It's hard to remember a time when the internet was still over a decade away; VHS rentals were mostly found in backrooms of local appliance shops, and books mostly at mall chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Bookseller. As far as film guides, well, there was Leonard Maltin, period. But then, in 1983, as if smuggled into my Somerville strip mall B. Dalton from some strange alternate universe, was this weird thick, expensive ($25!) silver book called the Psychotronic Encylopedia of Film. Life as we knew it would never be the same again... is a cliche Weldon would never use.
Back then please recall, Quentin Tarantino was under the legal drinking age, and the Times Square grindhouse era was only beginning to die. I was 16 and my few grindhouse experiences had been traumatic: boredom trumped good sense and we NJ teenagers would take the train to Times Square the way farmers used to go to freak shows, to soak up the depravity from behind the protective barrier of our teenage alienation and sense of suburban invulnerability. All I remember is the awful stench of this one, the Roxy, showing films in at least three different shoebox-size second floor holes, we came in at the end RUBY and left 1/3 into some Jackie Chan thing -- all on projector video: a mix of really cheap weed, freebase coke, urinal cigars, homelessness, unclean sex, and god knows what else in the air. I can still smell it after 25 years.
But my morbid acuteness of the olfactory senses didn't stop me from relishing the experience, and continuing to soak up the seediness from the safety of my beige-wallpapered tract home bedroom, and no one was better at conveying the lurid trashy glory of unseen (by me) cinema than Michael Weldon. Psychotronic became my bible, my source book, my blanket where one edge was the comfort--the safety of familiar (from local TV reruns) horror classics--and the other edge the grim gore of the Time Square grindhouse, like a magnet over a cliff. I still have my original copy--bought with money begged from mom like a junkie for a fix--and the page edges are black from my endless thumbing.
The best part is the brevity of his prose, a master class in saying a lot in two or three sentences. Most of the time the doesn't give us an inkling of if the movie's really any good, sometimes he confesses he hasn't seen it. Most of it was written from memory, before the advent of home video. Instead of sitting around in the suburbs, Weldon was in two punk bands. He was busy. The source magazine Psychotronic mixed horror movie write-ups and punk show news as if they'd never been apart.
He still writes, but it seems to be more along the lines of pop music criticism as in this editorial essay I found online:
"Some people have been complaining about pop songs being used as commercials since the 70s. I always loved The Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” especially for the brilliant falsetto harmony ending and Sly And The Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In the Summertime.” And the intro of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” (featuring the drumming of Soupy Sales son) has become the new “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (or the 2001, Elvis intro theme) of TV ads. Key parts of all three are now being used for cruise ship TV spots. Music from an LSD casualty, a coke casualty, and a long time heroin addict to attract mostly retired couples to take overpriced vacations on ocean polluting ships that a record number of people have been puking their guts out on. Brilliant! (Psychotronic #38)No, Mr. Weldon. It's you who are brilliant for spinning it that way, without a single shred of judgment on any of the parties involved! I don't think Weldon comes by these keen observations via some Guy Debord détournement-recuperation angle, but genuine punk disaffect, and that's why he's so cool. Well one of the reasons. His sense of the absurd is poker-faced in a way that would make Bunuel drop a woman's shoe in salute.
In 1998 I got one of my first steady freelance film criticism jobs, working on search engine entries for a vast director canon project (Muze), condensing all these classic films (given out by director) into 200-250 word capsule reviews, up to 20 a week. Some--like D.W. Griffith and Edmund Goulding--had over 30 or 40 films to cover; they taught me a lot about film history. Others, like Roger Corman, Jess Franco, and Edgar Ulmer had even more titles and taught me how to bullshit. Who would have imagined that my endless obsessing over Michael Weldon's tight-lipped style in Pyschotronic would come in so handy? His deadpan stressing of random details and gift for collapsing mountains of impressions and factoids into one smooth, hilarious, joke-free punchline was my boilerplate. I had absorbed some of his style, like the blob!
What makes that pair of sentences such sublime poetry? Note the inclusion of Goebbel's middle name or the way Omar's whole groovy hipster shtick is collapsed into a three adjectives. And you could trust Weldon to understate, so if he says "the film's other stand-out" that means Kolsek and Tudor are better than the rest of the cast, but since it's Weldon you know it means more than that, Omar is AWESOME, and the rest of the cast isn't bad.
Then there's his quiet meta-statements, made all the more powerful by their rarity, as in his capsule for I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF:
"Young Michael Landon (real name Eugene Horowitz) will never be forgotten as the troubled high school student turned into a snarling drooling hairy monster by Whit Bissell. No full moons or crucifixes are involved. Hypnotism causes the retrogressive transformation whenever Landon is startled." (p. 355).Again, nothing jaw-dropping first-off, but note the way he just drops a weird word like 'retrogressive' in there, like it's no big deal, or the anachronistic mention of crucifixes (for werewolves?), or the lack of commas for 'snarling drooling hairy.' Savor the deadpan solemnity that's wittily undermined by the inclusion of Landon's goofy real name in the opening sentence.
In the end, Michael Weldon is a bit like the Velvet Underground in that he never became super popular so much as hugely influential; every kid who read Psychotronic apparently became a writer or filmmaker. Weldon taught half-suffocated, tragically bored mid-1980s suburban punks and poseurs how to see deeply into even the most opaque 42nd Street garbage and find the shining gems within.
For the 25th anniversary of Weldon's landmark original Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Hollywood Bitchslap's Ron Gonsalves noted:
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... (10/08)
But Michael Weldon is not just another big brother guide who led us from passive to active, from viewer to maker, from reader to writer. In his dry unobtrusive way he's also the grinder of the lens through which all the sleaze of yesteryear is re-examined today. So thank you, thank you, Michael Weldon! In transforming schlock appreciation into a literary art form (of brevity and dry wit) you not only supplied expert guidance for our strange viewing interests, you taught us to how to fucking see jewels in the trashy street, and know it's the perfect setting.
(See also Favorite Film Critics: Kim Morgan)