Everything I knew about British culture as a kid I learned from TV. Canada has always been inundated with programming from our Commonwealth pal; Monty Python, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies, et al paraded before my eyes but nary a horror. And then I discovered the Amicus and Hammer films; worlds unto themselves for exploration. While I’m still knee deep in cleavage and cobwebs, I’m compelled to check out the indie scene; and I happened to come across Psychomania (1973): a well known to some, unknown to many, and now beloved by me Occult Biker film that is absurd as it is entertaining.
Absurdity really is the prominent compound in this heady mash of free spirits and (un)deader ones; the mix of motorcycle mayhem with splashes of Satan works better than it should. That’s probably (at least partly) because the lower budget makes for lower stakes; don’t expect a lot of Ol’ Scratch dancing around nor authentic motorhead mania and you should be just fine. What it lacks in grime and gravitas it makes up with a straight face that dares you to laugh. It is sort of remarkable.
But this is something that happens all the time in the indie world; fundage may be shallow, but imagination can run deep in the right hands. There are so many variables that arriving at a winning formula sounds nearly impossible - because it is. But getting close is often close enough in horror; the vibe is key for me, and Psychomania (AKA The Death Wheelers) operates in that post-’60s shadow of nihilistic ideals without fully buying into it - offering up a ‘70s downer with a few uppers in its pockets as well.
We open in the soup, in a field, outside of a little town in England. A motorcycle gang called ‘The Living Dead’ ride around the fog, a circle of runes guiding their way; soon, in the morning light, they head for the open road where a game of chicken with another motorist results in Punks: One, Society: Zero. The leader of our gang (and the film) is Tom Latham (Nicky Henson - Witchfinder General), trust fund baby of Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid - Dr. Phibes Rises Again), who spends her days helping people reach loved ones from the beyond when she isn’t worshipping a Frog Lord/Satan. Oh, and with help from her servant, Shadwell (George Sanders - Village of the Damned).
It turns out that Mama Latham sold her soul to you-know-who when Tom was a baby, and grown he stumbles upon a Satanic secret: If you kill yourself, and truly believe you’ll come back, you do! In short order, Tom a) goes for a long ride off a short pier; b) is buried sitting on his hog; c) comes roaring out of the ground way before Bat Out of Hell; and d) convinces the rest of the gang to follow suit in the Big Motorcycle Rally from Beyond. These cats are undead now, dig? Nothing can stop them on their path of destruction...except for Mrs. Latham. Will she go all RICO on their ass?
Oh Psychomania, you are so bloody charming in your execution; Henson has a puckish quality that isn’t exactly endearing (the character is a horrible snot), but certainly makes Tom’s journey watchable. The direction by Hammer vet Don Sharp (Rasputin: The Mad Monk) is unobtrusive and straightforward; one can imagine that without the means it’s best to keep it simple, and he does. Surprisingly, BenMar Productions (Horror Express) opted to dry clean most of the exploitation out of the film, leaving behind a scarcity of nudity and merely suggested violence. So who is the film for then?
The answer should be, “all of us”. But without breasts and beasts, you’re eliminating the hardcore exploitation market (however unfickle they may appear), so probably not them. Hammer-adjacent? The cast and the crew have a few in common, although I’m not sure that’s enough to entice a potential viewer.
So, that leaves you, me, and every other horror fan who’s looked sideways at a description or poster and said, “yes please”. The basic concept - on paper - is wild, and is enough to draw in the curious; whether it keeps them or not, I can’t guess. For those who stick around though, one is treated to such glorious sights as diving off an overpass into traffic, drowning oneself with anchors, and a picnic with Lucifer. For starters.
But they’re small, see - these wins that we find between the commerce and the art, usually malnourished and hiding behind the latter. Our terrifying motorcycle gang rides around on wheels that look less than choice, yet half of them dress in clothes that they must have stolen (or worse, purchased) from Carnaby Street. When they’re not busy being reborn, they like to run over women and their babies in carriages; instead of a menacing look at the apathetic youth of A Clockwork Orange, this skews closer to Carry on Riding. (I’m not sure that exists, but you get the point.) Oh, and as far as zombies are concerned, think Val Lewton, not George Romero.
Psychomania is a funny film. Whether that’s intentional or not is hard to say; Sharp tries to keep it light yet the cast plays it straight. The big takeaway from the film is that most of our youth are garbage (and probably homicidal!), but especially the rich ones who go all Robin Hood in reverse and then kill, kill, kill. The other takeaway? White goggles that cover half the face are great for using stunt drivers. Like I said - the pleasures are small, but they add up.
Psychomania is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.Next: Indie Horror Month 2021 Marketplace: Where to Find Awesome Horror Apparel & Accessories