It’s not so bad it’s good; it’s so cheap it’s strange.
Its very title gave birth to a whole subgenre of largely low-budget, exploitation movies that have unfairly earned a reputation as bad cinema. Not to the confused with the kind of commercial megazilla that an older generation of filmmakers have recently taken to task, Psychotronic cinema is a subgenre that gave directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme their start. While the 1979 thriller The Psychotronic Man, which was somehow the first independent feature made entirely in Chicago, comes late in the Z-movie cycle, it demonstrates the kind of art that can made with a limited budget and resources outside mainstream avenues. And you can stream it on Prime.
With its square-jawed lead and vivid character actors, the cast brings to mind an old saw often uttered about the golden age of Hollywood: They had faces then. There’s no Clark Gable or Lana Turner here, but the real, weathered faces of these regional actors, several of whom never appeared in another film, showcase a visual counterpoint to what in private press vinyl circles is referred to as the Real People record. They aren’t beautiful, they aren’t polished, but they convey something far more true to life than any of the banal, interchangeable stars of today.
Peter Spelson, who also wrote and produced the film, stars as Rocky Foscoe, a Chicago barber who seems to space out on a dark road one night and dreams that his car is hovering in mid-air. But was it really a dream? Back on the road, he meets an old man (Bob McDonald, who actually does have two other IMDb credits) who tries to help him. When Rocky starts to go into one of his episodes, the old man takes up a shotgun to defend himself, but he’s no match for Rocky’s psychic powers.
To some degree, The Psychotronic Man looks like its low budget, but the filmmakers make the most of their resources. Director Jack M. Sell (in his first of three indie features), who was also the film’s cinematographer, generates an effective tension, infusing the mid-century formstone architecture of his Chicago stomping grounds with a seedy, mysterious undercurrent that suggests what might have happened if photographer William Eggleston had gotten together with gutter auteur Andy Milligan.
Sell developed his filmmaking chops in high school, when he worked as a TV cameraman in Albany, Georgia. By the time he was 23, he was vice-president of his own Chicago production company, making television commercials for companies like International Harvester and Montgomery Ward. Trained to sell product in a limited time frame, Sell packs the first hour of his debut feature with compelling B-narrative, as Rocky navigates his newfound powers as well as his wife and mistress. The last act is a seemingly endless chase scene that does at least show off a gritty side of Chicago. But those early reels are a look at American life that even the ‘70s indie renaissance didn’t quite get at. You see Foscoe waking up with his mistress, drinking at dive bars, consulting with his doctor and generally being a Midwestern ‘70s man with all the power and anxiety that entailed.
Spelson, who only made one more movie (a bit part in the 1983 indie Blood Beat, even stranger than The Psychotronic Man) is a natural in the role of an everyman with great facial hair. In an unfavorable write-up of something called Main Street Eagle in 1976, Gene Siskel described Spelson as, “an Oak Brook insurance tycoon who fancies himself a movie star.” The late “At the Movies” host was probably not a fan of The Psychotronic Man either, but while it may be lacking in the kind of conventional entertainment one gets from the present-day multiplex, that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s not so bad it’s good; it’s so cheap it’s strange.