Undead bikers, George Sanders and Beryl Reid in Psychomania, released by BFI Flipside.
Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of a biker gang called The Living Dead. But he learns a family secret that his mother (Beryl Reid) and her butler Shadwell (George Sanders) have kept from him. Making a pact with Satan, Tom learns the secret of immortality, which means he has to kill himself with the expectation he will come back from the dead…
British cinema was in a slump in the early Seventies. The Americans had come when London had been swinging, and had invested a lot of money in British movies. Then they had gone away again. With much less money around, many producers decided to make exploitation movies, chasing the youth market more than any other, and also taking advantage of the raising of the X certificate from sixteen to eighteen in 1970, in theory if not in practice reducing the need for cutting and banning by the censor. In horror, there were the by now semi-respectable likes of Hammer and then there were the others. As a result some strange movies ended up being made, and few are stranger than Psychomania.
This is the sort of film where you wonder what people were thinking – or given the time of its making, possibly smoking – when they made it. Where to start? One of the most unlikely teenage biker gangs committed to celluloid – average castmember age twenty-six and speaking in stage Cockney – with names like Hatchet (Denis Gilmore), Chopped Meat (Miles Greenwood), Gash (Peter Whitting), Hinky (stuntman Rocky Taylor, given a couple of lines of dialogue before being written out) and, unlikeliest of all, Bertram (Roy Holder). The two female members of the gang are colour-coded: good-girl Abby (Mary Larkin) rides in blue corduroy and bad-girl Jane (Ann Michelle, no stranger to the horror genre after costarring with her sister Vicki in Virgin Witch a couple of years earlier) is the aspiring leader, resplendent in red leathers. There is a bona fide Hollywood star (George Sanders) at the fag-end of his career, indeed his final film. (Co-star Nicky Henson has suggested that seeing a rough cut of this film precipitated his suicide.) Beryl Reid, in the middle of her “silly period”, which included another horror film, The Beast in the Cellar, and a long way from her great role in The Killing of Sister George only four years earlier. A script where two fiftysomething Americans try to capture contemporary youth culture and fall well short. The director was an expatriate Australian, Don Sharp, in the UK from 1949 and a jobbing film director since the mid-50s. Psychomania (which was known in production by the more appropriate title of The Frog before it was changed – in the US the film was released as The Death Wheelers) is pretty ludicrous, and you’re never quite sure how seriously its makers intended you to take it, but despite or because of that it’s very entertaining. It became a cult movie by turning up regularly on late-night ITV – more about that as Vic Pratt (who I suspect is a little younger than me) waxes nostalgically about staying up late on school nights in the booklet accompanying this release.
Sanders was the most expensive castmember, with the result that all his scenes were done in six days. He’s clearly a little frail but can’t help but be imposing, his 6’3” frame towering over Reid and everyone else in the cast. If he felt this role was beneath him, at least he was professional about it. As so often with British films of this era, the leading actors are supported by a plethora of British character actors, many of them best known on TV. Bill Pertwee turns up as a publican and John Levene (then playing his best-known role, Sergeant Benton in Doctor Who, on the small screen) plays a constable, both of them meeting sticky ends. June Brown appears in one scene as Jane’s mother – maybe more ended up on the cutting-room floor as she’s credited despite having no dialogue The presence of an Oscar-winning cinematographer, Ted Moore, makes this film look better than it has a right to be. Like many such films, Psychomania is an inadvertent time-capsule, with locations just up the road from Shepperton Studios, where the interiors were shot, and the bikers go on the rampage in a shopping centre in Walton-on-Thames. John Cameron contributes an eerily effective prog-rock score, all washes of Hammond organ and further proof that no self-respecting session guitarist in 1972 left his pad without a wah pedal or two. And then there’s the once-heard never-forgotten folky number “Riding Free”, written by David Whitaker and John Worth, played and sung by Harvey Andrews but mimed to onscreen by Cliff Greenwood.
The BFI’s Flipside line has unearthed some fascinating obscurities in its time, films dismissed in their day, or in some cases hardly ever shown then, let alone now. Not all of them are good, but even those which aren’t have qualities which means they can’t be easily dismissed. Psychomania is one such, and its cult following will be glad of this restored Blu-ray edition.
The BFI’s release of Psychomania is dual-format, with a Region B Blu-ray and a Region 2 DVD. I received a checkdisc of the former so comments refer to that. Psychomania was cut for an X certificate in 1972 and it has now been rerated 15. While I can see why it had an X then and why it has a 15 now, I can’t think what the BBFC found unable to pass even for adults. I have queried the BBFC and will update this review if they can advise me of the answer. [UPDATE: Here are the cuts made in 1972, presumably for antisocial behaviour the Board didn’t wish to encourage: “Reel 1 – Remove the sequence showing the cyclists wrenching a car’s wing mirrors off and breaking a car’s windows.” “Reel 2 – Remove sequence where cyclists kick down a row of warning cones.” “Reel 4 – Shorten the sequence where a girl motor-cyclist runs down a pram in a super-market.” Thanks to Catherine Anderson of the BBFC.]
