Wednesday, December 22, 2010

26th September 2010: Psychomania (1973)


UK 1973 colour

aka The Death Wheelers, Psychlo-Maniacs

Director Don Sharp Writers Julian Zimet, Arnaud d'Usseau

Cast Nicky Henson (Tom Latham), Mary (Abby Holman), Ann Michelle (Jane Pettibone), Roy Holder (Bertram), Robert Hardy (Chief Inspector Hesseltine), Beryl Reid (Mrs Latham), George Sanders (Shadwell)

There's an apocryphal tale of British actor and self-proclaimed Professional Cad George Sanders completing the shoot on his final film and, having witnessed just how low his career had sunk, committing suicide afterwards. Reportedly in poor health, Sanders checked into a hotel in Spain and downed a lethal dose of sleeping pills. His three-sentence suicide note began with “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.”

The film in question is the British zombie biker flick Psychomania, released after Sanders' death in 1972. Now, I'd certainly hate to spoil a great story; after a long and distinguished run in Hollywood, Sanders' career was indeed on somewhat of a downhill slide, and his last few films were hardly earth-shattering. But Psychomania is, in my humble opinion, a superb swansong, and Sanders should be hung for suggesting it, even apocryphally. Combining the JD thrills of British pulp novels like Skinhead, Terrace Terrors and Angel On My Mind, and the early Seventies' pop culture obsession with Dennis Wheatley and Alistair Crowley, it stars Nicky Henson, perfectly cast as the smug, cocky anti-hero Tom. He's the leader of a British biker gang called appropriately enough The Living Dead, well-versed in the Black Arts thanks to the creepy relationship with his spiritualist mother (Beryl Reid) and her mysterious and somewhat ageless butler Shadwell (the aforementioned Sanders), and obsessed with the idea of “crossing over” and returning from the Other Side, a feat attempted by his late father with dire results.

All you have to do, it seems, is believe you're coming back, click your biker boots three times, and bingo! Tom's fresh corpse is buried by his faithful gang near their regular meeting spot, a druidic circle of rocks named the Seven Witches, seated on his bike in full Living Dead regalia; at the witching hour, Tom drives out of the grave at full throttle, stops at the local pub for a quick one, then phones his Mumsy to tell her he's back in one piece. Splendid! He's back alright, and like the angry kid in Stephen King's Pet Sematary, he's obviously seen some unmentionable horrors. And, without the fear of death hanging over him he's utterly fearless, not to mention heartless, ruthless, and cold as the grave. He then invites the rest of the gang to join him: as regular hooligans the Living Dead are strictly second-rate, knocking over traffic cones and bags of groceries for childish kicks, and they're terribly English - you'd never see a Hell's Angel in America stop their bike and comb their hair - but once they've all “crossed over” there seems to be no end to their reign of terror.

There's so much more to recommend about Psychomania than its surface eccentricity. True, the film is more preposterous than genuinely chilling, and at times played for as much gallows humour as can be wrung from the material by one of the strangest casts assembled for a British B film; veteran British actor Robert Hardy plays a Police Inspector investigating the pile of bodies left in the Living Dead's wake, and joins Reid and Sanders in trying to keep a professional mask amidst the bare-faced absurdity. The music has dated gloriously along with the rest of the film: from fuzzed-out bogus psychedelia to the funeral's Satanic hippy dirge, a wondrous pile of muddle-headed plop that equates death with freedom from Squaresville. Thankfully Australian-born director Don Sharp, himself no stranger to ludicrous genre scenarios (The Face Of Fu Manchu and Curse Of The Fly [both 1965] to name just two), keeps the action taut and the visuals intriguing, from the opening shots of riders in skull-like helmets gliding through a mist-shrouded field, to an weirdly effective frog motif which, in occult circles, represents life and rebirth.

Is this the only British zombie biker film you're likely to witness? Sadly the answer is yes, and it's a doozy. So let's warm up the engine, spit the dirt from our mouths, then surge forward at full throttle into the 1972 Psychomania.

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