Bikers and witches: Psychomania

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Among the film viewing this past week there was Psychomania (1973), another advance Blu-ray courtesy of the BFI. Americans may know this as The Death Wheelers, a more accurate (if clumsily literal) retitling, although Psychomania does a better job of grabbing the attention. In the micro-genres of the horror film the occult biker picture is a niche with few entries; offhand I can only think of Werewolves on Wheels (1971), a low-grade American production. Most biker films are American so Psychomania is unusual for being British (with an Australian director, Don Sharp), and with a pitch that’s memorable if nothing else: biker gang kill themselves then return from the dead so they can cause mayhem with impunity. The script was the work of Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet whose only other credit is for a curious chiller made the year before, Horror Express. This was a British/Spanish period piece with a good cast (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Telly Savalas) that’s notable—and often overlooked—for being another film based on John W. Campbell’s SF story “Who Goes There?”.

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The Seven Witches and The Living Dead.

Psychomania also has a decent supporting cast despite its frequent swerves into absurdity. Since the subject is a Home Counties’ bike gang, the leader, Tom Latham (Nicky Henson), has a mother (Beryl Reid) who lives in a country house with a very modish interior: all abstract art, scatter cushions, leather furniture and Trimfones. Mrs Latham is the local table-tapper and may also be a witch, although it’s never clear whether the scene of her offering her son to the Devil is Tom’s hallucination or a replaying of past events. Tom’s father has died after some unspecified supernatural encounter in a mysterious locked room where Tom later has the vision of his being sold to the Devil. Then there’s Shadwell (George Sanders), ostensibly the butler of the household but devilish enough to shrink from a cross when it’s offered by grateful séance attendees. Reid and Sanders lend the proceedings some gravitas, even if Sanders (in his final role, and not well at the time) seems to have stooped far below his usual level. Nicky Henson makes a charismatic leader of bike gang The Living Dead, although his tight leather pants, and the shiny leather gear worn by the others, belong to an earlier decade. This is biker gear as imagined by people remembering The Wild One or The Leather Boys, and a long way from the reeking, never-washed denim “originals” favoured by Hell’s Angels and their ilk.

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Chopped Meat (Harvey Andrews) sings Riding Free while Tom is being buried.

It’s probably too much to expect of a low-budget horror film, but watching Psychomania again had me thinking that an opportunity was missed to more accurately reflect the real bike gangs of Britain in the 1970s. Biker culture was a country-wide phenomenon at the time; boys I was at school with were too young to own motorbikes but many had brothers who did, and had picked up from them the fetishising of dying British manufacturers such as Triumph, Norton and BSA. (The Living Dead all ride Triumphs.) A few years later I was hanging around with the bikers who were always present among any group of metal-heads, many of whom were too poor to own British bikes but behaved as though they did. The bikerdom of the 70s had little to do with the bike groups of earlier decades even if the bike brands remained the same. The new model, of course, was California’s Hell’s Angels whose first British chapters appeared in London in the late 1960s, and whose legend was popularised by Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967). Every biker seemed to have read to Thompson’s book, and the presence of Hell’s Angels on British soil led to the swift founding of many imitation groups, forbidden from using the name without Californian approval but grouping themselves under similar handles. A measure of the culture’s appeal to the popular British imagination may be found in the many biker exploitation novels published by New English Library through the mid-70s.

Given all this you’d expect biker culture to be more prevalent in British cinema of the period but the examples are so few there’s really only Psychomania and Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964). The latter documents the pre-Hell’s Angels biker scene via a pseudonymous gay novel that makes similar connections to Kenneth Anger’s almost contemporaneous Scorpio Rising. The gay content is diluted in the film but there’s enough there to make it seem surprisingly bold for the time. Furie’s bikers are a tame bunch compared to The Living Dead, they only want to ride their bikes, not play hogs of the road, and the film as a whole is kitchen-sink-on-wheels, with a link to A Taste of Honey (1961) via Rita Tushingham.

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Abby meets dead Tom at the stone circle.

Psychomania is glossier—well, it’s in colour!—and aims for lurid AIP-style mayhem even if such antics seem out-of-place in leafy Surrey. When Tom’s mother inadvertently gives him the secret of bodily resurrection he goes out and kills himself; after his return from the grave (on a motorcycle!) his gang eagerly follow his example. The film runs out of steam when it becomes apparent that The Living Dead’s idea of making the most of their post-death freedom is the same harassing of pedestrians and other motorists as before. The only question is whether Tom’s girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), will kill herself and join them in an eternity of trashing supermarkets. Abby’s equivocation is signalled by her being the only member of the gang who doesn’t wear leather. The film touches on folk horror with the location of “The Seven Witches”, a circle of standing stones which the gang use as their meeting place, and where they bury Tom after he plunges off a bridge. As with The Wicker Man, which was being filmed around the same time, there’s even an acoustic song interlude from one of the more hippyish bikers.

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George Sanders and Beryl Reid indulge in some home Satanism.

Psychomania was always a welcome sight when it used to appear on late-night television. The combination of bikers and occult rites is unusual enough to sustain the attention even if the implications of the premise go unexplored. Unlike The Wicker Man, however, or the excellent Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970), Psychomania‘s disparate threads fail to cohere, and the film is held together largely by its sense of black humour. Don Sharp’s direction manages a couple of clever single-take sleights, and the soundtrack by John Cameron is very good. Cameron wrote a great deal of library music so was adept at capturing the essence of a style. Psychomania‘s soundtrack plays on the rock grooves of the period, and the theme was issued as a single credited to “Frog” (after the possibly supernatural amphibian that Tom finds in a graveyard).

