Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Psychomania (1972)

 While this is not something I particularly want to get into, and it is not something reflective of the quality of Don Sharp's Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers), it is virtually impossible to not at least mention the fact that George Sanders killed himself shortly after completing the picture by downing five bottles of Nembutal. Aside from the helmets the gang in the film wear, it's the most talked (and written) about aspect of the movie. The full text of his suicide note is as follows: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck." It is rumored that he saw a rough cut of Psychomania just before committing the act. I do not wish to make light of the tragedy of suicide, nor will I speculate on Sanders' thoughts before the end, but I wanted to get this out of the way so we could discuss what is a damned good film. Which is unfortunately about suicide.

Tom (Nicky Henson) is the leader of British bike gang The Living Dead. His mother, Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid), is a psychic medium for rich jerks and is always assisted and accompanied by butler Shadwell (Sanders). It seems the whole Latham clan has had a proclivity for the black arts and the supernatural, and Tom has often wondered why his father mysteriously died in "The Locked Room." After Tom faces down his inner demons in "The Locked Room," his mother inadvertently exposes the secret to immortality and coming back from the dead. Tom commits suicide by riding his motorcycle off a bridge and comes back, invulnerable and stronger than ever. He convinces the rest of the gang to join him, but his girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), is the sole holdout. Mrs. Latham doesn't want Abby to join the gang in immortality (she proclaims them "evil," go figure), and finally Abby is given a choice: Shoot herself and unite with The Living Dead, or be killed by Tom and just die.

In a strictly technical sense, this could be considered a zombie movie. The monsters are humans who have come back from the dead to torment the living. That's about where the zombie motif ends. Depending on how you define zombies in general (and zombie movies in particular) though, this doesn't meet the broadest criteria. The gang is not hungry for human flesh. They are not mindless, rotting husks, shambling around. They are not the rank and file of some arch-villain's army. They are, in fact, exactly as they were pre-death, only now more willing and capable of taking human lives. Between these facts, the ambiguous magical goings-on, and the mystery of Shadwell's origin, the film actually sits squarely in the realm of occult horror. 

In the wake of Rosemary's Baby, The Devil Rides Out, and others, Satanism and the occult were of massive interest in pop culture, and this film capitalizes on both that and the fading biker movie subgenre. The problem is it never fully commits to either. The black magic aspects feel more like window dressing than a focus for the film, because their handling is so murky. Tom's trial-by-fire in "The Locked Room" is indicative of this. He stares into a long mirror where he doesn't cast a reflection. Fog swirls in the mirror along with a frog (which is a visual touchstone of the film and a symbol for transformation and resurrection) and images from a deal with the Devil that Mrs. Latham made apparently also involving Tom. What the consequences are to Tom, we're never told. If she signed away her son's soul in return for her own immortality, one, it didn't take because she looks older in the present than she does in the flashbacks, and two, if Satan already owns Tom's soul, why would he grant him immortality in a separate bargain? It's this sort of make-the-rules-up-as-you-go attitude that undermines the overall effect of the film, but some effective atmosphere is created, nonetheless.

As a biker gang, The Living Dead are no Hell's Angels. They're no Pink Angels, either. As a matter of fact, I had some friends who I used to ride around on Big Wheels with that raised more hell than this gang. Okay, that's not entirely true. The Living Dead roll around town, knocking bakery trays out of deliverymen's hands, running cars off roads, and spending an inordinate amount of time playing "Follow The Leader" around a poor man's Stonehenge known as "The Seven Witches." Post-resurrection, they continue with this same sort of grabassery, but now they actually commit murder. The most shocking example is when Jane (Ann Michelle) rams a carriage with a child in it. But again, it's the handling (or mishandling) of the violence that takes what should be a sharp edge off it. There is no blood in this film (or very little from what I could see). Further, when we do see a violent act, the filmmakers cut away quickly and spare us the aftermath, or they'll show us the aftermath but not the act. This separation of cause and effect diminishes any sense of terror we may have as well as our revulsion of what are supposed to be the film's villains. I'm sure Don Sharp felt it was classier (certainly more "old school") to depict the violence this way, but it just doesn't have the impact it should. While we're at it, why does the gang continue in its old, hooligan ways after achieving immortality? Wouldn't you think they'd expand your horizons? Let's just chalk it up to the impetuousness of youth, shall we?

