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Schlock & Awe: PSYCHOMANIA

Schlock & Awe: PSYCHOMANIA

One of my favorite things about the Blu-ray world is that stuff comes out from a long time ago that I’ve never even heard of, much less seen. One company that has consistently put out old movies that are new to me is Arrow Video, the British company which specializes in giving love to highly obscure genre fare. Today’s entry finds us in the weirdly familiar realm of a horror-biker movie mashup (much like the utterly ridiculous Werewolves on Wheels) with a British movie about zombified bikers wreaking havoc on a small town, and to a surprisingly groovy rock score. This, friends, is 1973’s Psychomania.

Directed by Hammer Films alum (guys, I swear I didn’t pick this movie because of its Hammer connection, despite all the million Hammer movies I’ve reviewed in this column) Don Sharp, Psychomania is the rare biker-horror film that manages to be legitimately creepy, due in no small part to his direction, the cinematography of Ted Moore (who also did seven of the first nine James Bond movies), and a Gothic-acid-rock-funk score by John Cameron. This is a super low-budget picture, but it ends up being very effective thanks to the mixture of heavy action, moody guitar music, and dreamy visuals.

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In a relatively small English village, there’s the blight of a gang of motorcycle hooligans who call themselves the Living Dead. They delight in causing ruckus everywhere they go and hanging out in a real creepy cemetery. Their leader is Tom (Nicky Henson) who seems to have a death wish. Turns out, he kind of does. His mother (Beryl Reid) and the family butler Shadwell (George Sanders) have a secret that could give Tom what he’s always wanted.

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Shadwell, it seems, has remained nearly the same age for all of Tom’s life, and he and Tom’s mother partake in communing with the dead when hired by rich, sad people. But Tom knows it’s more than just a trick; his father has disappeared years earlier and he thinks it has something to do with a strange room in the mansion. Tom wants to see for himself and spends a night in the nightmarish room which has no exit. Tom emerges from the room, having survived its terrible, devil-powered strangeness, and is given the secret of life after death.

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Turns out the secret is this: given the right incantations, a person can come back from the dead—and be indestructible to boot—as long as when they commit suicide, they fully believe they are going to come back. Tom proves this by careening his motorbike off of a bridge. The gang “convinces” Tom’s mother to let them bury Tom their way (which, creepily enough, is sitting upright on his motorcycle). One of the gang even sings a folky funeral song. But, of course, he isn’t dead, not really.

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Naturally, as you’d expect, Tom doesn’t stay dead; he gets up and marauds some more. He’s pretty arrogant about it and gets all kinds of witnesses before he murders people. The rest of the Living Dead gang get angry, because someone’s using Tom’s jacket and bike to cause mischief, even finding his empty grave. However, when they find out it IS in fact Tom, most of them are super stoked about it, and want to partake in his method of staying young, dead, and impervious forever. All except Tom’s girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin), who is way too nice a person to be hanging out with these thugs anyway.

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All of Tom’s gang successfully commit suicide, and all of them except one dumb guy who didn’t really believe comes back. Since they cannot be killed by normal means, it’s going to be a pretty sucky time for the people in the town, and for Abby since Tom doggedly wants her to kill herself and she is very clearly like “nah dawg.” Tom’s mother and the rather amoral Shadwell are most displeased about what Tom and the other’s are doing, and—even though she wanted him to be alive like her forever—the two decide to take it upon themselves to reverse the curse.

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I rather enjoyed this movie, mostly due to the sheer weird-assitude of it all. Because the movie’s so inexpensive, there’s not a ton in the way of special effects or monsters or anything like that, but what we do get are biker thugs in very distinctive get-ups which have a definite macabre sensibility to them—especially with the weird helmets and visors. Sharp does a great job of setting the mood for the eeriness without relying on anything fancier than slow-motion photography and mist-filled expanses.

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I also really want to give another mention to John Cameron’s excellent and suitably unsettling score, which brilliantly mixes driving rock chords with old-school ghost story music. It’s propulsive and hard-edged but also fits nicely into the more hallucinatory imagery. I could see people at the time dropping acid or sparking up a doobie to listen to this score and have some gnarly dreams.

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While never actually very scary, Psychomania is supremely moody and effective for what it is, and I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while watching, never fully sure what was going to happen next. Yes, this was George Sanders’ final film before committing suicide (his note famously proclaimed “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.”) and that really casts a strange morbid pall over everything, it oddly fits with the janky tone of the picture. And, hell, it’s called Psychomania, so you’d expect a bit of that kookiness to be more than skin deep.

Images: Arrow Video


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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