Sunday, 31 March 2013

The A to Z of Britsploitation: P is for Psychomania (1972)


There was a time in the late 90s and early 00s when the remarkable Psychomania seemed to turn up at least every few months on BBC 1, buried in a post-midnight Friday slot.  Like many other people, I was introduced to the film by one of these late night airings.  It’s the perfect film to be shown at the time people are crawling in from the pub: Alcohol can only enhance the film’s already delirious combination of zombie bikers, toads, suburban shopping precincts and Beryl Reid.  Psychomania’s enthusiastic cult following largely stems from people stumbling across it while drunk and being instantly fascinated and bewildered.
Director Don Sharp was an old hand at horror, having been behind Hammer films like The Kiss of the Vampire and Rasputin the Mad Monk, but he’d never given the world anything quite like Psychomania before.  The film revolves around a well-spoken but vicious motorbike gang, the Living Dead, who enjoy terrorising innocent motorists and causing them to have fatal accidents (or ‘blowing their minds’ to use the gang’s terminology).  Leader  Tom (Nicky Henson),  is obsessed with death and toads.  A memorable scene at the beginning of the film sees him break off from canoodling with his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) in a graveyard to stuff a gigantic toad down his jacket (‘You’re not human!’ she exclaims).
Tom’s peculiarities are partly explained by his unusual home life: He lives in a big house (with amazing 70s design) with mum Beryl Reid, a medium whose psychic powers are somehow enhanced by the presence of toads.   We first see Beryl holding a séance for a group of grieving relatives and speaking with the voice of a little girl, which is a tad disturbing to say the least.   Tom’s dad died mysteriously years ago while trying to find a way of cheating death.  The other inhabitant of the house is the satanic butler Shadwell, played by George Sanders (it’s ideal casting, but Sanders seemingly wasn’t impressed with where his career was going: Shortly after finishing Psychomania he killed himself and left a note giving boredom as the reason).  Like the rest of the cast Sanders and Reid give very serious performances which serve to make the film around them seem even more absurd than it would otherwise.
Tom’s attempts to find out how to beat death where his dad failed leads to a bizarre scene where he goes berserk in one of the empty rooms of the house, then tries on a pair of Two Ronnies-style glasses that lead to him experiencing visions of his childhood.  These include the revelation that his mother made a strange, shady pact with Shadwell when he was a baby.  However, the whole scene turns out to be pretty pointless as Tom eventually finds out how to survive death by overhearing a chance remark from his mother.  All you need to do is really, really believe you’ll come back after you die and you will (it may sound a bit anti-climactic, but it worked for Jesus).
The next day, after the gang have spent a productive afternoon terrorising the good shoppers of Walton-on-Thames, Tom plunges off a bridge on his bike to try and prove the theory.  The gang decide to honour him by giving him a funeral ‘their way’ at the standing stones called the Seven Witches.  Surprisingly for a group of violent thugs this consists of them coming over all hippyish and surrounding him with garlands of flowers.  One of them, the unappealingly named Chopped Meat, reveals himself to be a Donovan-style troubadour and treats us to the jaunty folk number ‘Riding Free’.  Tough Jane (Ann Michelle) immediately takes over as the gang’s new leader, but her reign’s short-lived.  Tom’s been buried upright astride his bike, which proves convenient for him to come zooming back from the grave to commence a gleeful killing spree.  He offs an unfortunate passer-by, a garage attendant and half the clientele of a grotty country pub all in the space of a few minutes.  Police Inspector Robert Hardy (sporting what’s either a blocked nose or an attempt at a Midlands accent, I’m not sure which) is soon on the case.
Meanwhile, Tom demonstrates to his friends how fun being dead is (the main bonus being that you can’t die), and they can’t wait to join in the fun from beyond the grave.  Jane’s the first to kill herself, by driving straight into a lorry, and she and Tom have a whale of a time tormenting and killing unfortunate drivers.  Beryl proves herself to be a rubbish Satanist by fretting about the law and order implications of rampaging undead delinquents, hysterically denouncing the whole thing as evil (which you’d think was sort of the point).
The remainder of the gang are arrested on suspicion of the killings Tom and Jane have been carrying out, and their zombie pals ride straight into the police station to rescue them.  Further carnage is left in their wake.  The gang are all now convinced of how fab being dead is and set off to kill themselves in a variety of ways.  Chopped Meat plunges from a high-rise block.  Gash jumps in the river attached to some heavy weights.  Bertram jumps from an aeroplane without using a parachute (needless to say, it’s not explained how they all manage to remain bloodless and in one piece).  Hatchet jumps from a bridge on to the motorway.  Abby chooses the much more boring option of pills and (almost as if she’s punished for her lack of imagination) survives.  Deciding she likes being alive after all, she now decides to help the police catch the others (she always did seem too nice).  The film’s finest moment of black comedy comes with the police lying in wait for the gang at the morgue where Abby’s body is supposedly being held.  The camera pans very slowly from the police to the next room, where the holding slabs now contain their bodies.
Apparently unstoppable, the Living Dead (with a pretend-undead Abby) cause havoc in the local Safeway, a scene that will bring joy to lovers of 70s minutiae (‘Ovaltine 29½p’, ‘Shippams – The Tea Time Taste’).  Carefully stacked pyramids of tins are destroyed with reckless abandon, and Jane proves herself the most vicious of the gang by driving her bike at an occupied pram, sending the baby flying.  Eventually Abby’s living status is exposed when she refuses to drive through a wall.  Beryl’s conscience wins out and she takes back her bargain with Shadwell, causing her to turn into a frog ‘for all eternity’ and the bikers to turn into standing stones before they can punish Abby for her treachery.  The film ends with Shadwell advancing sinisterly on weeping Abby.
Psychomania is lovably bonkers, and unusual for a British horror of the time in its rather offhand presentation of the killer bikers.  Despite their complete disregard for human life they’re shown as a gang of kids having fun rather than a serious menace to society, their casual massacring of the forces of law and order a bit of a laugh.  There’s also something wonderfully irresponsible about the whole idea of a film featuring a gang of youths killing themselves for fun.  The film’s made all the more enjoyable by the opportunity to spot several familiar telly faces among the cast.  John Levene (Sergeant Benton from Doctor Who), Dad’s Army’s Bill Pertwee and Dot Cotton herself, June Brown, all briefly pop up along the way.  By the way, George Sanders didn’t return from the grave on a motorbike, unfortunately.  The astonishingly groovy soundtrack by John Cameron is available on CD from the marvellous Trunk Records if you’re interested.
The film’s currently available to watch on Youtube.  Here’s Part 1:

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