‘Well, I’m dead, mother…but other than that, I couldn’t be better!’
Emily McQuade celebrates the absurd delights of the cultish, kitsch and unique Psychomania (1973)…
I first saw Psychomania (Don Sharp 1973) on a late-night TV screening in the nineties. I was at a friend’s house after a teenage night out of bouncing around to Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine. My ears were ringing, and my eyes were tired. It turns out that a strange little flick about undead bikers, stone circles, and frog-based witchcraft was just what I needed. I spent the next few weeks wondering if I’d dreamt it.
There’s no denying that Psychomania (a.k.a. The Death Wheelers) is a strange piece of work. It’s a film full of death which contains absolutely no gore. For an exploitation film, it’s oddly polite. It’s a horror film, it’s not especially horrific. But it is funny – it’s hard to resist a film in which one of the characters is suddenly eating a giant sandwich that appears from nowhere – and I can’t help but be sucked into its wonky charms with every viewing.
The story concerns a gang of bikers called The Living Dead, who like to spend their time running motorists off the road or making a nuisance of themselves by riding around their local shopping precinct.
Gang leader Tom Latham – Nicky Henson, whose look in this film is best described as a Rolling Stone playing Aslan), – discovers the secret of coming back from the dead. He has a bit of assistance from his psychic medium mother (Beryl Reid), their butler and-possibly-something-else, Shadwell (Old Hollywood legend George Sanders), and some magic frogs.
Once Tom returns to The Living Dead after his suicide and tells them of the secret, gang member Jane (Ann Michelle) exclaims, ‘Oh man, what are we waiting for?’ And so, the stage is set for each of them to off themselves only to return for some of their customary nuisance-making with added murder. The Living Dead are now actually living dead and they are determined to ‘stick it to the man.’ The ‘man’ in this case being mostly the manager of their local supermarket, where they smash the system by lobbing cardboard boxes around, riding through the aisles and callously knocking over a baby in a pram. The local police, led by Chief Inspector Heseltine (Robert Hardy) know that their antics must be stopped. And with gang member Abby (Mary Larkin) – who also happens to be Tom’s stylishly double-denimed girlfriend – having second thoughts about the whole dying thing, they might just be able to trap the gang. Though, as it turns out, Mrs Latham and Shadwell also decide that things have gone too far and know just the ritual to stop it. Even if it means Tom’s beloved mother turning into an amphibian in the process.
A mere plot summary cannot do justice to the oddness and gloriously silly delights of Psychomania. It’s a film of unforgettably weird images. For instance, the gang give Tom a flower-strewn hippy funeral, in which he is buried upright on his bike at the local stone circle and soundtracked to the sound of one gang member called ‘Chopped Meat’ singing a folk song ‘about how Tom ‘rode that sweet machine just like a bomb’. And then there’s the opening scene, in which the bikers in their snazzy skull-shaped helmets appear from the mist and ride around the stones to John Cameron’s prowling funky soundtrack. Also, there’s a flashback sequence in which Mrs Latham, dressed in her Sunday best, signs a contract with the devil for the soul of baby Tom. The devil is a dark figure in a shiny car. Who is probably also Shadwell. Yes, it’s daft. But it is a true one-off. See it, and be bewildered in the best possible way.