By now you're probably thinking that I didn't like Psychomania (despite my statement to the contrary in the first paragraph), but you would be dead wrong. No, the movie succeeds because of, not in spite of, its flaws. This is very much a film of its time, when ambiguity was a hallmark of avant-garde filmmaking (or at least pretending to give the audience credit for having a brain when many filmmakers just didn't know what to do with a film's themes [or just how to end the damned things]). As I said previously, the movie does have some nice atmosphere as well as some beautiful, iconic imagery. The very first sequence of the film is of the bikers riding around in the (early morning?) fog in slow motion. It bestows the film an ethereal quality that permeates the film but is rarely explicit. The shot of Tom blasting out of his grave on his motorcycle is one of the great images of horror cinema, I think. Add to this, a brilliant, mood-casting score from John Cameron that sounds like it belongs in one of the better Italian gialli films. The acting is solid across the board, and whether he liked it or not, George Sanders stands out with his enigmatic portrayal of Shadwell. It's heavily implied, though never overtly shown, that he is the Devil (who is always shown in a black hat and cloak), but Sanders still plays the butler role and remains (at least on the surface) to be a servant to Mrs. Latham. 

There's a mile-wide streak of black humor running through the film which helps immensely in keeping the entertainment value up. Tom explodes out of his grave and runs a pedestrian down. The next shot is him gassing up his motorcycle. Jane hangs herself by the neck from a tree outside Abby's house. When Abby reacts in horror, Jane smiles and starts mugging for her friends. The medical examiner's assistant is taken by surprise when Hatchet (Denis Gilmore) taps at the glass on the morgue's refrigerator and is subsequently asked by the biker if he's deaf. Tonally, it's incongruous with the satanic facets, but it works and helps distinguish the film as unique.

 I was trepidatious when I popped this one in the DVD player. I had only seen it once previously, and that was decades ago on late night television (you know, before it was all infomercials). However, any fears I had about ruining a childhood memory were not only allayed, but I also found myself liking the film even more than I did the first time around. I would ride with The Living Dead anytime. You should, too.

MVT: Sanders' performance does an outstanding job selling the occult angle of the film while not going broad and overplaying his hand. Granted, there's not a ton to work with scriptwise, but this consummate professional makes it work. Not the worst thing to be remembered for.

Make or Break: The "Make" is the final shot of the film. In the aftermath of what she's gone through, we're given a heavy indication that life for Abby is not necessarily going to improve. Sharp's keen sense of atmosphere delivers a memorable coda and instills a desire to watch the film all over again.

Score: 8/10


  1. GREAT review, Todd! As much of a biker movie enthusiast as I am, I hate to admit that I've never seen this, but I'm very much aware of it. I guess I've just been holding out for the Severin disc, which I should probably pick up now that it's been out for a few months now. I would love to see you review WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS at some point - if anything, just to see what you make of it. As far as I know, it's the only other biker/horror film out there from the exploitation era but I could be wrong.

    Keep up the excellent work, Todd.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Aaron.

    I think you're right. I can't think of any other biker/horror movies (though THE THING WITH TWO HEADS had an extended bit with bikers and the Grier/Milland monster, but it wasn't the focus) from that time off the top of my head.

    It's funny, I have a WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS tee shirt, but I've never seen the flick, because I've never heard anything even remotely good about it. Still, I guess one should make one's own mind up about these things, so maybe I'll chuck it on the roadmap. Thanks for the suggestion, and you should absolutely buy the Severin disc.

  3. Fantastic job, sir. I keep pondering whether to check this one out or not. Seems now's the time given your review. Keep it up, Todd!

  4. Thanks for the comments and for reading, Chad. I hope you wind up liking PSYCHOMANIA as much as I do.