Dismissed by critics (and much of its cast) but adored by a generation of fans who grew up watching the film in disbelief on TV, Psychomania is part of a small sub-genre – the zombie biker film (others include Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and the early shot-on-video effort Bikers Vs The Undead). In spirit though, Psychomania is much closer to the 1970’s New English Library pulp novels of Mick Norman, Peter Cave and others, who presented a very British version of the Hell’s Angels in a series of short, punchy novels that were light on literary merit but heavy on sex, drugs, violence and action – just the thing for thrill seeking teenage readers. A few of these novels – Alex R. Stuart’s The Bike From Hell for instance – touched on the supernatural, and it’s easy to imagine Psychomania as such a novel – or at least the film adaptation that we always wanted. Like them, it’s cheap, trashy, devoid of any artistic saving graces – and wonderfully entertaining.
The film follows the adventures of a particularly lame and laughably polite British biker gang – The Living Dead – whose exploits consist mostly of making a nuisance of themselves in shopping centres. Gang leader Tom Latham (the frightfully middle class Nicky Henson) discovers that his mother (Beryl Reid) somehow knows the secret of eternal life – all he has to do is kill himself with the absolute belief that he’ll return to life. You and I might be a bit suspicious of this, but not Tom – he tries it out and is successful, riding out of the grave on his bike in what is – with no sense of irony – one of the greatest moments in British horror film history. It isn’t long before the rest of the gang (with the exception of Tom’s stick-in-the-mud girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) – follow suit, freeing them to continue to wreak the mild havoc they were causing before (there are a couple of moments of actual violence, but much of their delinquency seems to consist of knocking over cereal boxes in the local supermarket, which hardly seems the last word in reprehensible behaviour). Soon, they are being hunted by baffled Chief Inspector Hesseltine (Robert Hardy) and a parade of remarkably gormless coppers, while Mrs Latham wrings her hands and wonders what to do. The solution involves a frog and a strange, psychedelic room – because, why not?
Co-starring an embarrassed looking George Sanders – who killed himself shortly afterwards, possibly inspired by the pro-suicide message of the movie – and Brit Sleaze queen Ann Michelle, Psychomania is, of course, by most standards rubbish – but entertaining rubbish nonetheless. The best bit of the film is the genuinely eerie opening title sequence, backed by John Cameron’s magnificent, prog-lite theme tune (his whole score is one of the best of the decade), but fans of cheesy horror will find plenty more to their taste in this. The bike stunts are actually pretty impressive, Don Sharp directs with his usual efficiency and there is a sly sense of humour running throughout – it’s clear that no one was taking this entirely seriously. The result is a film that feels like some sort of pychedelic hallucination of a horror film – one of several weird, not-quite-right attempts to wed the British horror movie to a swinging youth that none of the filmmakers understood at all (this would probably make a great triple bill with Hammer’s two modern day Dracula films, Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula.
This new BFI release sweeps aside all previous versions, not only featuring a tasty new transfer of the movie but also a fistful of special features, including Severin’s previous additions to their 2010 US release. There are three excellent featurettes. The longest has cast members Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder and Rocky Taylor discussing their work on the film. Henson in particular is pretty dismissive – though frankly this movie probably has more fans than any of his ‘serious’ theatre work – but the stories are entertaining and it’s an excellent little documentary. equally fun are the two music featurettes – Cameron discussing (and playing) his sore and singer-songwriter Harvey Andrews explaining how he ended up singing someone else’s song (and then seeing it mimed to by a ‘pretty boy’ actor) in the movie (if you haven’t heard Riding Free, then you’re in for a treat!). The new stuff includes a 2016 interview with Henson, a featurette on Lewis Leathers – Britain’s oldest biker clothing company – and Roger Wonders Why, an amateur Christian biker film! But the main attraction here is the newly digitised edition of Psychomania, which looks better than it frankly has any right to.
it’s great to see a much loved cult classic finally – and yes, deservedly – getting the VIP treatment. Psychomania is finally revved up and ready to rock!