In the early 1970’s the UK was the master at churning out low budget horror films involving witchcraft, the occult and devil worshipping, and the “Hammer House Of Horror” films reigned supreme. I’m not really a big fan of the horror film genre, I can only just about watch the first Halloween film without shaking with fright, but some horror films are so laughable they might as well be comedies.
Psychomania, released in 1973 and directed by Don Sharpe, is one such film.
Psychomania is so bad it is actually so very good, and the fact that it stars some of the most popular actors and actresses of the time is quite frankly mind boggling! Beryl Reid, George Sanders and a fresh-faced Nicky Henson (many years before he was in Eastenders) all starred in Psychomania, which remains the only biker gang satan worshipping frog loving horror film that Beryl Reid has ever acted in.
So what is Psychomania about? The opening scene is eerie and chilling, with a group of bikers riding their bikes in leathers (custom made from Lewis Leathers – www.lewisleathers.com) around some strange stone monuments with fog swirling all around them. The plot of Psychomania is as funny as it is meant to be serious, and focuses on local neighbourhood all round bad boy Tom Latham played by Nicky Henson, who is the leader of a motorcycle gang who call themselves “The Living Dead.” The gang go around causing chaos, and Tom’s mother played by Beryl Reid is a clairvoyant who conducts sinister seances with the help of the family butler Shadwell played by George Sanders, and who as it turns out is the keeper of the secret of the living dead.
After questioning his mother as to how his father died in a locked room some 18 years previously when he tried to kill himself to come back to life, she reveals the secret to coming back from the dead when she thinks that Tom isn’t listening. It is quite simply this – “you’ve got to believe that you’re going to come back. You’ve got to believe that with all your being” (yeah right – if coming back from the dead was THAT easy, everyone would be doing it)!
But Tom has heard, and it isn’t long before he takes the gang out on a chaos causing spree through a local shopping centre (Hepworth Way Shopping Centre, Walton-On-Thames to be precise, which today has been completely redeveloped) commits suicide by riding his motorbike over a bridge and into a nearby river.
The next scene shows Tom’s girlfriend Abby visiting Tom’s mother and Shadwell and asking if the gang could “bury Tom in their own way” at the Seven Witches Cemetery, a place that according to local folklore saw several witches be turned to stone because they broke a bargain that they made with superior powers and they had to be punished. This paves the way for the most ridiculous burial scene ever in a film, where the whole gang have dug a grave and put Tom in it sat bolt upright on his motorbike, and this scene is complete with a Dylan-esque folk song sung by one of the gang members called “Riding Free”. It really is a scene that you have to watch several times to try and get over the absurdity of it all – surely there would have been regulations and council red tape to go through to bury Tom like that? It is scenes like this in Psychomania that instead of making you feel scared actually make you want to laugh out loud.
So yes, you’ve guessed it, having learnt the secret of how to return from the dead Tom does exactly that, but it is soon clear that he’s back from the dead with superhuman powers as he can’t be hurt or killed again, and by his own admission when he reconnects with the gang after gang member Hatchet stabs him with a knife, he says “And another thing. You can only die once. After that nothing, and nobody, can harm you.”
“Oh man what are we waiting for!” exclaims one of the other gang members Jane, and one by one off they go to commit suicide and kill themselves so they can return from the dead just like their gang leader Tom. One drowns themselves, one purposely doesn’t hook up his parachute when undertaking a sky diving jump (his body would have been pulverised to bits, but he manages to come back without a scratch on him. Still, you have to suspend your disbelief a lot when watching this film) and another jumps off a busy motorway bridge. But one of the funniest quotes of the film comes from one of the gang members who is on the balcony of a huge multi-storey building. He has parked his motorbike outside the building, and a police officer approaches it. “Hey officer! That’s my bike!” shouts the gang member from the balcony. “Is it now? Then come on down here!” replies the policeman. “Okay!” is the reply, and then he jumps and SPLAT – he lands on the ground below and is killed.
Only one gang member, Hinkey, doesn’t make it back because according to Tom “at the last moment he hesitated”, meaning that he either had doubts about coming back from the dead, or he didn’t want to die in the first place.
Tom tries to persuade his girlfriend Abby to kill herself and join him, and she takes an overdose but survives this, and after a very strange psychadelic nightmare she wakes up in hospital with the police waiting to talk to her. Abby now has doubts about killing herself to join Tom, and he visits his mother who asks him what is he going to do next, and he says “Well mother, there’s lots to be done” and talks about how he intends to kill all the judges, teachers and everyone in authority.
The gang then go on a huge killing spree, mowing down anyone who gets in their way, even a mother in a supermarket with a small baby in a pram. In terms of harrowing moments in Psychomania, it is the only one that literally makes me feel sick when it happens, even though I know it would have just been a doll in the pram or similar.
In other of the most absurd moments of the film, Tom tells Abby that he always fancied driving through a brick wall, and asks her “how about you?” Abby replies, “Why not” and they head to Tom’s mothers house. Tom drives through the wall, but Abby goes around it. When questioned by Tom as to what happened, he says, “Liar. You’re not dead.” To which Abby replies, “That’s what I was trying to tell you Tom. I don’t want to die.”
Tom’s mother says to Shadwell that she must stop him, and he responds by saying, “You can’t.” She replies, “I must.” “You made a bargain. It was for all time.” says Shadwell. She responds by saying forcefully, “I’m going to break that bargain.”
The gang have gathered again at the Seven Witches with Tom yet again trying to persuade Abby to try and kill herself so they can be together forever. He raises his hands to grab her neck to strangle her, but as he does so he is transfixed, and turns to stone along with the rest of the gang who have come back from the dead. Tom’s mother has turned into a frog, which she will be for all eternity, and has broken the bargain that she made with the devil. Abby screams when she sees what has happened to Tom and the rest of the gang, then mysteriously Shadwell turns up, and the film ends.
To me, Psychomania is absolutely hilarious and while one part of me thinks it is simply awful, another part of me loves it. I first watched it as a child (yeah I know, I shouldn’t have been watching films like this) on BBC1 and for some reason this film stuck with me, so it was with great surprise and nostalgia that I came across it again on YouTube. I’ve watched it a few times on YouTube since then and I’ve also just treated myself to the Blu-Ray, which has lots of extras and interviews with the cast on it.
What is really sad about Psychomania is that it was actor George Sander’s last film before he committed suicide, he was magnificent in it and was sorely missed after he died. It is rumoured that he watched a very rough cut of Psychomania, and then chose to end his own life. His suicide note read, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” His voice and demeanour was perfectly suited to the mysterious character of Shadwell the Butler.
There is also a cameo appearance by June Brown who plays Dot Cotton in Eastenders today, and Nicky Henson has gone on record to say he feels “ashamed” of playing the part of Tom Latham in Psychomania, as he thought that no-one would ever see it. Little did he or any of the cast know that it would still be a cult film some 30 plus years after it was first released.
Some of the funniest moments for me include Tom and Jane riding their bikes into a police station and someone casually saying “shall I shut the door” to the policeman behind the desks, as if two motorbikes riding into a police station was perfectly normal, as well as Tom’s burial scene – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry whenever I watch those parts of the film.
Psychomania also has a brilliant score and soundtrack performed by Frog, which was perfect music for the time the film was made – psychedelic, almost prog-rock like. I was very surprised to discover the soundtrack is available on Google Play!
And remember, “you can only die once. After that nothing, and nobody, can harm you.”
References & Links
Psychomania is available to buy on Blu-Ray on Amazon.