News & Politics

Washingtonian Favorites: Carl Cephas of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society

This week’s Favorites focuses on Carl Cephas, head of one of our favorite DC film organizations.

Carl Cephas of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society. Photo by Chris Leaman

Washingtonians who enjoy cheesy, campy, and just plain crazy films were dealt a blow last month when the Washington Psychotronic Film Society lost its screening space at the Meeting Place.

For the unfamiliar, the term “psychotronic” was coined by Michael Weldon, author of the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, to encompass films on the fringe of mainstream cinema, including horror flicks, spaghetti westerns, science-fiction schlock, and more.

“People seem to think that a psychotronic movie is just bad or unmentionable,” says Carl Cephas, president of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society. “But in reality, a psychotronic movie is a movie of peculiar interest—a movie that has a little extra something but you can’t explain what it is.”

Cephas has been involved with the organization since it launched in 1988 and is known among friends and psychotronic film fanatics by his moniker, Dr. Schlock.

“I’ve always loved the names of television creature-feature hosts,” he says. “There were always captains and counts but no doctors, so I decided to become Dr. Schlock.”

When not busy rewatching a movie from his 1,000-plus collection or catching the latest flick at the Uptown Theatre (“To me, it’s the fullest experience”), Cephas can be found DJing at Lucky Bar on Fridays during happy hour.

“I used to be in the band Tony Perkins and the Psychotics. But now I’m just a couch musician,” he says. “I tried standup comedy, but I wasn’t ethnic enough and too bizarre.”

We spoke to Cephas about his movie collection, some of his favorite films—psychotronic and otherwise—and the future of the organization.

Name: Carl Cephas.
Age: 48.
Occupation: Lead library technician at the Library of Congress, club DJ, and movie programmer.
Hometown: DC.

Must-have item at all times:
“My humor.”

Signature drink:
“Bourbon (don’t tell my doctor).”

Finish this sentence: “When not working, you can find me . . .”

“. . . playing an RPG game, trolling news groups online, watching movies, or getting my bizarre on.”

Washingtonians you admire:
“Any surviving record-store or local movie-house owners. Samuel L. Jackson.”

Favorite neighborhood in Washington:
“Adams Morgan.”

Washington insider tips:
“Support your local movie theater by buying refreshments. Don’t buy crappy bootleg movies off the street.”

Finish this sentence: “Thinking about the Metro makes me. . .”
“. . . wish I had a magic red balloon to carry me away.”

Favorite movie plot line:
“When the truth hurts so bad it kills you: The Vanishing (the original one) or The Shout.”

What would you change about Washington?

“We need more indie-movie houses or a second-run movie house.”

As you answer these questions, what Web sites are open in your browser?
“The Internet Movie Database, Metafilter, and Digg.”

What’s the first psychotronic film you remember watching?
“Our black-and-white television had the worst reception in the world. At times, you couldn’t even figure out what you were watching. I remember watching the movie Tarantula, and the reception was so bad that I thought Leo G. Carroll was soul singer James Brown. I think the first psychotronic film I really remember watching was a short film. It was based on Shirley Jackson’s story ‘The Lottery,’ and it was at school. I was totally freaked out but I loved it.”

What are some recent examples of films that fall under the psychotronic category?
Snakes on a Plane, The Day the Earth Stood Still (with the miscasting of Keanu Reeves), Cloverfield, Tropic Thunder.”

What’s the film-selection process like, and how easy or difficult is it to get copies of these films?
“The process for our film selections depends on availability, whether or not our license covers it, if the filmmakers themselves let us screen it, and if it’s psychotronic enough. I try to find the rarer films or out-of-print copies—the rarer the better. We get a lot of suggestions for movies. I then do some research on it to see if it falls under the psychotronic field. I buy stuff on the Net from different film dealers, or my pal Ken Van Wey picks them up at a dealer’s table at film conventions.

“We’re always adding films. It’s never going to end. The database is run by our Web guru, Todd Yoder, who does a great job of keeping it running. Ken, like me, is a volunteer. As a matter of fact, we’re truly nonprofit because practically all of the money we get from donations goes straight to paying the bill for our motion-picture license, mailbox, telephone service, door prizes, VCR and DVD players, the films, and other expenses. After all that, we just dig into our own pockets and fill in the rest. We’ve never had sponsors, but the way things are going today, we may have to. For 20 years, we’ve always suggested a $2 donation. We may have to up the ante. Our license costs more than $1,000, and if you do the math, we’re just plumb crazy. We do it out of sheer love to expose people to the world of psychotronic films.”

Of all the unconventional films you’ve watched, is there one that stands out as the most outlandish of them all?
Singapore Sling. It’s a very clever, disturbing film about two gorgeous women doing some very awfully bad, decadent things to a man who wanders into their house, and he lets them. It’s all done to theme of Otto Preminger’s film Laura.”

The WPFS recently lost its home. What’s next for you? Have you found a new location yet?
“We’ve had several club managers and owners contact us about letting us use their establishment for a screening room. I’m looking for a separate screening place, far away from film-hating idiots who scream at us about watching movies in a club. We’ve had people show up at our screenings, plop themselves right smack-dab in front of the screen, and then start talking as if the 40 people sitting in chairs weren’t even there. That’s been our main problem, getting the people in the club to respect us enough to let us watch our movies in peace. They can join us, but some prefer not to. So far, I’ve got three good leads for a new location in DC and one in Virginia. We prefer to stay in DC because most of our fans have told us that they have trouble commuting to Virginia after work. That’s the reason why we left the Arlington Cinema ’n’ Drafthouse.”