It’s a film society, a baking club and for president and co-founder Carl Cephas it’s a full time job. The Washington Psychotronic Film Society has been screening b-movies, forgotten films, cult flicks and exploitation cinema in different corners of D.C. for 30 years. They’ve been kicked out of venues, had audiences walk out and have almost been arrested. Despite D.C.’s ever changing landscape (read: gentrification), WPFS hasn’t just survived, it’s thrived. The film club is a haven for weirdos, geeks and people with niche movie interests, it’s even saved at least one person’s life.
On a beautiful, balmy Monday night, the basement of Smoke & Barrel is jam packed. There are so many people there to watch Zardoz, I see more than one group come in and immediately turn around, unable to squeeze in at the bar or find a space at a table. Among the laughter, the bottles clinking and the smells of BBQ, Cephas munches calmly on a green cookie (made by his right hand man, Jonathan Couchenour). He’s dressed as his b-movie alter ego, Dr. Schlock, and as we hustle him out of the basement to grab some quick portraits in the dying light outside, he never stops telling stories and talking about movies. A font of peculiar film knowledge, we talk on the phone about long closed nightclubs, copyright violations and Cephas name drops enough movies to turn this interview into a viable film guide. If anyone can keep D.C. weird for another 30 years, it’s Carl Cephas.
BYT: I know psychotronic as a genre was coined by Michael J. Weldon and named after a movie he saw, but what does the word mean for you and what does it mean for your film club?
Carl Cephas: It was called The Psychotronic Man. We have a phrase “movies of a peculiar interest.” It could be any film and just one element would change it and make it psychotronic. Like say, if a lame film happened to be the first appearance of Donald Trump, that makes that film psychotronic immediately. Or if a film is so lame, it’s psychotronic. Psychotronic means almost everything, except the mainstream.
BYT: Can you have psychotronic books or music or paintings? Or do you think it only exists within he realm of film.
Carl Cephas: It’s like kitsch. It’s everywhere and it’s everything. Art, music, nature, life. It’s everywhere and film captures that.
BYT: How did you become president of WPFS?
Carl Cephas: It was passed on to me by my friend and founder Melanie Scott. I was in a band called The Psychotics and her husband was a drummer with us for a while, he practiced with us. We were hanging out and we were watching a movie and she said, “Carl, would people be interested in watching these kind of films in a bar?” And I said, “Sure.” So she put an ad in the City Paper and we got over a hundred requests saying that they’d love to be in our club. And that’s how we started.
BYT: Do you remember the first movie you screened?
Carl Cephas: I think our first major thing was at UDC and it was Invasion of the Bee Girls and Robot Monster.
BYT: So you two just worked on it together?
Carl Cephas: Along with a couple other people. I thought of it earlier… In the 60s we lived in a project in Southeast called The Devils Corner, everyone was poor. My parents would put their TV on the wall and everyone would pull their chairs out and we’d watch TV from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the summer time. I was always showing people movies in the closet with my projector. It was a perfect pairing for us to get together and show these films in nightclubs and movie theaters and everywhere else we could. We even showed moves in a garage one time. It must have been 30 degrees in there. It was so cold the VCR kept stopping.
BYT: Has the society gotten bigger over the years? Smaller?
Carl Cephas: It’s gotten bigger. People have left town and started their own psychotronic units.
People have different taste. Last Monday was a depressing end of the world film and some people don’t want to see that. Some people want to see a more upbeat funky film like next weeks film is Zardoz starring Sean Connery. Or they might want to see a funny musical like Cannibal! The Musical or The Apple or, of course, Rocky Horror. Then you have people who just want to see plain bad movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Robot Monster. You can’t please everyone. We think we’re doing a great screening and no one shows up!
BYT: Right, so you have a lot of subgenres. What seems to be the most popular? What brings in the people?
Carl Cephas: Forgotten 80s films or unknown films, films that fell out the wayside like Forbidden Zone or Showgirls. It’s a funny great film, some people call it bad, but it’s fine. We try to hit every subgenre, every genre and then some.
BYT: Do you think your audience comes to the screenings because they’ve already seen the movie and it’s nostalgic for them? Or do people use it more to explore new films?
Carl Cephas: It’s an experience. It’s like seeing The Room or Rocky Horror. They want to experience the movie with a lot of people and see their reactions and have fun with it. Like we showed Cannibal! The Musical a couple of weeks ago and people sang along with the movie and had fun. We’ll show a film that people have heard of, but never seen, and they’ll come see it. We showed a film a couple of times at certain clubs and people said, “Please don’t show that again,” because it was very offensive.
