Sentient Bean’s screening room. “I’m more concerned with showing underrated films,’ he says, ”regardless of their notoriety.

“I’m looking for the polarized extremes, because that’s where you find the best art.”

You can’t always get what you want. But you just might find you get what you need.

You don’t just focus on weirdo films, which seems to stretch the accepted definition of the word psychotronic.

Jim Reed: If we lived in a market where we regularly got public screenings of independent, experimental or foreign films, then everything the Psychotronic Film Society did would be really obscure and bizarre. But I have to grade on a curve. My psychotronic tent is a lot bigger than most, if that makes any sense.

For example, up through the early ‘90s, The Wicker Man was incredibly obscure. The only people that really knew about that film were either practicing pagans or die–hard horror film aficionados. That’s one of those movies where a lot of people have heard of it, but most have never seen it. I take a certain delight in screening films like that.

When is a film “so bad it’s good”? What’s the allure of a bad movie?

Jim Reed: It’s become a genre in and of itself, by accident. Most people don’t like to admit this, but there is something spectacularly entertaining about watching two trains collide. You know people are being hurt, you don’t want people to be hurt, but the sheer destruction is tantalizing.

Very few people set out to make a bad movie. Most people who make a film have to convince themselves that they are making something of lasting worth and a certain amount of brilliance. Because of the amount of money it takes, and the amount of people you have to get on your side.

Sometimes that all goes horribly awry, for whatever reason, and you wind up with a film that’s filled with plot holes, the script makes no sense, or the special effects are completely unrealistic and they take you out of the illusion of the film. Or they couldn’t afford the best actor – all they could afford was the worst actor ...

In my experience, movies that are so bad they’re good are films that are made by true believers. They are made by passionate, dedicated – and horribly misguided – people who are convinced they’re the next Welles, or the next Spielberg. When in reality, they probably shouldn’t be making a movie.

The Schedule

At Midnight, I’ll Take Your Soul (1964). Bizarre Brazilian B&W shocker about a remote village terrorized by their violent undertaker. This is the film Reed is most excited about. “It’s not for the faint–hearted,” he says. “A lot of people may find it offensive. It’s a very bizarre film, and it’s the most psychotronic film in the entire festival.” Friday, Jan. 22.

Bare Knuckles (1977). Gritty, violent disco–era grindhouse film about bounty hunters in Los Angeles, directed by the inimitable Don Edmonds (Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS). Monday, Jan. 25.

Bone (1972). Sci–fi and B–movie writer/director Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Invaders) had a tough time with this very dark comedy starring Yaphet Kotto as a serial rapist terrorizing a snarky suburban couple in their home. The film was pulled from distribution, re–edited, and re–titled Housewife, in an attempt to focus on one of the supporting characters. Then it was re–edited again and pitched as a horror movie called Dial Rat For Terror.

“It’s a message movie, but the message never got delivered,” Reed explains. “It’s a movie about very intense, serious actors kind of going at each other for a while. It’s caustic and provocative, very well made, but it’s not a lightweight piece of fluff. It really requires the viewer to pay attention.” Monday, Jan. 18.

Five Million Years to Earth (1967). Also known as Quartermass & the Pit, this British creeper from the legendary Hammer Film Studios finds a long–dormant swarm of alien locusts buried beneath contemporary London, and ready to be awakened and take over the planet. Tuesday, Jan. 19.

Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) directed this raw “high society farce” with Jaqueline Bissett, Ray Sharkey and Wallace Shawn. Says Reed: “I think it’s the greatest American comedy you never saw. In a perfect world, this would have been a huge box office hit in 1989. It’s horribly, unjustly overlooked. And it’s never been released on DVD.” Thursday, Jan. 21.

Spider Baby (1968). Lon Chaney, Jr. – the one–time Wolfman – stars in B–movie titan Jack Hill’s tale of sinister goings–on ... Reed calls it a cross between The Addams Family andThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  “It’s a low–budget satire about an inbred, bizarre family that lives in a creepy mansion and attacks people.” Friday, Jan. 29.

Tampopo (1985). Japanese with subtitles. According to Reed, “it has been described by critics and viewers as funny, touching, shocking, sensual, weird, thoughtful and cute – and as a brilliantly constructed insight into Japanese culture’s twin obsessions: food and custom.” Tuesday, Jan. 26.

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea (1977). Apparently they don’t come much weirder than this Czechoslovakian sci–fi yarn about a time–traveling Nazi who attempts to give Hitler the H–bomb, so he can win the war. Thursday, Jan. 28.

The Trial (1962). Orson Welles was long past his Citizen Kane glory days when he directed this surreal, intense adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel, starring Anthony Perkins as an innocent man trapped inside a corrupt and venal legal system. It was a huge flop and has rarely been seen, but Reed says that “many people consider it the finest piece of filmmaking Orson Welles ever did.” Wednesday, Jan. 20.

The Wicker Man (1973). Fully restored “director’s cut” of a disturbing and violent British classic about pagan rituals on a remote island. “I think it’s one of the greatest suspense/horror films ever made,” Reed says. “I’m hoping that people don’t stay away because they saw the terrible Nicolas Cage remake. They’re night and day.” Wednesday, Jan. 27.

Psychotronic Film Festival

Where: Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.

When: Screenings weeknights at 8 p.m. Jan. 18-29 (seating starts at 7:30)

Admission: $6 (seating is limited to 50 people per night)