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Psychomania

Psychomania(1973)

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teaser Psychomania (1973)

In an otherwise peaceful English village, spoiled young brat Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is raising all kinds of hell with his skull-faced biker gang, the Living Dead. With his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) by his side, Tom leads these malcontents up and down the roads at top speed as they clip pedestrians and cars and sometimes terrorize local businesses. Meanwhile Tom's mother (Beryl Reid) and her butler, Shadwell (George Sanders), idle away their time worshipping a pagan frog statue capable of bringing humans back from the dead as long as they want it badly enough at the moment of death. (Apparently Tom's late father didn't quite pass the test.) Giddy at the thought of riding his hog for all eternity, Tom sails off a bridge during a police chase but, following a solemn, chopper-themed funeral, bursts out of his grave and becomes even more of a public nuisance than before. Every member of the Living Dead is soon following Tom's example and turning into zombies on wheels, but Abby's failure to join them causes a rift resulting in a final showdown between good and evil.

The move away from gothic horror to modern thrills in the early '70s resulted in a number of peculiar British horror films; just see Dracula A.D. 1972 [1972], Frightmare [1974] and Don't Look Now [1974] for three very different methods of addressing this shift. However, none are more peculiar than this attempt to capture the youth market created by the success of Easy Rider [1969], crossed with some undead trappings borrowed from George A. Romero.

Psychomania was directed by a respected Hammer Films veteran, Australian-born Don Sharp, who made a very auspicious horror debut in 1963 with one of the studio's best films, The Kiss of the Vampire. His other Hammer titles include The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), but some of his best work of that decade lay elsewhere as evidenced by the first two Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films (The Face of Fu Manchu [1965] and The Brides of Fu Manchu [1966]), the underrated Curse of the Fly (1965), and the atmospheric Witchcraft (1964). However, the 1970s proved far more uneven for the director, as he took a long break after 1969 and finally returned in 1973 with <>Psychomania and another horror film, the minor Joan Collins vehicle Dark Places. Afterwards he only helmed a few additional films including the worthwhile 1978 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps and a flawed 1979 all-star adaptation of Alistair MacLean's Bear Island. His flair for fast pacing, efficient use of limited funds and dark humor are well in evidence throughout Psychomania, particularly its unforgettable suicide montage which finds the Living Dead members offing themselves in a mounting succession of blackly comic vignettes.

A very recognizable face in British films and TV since the 1960s, lead Nicky Henson had small roles in films such as Mike Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968) and the Peter Sellers comedy There's a Girl in My Soup (1970) before graduating to lead roles in the '70s, though he mainly worked in television for most of his career. Following Psychomania he returned with a more broadly comic horror film as the hero in 1974's Old Dracula with David Niven, followed by the lead in 1976's sex comedy The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones. However, his most memorable performance from the era for most viewers came in 1979 as the chain-wearing, open-shirted "monkey" Mr. Johnson in the classic "The Psychiatrist" episode of the immortal British series Fawlty Towers. More recently he had a regular role throughout 2006 on the popular UK series EastEnders and returned to the big screen with roles in Vera Drake (2004) and Syriana (2005).

Among the members of the Living Dead (which features colorful character names like Gash, Chopped Meat and Hatchet), the face most familiar to genre fans is the female rival for Tom's affections, Jane, who is played by Ann Michelle. This extremely beautiful actress made a splash appearing with her sister Vicki in the 1972 sexy horror cult favorite Virgin Witch, followed in 1974 by Mistress Pamela and Pete Walker's galvanizing House of Whipcord, and two 1977 cable TV staples, the Koo Stark vehicle Cruel Passion (aka Marquis De Sade's Justine) and the extremely popular Young Lady Chatterley. Like her co-star, she then became a regular face on television and continues to make occasional guest appearances.

The most surprising cast member of Psychomania is surely veteran performer George Sanders, a witty, Russian-born thespian who first caught audience attention in 1939 with five appearances as Simon Templar, aka "The Saint," beginning with The Saint Strikes Back. He returned with four installments in another cinematic crime series as "The Falcon" in the 1940s, but by this point he was also landing plum one-shot roles in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent (both 1940), Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941), John Brahm's The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), the definitive 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the romantic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). This impressive run was capped off in 1950 with his best-remembered role as the acid-tongued Addison DeWitt in All About Eve for which he earned an Academy Award. He continued acting for the rest of his career, most notably in 1960's classic Village of the Damned, A Shot in the Dark [1964], several more collaborations with Fritz Lang including While the City Sleeps (1956) and Moonfleet (1955), a comic turn as Fabius Maximus in the Esther Williams vehicle Jupiter's Darling (1955), and the voice of villainous tiger Shere Khan in Walt Disney's The Jungle Book (1967). Shortly after the completion of Psychomania and before its actual release, he committed suicide in Barcelona, Spain on April 25, 1972, leaving behind a darkly witty, oft-quoted note. As film writer Michael J. Weldon noted, he did not return on a motorcycle.

Sanders' co-star in the film, seasoned British stage and screen actress Beryl Reid, was one of the country's most familiar media personalities and a regular TV fixture, even hosting multiple self-hosted variety shows. She became extremely in-demand starting in the late '60s with roles including Robert Wise's Star! (1968), Robert Aldrich's highly controversial The Killing of Sister George (1968, with Reid cast as a bullying lesbian), the excellent cult favorite The Assassination Bureau (1969), the Joe Orton adaptation Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970), the drive-in fixture The Beast in the Cellar (1970), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) and Joseph Andrews (1977). Her last big-screen role was in another British horror film, Freddie Francis' The Doctor and the Devils (1985).

One of the most striking immediate aspects of Psychomania is the unique music score, an atmospheric combination of rock and folk influences which sets a haunting tone over the opening credits of bikes circling in a misty graveyard. This was one of the earlier scores by John Cameron, a name best known to devotees of vintage library recordings for labels like KPM and DeWolfe whose work appeared in countless TV shows and commercials. His other scores written for the big screen include Kes (1970), The Ruling Class (1972), A Touch of Class (1973) and The Mirror Crack'd (1980). The cinematographer of Psychomania, Ted Moore, also contributes more of a professional sheen than one would expect; he had already shot five James Bond films by this point starting with Dr. No [1962] (and soon to be followed by two more), with other credits including A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and the last three Ray Harryhausen features, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981).

Producer: Andrew Donally
Director: Don Sharp
Screenplay: Julian Halevy, Arnaud d'Usseau
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Art Direction: Maurice Carter
Music: John Cameron
Film Editing: Richard Best
Cast: Nicky Henson (Tom Latham), Mary Larkin (Abby Holman), Ann Michelle (Jane Pettibone), Roy Holder (Bertram), Denis Gilmore (Hatchet), Miles Greenwood (Chopped Meat), Peter Whitting (Gash), Rocky Taylor (Hinky), Robert Hardy (Chief Inspector Hesseltine), Patrick Holt (Sergeant), Alan Bennion (Constable), John Levene (Constable), Beryl Reid (Mrs. Latham), George Sanders (Shadwell).
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by Nathaniel Thompson

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