City Paper is not for tourists
For horror aficionados, Halloween is a 31-day celebration. It’s an excuse to spend the month of October cramming in as many spine-chilling movies as time allows. But for Carl Cephas, October is just another month. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, every single Monday evening, Cephas dons a white lab coat, carries a stately meerschaum pipe, and becomes his alter ego: The Incorrigible Dr. Schlock.
It’s a role he’s been playing for 27 years as the president of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society—a club that has been meeting almost weekly to screen weird movies since 1989. “We’ve always shown underground, B-, student, experimental, underrated, non-Academy, anime, avant-garde, guerilla filmmaking, but people kept saying, ‘Oh, you guys just sit around watching bad movies,’” Cephas says. “And I would go, ‘No, they are not bad movies! They are films of a peculiar interest!’”
And the peculiar is what the WPFS revels in. About a dozen or so regulars meet every Monday night in the basement of Adams Morgan’s Smoke & Barrel for a screening. It starts with a collection of pre-screening short films and vintage commercials, as donations are collected to enter to win the weekly door prizes: usually a comic book, some weird movies, or some strange tchotchke. Whatever it is, it’s almost always accompanied by a pack of condoms.
Twenty-seven years is a long time for any club, but it’s a minor miracle that WPFS is still going strong. Over the years, the group has hosted screenings at nearly two dozen different bars, clubs, and theaters—sometimes being displaced because a bar is closing, or on rare occasions, kicked out for showing a film that crossed the tasteless line.
But through it all, Cephas and the WPFS has endured, amassing a small but dedicated legion of regulars who bond weekly over their shared love of, well, films of a peculiar interest.
The Washington Psychotronic Film Society was founded in 1989 by Melanie Scott, a friend of Cephas. The two shared a fondness for cult films, and conversations about their favorite ones inspired the idea to begin hosting screenings at d.c. space downtown.
“We were talking about what’s funny, what gets people together to see stuff, and she said, ‘Well, most people want to get together to see a Godzilla film or Spider Baby,’” Cephas recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah, sounds like fun.’”
There was another group showing films regularly (“mostly found footage and avant-garde films,” Cephas recalls) at d.c. space, but they stopped sometime in 1988. When they did, there was still a demand to see those type of movies, though Scott and Cephas were mostly interested in showing B-films. “[Melanie] said, ‘Why not combine the two and make it a social setting?’” Cephas recalls. “So she put an ad in the City Paper, and the next week we got 100-plus responses. Then we had a meeting, and within a month we had our first show at d.c. space.”
The group got its name from Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, a book documenting the world of transgressive B-movies, and Scott got the author’s blessing to riff on the name. After d.c. space closed in 1991, the WPFS bounced around at bars, clubs, and theaters all over the D.C. area: Lucky Bar, Dr. Dremo’s, Vision’s, The Big Hunt, Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, The Warehouse, The Passenger, Stetson’s, Acre 121, and McFadden’s, just to name a few.
It’s not unusual unusual for the WPFS to take brief hiatuses either, because of trouble finding a new spot to host screenings, or because of Cephas’ myriad health and legal problems. (City Paper has thoroughly documented the saga of Cephas’ firing from the Library of Congress in 2009 due to his office pranks and colorful personality.)
But through it all, the society endured, always bouncing back in a new spot, and always bringing back its longtime regulars, and attracting new ones.
Over the years the WPFS has had its fair share of ups, downs, and memorable moments. In 2000, Scott died, and as the club’s founder and matriarch, her memory isn’t forgotten: Every year members honor her by showing some of her favorite films.
There was the time they were almost banned from Dr. Dremo’s for showing the infamous 1974 Belgian art film Vase de Noces—also known as The Pig Fucking Movie—because it unfortunately delivered on what its title promises.
And then there was the screening on Sept. 11, 2001. The group was scheduled to show the 1989 black comedy musical from New Zealand, Meet the Feebles at Lucky Bar. But given the grim nature of the events that unfolded that day, Cephas thought it would be best to cancel the screening. “People called up Lucky Bar and said, ‘This is the end of the world. We have to laugh. You’ve got to show Meet the Feebles!,’” he recalls. People packed into the bar, and for two hours they all laughed and escaped the dark reality of the day. “After the film we came back to reality and left,” he recalls. “And it was like the end of the world. There were no cars on Connecticut Avenue.”
Attendance has waned over the years, but there’s a dedicated group of regulars who make it to every screening. “There’s a sense of community,” says Justin Baker, a WPFS member who’s been attending screenings off and on since the mid-1990s. “Everybody knows you. It’s fun to experience the movies with other people.”
“We like to just have fun with the films,” adds Jonathan Couchenour, who’s been running the WPFS Facebook page and email newsletter since 2009. “Different people come for different reasons, but as far as the way we’ve been doing it … we haven’t been doing it for a huge amount of in-depth discussions of films. Some people are into that, but with this, we just like to have fun.”
But no one who attends the WPFS screenings has as much fun as Cephas does. “I am Dr. Schlock and I’ll be your host for this thing until I die,” he jokes at a screening. Everyone laughs, but they all know it’s true.