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1, though it’s a good bet many British cinemas would have shown it in 1.75:1 at the time and Americans in 1.85:1. This appears to have been a particular restoration challenge as the materials were in particularly poor shape: a damaged colour-reversal 35mm internegative and a worn and faded 16mm print. And, held in an archive in Spain, a complete set of separation preservation masters: black and white copies produced through cyan, magenta and yellow filters for each primary colour. These were what were restored, scanned at 2K resolution, and combined to recreate the film’s colour cinematography. The results aren’t perfect, inevitably, and there are colour shifts within scenes and shots, but the result is better than it has a right to be. Moore goes for a glossy look so this isn’t an especially grainy film. Sadly there are no doubt other films of this era, or more recent, in an equally parlous state of preservation.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as LPCM 1.0. No complaints here: it’s clear and well-balanced with the score, dialogue and sound effects sounding as they should be. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available. An alternative subtitle stream is this disc’s trivia track, produced by the Wilson Bros. Such subtitle tracks were a feature of 2Entertain’s Doctor Who releases but have been little used elsewhere, so it’s nice to see one here, especially as there is no commentary on the disc. The Wilsons’ love for this film is obvious though sometimes going close to the line between affectionate pisstaking and mockery and a couple of comments are self-indulgent (such as a reference to Mary Whitehouse’s death), and they’ve clearly done their research. Just to nitpick, there are a couple of typos: “it’s” for “its” and “hoard” for “horde”.
The extras begin with the theatrical trailer (2:50). Next up is a new Nicky Henson interview. He’s been harsh about this film, complaining that every time he had good notices for a stage performance – he was a founder member of the Young Vic and his film roles supplemented his stage income of £35 a week – then Psychomania would turn up again on television and spoil the party. That said, he seems to be reconciled to it and tells some amusing stories. He’s clearly been telling them for some time, as he turns up in the featurette Return of the Living Dead (25:02), produced for Severin’s 2010 DVD release, telling the same stories with some of the same gestures – such as the facepalm which ends an anecdote about George Sanders. The featurette does allow many of the biker gang to give us their anecdotes, which is valuable as none of them are elsewhere on this disc.
Two more new interviews follow, both dealing with the musical side of the film. John Cameron, seated at his keyboard, talks about the “Sound of Psychomania” (9:06) and the opportunities films gave to younger composers at the time. Secondly, Harvey Andrews talks about “Riding Free” (6:25) and how he was somewhat disappointed being heard but not seen singing it – but then, he concedes, Cliff Greenwood was prettier than he was. He also shows us the acoustic guitar he played on the recording: for the guitar fans out there, a Gibson SJ Sunburst. In “Hell for Leather” (7:52) we pay a visit to Lewis Leathers, the oldest motorcycle clothing company in Britain, who supplied the biker jackets seen in the film. A restoration demonstration (1:47) shows us by means of text captions (which are also in the booklet) and sample shots how challenging this particular restoration was.
Two further on-disc extras are not specific to Psychomania itself but as often with BFI releases pick up on particular tangents. As a stone circle – not a real one – features in the film, we have a short piece from 1955: Discovering Britain with John Betjeman: Avebury, Wiltshire (3:17) in which the poet laureate gives a brief description of the famous site, but as the running time would indicate nothing too in-depth. It was made by Shell with the intention of showing motorists the sights they could drive to and stop off by, Roger Wonders Why (18:23) is a curiosity, an evangelical piece made to be shown to unwilling youth audiences. Shot in 16mm and likely only shown that way until now, with no synchronised sound (just a voiceover narration), this follows Roger and his mate Derek from Communion to a Christian bikers’ meet and then a mountain-climbing trip to Wales. There they visit the village with the longest name in the UK, the sign being so long that it needs CinemaScope to fit it all in but this production is in 4:3. This is transferred from a fairly worn print, with noticeable tramline scratches throughout.
The twenty-eight-page booklet contains three essays, with a prominent spoiler warning at the start. As mentioned above, in “An Outstanding Appointment with Fear: The Peculiar Power of Psychomania” Vic Pratt waxes nostalgic about discovering the film on late-night ITV, usually in their regular horror-movie slot Appointment with Fear. In “The Last Movie: George Sanders and Psychomania”, William Fowler concentrates on the last days and this last film of the Oscar-winning actor. In “Psychomania – Riding Free”, Andrew Roberts views the film from the youth angle. One error here: Mary Larkin, not Mary Hopkins. The rest of the booklet contains full credits for the feature, notes and credits on the extras, a note on the restoration and transfer, disc credits and stills.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum