Fans of weirdo late night fare will rejoice at the news of a brand new BFI Blu-Ray reissue for this 1973 Britsploitation classic
When we think of the biker movie some very potent cinematic images are immediately conjured up. There’s a strong probability that these will include leather-jacketed hippy rascals on low-slung choppers blazing down an open highway, with a fuel tank stuffed full of drug money and the lysergic sounds of The Byrds or Steppenwolf blaring on the soundtrack. And while Easy Rider sure has a whole lot to answer for, it’s undeniable that there’s something about the spirit of rebellion epitomised by the American road – with its limitless miles of asphalt shimmering in heat haze – that makes it the ideal, panoramic arena for the motorcycle movie.
By contrast, the quiet slip-roads and sleepy byways of England’s green and pleasant land might seem an incongruous setting for a rip-roaring, delinquent-biker epic. Yet, with the Blu-ray release of Don Sharp’s Psychomania, we can re-acquaint ourselves with the glorious spectacle of oddly well-spoken young scallywags burning rubber and raising hell up and down the distinctly un-Californian A344 outside Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.
A uniquely British countercultural schlock specimen, Psychomania is a tongue-in-cheek, no-budget triumph which wisely makes a virtue of its many limitations, and in so doing manages to fall ass-backwards into a skew-whiff category all of its’ own – the post-hippy folk-horror zombie-biker black comedy. Psychomania is at once a cynical exercise in make-a-quick-few-shillings Britsploitation and also an irreverent caricature of an ailing UK in the early 70s; capturing for posterity the prevailing mood during a period of uncertainty in post-war British history.
When Psychomania was released in the early 70s, the UK found itself languishing in the Heath-era economic doldrums. International investment in the film industry, particularly from across the Atlantic, had begun to ebb away after the divine madness of London’s swinging years had subsided. By ’73 major British production houses had begun to feel the pinch. Smaller companies such as Benmar Productions (primarily known for making dodgy spaghetti westerns) identified a gap in the market and eagerly shovelled out a steady stream of cheap and cheerful quickies, of which Psychomania seemed at first sight a typically slipshod example. But by chucking a hefty lump of The Wild Angels, a pinch of Night of the Living Dead and even a sprinkle of homely 60s BBC cop show Z Cars into the blender, Psychomania somehow emerged a sublimely daft midnight movie classic.
The frazzled plot combines then-voguish folk-horror elements (Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man was released the same year) with already well-worn generation gap/teenage tearaway clichés. Stranded in a crushingly banal provincial town, a gang of young bikers who call themselves “The Living Dead” rendezvous at the Seven Witches, a spooky mini-Stonehenge (hastily thrown together by underpaid Shepperton Studio grunts) said to be the final resting place of a coven of medieval witches. Driven barmy by boredom and hormones, their leader Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) seeks counsel from his spiritualist mother (Beryl Reid) on how to “crossover” into a state of living death – breaking free from this mortal coil so he can misbehave on a whole other plane of existence. Successfully following through on his bonkers plan, Tom’s first phone call home to his Mum as a member of the undead community leads to some incredible dialogue:
“How are you, son? Are you alright?”
“Well, I’m…er… dead, mother. But apart from that I couldn’t be better.”
Unlike their acid-gobbling American counterparts, Tom and his youthful gang lack the resources to bomb a political convention or join an apocalyptic Death Valley sex cult. Instead they opt to unleash hell in a manner more redolent of the Bash Street Kids than the Hell’s Angels. Provoking fist-shaking outrage from adults and other authority figures (“I’ll teach you a lesson, you long-haired git!”, snarls one shop owner), the Living Dead enjoy nothing more than larking about in town centres on weekend afternoons, zooming down supermarket aisles and knocking over stacks of very reasonably priced Corn Flakes, ripping off grizzled barmen for the price of a pint of bitter, and menacing old ladies out for a lovely Sunday drive in the country. But after they “cross over” and go full undead, the gang soon graduate to committing the odd casual murder. In doing so, they finally draw the attention of a slow-witted local constable (Robert Hardy).
Aside from its more outlandish surface elements, Psychomania has gained further notoriety among movie fans by dint of its improbable casting. In keeping with the odd tradition of ageing Hollywood screen idols sullying their reputations by appearing in dubious UK genre movies, (Joan Crawford’s bewildered turn in the 1970 creature feature Trog) this was the final film of the great George Sanders – a purring Rolls Royce of an actor who, over the length of a storied career, had fine-tuned a talent for embodying velvet-voiced caddishness to a point of lethal perfection. This is the man who gifted us with one of the all-time great cinematic scoundrels. His note-perfect, Oscar-winning portrayal of acerbic theatre critic Addison De Witt in All About Eve is just one highlight of a remarkably rich filmography.
However, by the early 70s, Sanders’ fortunes had dipped, and he appeared on the no-frills set of Psychomania a less than enthusiastic participant. Sanders managed to bring trademark gravitas and dignity to the key role of Shadwell, a frog-worshiping occultist butler. The actor still had that supremely charismatic presence which film fans would have recalled from his 40s and 50s heyday. Unfortunately, by this point Sanders was an increasingly indifferent and withdrawn figure, worn out by alcoholism, financial difficulties and severe depression. The great man may not have been overly enamoured a movie as shamelessly silly as Psychomania would prove to be his swansong. Yet, it seems oddly fitting that such a one-of-a-kind screen hero would sign off with a movie that reeks of undiluted cult appeal.
In his first lead role, Nicky Henson has immense fun as the bored-silly Tom. Fawlty Towers fanatics will recognise Henson from his memorable role in “The Psychiatrists” as Mr. Johnson – the archetypal 70s ex-hippy Lothario – who drives a man-hungry Sybil to distraction with his hairy chest and fertility symbols. He tackles his role here with relish, crashing through walls on his Triumph Thunderbird, taking the mick out of the local police, seducing impressionable young ladies and generally coming on like the mischievous lovechild of Dennis Hopper and Norman Wisdom.
In keeping with the whole magnificent enterprise, Psychomania‘s soundtrack also walks a thin line between the preposterous and the sublime. Highlights include the memorably dippy biker-folk requiem “Riding Free”, performed by Harvey Andrews but mimed on-screen by a photogenic flower child, and a superb John Cameron-composed score. The latter, full of eerie synths and over-driven wah-wah guitars, finds that sweet spot between the sinister and the absurd. It perfectly captures the Psychomania experience.
As always with their Bluray-reissues, BFI offer the full bells and whistles treatment here. This double-disc presentation is lovingly packaged with a great 28-page booklet and a feast of extras for true believers. The highlight of which is a hilarious interview with Nicky Henson in which he reveals he was paid the princely sum of £150 for his efforts.
Full of cock-eyed anarchic energy, Psychomania is an immensely fun experience. It’s an endearingly low-brow classic that fully deserves the deluxe Blu-Ray treatment. A must-have item for fans of weirdo late night fare, best enjoyed at around 2am with a large glass of something strong within easy reaching distance.