The film looks excellent on Blu-ray albeit grainier in low-light scenes than other BFI transfers. The audio is also more noise-reduced than I’d prefer. The disc includes the usual wealth of BFI extras: interviews with the surviving cast members; a short interview with John Cameron; an amateur film, Roger Wonders Why (1965), about a pair of Christian (!) bikers; and a black-and-white short for Shell narrated by John Betjeman about the Avebury stone circle. George Sanders is absent from the extras since he killed himself shortly after finishing work on the film. As Michael Weldon notes with typical drollery in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Sanders didn’t return from the dead on a motorcycle. A pity.

Psychomania is released on 19th September.

Smashing Time

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Writing about the late Lynn Redgrave last year I picked out this film as a career highlight despite not having seen it for a very long time. Watching it again recently was an interesting experience, not least for the way it connects to more recent points of obsession, none of them evident the first time round.

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Carnaby Street antics.

Smashing Time was directed by Desmond Davies in 1967, and the direction is as perfunctory as you’d expect from someone whose career before and after was mostly for television. Of more interest is the script by George Melly, a bisexual jazz singer, writer, and lifelong evangelist for Surrealist art. This was his first job as a screenwriter and he seems an odd choice; he was 41 at the time, and his portrayal of Swinging London and its denizens is often typical of the acerbic older generation’s view of the younger groovers. It’s never as cynical as the Private Eye crowd but without Melly’s humour the tone might seem patronising. That said, it was the satire magazine that originated the names of the two lead characters, Brenda (Rita Tushingham) and Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave) being Private Eye‘s names for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret respectively. The story is a simple one of the pair coming to London from the north of England in search of “a smashing time”, and, in Yvonne’s case, an attempt to make it big somehow. Misadventures ensue.

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Brenda in the Too Much boutique.

Along the way there are digs at avant garde artists, lecherous men, greedy pop promoters and wealthy boutique owners. Melly leavens his barbs with yet another example of the Lewis Carroll influence on late-60s culture. There’s a scene in the Jabberwock Gallery and a host of Jabberwocky-derived character names: Tom Wabe (Michael York), Charlotte Brillig, Mrs Gimble (the always wonderful Irene Handl), Bobby Mome-Rath (Ian Carmichael) and Jeremy Tove. There’s also an Alice Boojum and a band named The Snarks (real-life psych band Tomorrow) who don’t get to play, unfortunately. Tomorrow, who appear in the final party scene, are the sole connection with the genuinely hip London of 1967. Everything else we see is the Sunday supplement view of the city with Carnaby Street, shots of Chelsea and a dishevelled Camden, ending with that bright new landmark of 1960s London, the Post Office Tower.

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Yvonne begins her pop career.

My childhood enthusiasm was obviously taken with the film’s superficial qualities—there are so many songs it’s almost a musical—whereas now I’m impatient with the laboured slapstick but enjoy all the peripheral stuff. Many of the documentary shots of streets away from the centre are a reminder of how shabby and grimy the capital really was at that time, as was the rest of Britain when there was still a century of industrial soot on the walls. I also realise I’d missed the double-meaning of the title: “smashing time” isn’t only a modish phrase for an enjoyable experience but a nod to the way Brenda and Yvonne cause havoc wherever they go. The jabs from an older musician at brainless pop culture would have annoyed some but Yvonne’s hit song, I’m So Young (which is actually very good), has lyrics which resonate today:

I can’t sing but I’m young
I can’t do a thing but I’m young
I’m a fool
But I’m cool
Don’t put me down

Lynne Redgrave is fantastic as Yvonne, completely convincing in a part which requires her to be loud, selfish and petulant without ever being too obnoxious. She also wears a different wig in nearly every scene. Among other moments of note there’s some fleeting gay humour with a pair of waiters camping it up in the Sweeney Todd pie shop (as does Murray Melvin in another scene). And there’s also an incident which, being an Aubrey Beardsley obsessive, I have to draw attention to:

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Was this the first appearance of Beardsley’s work in cinema? The V&A exhibition which began the Beardsley revival had taken place only a year before, and I can’t think of any examples earlier than this. The William Morris wallpaper is a fitting touch as well.

Reservations aside, this is a film I could watch more often than “properly” psychedelic fare like Wonderwall. For a snapshot of the period, it’s still a smash, baby.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Lynn Redgrave, 1943–2010
Through the Wonderwall

Lynn Redgrave, 1943–2010

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Lynn Redgrave did a lot more than just Georgy Girl (1966) and Smashing Time (1967), of course, but the latter especially made an indelible impression on me when it turned up on TV in the early 1970s. George Melly’s smart and funny poke at the pretensions of Swinging London has a satirical edge which meant nothing to a nine-year-old, I just loved the exaggerated modishness, the Richard Lester-style wacky direction and especially Lynn and Rita, two girls from “up north” who I’d have loved to have as older sisters. I haven’t seen Smashing Time for years, it was one of those films which was so much of its time that it seemed to vanish from TV schedules and was never available in video form. I see there was a DVD release in the US although that’s now been deleted. Happily YouTube is more reliable, so here’s Rita and the splendidly camp Murray Melvin (both of whom were in A Taste of Honey) in the ‘Too Much’ boutique, and Lynn recording I’m So Young, the song which makes her a pop star. Austin Powers is a fake, baby, this is the real thing.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Through the Wonderwall