The landscape was changing, and the old giants were dying.
As a studio already known for not spending lavishly on its budgets, Hammer Film Productions began to scale back even more in the early 1970's due to increasing financial hardship. (This, of course, would give us such ditties as Dracula A.D. 1972 and a glut of terrible comedy films based on sitcoms—i.e., Mutiny on the Buses and That’s Your Funeral.) Amicus Productions, another U.K. studio that rose to prominence using Hammer’s model, was fairing a little better at the time with the classic anthologies Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973). But the horror genre as a whole was evolving, mostly as a result of the American new wave and the rise of the exploitation/grindhouse distribution cash machine.
‘Tis the circle of life, I reckon. If only someone in 1973 had found a way to interrupt this vicious cycle of age and change, to ease the burden of existence. Well, somebody did, in fact, and the secret lies in Psychomania, a.k.a. The Death Wheelers.
Directed by Hammer veteran, Don Sharp, the elevator pitch would go something like this: an undead biker gang terrorizes a small town. Though this isn’t a Hammer film, it certainly feels like a loving swan song to the low-budget genre empire that gave birth to the very system in which a film of this sort could even exist. It takes its gimmicky, exploitation premise and transcends the budget, creating a big, goofy world with its own rules and characters. Nothing about the characters and what they do make any sense to us, but it kinda seems to in the context of the environment that’s been built from Frame One. As most Hammer films were period pieces, Psychomania almost feels like a period piece made about the period it was actually made in.
And anyone who tells you that Psychomania is one of those “so bad, it’s good films” is full of shit and never to be trusted. This film kicks total ass.
We open with the dreamy, foggy shots of a motorcycle gang riding in circles around seven tall stones in a field. The film tells us these stones are the Seven Witches, the legend being that long ago, seven witches reneged on a deal with some dark forces and were turned into stone. Interesting, right? Surely. However, I’m not entirely positive that legend has any bearing on the story whatsoever, other than being a cool ass place to shoot.
The gang, called “The Living Dead,” is led by charming madman, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), who lives with his mother and butler in their upper class country home. Tom is convinced that his psychic/medium mother (Beryl Reid) has the secret to eternal life, since their butler, Shadwell (George Sanders) hasn’t aged a day since he’s known him. Hatching the cleverest blackmail scheme ever, Tom tells his mother that if she doesn’t give him the secret, he and his gang will commit crimes (!!!). Mrs. Latham, knowing she has the losing hand in this, relents and allows Tom to enter a forbidden, locked room in the manor. There, he meets a Frog God, and learns what he has to do to come back from the dead and live forever:
Commit suicide, embracing death 100%
Believe with all your being that you will come back
And that’s it. You didn’t miss anything, and I didn’t leave anything out. Needless to say, Tom is quick to capitalize on this newfound knowledge and drives his motorbike right off a bridge into a river. He comes back from the dead, and thus begins the plague of undead biker crimes on the unsuspecting town. But that’s not before we get a hilarious funeral as the gang buries Tom. You can see in the picture below that he is buried upright on his motorcycle, as if he’s riding it. All this while a gang member plays a very James Taylor-ish tune on the guitar, and the others gather flowers like…eh, flower children.
I will go on the record now and say that while this film is a horror film, per se, it’s not scary in the least. There isn’t any gore or truly frightening sequences, but there is a great darkness and dread that hangs over it. And though it came in response to the biker exploitation films like The Wild Angels and Easy Rider, it’s actually more in line with the kids aren’t alright, fear the young people exploitation films of the 1950’s, like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. These kids are shits, and their stated ambitious goal is to take down “the establishment.”
For the budget, the action and stunt work is top notch and worth the price of the new Arrow blu ray alone. There is one amazing scene, where one of the gang members is skydiving without opening his parachute to kill himself, and the camera follows him down silently for what seems like fifteen or twenty seconds. It’s beautiful and arresting, and nowhere in the ballpark of a shot you’d expect to find in a movie like this. And such, Psychomania is full of bizarre, misplaced quality; from its dreamy, beautiful shots to nonstop action to goofy and dark sense of humor, the film is unlike anything else and highly recommended.