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Name: Psychomania
Alternative names: The Death Wheelers, Death Wheelers are... Psycho Maniacs, The Living Dead, The Frog
Director: Don Sharp
Year: 1971
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Genre: Horror/black comedy/biker movie

Plot (no major spoilers)

Suppose that you're in a death-obsessed motorcycle gang called The Living Dead. Suppose, in addition, that your father died in suspicious circumstances 18 years ago and your mother is a frog-worshipping witch played by Beryl Reid. You wouldn't fancy your chances of being alive at the end of the movie, but you would probably expect to have some wacky adventures along the way.

This gleeful British exploitation movie (according to Time Out the first UK Hell's Angels picture) tells the story of Tom (Nicky Henson), the above-mentioned motorcyclist. When the movie starts, he and his gang spend a lot of time riding over bumps and through puddles and hanging out in graveyards, while he tries to convince his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) to enter into some kind of suicide pact. The rest of his time is spent doing all the usual things bikers do in movies: driving through pedestrian areas, stealing ice cream carts, and riding on the wrong side of the road.

However, his unconventional home life exerts an influence. His mother is a spirit medium who seems to conduct quite pleasant seances, but she also has a link to the dark side. Tom interrogates mum and her sinister manservant Shadwell, and eventually they tell him the secret to eternal life: you must kill yourself, sincerely believing you'll come back, and you will return.

Nicky decides to join the undead and drives off a bridge. His mother agrees to let the other bikers bury him, and they put him in a grave upright, sat on his motorbike, while they listen to a sensitive folk song about living and dying on the road. The fact that his head appears to be sticking out the top of the grave doesn't seem to prevent the burial, and soon he's in the ground.

Without giving away the later plot of the film, he returns from the dead, and seeks to persuade Abby to join him. She lapses into the conventional role of the terrified heroine. Meanwhile, the police finally decide to investigate the spate of crimes; they seem to have been curiously slow in this considering the gang all have their names on their jackets. Will all the bikers become undead and terrorise England for all eternity, or will they face a macabre demise?

Comment and review

Psychomania is a film that exceeds expectations, at least if your expectations are pretty low to begin with. As a horror film it's not much use: it totally fails to be scary because none of the characters are at all believable. It should get some points for attempting to make some use of British superstitions (witches, standing stones) rather than rely on conventional horror tropes of vampires and werewolves. How it really succeeds is as a black comedy. The film is played largely straight, with all the cast totally serious (or as serious as their limited skills can manage). Despite that, the concept is gloriously macabre, and only Heathers can get as many laughs out of young people killing themselves.

The cast falls into two halves. The young actors are all pretty terrible, and most of the leads - Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Ann Michelle - progressed into late 1970s soft porn and sex comedies (Marquis De Sade's Justine, Young Lady Chatterley, It's a 2'6" Above the Ground World aka The Sex Ban, The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones - the last of which starred Henson as Jones). Mary Larkin has recently managed guest roles in Doctors and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, while Henson is still keeping busy and even won an Olivier award, but most seem to have left the acting world. Rocky Taylor (Hinky) has become a stuntman (Tomorrow Never Dies, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and is now a stunt coordinator, organising the falling and blowing up on British TV shows like Pie In The Sky and In Deep, the latter meaning he may have got to punch Nick Berry in the face or blow up Stephen Tompkinson.

In contrast, the filmmakers gathered a good range of talent in the older roles. Beryl Reid is in unusually restrained form following her late 1960s successes in The Killing of Sister George (on stage and in Robert Aldrich's film) and a truly repulsive turn in the film of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane. Her loyal sinister servant Shadwell is played by the great George Sanders; he effortlessly manages to give a strong air of the sinister in a role somewhere between Lurch and Mephistopheles. Sanders's best known role is perhaps Shere Khan in Disney's film of The Jungle Book, but he starred in films such as All About Eve, where he excelled as critic Addison DeWitt, and Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel; interestingly Sanders killed himself a year after Psychomania was released. Robert Hardy, best known as Seigfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small, leads the police investigation. The other legendary presence is June Brown, Dot in EastEnders, who plays a mute role as a grieving mother; a disappointingly small appearance.

Australian-born director Don Sharp has had a long career, mainly in TV but also helming a number of low-budget movies. His biggest cinematic success was the Robert Powell-starring 1978 remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps; his TV work ranges from episodes of The Avengers and The Champions to Barbara Taylor Bradford mini-series A Woman of Substance and Hold The Dream.

Visually, the film is pretty good for its limited means. Rather than the gloomy gothic appearance of Hammer horror, it has a bright, clean, almost cartoonish look. The soundtrack mixes prog rock with early synthesisers; it sounds utterly of-its-time. Clothes-wise there are excellent early-70s fashions (hot pants and minidresses in wild prints) complementing the gang's neat jackets, and the locations are classic English small-town: shopping street, public house, vaguely sinister grassy field. It's a bit of a shame that all the bike/car chases seem to go round the same bend several times, but this probably reflects the limited horizons of small-town bikers.

In all, Psychomania is an enormous amount of fun, easily equalling the silly meaninglessness of its title. The film approaches dark subject matter in a cheerful way; it is the sort of film you say "They could never make this today. Think of the lawsuits!" A movie which advocates teenagers killing themselves inevitably has a certain charm, and while the writers and director do not extract the full existential dread out of the central concept, they still get plenty of mileage in other areas, not least in supermarket destruction. The other reason they couldn't make a film like this today is that any director these days would film it with his tongue so far in his cheek he'd fall off his motorcycle at the first bend. Truly those were the glory days of low-budget British nonsense.

Main cast

  • Nicky Henson - Tom
  • Mary Larkin - Abby
  • Ann Michelle - Jane
  • Roy Holder - Bertram
  • Denis Gilmore - Hatchet
  • Miles Greenwood - Chopped Meat
  • Peter Whitting - Gash
  • Rocky Taylor - Hinky
  • Robert Hardy - Chief Inspector Hesseltine
  • Beryl Reid - Mrs. Latham
  • George Sanders - Shadwell
  • Jacki Webb - Mother
  • David Millett - Father
  • Linda Gray - Grandmother
  • Andrew Laurence - Grandfather
  • Roy Evans - Motorist
  • Bill Pertwee - Publican
  • Seretta Wilson - Stella
  • Lane Meddick - Mr. Pettibone
  • June Brown - Mrs. Pettibone
  • Fiona Kendall - Monica
  • Martin Boddey - Coroner

Main crew

  • Director - Don Sharp
  • Screenplay - Arnaud d'Usseau, Julian Halevy (aka Julian Zimet)
  • Producer - Andrew Donally
  • Music - John Cameron, David Whitaker
  • Cinematography - Ted Moore
  • Editing - Richard Best

Production company: Benmar Productions
Runtime: 95 minutes
Language: English
Color: Technicolor

Sources: Internet Movie Database, Time Out Film Guide (6th Edition)

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