Other people’s movie cults are just weird. My own cult obsessions are, of course, completely justifiable and unquestionable (Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing are two of the greatest things anyone has ever done, and I will fight over that) but the things that other people obsess over make no sense. Psychomania is one of these: an object of adoration for a group a British film fans that, for anyone outside the phenomenon, just seems puzzling.
The premise is hokey enough to guarantee that, unless it was completely incompetent, some people would love it: a British biker gang with snazzy leather jackets calling them “The Living Dead” is led by Tom, the son of an upper class medium with some deep ties to the occult. He believes that, if he really puts his heart into it, he can come back after he dies, and proves it by driving off the motorway into the river. Of course, he comes back (or else there wouldn’t be a movie) and entices the rest of his gang to join him in post-mortem mayhem… all except for his cute girlfriend Abby, who’s totally uptight about the whole suicide thing.
There’s not much plot to speak of. The dead come back, cause mayhem. The police are feckless. The only major conflict (besides the "rebels versus squares" biker gang theme) is between the gang and Abby. They really just want her to shoot herself in the head and be done with this living stuff. She's not so keen.
Bikers and the counterculture are inextricably linked, even though there is a distinct tension between the “good” rebellion of flower in the hair hippies and the violence obsessed biking culture. When Tom says he and his biker chick “blew a guy’s mind,” what they really did was play chicken with him until he crashed and went through his windshield, potentially fatally. After Tom dies (and before he bursts out of the grave riding his motorcycle in one of the show’s admittedly spectacular practical stunts), the gang buries him in a park with standing stones, like a mini-Stonehenge, and one of them sings a hippy refrain about how he’s riding free now. This sort of righteous rebelliousness doesn’t sit particularly comfortably with the scenes of the bikers tearing up a supermarket, including an outrageous gag where one of the bikers drives straight over a baby carriage, the mother screaming for her child all the while.
Psychomania reminds me of the most of Herschell Gordon Lewis' no-budget rebellious youth movie, Just for the Hell of It, which also had a scene of a gang terrorizing a baby by destroying its carriage and putting that child in a trashcan. (In Psychomania’s favor, there’s no shots of an actual baby in harm’s way. Who knows how Lewis got the mom to agree to let strangers drop her screaming child into a real metal trash can in his movie.) That movie was a plotless repetition of the gang doing mean things to people. Psychomania has marginally more story, and certainly a more professional production. In terms of cinematic tradition, Psychomania has its feet in a couple of different streams. Most of it is in the youth rebellion genre, a kind of potboiler Easy Rider. But it also, in several early scenes dealing with the Occult, has a kind of spiritual connection with a different horror movie: more Night of the Demon than Night of the Living Dead, with weird goings-on in séances and locked rooms that contain terrible (and rather oddly filmed) deep secrets.
It is probably the sort of movie that really can capture the imagination of a young person who has never seen something so odd before. There are plenty of terrific stunts in the movie. Beyond the motorcycle riding, there’s at least two astonishing long falls that obviously involve a real person diving out of a window or off of a bridge. The motorcycle riding on the open highway is also really impressive - there are a number of close calls with the cycles riding in and out of traffic that look way better than the movie’s low budget should be able to afford.
There is a real following for this film, one I unknowingly encountered before I’d ever seen it. A doom metal band that I listen to, Electric Wizard, has at least two songs that reference the movie: "We Live", which contains snippets of dialogue from the film, and "The Chosen Few”, which takes its title from a refrain in the incongruous folk song from the film’s funeral. Psychomania has got some charms, including being the last performance of George Sanders - it is rumored that he took his life just after having seen a print of the film in Spain. In the typically numerous extras that Arrow video has put on the Blu-ray, the interviewed cast from the movie are just as perplexed as I am about its longevity. There are some extras from a previous Severin Films release, including a delightful 25-minute retrospective interviewing several of the cast, a short interview with the singer of the folk song and the composer of the excellent psychedelic funk rock score of the movie, and some brand new extras including an interview with the lead actor Nicky Henson (Tom), a tour of the leather shop where the bikers’ outfits were made, and a quick demonstration of the restoration techniques used to make a remarkably clear new edition of this film on home video.
Watching Psychomania is a little like seeing the meeting of a club I’m not a member of. I can see what some of the fuss is about, but I’m not about to throw on some leathers and groove along with it. As just a movie, it’s a slightly plodding occult tale buoyed up by some really good practical stunt work and a clear (though intermittently expressed) sense of anarchic fun. It’s never something I will watch perennially, but I can only imagine this release as being perfect for the true fans who have already been initiated.