Psychomania DVD Review
Newly released on the BFI Flipside label is yet another long forgotten gem. I am not suggesting that Psychomania is a good film – indeed in places it is unclear whether it is intentionally or unintentionally funny. It is an undead horror film that sits on the cusp of the post Psychedelic and the Prog Rock periods with both elements evident in the film. There is also an element, believe it or not, of The Wild One (1951), the classic biker picture that had starred Marlon Brando. The plot centers on Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), the leader of a motorcycle gang called The Living Dead. He lives with his mother (played by Beryl Reid), a spiritualist who communes with the dead and Shadwell (played by veteran Hollywood cad George Sanders in his last film – more on this later), their butler. Shadwell is a practicing Satanist who uses frogs in his particular brand of devil worshiping. Tom’s father died when he was younger. Shadwell promises eternal life through death if he believes in it, after suicide. Tom commits suicide, comes back from the dead and encourages the rest of the gang to do the same. All but one does this, except his girlfriend, Abby who eventually sees the moral wrong in this act; another member of the gang who has a moment of doubt at the point of suicide remains dead. The rest come back from the dead and cause havoc.
The film was made in 1972. The disc is packed with extras and is presented as a complete package and in many ways it is right for BFI to put this film out there and raise its profile. The soundtrack throughout is trippy, sounding somewhat like a Kevin Ayers psychedelic Prog Rock piece (but actually done by John Cameron). Another central element of the soundtrack is a song sung by Harvey Andrews (but with an actor standing in) sitting under a tree while the motorcycle gang perform a ceremony to bury their leader. In one of the more bizarre scenes in the film, he is buried upright on his bike in full leather gear while his friends prepare the grave with the hippy is playing the Donovanesque ‘Riding Free’. Psychomania was made one year before The Wicker Man and there is something of the folksy witchcraft element from the film in this scene. Another standout moment from the soundtrack is the fusion of the music with the opening mysterious shots of the motorbikes riding around runic stones in the mist shrouded countryside filmed in slow motion.
In much of the above there is an element of me suggesting that this is an artful film. It remains a silly exploitation film that was shot on a very tight budget despite being made by an established director of horror and action (Don Sharp) and most bizarrely starring George Sanders. Sanders scenes were shot in a few days as he was the most expensive element of the film. The plot has some silly dialogue and even acting that would not be remiss out of a Robin Askwith Confession film. Some of the suicides deliver some of the funniest moments: bikers deliberately driving off motorway bridges, into lorries and in the best moment a policeman asking for one of the bikers to come down from his block of flats. “Coming” comes the response and the young man jumps over the balcony to his death. Much of the dialogue in the film is cringe-worthy from beginning to end. To cap it all George Sanders was at the end of his career and this proved to be his last film. Even before the film had been released Sanders committed suicide himself, citing boredom and not wanting to get old as a reason in his suicide note. He had appeared in many a Hollywood film, usually as a cad. He had been a villain in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), played Sir Henry Wootton in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and appeared in a long running franchise of matinee films as the Falcon. For his last few years he had appeared in many low budget horror films. Many have commented that it was because of being in films like Psychomania had led to his suicide. Refreshing, therefore, that Andrew Roberts in an essay in the BFI booklet included in the disc cites that there were other issues in Sanders’ life that had led to his death by his own hand.
On one of the extras on the disc the cast and crew reflect how they had either forgotten about the film or were embarrassed by it but never the less appear to be quietly pleased that is is being re-evaluated. Sharp’s direction is clearly quick with little thought given to set-ups but it is also a very stunt heavy film with lots of motorbike stunt work including the bikers causing carnage around a Walton-on-Thames shopping centre and supermarket with workers on top of an unlikely located set of ladders or bakers walking with a bread basket at the most appropriate moment for effect. However, for lead actor and serious stage actor Henson, being a keen biker himself was disappointed that when he arrived on set instead of the promised Harley Davidson’s he and the rest of the gang had to make do with old 350 AJS’s which were constantly breaking down (Henson was a keen biker himself).
The disc, as ever is laced with extras. Most interesting is a 30 minute recollection of the film by the cast, an interview with Harvey Andrews who performed ‘Riding High’ (his recollections of the film are similar to those of the cast) as well as clips on the restoration of the film and short films about the leather company who loaned the biker leathers, a visual essay by Sir John Betjamin about the Avebury Stone Circle and another vintage short on a Christian biker club. Interesting to view the release by BFI and in such a good restored condition it will never arise as a long lost classic, but nice to see there has been some re-evaluation of a late night fave.