I admit I did a double-take upon pulling up the imdb entry for today's movie, Don Sharp's 1973 British living-dead bikers flick Psychomania (aka The Death Wheelers). It was that "1973" that pulled me up short--by its style, tone, and decor, I'd have guessed the movie was at least 4-5 years older than that, certainly older than George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) or the Hell's Angels incident at Altamont, factors which it seems to me would have had to inform any movie made after them that dealt with a) rampaging motorcycle gangs or b) zombies. Incredibly, Psychomania wraps both these things into one movie--it's about a living dead motorcycle gang, for Pete's sake!--and yet seems strangely uninformed by either of those seminal events.
As a result, for me the movie has a sort of antiquated, frankly naive charm about the way it presents its ne'er-do-well gang of rebellious youth, a motorcycle gang more in the mold of 1953's The Wild One than more modern, super-violent movie bikers (though to be fair, Brando's crew would still kick these guys' asses) , and the rather blase, un-zombified, un-gut-munching take on what it means to come back from the dead. Unfortunately, as it is in life so it is in movies: charm will only take you so far, and eventually you have to make with the goods.
The movie starts out very promisingly, with a series of credits-sequence shots showing a group of leather-clad bikers around a fog-shrouded circle of stones. We learn later that this Stonehenge-like ancient monument is known as "The Seven Witches," and legend has it that these are the remains of a coven who broke their deal with the Devil and were punished by being turned to stone. The moody cinematography and slow-motion riders deliciously called to my mind the Blind Dead's famous riding technique from Armando D'Ossorio's famous series, but with iron horses instead of fleshy ones.
We soon learn that our bikers are part of the tantalizingly named gang "The Living Dead," a group of mod-era miscreants who stalk the motorways with their skeletal-font jackets and wonderfully designed skull-face helmet visors, searching for any excuse to run squares off the road and cause whatever havoc they may. The group is led by stoical thrill-seeker Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), whose Mother (Beryl Reid) is a rich widow and a dabbler in the occult. Tom is a spoiled, amoral brat, whose lack of compassion for anybody or anything distresses his good-girl biker mama Abby (Mary Larkin). After Tom interrupts a graveside make-out session with Abby in order to capture a Satanic toad, his flustered girlfriend admits, "Sometimes you scare me, Tom!" The stone-faced Wild One spits back, "It's not me that scares you--it's the world!" No, I'm pretty sure it's just you, frog-licker.
Having got all the kicks he can from a life of privelige and random acts of vehicular homicide, Tom is now bored to the point of suicidal thoughts. Abby is afraid to "cross over" with him, despite his seemingly nonsensical assurances that "We'll come back!" Turns out Tom has an inside line on immortality thanks to his parents' occult interests--his father apparently had discovered the secret to returning from the dead, though the old man bungled his sole attempt years ago, thus leaving Tom without a strong male role model and precipitating him into a life of bike-riding and peace-breaching. Anxious to shuffle off his mortal coil to ride for kicks through the Undiscovered Country, Tom grills his indulgent Mum for Dad's secret.
After discussing the matter with her suspiciously occult-savvy manservant Shadwell (George Sanders in his last film role), Mum gives Tom a key to the room where Daddy died, which has been shut for 18 years. Once inside Tom finds himself face-to-face with a full-length mirror that shows him visions from the past, as he sees his mother, dressed as if she's on her way down the shops for the day, standing in the center of the Seven Witches and summoning The Devil, then cheerfully signing away her first-born son (who is nearby in a cute little bassinet) to his Diabolic Majesty in exchange for...something. That part isn't clear. At any rate, horror of it all causes Tom to faint dead away, but when he awakens and hears Mum and Shadwell talking about the secret of living death, he quickly jumps up and heads out to have a go.
The secret, as it turns out, is elegant in its simplicity: in order to return from the dead, you simply have to BELIEVE that you will--but really, really believe, without a shred of doubt in your skull. (Apparently Tom's dad hesitated at the moment of death and so was lost.) With the courage that can only be gained through intense boredom and pants-stretching arrogance, Tom summons his gang for another rampage, this one through a shopping center downtown, where the Living Dead crash through vendor stalls, knock over bread sellers, joust with stolen umbrellas, and generally run the gauntlet of street-chase slapstick gags until the cops show up--check that, the COP (the constabulary could apparently only spare the one)--to chase them off. The Living Dead lead the copper on a lively hunt until, on a long bridge crossing the Thames, Tom screams toodle-oo at life and crashes over the side to his watery grave.
