SCREEN QUEST: VIDEO DUNGEON

RADIANT CIRCUS went back to horror school with Kim Newman & The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies at The Horse Hospital (12 OCT). Here’s our writeup.

VIDEO DUNGEON: Kim Newman spoked about his new book at The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (12 OCT 2017, The Horse Hospital, London).

VIDEO DUNGEON: HOW TO TALK ABOUT ‘PSYCHOTRONIC CINEMA’ (12 OCT 2017, The Horse Hospital, Bloomsbury, London).

Writing about films that no one else covers and few people see is a matter close to our blogging hearts. We regularly attend DIY, independent and alternative film screenings across London with small audiences of committed film fans. These screenings are becoming increasingly important as mainstream distribution struggles with the kind of micro-budget, off-kilter films we love. We launched RADIANT CIRCUS to hunt out, celebrate and promote these films and film events, including more mainstream affairs as gateways to our darker addictions.

The chance to hear Kim Newman – one of our favourite writers about horror films – address the topic of ‘psychotronic cinema’ was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. For the uninitiated, Michael J. Weldon coined the term in his magazine Psychotronic Video (1989 to 2006). It describes movies “traditionally ignored or ridiculed by mainstream critics at the time of their release: horror, exploitation, action, science fiction, and movies that used to play in drive-ins or inner city grindhouses.”

VIDEO DUNGEON: Screen shot from HOUSE OF 9 (2005) reviewed in Kim Newman's new book.
HOUSE OF 9 (2005) gets reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.

“Reviews are like coral reefs – they build up”

The evening was presented by London’s Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, a non-profit outfit with its spiritual origins in Canada. Dextrously facilitated by Anna Bogutskaya (from The Final Girls amongst other affairs), the first half was spent looking at the types of films that Newman has included in his new book and why. The second half looked at film criticism and curation, discussing how these processes are evolving to embrace or reject a wider range of titles.

Newman has updated Weldon’s term to include films screened on multi-channel television and, more recently, on line and on demand. Having seen film distribution change significantly since the days of dubious double bills – “It was possible to see Paul Naschy films in Yeovil” – he jokes that one day movies may even “come in pill form”. Luckily for us, he takes ample notes of the films he sees and he sees plenty of films.

BLACK MOON (1975) is reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.
BLACK MOON (1975) gets reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.

“No film is entirely superfluous”

Newman hopes his latest treasurey will be the first volume in a series dedicated to films that lurk under the radar, if not deep underground. His basis for selection includes a lack of critical material already out there in the public domain (“Sometimes, acknowledging these films exist is enough”). The reviews are blissfully free from star ratings “which I hate anyway but which are useless for these kinds of movies”.

The evening is a delicate balancing act. Whilst deriding ‘so bad it’s hilarious’ film cults such as Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it’s hard not to trade on guffaws when showing trailers for YETI: CURSE OF THE SNOW DEMON and MURDER ROCK. Similarly, whilst the authors of the Golden Turkey Awards, Harry and Michael Medved, might not be respectful champions of such fare – “they are more interested in themselves than the films they are writing about” – their work in the 1980s helped preserve cinema’s sensitive nether regions for new generations to discover.

MONSTER BRAWL (2011) is reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.
MONSTER BRAWL (2011) gets reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.

“When every film starts it’s a blank slate”

Like all critics, Newman runs the risk of becoming our crash test dummy of ‘dodgy cinema’, taking the hits so that we don’t have to. Fortunately, he feels his most valuable role is to help audiences discover new experiences. He’s genuinely interested in what we might do next – “I’m fascinated to see how many people get this book and then go bankrupt” – and encourages audiences to keep open minds. Frenzied fandom comes in for particular condemnation: “To some people, saying that THE GOONIES is overrated is akin to punching their mother in the face.” Part of the joy in psychotronic cinema is the debates we can have about it afterwards.

THE GALLOWS (2015) is reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.
THE GALLOWS (2015) gets reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.

“I quite like barmy and expensive”

Newman’s aim in VIDEO DUNGEON is to expose lesser-known films to the light so that they may have their chance at being seen. As a result, he talks and writes with authority about everything from serial killers to ‘weird hippie shit’ and much that passes in-between and either side. Films such as DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR and ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS MEET FRANKENSTEIN would surely be deprived of serious critical attention elsewhere.

Along the way, he’s dismissive of the way talents mature, deriding John Waters for “achieving mediocrity after the truly terrible”. His analysis of Waters’ trajectory from “filmed community theatre” to “Hallmark TV movie” accounts for PECKER and A DIRTY SHAME but rather sells HAIRSPRAY and SERIAL MOM short. Inevitable frustrations occur from repeated shortcomings: “There’s a certain type of horror movie that it’s almost impossible not to review harshly enough”.

The only minor downside to Newman’s dedication is that many of his reviews go heavy on the plot, potentially usurping the satisfaction of seeing a title by revealing its twists and torments. Sometimes we only need to be nudged gently out of the door… Once we’re on our way, a few breadcrumbs to legitimate* source materials would perk up future editions so that we can follow rejections and recommendations as our eyes widen.

AVALANCHE SHARKS (2013) is reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.
AVALANCHE SHARKS (2013) gets reviewed in VIDEO DUNGEON.

“Even in this audience it’s not mainstream stuff”

Throughout the evening, Newman excels in his ability to string together a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of screen’s higher and lower lifeforms. His sideshow routine repeatedly wrestles cinema’s unruly bestiary into some semblance of order, providing rich seems of inspiration. Indeed, there’s enough material in the first volume of VIDEO DUNGEON to kickstart a lifetime of screen adventures.

The true joy of spending time with the man/the book (the movie?) is Newman’s role as a sommelier of the shadows, guiding those guilty of loving films beyond the mainstream into the lower depths: ‘Well madam, if you liked this, have you thought about trying…?’ With so much vibrant screen culture potentially spilling into oblivion, Newman’s career as serial completist and stubborn chronicler of the strange stories we project on our walls is to be treasured**.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?


Featured image: SHARKENSTEIN (2016).

*We’d like artists to be paid for their work which means we need to pay to see it. It’s simple really…

**Full disclosure: we won a signed copy of VIDEO DUNGEON for speaking up in defence of gay porn, David DeCoteau and the need to embrace psychotronic films in definitions of ‘world cinema’. We thank you.

Radiant Circus