Wild In The Aisles… PSYCHOMANIA Reviewed

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BD. Region B. BFI. 15.

Square dude: “Just what is it that you want to do?”

Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man… and we wanna get loaded… and we wanna have a good time… And that’s what we are gonna do!”

Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966)

Cut to 1973 Walton-on-Thames, where local outlaw biker gang The Living Dead are on the rampage. After running a van driver off the road to “blow his mind” (yeah, right through the windscreen of his car!), their leader Tom (Nicky Henson) is making out with girlfriend Abby Holman (Mary Larkin) in a graveyard (when, that is, he’s not taking time out to catch toads.) He suggests that they “cross to the other side” by killing themselves. “Oh no, not that again…” complains Abby: “I can’t. I promised my mother I’d help her go shopping tomorrow!”

Tom won’t be put off by such humdrum, diurnal considerations. Having wheedled the secret of immortality out of his medium mother (Beryl Reid) and her sinister (possibly Satanic… maybe even Satan himself) butler Shadwell (a bizarrely cast George Sanders), he rides off a bridge into the river, dies, is buried astride his bike in a mound in the local park (Mrs Latham gave her permission, but didn’t the environmental health department have anything to say about this?) and returns (running over a hapless passer-by in the process) to tell his gang (Hatchet, Chopped Meat, Gash, Hinky and, er, Bertram) the glad tidings… namely that if you commit suicide, secure in the belief that you can “cross over” and come back, you will. Furthermore, that having died once, there’s nothing  on  earth that can kill or even hurt you. “Oh man!” cries his evil lieutenant Jane Pettibone (Ann Michelle): “What are we waiting for?” Hey ho, let’s go…

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Cue a series of ludicrous and surreal suicides (played out to furiously wicky-wacking wah wah guitar)… leaps from motorway bridges and tower blocks… RTAs… best of all, the eejit who chains himself to an anvil which he then chucks into the river… and before you can say “wankel rotary engine”, an undead biker army has suburbia at their mercy.

Although a contemporary review in The Times considered Psychomania to be ideal viewing “at an SS reunion party”, Henson and co’s antics during their alleged reign of terror is more reminiscent of The Bash Street Kids than anything that went on at the Spahn Ranch. Cornflake packets are knocked off of supermarket shelves, women in hot pants are chased around shopping centres (lacking only the Benny Hill theme music), the gang attempt (and more often than not fail) to kick over traffic cones and anyone reckless enough to carry a cardboard box is jolly well going to have it jostled out of their hands. Christ knows how Tom manages to cajole these wimps into suicide and beyond. “Today we do the ton!” he announces at one point (though the clapped out machines on display look scarcely capable of that), only for one of his acolytes to bleat:”It’s suicide!” It really isn’t… I’ve done it (as a pillion passenger, anyway) and lived to tell the tale. Don’t start me on their drippy hippy funerary practices either, though admittedly Harvey Andrews’ rendition of Riding Free is pleasing stuff, a darkly deft psych-folk offering conceived with at least one ear on Paul Giovanni’s Wicker Man OST.

All this weediness notwithstanding, Tom’s declared intention to kill a long list of establishment figures (the kind of squares who want to stop our anti-heroes from doing what they want to do) prompts his Mum to reconsider her pact with “superior powers”, even if it means that she’ll be turned into a toad while he and his gang are transformed into monolithic stones. Well, these are the breaks when you deal with The Devil…

Psychomania gleefully mines the occult, anarchic, homo-erotic and thanatonic overtones (The Coffin Cheaters, anyone?) of the biker lifestyle previously delineated in films as diverse Cocteau’s Orphee, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, not to mention Easy Rider and all those AIP programmers. Ted Moore’s beautiful photography of Henson and co’s quaintly sanitised biker antics is enhanced no end by John Cameron’s atmospheric, nay doomy death-prog score.

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Don Sharp directed (perhaps “perpetrated” would be more appropriate) Psychomania at a time when American money was draining out of the British film industry. A series of early ’70s films which suggested that the groovy mores of the swinging ’60s were finally embedding themselves into mainstream consciousness actually disguised the desperation with which the trend conscious bread heads and bean counters were trying to keep bums on British cinema seats. Even the stumbling giant of Hammer was dipping its toe into youth rebellion, juvenile delinquency, biker gangs and plastic psychedelia with its last gasp Dracula flicks. If small British producers couldn’t compete with MGM, aping AIP was much more feasible and while Sam Arkoff and co had a hand in many UK-based co-productions during this period, Psychomania (in which they didn’t) follows the AIP formula more slavishly than most of those.

