Psychomania

| February 22, 2017

Biker gang movies of the 60s and 70s tended to depict groups of motorcycle enthusiasts as violent hedonists whose hard-livin’ ways were frequently at odds with The Establishment. There were some notable variations on the basic formula set forth in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels in 1966: The Pink Angels (1972) followed a group of gay bikers posing as macho men to avoid being hassled by The Man and other bikers, and in The Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976) a gang is framed for a crime they didn’t commit by corrupt cops. And there was an occasional genre take on the biker movie, like Werewolves on Wheels (1971). But Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers) is perhaps the pinnacle of delinquent biker gang genre cinema. While the film has previously been released on DVD by Severin Films, Arrow Video has now given this cult artifact a spectacular Blu-ray update.

Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of the biker gang The Living Dead and the son of a famous medium (Beryl Reid). He and the gang terrorize their local village, but what Tom really wants is something he suspects mysterious family confidante Shadwell (George Sanders) can give him: eternal life. Sure enough, Tom braves the secrets of the Latham estate’s mysterious locked room and comes out with the answer, and a mission. The next day he commits suicide during a police chase after The Living Dead annoy people in the village shopping district, and sure enough he’s back in action shortly thereafter. Having returned from the grave, Tom is invincible and relentless, gleefully murdering anyone who happens to stray into his path.

The fuzz come down hard on The Living Dead when they think someone has stolen Tom’s identity to commit crimes, but the gang soon learns the truth and they’re anxious to follow in his footsteps. All of them, that is, except Tom’s skittish girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin). Abby seemed out of her element enough when The Living Dead were just causing local drivers to die in car wrecks; the idea of killing herself to return from the dead to enact an eternal reign of motorcycle-based terror on the poor folks who happen to live in her hometown is well outside her comfort zone. When Tom’s mother discovers he has shared the secret of becoming truly undead, she begins to doubt the wisdom of her bargain with the demonic Shadwell. Will Tom convince Abby to kill herself and join him and the rest of The Living Dead in annoying people on their motorcycles forever? Or will someone find a way to stop their rampage before it’s too late?

Psychomania was directed by Don Sharp, a veteran horror director who had worked for 20th Century Fox (The Curse of the Fly) and Hammer (Rasputin: The Mad Monk) among others. He gives Psychomania a flavor very much of its time, with a look similar to contemporary UK horror productions like 1972’s Tales from the Crypt. In its specific details, though, this is almost more of an absurdist comedy. The Living Dead wear goofy skull helmets, and the sequence in which the members kill themselves is flat-out hilarious. Some of this is certainly intentional, although it’s probably a safe bet that some of the more campy amusements–including an over reliance on instantly dated slang and a bizarrely earnest acoustic ballad sung at Tom’s makeshift funeral–have aged like a fine wine into something the filmmakers never quite intended. It’s a hugely entertaining film that absolutely lives up to its legendary reputation.

Arrow Video has given Psychomania a typically excellent home video release, the centerpiece of which is a complete restoration of the film from its black and white separation masters. As with virtually all of Arrow’s releases, it’s a huge improvement over any previously available home video version of the film. There are occasional very minor color issues, but that’s likely due to the highly unique process required for the restoration. A featurette on the disc shows how the film was restored and its color enhanced, which is fascinating but far too brief. In addition to this and the inclusion of the “making of” featurettes originally produced for the previous Severin Films DVD, there is other new material in the disc’s special features. There’s a 14-minute interview with star Nicky Nenson and a featurette on the boutique that provided the biker gear for The Living Dead (the oldest such business in the UK, founded in the 1890s). As always, Arrow has packaged the film with a beautiful reversible sleeve and the first printing of the disc includes a lengthy booklet with writing by William Fowler, Vic Pratt, and Andrew Roberts. It’s a spectacular package that any cult film fan will be proud to have in their collection.

Arrow Video released Psychomania on Blu-ray/DVD on 21 February 2017.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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