Seven Suicides – and they roared back as The Living Dead.
The biker and the biker gang has long been a staple of American popular culture. There was Brando in The Wild One, who influenced the motorcycle-riding James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Then there was Easy Rider, and though the weekend-warrior Harley Davidson rider has caused the biker to get relegated to minor villain status in a million police procedurals, it’s clear that they haven’t gone away (Sons of Anarchy proves that for sure). But it’s not like motorcycles are an exclusively American phenomenon. The Japanese have been making bikes for decades, and several well-loved motorcycles originated in Britain. So it’s not a surprise that in addition to selling us their bikes, the UK would also produce their own biker flicks. Psychomania, aka The Death Wheelers, is one such film. It’s a trippy example of the genre that gets a better Blu-ray release than the film probably deserves.
Tom (Nicky Henson, Blitz) is the leader of a biker gang called “The Living Dead.” He’s also the son of a woman who holds séances in her house with her mysterious butler (George Sanders, All About Eve). When Tom is killed and comes back, he entices his gang to try the same process and the bikers end up terrorizing the small town around “The Seven Witches,” a mini-Stonehenge grouping of rocks.
It’s hard to convey in words just how crazy Psychomania really is. There’s a car crash, a séance, and some demonic toad worship in just the first few minutes. And things get weirder from there. Part of the film’s effect comes from the transportation of a largely-American genre (the biker picture) to the wilds of rural England. Something is lost in the translation, as Tom and his gang are never quite as menacing as biker mythology would usually have us believe. Sure, they terrorize the town by riding around and destroying property. And sure they do come back from the dead, but they’re just a bit too dandy, a bit too mod to be truly threatening.
The other half that makes Psychomania compelling is the rural England aspect of things. The 70s in Britain were a weird time for rural folk media. Think of The Wicker Man. Most of the England we see on screen is London, and there’s so much more to the country, including its stone monuments. All those weird, folky aspects appear in Psychomania, and they make a strange contrast with the heavier, biker aspects of the plot.
Despite its weirdness, Psychomania probably would have drifted into total obscurity were it not for a particularly trivial fact: it is the last film of screen legend George Sanders. He had been in declining health for years, and this is far from his best performance. And yet his magnetism is still there, as is his voice. The film also features genre stalwart Beryl Reid (of Dr. Phibes Rises Again) and Nicky Henson (who some may recognize from Downton Abbey much later in his life).
Though the film is by no means a classic, Arrow have treated the film like it’s a lost treasure of UK cinema. The 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is drawn from a black-and-white safety negative. That means that the original colors were preserved on three separate strips with various filters applied to ensure that the colors wouldn’t fade with time. So that means all three reels had to be separately clean and remastered before having reverse filters applied and then they were combined. Given all that, the image looks fantastic. Detail is pretty strong, with close-ups faring better than the wider shots. Grain can be a bit variable, with some looking thick but film-like, and other times it gets a bit blocky Colors look a bit washed out, but all things considered they’re pretty solid. A bit of damage crops up now and again, but it’s not too distracting. Overall the image looks surprisingly good. It’s not great, but considering the age and condition of the elements it’s difficult to imagine the film looking any better. The films’ LPCM mono soundtrack somehow came through the decades largely unscathed. Dialogue sounds clean and clear throughout. Some of the effects (motorcycles, etc) can sound a bit like they were recorded on a soundstage, but the excellent use of music makes up for those shortcomings.
Extras start with a 2010 retrospective featurette (made by Severin) and featuring interviews with all the expected principles. Nicky Henson gets a separate interview that spends 14 minutes discussing his experiences on the film. Then we get interviews with the film’s composer, the singer of the film’s theme song, and the guy who provided all the riding leathers to the gang. It’s an odd assortment of interviews compared to the usual “special edition,” but they fit on this oddball film. A short featurette on the film’s restoration is included, as is the film’s trailer. Arrow also provides an illustrated booklet with info on the film.
Of course everything that works for the film also works against it. Psychomania has a lot of ideas stirring in its narrative pot. But it doesn’t really know what to do with them, so we get a mish-mash of things happening without much in the way of logic or narrative drive. It’s a bit like a British take on Jean Rollin’s surrealistic films. With Rollin, the plot points kind of drift by in a haze of non-logic. The same thing happens in Psychomania, but without all the castles, nudity, and dubbing of a Rollin film. If all you want is a bunch of crazy nonsense to happen, then Psychomania will probably satisfy, but if you’re looking for narrative logic and character development, best steer clear.
Three cheers to Arrow for rescuing a bit of British cinema history. Psychomania will probably always be famous as George Sanders final role, but it’s a weird bit of English oddity all on its own. Fans of British biker gangs and the occult world of rural England should especially look forward to this one.