As prestige productions dried up, unlikely names got dragged into the ensuing schlock fest… Beryl Reid already had The Killing Of Sister George and Entertaining Mr. Sloane on her resumé. Hollywood’s Mr Suave, George Sanders had been in (to name but one) All About Eve, fer chrissakes, but was dogged by personal problems at this point in (and very close to the end of ) his life. Both of them shape up like troupers, indeed it’s the resolution with which the whole cast keep their faces so admirably straight during the preposterous proceedings that accounts for much of its oddball charm. Ann “What are we waiting for?” Michelle was a girl whose leather trousers adroitly straddled the zeitgeist, sandwiched as she is here between her roles in The Virgin Witch (1972) and House Of Whipcord (1974)… after two 1977 roles in The Cruel Passion and Young Lady Chatterley her film career pretty much petered out (though she has continued to work on TV)… no wonder she didn’t want to hang about!

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Young Vic alumnus Henson (who took a significant role in the zenith of UK horror cinema, Michael Reeves’ Witch Finder General, five years earlier) hoped that nobody would ever see this film and, disappointed in that hope, has slagged it mercilessly throughout the decades, though he seems to be reconciling himself somewhat to it in his old age… surely a more measured response than that of Sanders, who – legend has it – killed himself immediately after watching Psychomania! Robert Hardy is wheeled in as an oddly accented police inspector investigating the gang’s skid marks and you’re also treated to an early Dot Cotton cameo.

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You can see Henson’s attitude towards Psychomania mellowing over the course of two of the bonus featurettes on offer here, Severin’s “Return Of The Living Dead” retrospective from 2010 (in which there’s some nice reunion stuff with co-star Larkin… see below) and a more recent interview devoted to him. He rightly praises the film’s stunt work and recounts various stunt mishaps, along with anecdotes focussing on the cheap skate nature of the production and the cringe-inducing treatment of fallen star Sanders.

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Other extras carried over from Severin’s own release of the film include interviews with John Cameron and Harvey Andrews, the latter shot by James “Birdemic” Nguyen… a stark reminder there for Nicky Henson that Psychomania is nowhere near the worst film ever made!

New on this BFI disc is an interview with Derek Harris, proprietor of legendary outfitters Lewis Leathers (who supplied the biker gear for Psychomania) and they’ve dug up an old Shell-sponsored short in which John Betjeman encourages us visit the standing stones of Avebury, Wilts (and presumably use lots of Shell petrol in the process), similar to those that The Living Dead spend much of their time riding around in slow motion. You have the option to watch the main feature with a Wilson Bros Trivia Track (an option I haven’t chosen to exercise yet) and there’s a micro-featurette on the BFI’s pains-taking restoration of Psychomania (it looks pretty good considering the paucity of available elements, though colours get a bit flickery in places.) The accompanying booklet contains informative, amusing and nostalgia-tinged essays by Vic Pratt, William Fowler and Andrew Roberts. Pratt’s reminiscences of trying to stay awake during late night TV screening of horror films such as Psychomania in the pre-VHS era struck a sympathetic chord with me and I imagine there are many readers of this blog who’ll know exactly where he’s coming from.

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The most astonishing aspect of this set, though, is the inclusion of Roger Wonders Why, a 16mm Christian biker propaganda film (indeed An Apostle Christian Venture Film), the contents of which are probably more gob-slapping than anything in the main feature. Its stars are listed as the eponymous Roger Abbott, Derek Jones, The Gang, The Scouts and Father Shergold. In it, young Roger is unwinding with his pals after a church service with an enthusiastic spot of conga dancing when he notices that a moody, leather jacket wearing youth (Jones) isn’t joining in. Derek convinces Roger to visit The 59 Club, where he observes that he’s never seen so many rockers altogether at one time in his life, before being introduced to the genial, pipe-smoking Father Shergold, who dreamed up this whole wizard wheeze to co-promote the twin joys of Jesus and biking. Now I’m sure that Father S was a stand up guy and everything about his club was on the level, but what we now know about some of the dodgy things that have been going on under cover of the cassock and the confessional make you wonder if any similar club, initiated today, might more appropriately be named “ten higher” than its predecessor. Anyway, our mild-mannered Marlon Brando graduates from the club to a scouting holiday in Wales, where we finally learn exactly what it is that Roger wonders, namely why more people don’t make the connection between trusting your abseiling trainer and “my faith in God and Jesus Christ as our guide and instructor across the rugged face of life to the frontier of heaven. So many people miss this point… I wonder why!” Dunno, Rog… beats the hell out of me!

Was Don Coscarelli influenced, when making Phatasm (with its characters’ casual acceptance of an out-of-whack world-unto-itself) by a previous exposure to Psychomania? Who can say. Together they’d make a cracking double bill, though…

… and while somebody is sorting that out, here’s the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Psychomania. To paraphrase Ann Michelle: “Oh man! What are you waiting for?”

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P.S. Yes, as well as haunting late night TV schedules (and Nicky Henson’s nightmares) for many years, Psychomania did play The Scala on several occasions.

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