Britain’s finest ever zombie biker movie has come back from the dead, courtesy of the BFI and Scalarama. Spank The Monkey takes a ride with the Death Wheelers.
If you had to identify the best-loved post on MostlyFilm – and I mean properly loved, rather than merely popular because it comes high on a Google search for ‘young boy handjob’ – then I suspect that Ricky Young’s four-part series If My Calculations Are Correct would be a prime candidate. It acknowledges that we don’t watch films in a vacuum: the circumstances of their viewing are as important as the films themselves. IMCAC isn’t just about a collection of science fiction classics – it’s about young Ricky encountering them every Tuesday teatime on BBC2, and having his mind opened to a whole genre of cinema.
I could write a similar piece, but it would be infinitely less charming because it’d mostly be about teenage me getting blind drunk on Saturday nights. Post-pub TV options were limited back in the early eighties, but I fondly recall a stretch of time when ITV’s choice of late Saturday entertainment was a season of 1970s British B movies. Some of them were magnificent: this was, for example, the slot where I discovered The Wicker Man for the first time. Some of them were less magnificent: I have the faintest memory of Yellow Dog, a Terence Donovan film (!) adapted from a Japanese script with new dialogue by John Bird (!!), but have a vague suspicion that it might have been massively racist.
Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum – but closer to The Wicker Man than Yellow Dog – was Psychomania. Like many of the other films in that ITV collection, it left you wondering at the end did I really just see that? In this low period for domestic cinema, after the boom of the Swinging Sixties but before the strained attempts at classiness heralded by Chariots Of Fire, you suspect that anyone who was given money to make a British film decided to take the axiom ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ and apply it to moviemaking. The results generally kept teenaged me awake after several pints of Wilson’s bitter, so maybe that approach wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.
Psychomania, however, is as crazy as it sounds. Suburban England is being terrorised by a biker gang known as The Living Dead, led by posh boy Tom Latham (Nicky Henson). But running cars off the road and scaring housewives in shopping precincts isn’t enough for him. He wants much more, and he knows that his mother (Beryl Reid) can help him. Mrs Latham runs séances together with the mysterious family butler Shadwell (George Sanders), and it quickly becomes apparent to us that her relationship to the other side is just a teensy weensy bit satanic. Tom eventually gets the information from her that he needs to know – how to come back from the dead. Because when you die and come back, you’re indestructible.
Armed with this knowledge, Tom cheerfully waves goodbye to his gang and drives off a motorway bridge to his death. He’s buried on his bike with full honours in the middle of the local stone circle. Within a few hours, he’s above ground again – following a stunt that I imagine looked spectacular in 1973 when the film was made, but since 1977 has just made viewers think of the Bat Out Of Hell album cover done on a much lower budget. Still, the important thing is that Tom is back, undead, and gleefully killing anyone who crosses him. Now all he needs to do is persuade the rest of the gang to follow him, and their reign of terror can spread far beyond the boundaries of Walton-on-Thames.
Full disclosure is required at this point: the current renewed interest in Psychomania is down to a brand new restoration of the film by the BFI, and I haven’t seen the restored version yet. At the very least, the dream-like opening titles – featuring the bikers riding around the stone circle in slow motion under a marmalade-filtered sky – should look lovely after a digital wash-and-brush-up. I suspect many people will be chucking out their old taped-off-the-telly copies when the new Blu-ray is released later this month, because it’s one of those cult films that inspires a huge amount of affection.
Part of that affection comes, I think, from the bewilderment that most people have on their first viewing of the film, if not their subsequent ones too: what is this meant to be, exactly? It’s an uneven mixture of creepy horror, black comedy, motorcycle action and middle-class actors trying to pretend they’re ruffians, with a bit of toad fetishism thrown in to add flavour. The film tends to slide around between those genres from scene to scene, rather than trying to combine them in unexpected ways, or acknowledging its abrupt gear changes with a knowing wink. So once the gang realise that Tom’s zombification is genuine, there’s a darkly hilarious sequence in which we watch each of them kill themselves in increasingly ridiculous ways. (The parachute jump seems unnecessarily fiddly, quite frankly.) But from there we segue into the resurrected bikers driving over babies in supermarkets. Generally, people like their films to be one thing, and this one jumps around a little too much for comfort.
Go with the flow, however, and it’s all very enjoyable. Director Don Sharp worked on several Hammer pictures, and he handles the horror sequences with all the confidence you’d expect. The scene where Tom is locked in a darkened room to acquire his arcane knowledge is impressionistic and disorienting: elsewhere, one bit of carnage is filmed in a single extended take that leaves you laughing at its sheer audacity. The bike scenes have a terrific energy to them even now, although some of the stunt work feels a little bit too much like stunt work. (A man in a shopping centre is erecting a ladder close to some cardboard boxes. I wonder what’s going to happen to him?) And John Cameron’s groovy score – bolstered with a folk song interlude that brings The Wicker Man back to mind again – adds just the right amount of funk to the proceedings.
Psychomania is precisely the sort of film that London’s Scala cinema used to show in its heyday, so it only seems right that this year’s Scalarama festival is currently showcasing it in a few cinemas across the UK. And the subsequent Blu-ray release looks like it should be outstanding, featuring new interviews with the cast, a 1955 John Betjeman short about the stone circle that features in the story, a 1965 documentary about Christian bikers (presumably for balance), a subtitle trivia track and more. This reverential treatment is a far cry from the American VHS of the film, which was retitled Death Wheelers and packaged in this somewhat misleading cover.
We’ve come a long way from Walton-on-Thames.
Psychomania will be playing at the following cinemas this month:
- Saturday 10 September Komedia, Brighton
- Wednesday 14 September BFI Southbank, London (followed by an onstage Q&A with Nicky Henson)
- Thursday 15 September Bierkeller, Bristol
- Friday 16 September Phoenix, Leicester
- Sunday 25 September Genesis, London
Psychomania will be released on dual format Blu-ray/DVD by the BFI on 26 September.