Saturday, 24 September 2011

Psychomania - "The Word, Mother, Is Daft"

With a Region 1 DVD release out from Severin Films a little while back, with plenty of extras and struck from the best print available, what better film to launch the BritHorror Dungeon part of this blog with than PSYCHOMANIA, a horror film made in 1972 by British film company Benmar productions, whose only other foray into things cinematic was the equally daft and no less enjoyable HORROR EXPRESS. Known everywhere as ‘that zombie biker movie where Beryl Reid gets turned into a frog’ I couldn’t let another viewing of this particular film at Probert Towers pass without writing a few well-chosen words about it, the title of which makes no sense, but then neither does anything else.
            ‘The Living Dead’ motorcycle gang consists of a group of young RADA-trained actors with beautiful speaking voices trying to act evil. They are aided in this endeavour by the names given them by the script which include ‘Hatchet’ (played by the chubby little ginger chap from BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, ‘Chopped Meat’ (who ends up a singing one of the strangest songs in popular horror film history but more on that in a minute) and ‘Jane’ (Ann Michelle, keeping her clothes on this time after the copious nudity of Tigon’s THE VIRGIN WITCH a couple of years previous and soon to appear in Pete Walker’s HOUSE OF WHIPCORD). Each member of the gang has their name written on their leathers, presumably in case they (or indeed the actors playing them) forget who they are. It also makes it very handy later on for the police to be able to identify the various perpetrators of any ensuing miscreant behaviour.
            The leader is Tom, played by Nicky Henson (Ian Ogilvy’s friend from WITCHFINDER GENERAL), whose girlfriend Abby is played by Mary Larkin. Despite being pretty much the only one left alive at the end of this as far as I’m aware Ms Larkin never went on to do anything of any significance afterwards.   
            The opening title sequence of this film is wonderful. John Cameron’s music theme is very seventies but it’s the right kind of seventies and when this sequence is watched now it lends an even more haunting otherworldly atmosphere to the proceedings. The incongruous image of motorcycles riding around fog-wreathed standing stones in slow motion is at once outlandish and engaging, and is almost perfect in its atmospheric scene setting. The movie which follows is also going to be filled with standout moments, albeit on the whole for reasons other than what one could hesitatingly call quality.
           After a little bit of road-based violence to get the film started (and to demonstrate just how nasty the bike gang is) Tom and Abby pop off to the nearest graveyard where their canoodling is interrupted by Tom’s interest in a frog who has been thrown onto the set. Popping his new ‘little green friend’ into his pocket he leaves Abby to probably seriously reconsider her position in a relationship where amphibians seem to take precedence, and drives back to the manor house where he lives with mum Beryl Reid, butler Shadwell (George Sanders) and some of the most hideous seventies wall-sculptures you will ever see. While Shadwell admires the frog (now housed beneath a transparent cover probably last used for a sponge cake) Tom brings us up to speed on how Shadwell never gets older, that the butler knows the secret of the living dead, and that the house has a room that’s been locked for eighteen years. Needless to say, Tom’s soon in the mysteriously dust-free and highly polished forbidden chamber, finding his dead dad’s NHS spectacles and having visions of a big frog and then Beryl doing something suspiciously like signing Tom’s soul away when he was a baby to a man with a frog ring. Tom should be okay, apparently, because he’s wearing a frog pendant, which leads one to wonder if the producers spent a day in 1971 at World of Frogs buying up their unsold stock, and then got screenwriters Arnaud D’Usseau and Julian Halevy to follow-up their previous movie hit HORROR EXPRESS with “anything (and we mean literally anything) involving frogs and motorbikes”.
            The ‘big secret’ is that if you kill yourself but believe you’ll come back then you will, which if it were actually true would mean a world full of the buggers. There’s probably more to it than that but I suspect the film-makers thought it would be irresponsible to divulge anything else, although somehow I suspect it involves more frog-based shenanigans.
            After some very poor shopping-centre antics and a road chase, Tom drives off a bridge and into the local river, killing himself. “We’d like to bury him out way if that’s ok” says Abby when she visits Beryl’s house. Trusting Beryl agrees without asking any more, so it’s a bit of a relief when it turns out that the gang’s ‘way’ involves burying Tom in his leathers and sitting on his motorbike in the stone circle. Lucky for Tom as well that ‘their way’ doesn’t involve jamming something sizeable up his bottom, covering him in treacle and placing him upside down on the town merry-go-round or he’d have some explaining to do when he came back to life.
            Which he does, in another impressive screen moment. “Do you want him back?” says George Sanders beforehand. “Yes,” says Beryl. “Yes, God help me I do.” Which is the cue, ladies and gentlemen for you to either hit the fast forward button, go and make a cup of tea, or brace yourselves for one of the most incongruous moments in movie history as this zombie biker horror picture grinds to a halt so that the gang, dressed in hippy gear, can make wreaths and other flower-based items of mourning while the song ‘Riding Free’ is mercilessly etched into your subconscious. Tom may indeed have ‘really got it on’ and may well have ‘rode that sweet machine just like a bomb’ but I am going to stop before I tell you the full horror of these lyrics in case there’s any risk of copyright infringement.
            Tom comes back and looks remarkably clean for a man who’s been buried under a grave full of earth. He gets some free petrol and then proceeds to murder a pub full of people. Police inspector Robert Hardy, looking unsure as to how he’s meant to be playing this, keeps a straight face as the bodies start to pile up, especially when the gang cotton on and proceed to kill themselves in a montage of suicides so ridiculously over the top that the comic moments of the film so far are in serious danger of being topped by this single three minute sequence.
            Scarcely has the pathologist time to answer a call from his wife than the gang are up and about again, including Abby, who’s not actually dead as her overdose failed, but not before giving her a slightly trippy dream sequence where her nightmare becomes so extreme and unpleasant that she envisions herself wearing something approaching a gaily coloured African tablecloth.
            Beryl finds out from the police that Tom’s told his gang the Family Secret and tell Shadwell she wishes to break her bargain. “And you know what you will be become for all eternity?” he says and she nods, figuring she might always be able to get a job presenting The Muppet Show in a couple of years.
            Tom finds out Abby is still living and in a showdown with the gang back at the stone circle attempts to kill her. Fortunately Beryl has completed the ritual, acquiring a distinctly croaky voice and a Kermit-like appearance in the process, and as a result Tom and his gang turn to stone. The End. Apart from black-cloaked Shadwell approaching distraught Abby in the stone circle as John Cameron’s music plays us out in another haunting moment that almost makes up for what’s gone before.
            There is nothing quite like PSYCHOMANIA and there never will be again. The film could not have been made at any other time or in any other country, and it still manages to achieve an open-mouthed response of ‘what on earth were they thinking when they made this?’ on viewing that, coupled with some memorable scenes and a haunting score, means it shouldn’t be allowed to fade into obscurity.


  1. very surprised there have been no comments as yet because Psychomania is unquestionably one of the greats. But what's this? "After some very poor shopping-centre antics ..."? The Living Dead attacking the glam pram-pushers is one of my favourite bits in the entire film! "while the holy sound of revving fills the sky/ You can see the ghostly rider passing by ..."

    Happy Birthday, your Lordship! (lovely review that, BTW)

  2. i got interested in movies from the Psychomania mags not seen this film did not know it was british i will look it up nice first post

  3. Larkin was recently in a Casualty...

  4. She is also Irish, and done a lot of Irish telly and film, and stuff, and married to Jim Norton, Bishop Len Brennan from Father Ted himself.