Monday, 15 November 2010

Psychomania (1971)

Psychomania is one of those movies that I first saw long, long ago in childhood and never forgot. It clung to the recesses of my mind like an odd, deranged dream, a better calibre dream, but an odd and deranged one nonetheless and I always remembered it. A lot later I met my husband and, disturbingly frequently, I would mention Psychomania in conversation and recall all its little oddities to him; zombie bikers, Beryl Reid, frogs and incongruous folk singing, and he quite honestly thought I’d made it up. He genuinely believed I was the flavour of crazy that invents bizarre, low budget British B-Movies and is so utterly convinced by the delusion that I try force other people of their existence too. He married me anyway, and finally after all these years I got to sit him down and make him watch it, so I got the last laugh. Who’s crazy now, husband? Hmmm?!

Tom (Nicky Henson) has pretty much got life in the 70s sorted, he’s a child of privilege with a big fancy house, George Sanders as a butler and Beryl Reid as his mum, he is also, as any self respecting upper middle class child would be in the 70s, the leader of the local group of rowdy toughs who make up the notorious (by the standards of a small, predominately upper middleclass, rural village) biker gang The Living Dead. The Living Dead are cool. They care not for your stuffy old rules, granddad. They laugh in the face of society’s conventions with their customised skull helmets and their assortment of leather and denim that’ll make your old eyes bleed because it’s so out there and you can’t understand it because you’re so old and square. Yeah, they’re cool, and groovy, yes, they’re probably groovy too.

Late one night, after some hellraising, Tom and his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) are hanging out in a graveyard because they’re so cool and that’s what you do after running an old square off the road of an evening. Whilst basking in the warm afterglow of roadside carnage and the death of random members of the 70s public, Tom finds a frog and decides that he will take the little fellow home to his mother (aforementioned British comedy icon Beryl Reid). Now this may seem like an odd gift for a mother (or indeed a British comedy icon), but, it transpires that Ma Latham (Beryl Reid) is in fact something of an occult dabbler and frogs are like boxes of chocolates or Heartbeat DVDs to her, so when Tom arrives home to the stately family pile old Ma fresh from a séance is thrilled with her son’s thoughtful gift. Equally impressed, family butler Shadwell (George Sanders) helpfully comments that this particular frog is a rare kind of frog that is particularly advantageous to black magic rituals and we then learn in a spectacular display of confusion and vagueness that the family home has a mysterious locked room that his father once raided in order to learn the secret of immortality, and then he died there, presumably without learning any secrets pertaining to immortality. Like any decent teenager this kind of jive is like whining guitar music to his ears and despite things not ending well for Da Latham Tom badgers Beryl Reid until keys are handed over and he then enters the locked room to discover the secrets for himself. More confusion and vagueness follows in the form of a series of unspecific visions involving Beryl Reid probably selling baby Tom’s soul and some other suitably 70s stuff and then Tom triumphantly exits the room of devilish magic proclaiming he now knows the secrets of life beyond death.

Turns out the secrets of life beyond death aren’t all that completed, all you have to do is kill yourself with the complete conviction that you will return and, piff, paff, poof, you’re back riding your rubbish motorbike and harassing Sunday shoppers.

So young master Latham promptly kills himself and, in what is probably one my favourite scenes in any film ever largely because of the sheer ill-conceived absurdity of it, his faithful gang bury him in the manner he would have wanted. Apparently the manner in which Tom would have liked to have had his passing from this mortal coil marked is by being buried in a crappy field sitting upright on his bike in a hole that isn’t even deep enough to accommodate his full height while one member of his crew sings a particularly frightful and vomit-inducing folk ballad at everyone whist they pick flowers and make garlands. I’d ruddy well come back if my friends did this to me, and I’d be bloody furious. Needless to say it’s odd end for someone who appeared to spend the majority of his life terrorising the English countryside and its largely crinkly inhabitants.

Fortunately for Tom he doesn’t have to spend the rest of eternity in a hippy grave with his head sticking out above the surface as it turns out his transcending death plan actually works and he is able to ride his way to undead freedom, stopping briefly to mow down a passer-by and to get some petrol.

Naturally the rest of his gang are suitably surprised and amazed by his miraculous return and, being teenagers, don’t need much persuading to follow suit. Queue stunt sequences as the gang members commit some unimaginative (but amusing) suicide; jumping off bridges, ploughing into trucks, etc. So soon the gang is all back together again, they’re young, they’re wild, they’re undead and they can do what the hell they ruddy well want and no one can stop them and what they ruddy well want to do, apparently, is trash a small supermarket and steal and an umbrella, those crazy kids. All would be going swimmingly for the merry band of zombie bikers if it wasn’t for the fact that Tom’s girlfriend, good girl Abby, is strangely not altogether sold on this whole dying malarkey, and even if she was she just doesn’t have time to die she has to help her mum with the shopping, for criminey’s sake . This reluctance forces Tom to do a little artful persuading, artful persuading in the sense that he tells her if she doesn’t blummin’ well go and kill herself now he’ll just about blummin’ well have to kill her himself. Sounds reasonable, Tom. Meanwhile Beryl Reid is also beginning to get a little concerned about her son’s behaviour and with the help of her faithful butler Alfred, I mean Shadwell, decides that she’s really going to have to do something about it; presumably before some civic minded member of the local community composes a stern letter to The Times. (Dear Sir, When, oh when will the government wake up and realise that something really needs to be done about all the deceased youths who seem to be currently tearing up Her Majesty’s countryside on noisy motorcycles apparently with the sole purpose of distressing my wife and the local herd of cows. My wife, like most wives, is of a nervous disposition and hasn’t slept in months and, frankly, the fact that her evening milk is consistently sour and curdled isn’t helping matters.)