BYT: What was the movie?
Carl Cephas: The pig effing movie.
BYT: Oh, I’ve heard of this.
Carl Cephas: Yeah. We showed Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story at Chief Ikes. It was a Monday night, it was 20 degrees and it was raining, sleeting. There was a football game on TV and there was a band playing downstairs, but a hundred plus people came to see the movie. The band had to cancel and they had to turn off the football game. They had to set up monitors all over the club. We had gotten a so called cease and desist notice, so we were afraid we were going to be arrested. The whole place was packed with people and there was even a cop there. It was over and everyone was like, “What a bummed out film,” but the bar owner was so happy with the turn out he wanted to show it again. We said, “Only if you pay out our legal fees.” We had to honor the cease and desist. He said, “No, either show it or you’re out of here.” So we said we’re not going to show it and he kicked us out.
BYT: When was this?
Carl Cephas: This must have been about ’91 or ’92? It was never a money making venue. It was always out of our own pockets. We spent more money doing promos, buying licenses, buying the films than we brought in.
BYT: You have a license to show some of the films you show now, right?
Carl Cephas: Our license didn’t last long and it cost a lot of money, so we dropped that. What we do is we track down who has the last right to the screening, which takes a lot of time. That’s why we do a lot of repeats because we already have the blessing. People say, “Why don’t you buy a couple of our movies and if you sell some during the screening, you can screen it.” Or they find out that we’re a fan of the film and they give us a special copy. Or it falls under public domain or we can just fly under the radar.
BYT: Who does all this research and negotiating?
Carl Cephas: My friend and I, Jonathan Couchenour. He’s our technical programmer. We do a lot of stuff on Facebook posting funny videos and unique films.
BYT: What are your presidential duties? What is your day like?
Carl Cephas: I have to watch a lot of films a week to see if they hold up. I have a huge library of films. I used to work for the Library of Congress, I was an assistant reference librarian and people took me seriously. Now that I don’t work there anymore, I have to call them up and say, “Hi, I’m with the Psychotronic Film Society.” We contact people via phone call or email, we don’t want to bother them… but we want to make sure we tell them we’re a not for profit. We’ve only had a few people ask for money, but a lot of people know that we’re increasing their fanbase by introducing their film to a larger audience.
Even though these films are on Netflix or Hulu, people don’t know that they’re there. We’ve got to point these films out to people. That makes the distributors happy.
BYT: Who has been the most difficult? Is there any movie you’ve been trying to get and they just will no budge?
Carl Cephas: We were going to have a big show with Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films at Visions. Visions was a theater off Florida and Connecticut Avenue, they were kind of mismanaged. We did a show called Cheap Shot on Friday and Saturday nights. For $10 we showed a B-movie and there was all you can drink beer. We were supposed to do a show with Lloyd Kaufman and somehow the owners at Visions didn’t supply him with a room, or something happened. There was a falling out. Since our name was associated, we didn’t want to bother him and say, “Hey, can we show your films?” We laid low for a while. But we’ve had some really good luck with a lot of films.
BYT: You mentioned Netflix and Hulu earlier… Does the internet make it easier for you to find these films? Does it make it harder because there’s too much out there?
Carl Cephas: It’s kind of strange. It’s like comic books. When we collected comic books when we were younger, we thought when we go older they would be worth something. Now with Ebay and Amazon, they’re at your fingertips. These films might be on Hulu or Amazon, but you don’t even know they’re there. People look at our database, they read the description of the film and they think, “Wow, I’d like to see this.” But they’d like to see it with a crowd and an audience that wants to be there.
BYT: Do you remember the first movie you saw in theaters?
Carl Cephas: I used to sneak in. I was a very polite person and the cashiers always thought I was with the people in front of me. I remember the first movie I saw was Coogan’s Bluff with Clint Eastwood. There was a scene were a stripper was being lowered to the ground from a string in the ceiling and she had no top on. I was like, “Woooow.” I didn’t tell my parents there was nudity in the film. It was 1967 and the cashier let me in. I learned you could just walk up and be polite. I saw dozens of films before I was 12 that had beheadings and disemboweling and what not, but I kept my mouth shut.
BYT: What do you think is the best theater in D.C.?
Carl Cephas: I think the E Street Cinema is great. I like Suns Cinema, we would love to do things at Suns. Of course the Uptown and then the Regal Cinema. There are a couple of them. I haven’t been to the Alamo Drafthouse because they’re too far out. The AFI Silver Spring does a great job.
BYT: I know you’ve moved venues a lot in WPFS’s history, do you have a favorite venue?
Carl Cephas: Our favorite venue was the warehouse on 7th Street. Paul Ruppert‘s place. We had an actual theater to ourselves. We had a large screen and we weren’t interacting with anyone else. We had privacy and we could show whatever we wanted without someone saying, “Oh my gosh, did I just see that? You can’t show that!” We show a comedy at The Meeting Place and the owner said, “I’m sorry Carl, but my regulars were there Monday night and they saw something they didn’t like, so this is your last night here.”
Of course, McFaddens closed on us after that person got stabbed. That was our most bizarre place. Our other favorite place was Dr. Dremo’s out in Virginia. Then, if they had managed Visions properly, that would have been our favorite. $10 all you can drink? How can you go wrong with that? But they weren’t advertising. There was no Facebook, it was Myspace, so the word couldn’t get out. It would have been great if we could have been there longer. The funny part was, right next door, they were showing Donnie Darko. Every Friday and Saturday night they would show Donnie Darko and we would show a different film. Word got out that we had beer, so the Donnie Darko people would sneak over and drink our beer and then go back and watch Donnie Darko.
BYT: They showed Donnie Darko every weekend? That’s so weird.
Carl Cephas: Exactly. We had Showgirls and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, we had so many great films but people just want to watch Donnie Darko. Visions didn’t have a box office, you had to walk up to the concession stand, so people would just walk in to the theater. They were losing money left and right.
BYT: What is your movie curation process like? How do you decide what you’re going to show?
Carl Cephas: It’s funny, we have themes. Our last film was about the end of the world, that was on Earth Day. Then we’re doing a film called Death Game for Father’s Day that’s about two women who kidnap a man. They flirt with him, but he’s married. We were going to do a Mother’s Day movie called A Mother of a Different Kind, but they’re going to be closed that week. If it’s a special day we try to book it around that day. Sometimes people get the jokes.
BYT: How did you come up with your nickname, Dr. Schlock?
Carl Cephas: There was a movie, I forgot the director, called Schlock. It was a perfectly bad movie with a famous director. There was a guy in a gorilla suit and it was a pseudo documentary. The word schlock is outrageous, buffoonery, and such. Sort of like Dr. Spock, Dr. Schlock. When we first started out, we had mailings and everyone had to choose their own name. So I chose Dr. Schlock.
BYT: Besides the guy who coined the term psychotronic, do you think there’s anyone else who knows as much about the genre as you?
Carl Cephas: There are tons of other people. Look at Curtis Prather, who does the Spooky film festival, and John Dimes who is Dr. Sarcofiguy. And there’s Dick Dyszel who plays Count Gore de Vol and Captain 20. They’re just the local people, but there’s tons of nerds, freaks all over the place.
BYT: Do you ever have people submit films?
Carl Cephas: I had a film society page on Yahoo and this guy submitted a film called Frankenpimp. Our audience walked out of it. It was three hours long, we didn’t know it was two discs, and the main character gets knocked off in the first five minutes of the film. It was very confusing, poorly edited and I told the audience, “We’re going to stop the film.” They came back in and we gave out door prizes. I told the guy, his film sounded great and I would show it sight unseen. I took his word, but he was in over his head in his editing department.
We get suggestions, but we don’t get [film submissions] anymore. We also used to get prizes from Allied advertising, like t-shirts, hats and water bottles. We’re putting in all our money. We’re also a baking club. Every Monday night, someone bakes something that has something to do with the film. Last week’s film had radioactive bats and radioactive slugs, so Jon made cookies with banana and chocolate that had tentacles. They were really great. We put them on Instagram and we put them on our Facebook page and people loved them.
BYT: How do you keep something this weird and niche alive in D.C. for 30 years?
Carl Cephas: People want to get their freak on. People want to get weirded out. People want to have fun, they don’t want to be bored. They want to do something different. One time we had one woman walk in, she was terribly depressed. She was almost in tears. She said, “What’s going on?” And I said, “We’re showing films.” She started laughing and when the movie was over she said, “You guys saved my life.” She walked out and we never saw her again.
BYT: Do you think D.C. is weirder than people think it is?
Carl Cephas: Yeah, but it’s also like the go-go thing. Sometimes people want to toss it out… My band used to play at the old 9:30 Club, it was a great spot. Also DC Space, which is now a Starbucks. There were theaters like The Biograph, which is now a CVS. There were at least 50 theaters in D.C. and now they’re all gone. That’s why I try my best to show films. You can only watch The Room and Rocky Horror so many times. We show different films every week.