Among my favorite film books is Michael J. Weldon's two-volume "Psychotronic" film guide. The first was published in 1983 and the second in 1996 (Michael hopes to publish a third at some point). Unlike Leonard Maltin's annual book, Weldon doesn't update an existing guide; each new guide is an entirely new volume. If you want to read about Halloween, you need Vol. 1 and if you want to read about Halloween 4, you need Vol. 2. A "Psychotronic" movie can be fairly easy to define. It's basically any of the "lower" film genres, dealing with the more questionable elements of society: horror, sci-fi, bikers, strippers, superheroes, zombies, kung-fu, vampires, comic books, drugs, sex, action heroes, rock 'n' roll, midnight movies, monsters, witches, cults, serial killers, magic, time travel, robberies, heists, contract killers, gladiators, Spaghetti Westerns, mad scientists, murder mysteries, pimps, voyeurs, etc.
But Weldon also argues that certain prestigious arthouse films can be "Psychotronic," such as Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) with its effectively creepy dream sequence, or Carl Dreyer's film about witch trials, Day of Wrath (1943), or Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), with its mad trek through the jungle in search of gold. Orson Welles, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard and many others also count as "Psychotronic." In that vein, there are a handful of "Psychotronic" movies hiding in the confines of the under-400-screen realm this week. For example, Step Up 2 the Streets (285 screens) counts as a "Psychotronic" movie in the vein of quickie musicals like Breakin' (1984) that made a quick buck and will look absolutely ridiculous in ten or 20 years. All rock concert movies count as well, such as the current U2:3D (50 screens). Horror and sci-fi movies like The Eye (174 screens), George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (47 screens), Blade Runner: The Final Cut (6 screens) and Teeth (4 screens) have a standing invitation.
In Bruges (210 screens) is an obvious one, a tale of two hitmen sent to an unlikely vacation spot for their next, mysterious assignment. Be Kind Rewind (189 screens) counts, with its use of slightly supernatural elements; Jack Black's character becomes magnetized and erases all the videotapes in a New Jersey video store. The film also pays tribute to other "Psychotronic" films like Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and Robocop. And I Am Legend (136 screens) definitely counts with its great source pedigree: Richard Matheson, a writer with dozens of "Psychotronic" books, TV shows and screenplays to his credit; he wrote some of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations of the 1960s. Anything with a diamond heist, like Flawless (35 screens), is a "Psychotronic" movie.
When the term "exploitation" comes up, that usually means we're talking about a "Psychotronic" movie. Love it or hate it, Michael Haneke's Funny Games remake (65 screens) qualifies with more killers and all kinds of traditional exploitation elements, manipulating the audience in devious ways. Generally, romantic comedies don't make the cut, but stupid, quickie comedies like Meet the Spartans (72 screens) are nothing if not exploitation. (It's the Police Academy 6 of the 21st century.) Even a highly acclaimed critical favorite like Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (37 screens) counts because it uses murder and paranoia in its mix. I haven't seen Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate (3 screens) yet, but the trailer has Asia Argento running around in black underwear holding a gun, so I would put my money on it being a "Psychotronic" movie.
Sadly, not many foreign language films currently playing seem to qualify. They're mostly a bunch of Oscar pretenders full of noble messages, like The Counterfeiters (98 screens), Beaufort (4 screens), Under the Same Moon (390 screens), The Kite Runner (15 screens) and La Vie en Rose (13 screens). Even really good foreign films like The Band's Visit (121 screens), Persepolis (39 screens), The Duchess of Langeais (11 screens) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (37 screens) are lacking in "Pychotronic" elements that might help make them seem "cooler." Only the excellent quasi-horror film The Orphanage (14 screens) counts, and Summer Palace (2 screens) might make the cut because of its many, realistic sex scenes. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (35 screens) is another vague possibility since it revolves around an illegal, clandestine activity, and relies on suspense and shock value.
The great thing about Weldon's books is that he records and regards all these movies with the same detached precision, like an anthropologist fascinated by an alien society's pastimes. Whenever the overwhelming, never-ending flow of Hollywood information starts to get me down, I turn to Weldon for comfort. He always manages to see past hype, box office, rumors, critical acclaim and critical attacks to reduce even the most overly exposed film to its basics. For example, right now Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (122 screens) won a bunch of Oscars, topped a bunch of critics' top ten lists and seems headed for a secure place on the all-time great film list. It's definitely on a pedestal. But to Weldon, it's a movie about a serial killer, a drug deal gone wrong and lots of guns. He would note the killer's odd choice of weaponry and haircuts and perhaps mention in passing that the film won four Oscars. But then he would move on to the next one.