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Deathwheelers, Just Riding Free: On Don Sharp’s Psychomania.

psychomania_dfeThere’s nothing, in my mind, that beats a good old biker flick for that special kind of wild ride. The possibilities for madness and mayhem seem endless.The Modern day counter-culture equivalent of the viking: raping, plundering and pillaging their way through life; outlaw bikers tear up the dirt roads and everything they come into contact with. A Byronic anti-hero for modern times; clad in leather, freewheeling, free loving, all sweat, frantic energy and rock n roll. Who can possibly resist their undeniable allure?

By the seventies, biker films were hitting their peak, however the genre can be traced back much further. The early fifties saw the creation of the motorcycle outlaw—in the wake of the iconic The Wild One (1953); when Marlon Brando got all leathered up and taught audiences bikers were dangerous and sexy. Films like Hammer’s The These are the Damned (1963), or Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho (1965) further linked the idea with a sense of savage anarchy that the drive-in market was quick to take advantage of. While Roger Corman’s slightly less ominous The Wild Angels(1966), signalled “I just wanna be free” as a battle cry; thus summoning legions of Hell’s Angels to burst onto our screens. For a little while, at least, the sound of revving engines was deafening.

As the new decade dawned, post-Manson family cynicism gave the counterculture figure a new air of brutality and menace. Seventies biker films became more nihilistic in tone, nastier, more violent. This trend would continue to the end of the seventies, where the theme came to signify an exciting brand of modern primitivism: leaving the dregs of hippy peace and love culture behind, to join forces with punk rock, stirring up post-apocalyptic death and destruction in Mad Max (1979) or other films of its ilk.  

It might seem a little unnecessary to provide an entire history lesson on biker films in order to appreciate Psychomania (1973) (aka The Death Wheelers), but bear with me for a second longer. The film, while having a cult following, admittedly hardly packs the same punch as say Easy Rider, or the aforementioned Mad Max. However, it is my belief that the reason Psychomania is such a classic title, so endearing, so charming, is exactly because of the way in which it fails to achieve many of the subversive traits that are inherent in the genre. To appreciate it, is to understand why it is so different and relish it for all its quirks. If you are prepared to overlook the lack of overt sex and violence one would expect from a seventies biker flick, it really is an adorable little treat. The perfect time capsule, where British politeness meets leather clad aristocracy, with a little black magic infused into its peculiar flavour, just for good measure. The fact that BFI Flipside have chosen to restore this wonderful offering to BD this month is something we should all be grateful for.

Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania (1973)

So let’s look at matters in further detail. The basic story is thus: Tom Latham (played by a cocky and somewhat charming Nicky Henson) has been looking for the secret of eternal life. He believes his mother (Beryl Reid)—who likes to hold seances in her spare time—and her creepy butler Shadwell (George Sanders in his last film before his tragic suicide a year later), might know the answer to this. The key lies in the strange circumstances of Tom’s father’s death; the man’s body was found in a locked room some years earlier, with no apparent explanation for his sudden demise. Obviously troubled by this,Tom rebels against his upper class roots; escaping the impressive mansion he lives in with his mother, to burn rubber with his gang: The Living Dead; a horde of, quote/unquote, crazy biker chums—who have nicknames like Hatchet, Gash and Chopped Meat. They like to tear around the local town terrorising shoppers, hang out at a mist soaked stone circle, The Seven Witches, or generally engage in what the British like to call, “dossing about” for most of the time. Tom’s mother doesn’t really want to give up what she knows, but is cheated by the manipulative imp into spilling the mystery. If you want eternal life, it’s quite easy: you just have to kill yourself with the intention to return. If that intention is strong enough, you will be back in no time.

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Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania combines two of the dominant sub genres of the era, Satanic Panic and Outlaw Bikers, to produce something of a crossover flick. In the States, the same year, there was a similar meshing in Werewolves on Wheels. However, where Werewolves packed a certain amount of seedy Grindhouse grit, and came with dirty, naked, sexually free, drugged up hippies, Psychomania chose another route. Borrowing the standard leather gear from The Wild One, the first clue comes in the fact that The Living Dead have their jackets adorned with what looks like garish fabric marker from Hobbycraft (possibly done by Tom’s doting mother). Avoiding desert dust clouds in favour of beautiful pastoral settings and foggy countryside, the film is charmingly British in all the best ways imaginable. It has similar contrasting comparisons to say the American Count Yorga—a film which refreshed the vampire genre, and made it slick and funky for contemporary audiences—and Dracula AD 1972; which, attempting to follow the same path, although highly entertaining, couldn’t quite hide its awkwardness when it came to embracing the idea of being cool. Wolves and Psychomania seem to inhabit those same counterpoints and are both lovable for all the same reasons.  

Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania (1973)

Although Psychomania doesn’t offer the perverse sadism of many of its US cousins, it does have bloodless suicides, folk songs and Beryl Reid as a Satanic queen. It has a mystical frog. And if that isn’t enough to tempt you, a main anti-hero who spurts off dialogue about “the fuzz” in pure cut glass upper crust diction. Even though the string of suicides, and consequent resurrections, avoid the use of graphic effects to make their point, they are, if nothing more, inventive and entertaining: a man leaps from a tower block to deliver the macabre punchline in a joke on an unsuspecting copper; another weighs himself down, before diving into a river, with a look on his face that says “do I look bothered?”. Everything carries a tongue in cheek vibe, winking quite obviously to the fact that no one was really taking anything that seriously. Yet despite this, the film does have some very dark themes; a ghoulish fascination with suicide and death; with many instances of gallows type humour on display—like an undead Ann Michelle hanging herself, before springing back to life, noose still wrapped around her throat, or the hijinks caused by The Living Dead gang reanimating in the morgue. It’s true that most of the gang’s marauding proves quite innocuous, but they do murder a few people on their voyage of self destruction too. Then there is Tom’s relationship with his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) to consider; Tom’s behaviour towards the girl veering on cruel and controlling at times. Not to mention his relationship with his mother which possesses more than just a whiff of being far too close for comfort on some unspoken level.

Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania (1973)

Director Don Sharp had a bit of a history for creating slightly offbeat, visually beautiful, British horror films that centred on cult and black magic themes; with Psychomania completing something of an unofficial trilogy of titles on the same riff, done in different ways. His breakthrough into the genre came via British horror giants Hammer studios, when he directed the decadent and sumptuous Kiss of the Vampire (1963). A marked departure from the studio’s establishing Dracula line; here vampirism was linked to Satanic cults, and black magic. Then he went on to do Witchcraft (1964); which starred a disheveled Lon Chaney Jr as a cult leader trying to resurrect one of his dead witch ancestors to conclude a family feud. Shot in black and white, the film is a bit of an oddity; especially when you consider we are led to believe Chaney’s character has spent his entire life in a quaint English village, but barks out his lines in a strong American drawl. Despite its inconsistencies, and lack of action over all, there are moments of sublime Gothic atmosphere to be found. This sense of the Gothic is carried on through to Psychomania; with modern life clashing with shadows of the past—concrete shopping centre, or suburban tower block, set against English stately home and pagan stone circle,where juvenile delinquency meets the Faustian pact, and high fashion interior design mingles with black candles, Ouija boards, and magic circles. And somewhere in there, even though the film appears to be dancing to its own beat entirely, when you compare it to its peers, it somehow all makes perfect sense.

Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania (1973)

This latest release comes packed with a host of extras, and an upgraded print, that while not completely free of the odd crackle or bit of dust—in reflection of the film’s status and age—does showcase Sharp’s strong visual style; particularly his use of colour.

The extras are as follows:

  • Return of the Living Dead (2010, 25 mins): interviews with stars Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, and more
  • Sound of Psychomania (2010, 9 mins): interview with soundtrack composer John Cameron
  • Riding Free (2010, 6 mins): interview with Riding Free singer Harvey Andrews
  • An interview with Nicky Henson (2016): a new interview with actor Nicky Henson, star of Psychomania
  • Leather and Hell: Dressing the Living Dead (2016): new featurette on the company who supplied the film’s costumes
  • Discovering Britain with John Betjeman: Avebury, Wiltshire (1955, 4 mins): the famous British poet narrates this travelogue about the Avebury stone circle and nearby burial grounds
  • Roger Wonders Why (1965, 18 mins): a church-made amateur film which sees two Christian biker youths visit the legendary 59 Club, where they meet its founder, Rev. Bill Shergold
  • Remastering Psychomania (2016)
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Fully illustrated booklet with new writing by Andrew Roberts, Vic Pratt, and Will Fowler

For me, the interview featurettes Return of the Living Dead—with cast and crew, including the inimitable Nicky Henson—as well as the dedicated interview with star Henson, and Riding Free—where singer Harvey Andrews provides some highly entertaining commentary on how he composed, and sang the main theme song “Riding Free”—were welcome additions. All in all Flipside have put a lot of care and effort into their restoration and packaging of this great British cult classic.

Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania (1973)

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her writing has appeared in the pages of Fangoria, Scream Magazine (UK) and Gothic culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. She has recently worked a number of liner notes for cult home video label Arrow Films, as well as appearing on camera for them, written for Senses of Cinema and is currently working on a book on Daughters of Darkness (1971) for the Devil's Advocates Series (Auteur).

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