Thursday, October 31, 2013

Psychomania (1973)

          Produced in the UK and originally titled Psychomania—but rechristened The Death Wheelers for American audiences, the better to capitalize on the popularity of biker flicks—this oddity blends tropes from half a dozen different genres into a truly unique hybrid. Psychomania is an action-biker-horror-comedy that also touches on cults, suicide pacts, and the supernatural. Oh, and demonic frogs, too. In fact, the most bizarre thing about Psychomania is how well all of its component parts fuse together; the picture inhabits a parallel universe all its own, somewhat like Death Race 2000 (1975) or The Warriors (1979), two other ultraviolent stories that are presented like live-action comic books.
          Swaggering Brit Nicky Henson stars as Tom, leader of a UK motorcycle gang called the Living Dead. Sporting absurd helmets with cartoonish skulls painted onto the visors, the Living Dead get their kicks terrorizing normal folks with destructive mischief, often causing fatal accidents just for thrills. Tom is preoccupied with suicide, largely because his mother, Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid), and her mysterious manservant, Shadwell (George Sanders), have some mysterious connection to the netherworld. Tom is convinced that if he can steal the secret of his mother’s power, he can kill himself and return to life as an invincible immortal. Eventually, he does that very thing. Then he celebrates his rebirth with a series of murders before convincing other members of the Living Dead to follow his example. The tension of the movie stems from Tom’s quest to persuade his girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), to kill herself, an overture she repeatedly refuses. There’s also a throwaway subplot involving the cops who investigate murders committed by the Living Dead, though the cops never pose much of a threat.
          Psychomania is quite funny, although the humor is so pitch-black the movie borders on dementia, and the cool thing about the picture is that it’s less of a horror-themed comedy and more of a tongue-in-cheek horror movie. The distinction is subtle but important, since Psychomania is laser-focused on pushing its grim little story forward. Running a brisk 85 minutes, the movie is as wonderfully efficient as it is wonderfully nasty. More than anything, the picture has attitude to burn. Scenes of mayhem are set to acid-tinged Brit-funk, which suits the campy nature of the narrative. More importantly, Psychomania commits wholeheartedly to its blasphemous nature—in addition to a comedic suicide montage (!), there’s a scene implying the murder of a baby just for kicks.
          Director Don Sharp frames the material well with his stylish photography, and screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Julian Zimet never miss a wicked beat. Psychomania is immoral and ridiculous, but the playful tone of the piece never wavers. And if the acting is mostly perfunctory, that’s all to the good, with the performers subsuming themselves to the diseased overmind of the story in the same way the characters become supplicants to nefarious forces. As a case in point, consider the presence of Hollywood veteran Sanders, the urbane thespian known for playing derisive upper-crust types. This was Sanders’ last movie, because in 1972 he killed himself and left behind one of history’s most famous suicide notes: “Dear world, I am leaving you because I am bored . . . I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.” Sanders phones in his performance, but he can’t completely suppress his signature acidic glee in the following exchange with the film’s leading man, upon the demise of a supporting character: After the leading man exclaims, “She’s dead,” Sanders replies, “You must be so happy.”

The Death Wheelers: FREAKY


Tommy Ross said...

Wow, what an interesting pick, never even heard of this, but thanks to you once again, I'm off to the races to go find this gem....

Peter L. Winkler said...

Why does Death Race 2000 also have its release date given as 2000?

By Peter Hanson said...

Just a glitch, Peter. Thanks for catching. Fixed it. said...

"he can kill himself and return to life as an invincible immortal. Eventually, he does that very thing."

Does it involve jumping off a bridge into an interstate?

If yes.

This movie got semi regular play on NYCs WOR-TVs "Fright Night" and NYCs WPIX "Chiller Theater" late on saturdays nights.

It freaked me out as a kid.

"Fright Night" ran from early 1970s to late 1980s.(WOR TVs sister station in LA also ran a similar show)

"Chiller Theater" ran from early 1960s to early 1980s. Best known for its "six fingered hand" opening.