Sobered by the death of her morose sweety, Abby goes to the Latham estate to ask Mum if the Living Dead can bury Tom "in our own way." Surprisingly--and hilariously--the gang's "way" is to bury their leader on his bike in a grave that's clearly a few inches too shallow. While Tom's corpse sits bolt upright and holds onto the handlebars like...well, Grim Death (what did they do, nail him there?), the rest of the gang don Hippie Clothes and throw flower wreaths into his grave, while one of them sings a plaintive and earnest folk song that producers were doubtless hoping would be a hit single, "Riding Free." With lyrics like "They tried to clip his wings just like a fly...so instead of standing still, he chose to DIE!", I don't see why it didn't burn up the charts!
So why would the Living Dead fish Tom's bike out of the river, presumably restoring it to working order and filling the tank with gas, then just bury the mean machine with him? If you guessed "So that he can come bursting out of the grave with tires squealing to wreak his vengeance upon the living!" then give yourself a biscuit! Because of course that's exactly what happens. Trailing grave dust, ZomTom starts living his death to the fullest by running down a pedestrian, killing a gas station attendant, and then staging a massacre at his local pub--but not before telephoning his Mum and Shadwell with the good news. Neither seems at all surprised that he's made it back, and are quite excited to hear he's coming home dead--it's like The Monkey's Paw in Bizarro World.
Once ZomTom reveals himself to the rest of the gang and further informs them that once you're dead you can't be hurt, the bikers can't fling themselves off bridges fast enough--all except Abby, who is still reluctant to cross over, despite her boyfriend's proof of concept. The scenes with the other bikers doing themsevles in for immortality are some of the more entertaining ones in the movie, as one leaps into the river bearing Jacob Marley-style chains, another drops off an overpass into oncoming traffic, and another decides to go out from 15,000 feet via a purposefully thwarted skydiving attempt! I guess it's a good thing coming back from the dead reconstitutes your bones from powder and slaps your brain back inside your skull for you, what?
So what do you do once you're immortal and invulnerable? Well...pretty much the same things you did before, only MUCH HARDER. The gang goes on another shopping centre rampage, this time killing pedestrians and destroying an entire Sainsbury's Grocery Store (in the most vicious scene, red-jacketed femme fatale Jane [Ann Michelle] lines up and revs through a baby stroller, to the mellifluous wails of the occupant). Later Tom lays out his plans to his Mother and Shadwell--he plans to kill judges, teachers, policemen, anyone in authority, forever and ever. Shadwell gasps incredulously, "You mean the entire Establishment?!" Sure, if that's all you got.
It's the "Don't Go Out Like a Punk" death montage!
Like I say, Psychomania is not without its charms. For one thing, it's a very groovy movie, with all the mini-miniskirts, mod fashions and psychedelic furniture you could want. (The opening shots of Mrs. Latham's parlor are particularly envy-inducing for anyone with a taste for the groovy.) The version of the motorcycle gang mystique here is, as I say, kind of old fashioned even for 1973, but kind of charming for all that.
The acting is fairly good--standouts are Larkin as the confused Abby, Henson as bored and amoral Tom (I was detecting notes of Malcom McDowell in A Clockwork Orange), and Michelle as the wildcat Jane. Pug-nosed, baby-faced Denis Gilmore is the best of the bikers as the psychopathically vicious Hatchet. And of course George Sanders is excellent as Shadwell, who clearly is more than just the butler at the Latham estate.
The main problem I have with Psychomania is that, given its subject matter and ESPECIALLY given its production year, I'd have expected a little more in terms of horror-y goodness, and it's just not there. Most scenes take place in broad daylight--even the graveyard resurrection--and would have benefited from a darker, more gothic atmosphere. The zombie bikers suffer absolutely no ill-effects from dying--no rotting, no loss of memory or personality, not even a lowering in body temperature. (In fact, the only side-effect seems to be increased arrogance and insufferableness.) The murders, what few of them there are, are mostly bloodless, and there's no sex or nudity to speak of, just TV-style British innuendo. Worst, a good portion of the movie is made up of long riding/chase scenes, which are exciting and well staged the first time you see them, but quickly wear out their welcome.
I began to wonder at one point whether the flick might have been intended as a kind of campy farce--the point exactly was when the last 4 bikers get put in glass sideways-oriented morgue drawers that look more like refrigerator salad crispers and all wake up at the same time to surprise the coroner. But if there were supposed to be laughs here, they're underplayed as much as the horror and violence elements, which results in a rather boring last half-hour. The ending, when one might have expected a little dust-crumbling or flesh-rotting for one's money, is a severe anticlimax.
Psychomania is fun in its way, but really could have been a lot more. It's worth seeing at least once, but no more than that. 1.75 thumbs, or 2 if you really like the mod era.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Some families tiptoe around the Elephant in the room. Tom's prefer to lounge around the Decapitated Spaceman.