Monday, April 7, 2008


We've all been snookered by video box art or movie posters that delivered far less than they promised, especially when we were kids. I can remember being intrigued by the VHS sleeve for Don Sharp's 1973 film PSYCHOMANIA with its skull-faced biker gang and just knowing it would be awesome-scary, if I could just convince my dad to let me rent it. I couldn't (this being the time my "obsession" with horror films was considered unhealthy), thus I had to wait well over 20 years before I discovered that no, PSYCHOMANIA isn't awesome or scary at all. Thanks, Dad.

The film's about the Living Dead motorcycle gang (whose members sport menacing names like Hatchet, Chopped Meat, and Bertram), tooling around the British countryside in search of kicks--which usually involves causing bodily harm to innocent motorists. Their leader Tom (Nicky Henson, looking more like Mick Jagger's love child than a badass biker dude) discovers his father's secret of defeating death in a locked room--a sequence that falls rather short of its intended nightmarishness--which just so happens to be unhesitant suicide. After a police chase featuring some daring motorcycle stunt work, Tom bites it by sailing off a bridge; the remaining gang members bury him astride his bike, in a grave that's not even deep enough to cover him (just what kind of funeral home provides such a service? And do you have to pay extra for it?), but it makes for a cool resurrection scene so it's okay. Of course, there's absolutely no consequences for returning from the dead, thus it takes little persuasion for the Living Dead to become just that, enabling them to be the exact same hooligans before their deaths.

Although it's got an interesting germ of an idea, PSYCHOMANIA fails to do little with it, devoting most of its scenes to the stilted melodrama of Tom's mother (Beryl Reid) and the butler-with-a-secret (George Saunders). Director Sharp sets a eerie, dream-like tone with a slo-mo credit sequence as the bikers encircle a Stonehenge-like structure, but otherwise his style is flat and uninspired, preferring to depict the majority of the film's violence offscreen. The worst offender is Tom himself; though competently played by Henson, the fact that he's a rich mama's boy blunts any edge his character may have.

While obviously inspired by the popularity of EASY RIDER and other counterculture films, the movie is less interested in siding with the anti-establishment than reinforcing the worst fears of an older generation, as the gang terrifies middle-aged "proper" adults almost exclusively. Sadly (for the film, at least), it's best enjoyed as unintended camp, especially the montage as the Living Dead commits suicide, or Reid's self-sacrificing methods of saving her son.

(Below you'll find Tom's burial scene, complete with ear-singeing music no self-respecting biker should be caught dead--sorry--around.)

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