Psychomainia is charming in its ridiculousness and so idiosyncratically British it makes you want die, actually die, or have a cup of tea. I really do still have a huge affection for it, it’s a strange and bizarre piece of British cinema that has achieved cult status precisely because of its absurdity and I would encourage you to give it a go even if only for the sake of a few giggles and some nice English countryside. It really is difficult not to warm to it as it’s clearly trying so hard to appeal to the young generation and be down with kids yet getting it so badly wrong that you just have let your heart go out to it and praise the effort, it’s kind of like The Fonz of the movie world, actually come to think of it, it’s kind of like me, if I was a film I’d probably be Pyschomania: not a bad idea though a bit cheap and dated, but still trying hard and loveable in its short comings and foibles, and I’d have Beryl bloody Reid and George blummin’ Sanders in me keeping it together (possibly the most disturbing sentence I’ve ever written, let’s never speak of this again). Sorry about that, what I mean to say is that Psychomania is a terrific blast, it’s a little cult window into 70s Britain that should be peeked through to see all the peculiarities and hilarities that lie within. It also stars the sister of Yvette (Vicki ‘Oooh Rrrrenéééé’ Michelle) from ‘Allo ‘Allo. But the real point is, it does exist and I’m not mad, and I think I’ve proved this quite satisfactorily here today. I thank you.

For a more sensible, and altogether better, review of Psychomania please see Steve Miller’s marvellous blog Terror Titans.


  1. Splendid stuff, as ever. I've always had a soft spot for this one, too, not least for its really catchy/eerie theme tune - they put out a CD of the soundtrack a few years ago, and it has sat happily on my shelf next to my CD of soundtracks from Hammer's sitcom spin-off movies ever since.
    As you say, the weird funeral scene is the highlight: I love the way they've painted him pasty-white but he's obviously still alive, and surely the whole thing's illegal anyway - to just bury someone yourself, let alone on a bike in the middle of what is presumably public land. And yes, that song! ("He really got it on, he rode that sweet machine just like a bomb..." Worth the cost of the CD all by itself.)
    I always thought it was a bit of an odd coincidence that George Sanders killed himself so shortly afterwards, and I often wonder if the film was in any way responsible, either because he was testing the central premise and hoping to come back astride a roaring street-hog, or perhaps just because he went to the premiere and realised the game was up.

  2. This. Sounds. AMAZING!

    Just the piping hot cup of weirdness I was craving! I'll have to queue this one up as soon as I can. Your review seems to be in the same insane vein as the film, so I feel like I have a pretty good expectation of it now.

    Bucket List Item #666: Start ridiculously cliche and out-of-touch biker gang with Jinx whose sole purpose shall be ravaging the aisles of Walmart with our roaring motorbikes and painting realistic portraits of roads on the side of buildings.

  3. Jinx, this is one of the funniest (in a good way- - i.e. I was laughing out loud and at the stuff you would have wanted me to be giggling about "They care not for your stuffy old rules grandad" :) ) reviews I've read in a long time. I'm puting this movie on my must see list cause of your comments! Who can resist flick with upright mounted motorcycle burials, black-magic frogs, George Sanders, biker gangs...and especially INCONGRUOUS
    Thanks Jinx!
    your pal,

  4. Get a loved one to watch this movie with you....
    If they stick around afterwards, you know you've found the right person.

    Great story and review!

  5. This sounds utterly fabulous! I must track it down forthwith. The dude in the photo does look totally rock'n'roll - Daz-white turtleneck? Sooo dangerous!

  6. Thank you all so much!! I do hope that those of you who haven't seen it love it, love it for being just so wrong but trying hard.

    Matthew, I should have known you have soundtrack! Brilliant! Poor George Sanders though. He did leave the best suicide note ever.(if you can a suicide note the best): 'Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.' Would have been awesome if he did come back as a badass biker, that's how I like to picture him now.

    Joe! You know I'm totally down with that plan. We'll show Wallmart, we'll rage through its aisles, probably on a motorbike and sidecar with a thermos of soup. Hell yeah!

    Rogue, you completely made my day, that's just the biggest compliment. Knowing you were laughing out loud at something I'd written has put a huge smile on my face. You rule!

    Andrew, you're so right, it's even better if they find it as fantastic as you do for all same ridiculous reasons. Thank you so much.

    Oriel, great to see you, please post more on your blog. Yup, we know that Beryl Reid uses Daz - for mums who want their zombie biker sons extra dazzling white.



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