aka The Death Wheelers
Director – Don Sharp, Screenplay – Arnaud D’Usseau & Julian Halevy, Producer – Andrew Donally, Photography – Ted Moore, Music – John Cameron, Special Effects – Patrick Moore, Makeup – Neville Smallwood, Art Direction – Maurice Carter. Production Company – Benmar Productions.
Nicky Henson (Tom Latham), Mary Larkin (Abby Holman), George Sanders (Shadwell), Robert Hardy (Chief Inspector Hesseltine), Beryl Reid (Mrs Latham), Ann Michelle (Jane Pettibone), Roy Holder (Bertram), Denis Gilmore (Hatchet), Miles Greenwood (Chopped Meat), Peter Whitting (Gash), Rocky Taylor (Hinky), Seretta Wilson (Stella)
Tom Latham leads the motorcycle gang known as The Living Dead and is obsessed with the idea of returning from beyond the grave. His mother is a spiritualist and finally relents and tells him what happened to his father, during which Tom learns that the way to return from the dead is to have absolute faith that one is going to do so at the moment of death. While the gang is out creating mayhem through the local township, Tom deliberately rides his motorbike off a bridge and is killed. The rest of the gang hold a funeral. They are startled when Tom roars out of the grave on his motorcycle, alive again and now unable to be killed in any way. He now inspires all of them to follow in his footsteps and kill themselves and be resurrected.
Australian director Don Sharp (1921-2011) was a minor name in the Anglo-horror cycle of the 1960s and 70s. After a handful of films of no particular distinction, Sharp made Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire (1962), which proved a reasonable success. He made two other films for Hammer with the non-genre The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and the historical horror Rasputin The Mad Monk (1966), as well as one of the films in the tv series Hammer’s House of Horror (1980).
For other British companies, Sharp made the genre likes of Witchcraft (1964), Curse of the Fly (1965), the first two films in the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), the period comedy Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon/Those Fantastic Flying Fools/Blast Off (1967), the psycho-thriller Dark Places (1973) and the lost world film Secrets of the Phantom Caverns/What Waits Below (1984), along with various other non-genre thrillers and action films, including Callan (1974), Hennessy (1975), the remake of Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978) and Bear Island (1979). Sharp appears to have retired by 1990 and died in 2011.
Psychomania should not to be confused with the other film that shares the same title, the earlier also obscure US psycho-thriller Psychomania (1963). Psychomania is a film that I had heard about for years but had never found a copy due to its uneven availability on cable/video/dvd. However, the description of the film – about a biker gang returned from the dead and the oft-mentioned central image of the gang leader erupting from his grave on a motorcycle – has a fascinating psychotronic bizarreness that made Psychomania into a must see item.
The biker film became a fad in the late 1960s/early 70s after the successes of Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966) and in particular Easy Rider (1969). There were a couple of attempts to blend the biker film with the horror genre with Al Adamson’s Satan’s Sadists (1969) and most notably the bizarre Werewolves on Wheels (1971) and the subsequent Chopper (1975) episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Psychomania is one of these weird hybrids, although it often feels like a film made by people who had almost no clues about what a biker gang was like. In the funeral scene, for instance, we see most of the gang as Flower Children sitting around knitting garlands of flowers to throw on the grave of Nicky Henson, whilst a guitarist sits on the sideline playing folk music. This sits at diametric contrast to the tough guy image of bikers we have today who we usually imagine in steel helmets and leathers, drinking beer and associated with heavy metal music. Either the filmmakers had no clues that the bikers and hippies were two different cultures or else it is possible that the hippie/peace movement and the bikers were far more mingled culturally back in 1973 than they are remembered today.
Both the bikers in American films like The Wild Angels and Easy Rider seem very different to the ones we have here. In the American films, they are seen as rebels defying society and representing a symbolic quest for freedom. Here they are merely hooligans and the film often cuts away to the shocked reactions of ordinary people as the gang rages through the streets and even rides into supermarkets – in other words, it is not a film about championing the ethos of freedom, it is one that sees bikers as unruly lawbreakers and an affront to decency.
What this film also lacks is any of the drug-taking and sex scenes that took place in the numerous American biker films. Some of the bikers in the film, in particular the character of Nicky Henson’s girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin), seem so utterly dull and middle-class. “Let’s cross over, let’s kill ourselves,” Henson suggests in the opening moments, to which her reply is “I can’t Tom, I promised I’d take my mother shopping in the morning.” The dreadful banality of her good girl character comes at diametric contrast to the scenes with her supposedly causing mayhem on the road and where they ride through vandalising the town and wreaking havoc.
Seen, Psychomania ends up invariably disappointing on its expectations. Don Sharp’s direction is flat and prosaic. The famous scene where Nicky Henson explodes out of the grave on his motorcycle is dull and unimaginative when it occurs – it is an image that seems a whole lot more potent in the imagining than it does in actuality. The film does gain some undeniable exhilaration during the scenes where the gang roar through the town and cause mayhem and then head out onto the motorway racing in and out of traffic.
There is also some amusement that finally comes in the latter third in the scenes with the rest of the gang committing suicide – a police officer tells one of the gang to “come on down here” and so he jumps several storeys to the ground from the apartment; another throws himself into a river with a weight tied around his neck; another jumps out of a plane on a parachute instruction flight without pulling the ripcord.
What you suspect the film needed though was much more of a tongue-in-cheek treatment that pushed it into the horror comedy vein – alas, this was something that was singularly missing in the Anglo-horror films of the era, as witness Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt| (1972) and its failure to replicate the black comedic EC style. What that leaves Psychomania as is a film with an outrageously entertaining premise that is far stronger than the lacklustre and ordinary effort that ends up being delivered.
Film online in several parts beginning here:-