BFI’s Flipside series continues with another excellent release, a completely restored version of Don Sharp’s “zombie biker” film Psychomania (1973), starring George Sanders in his last role, with capable assists from Beryl Reid and Nicky Henson. Sharp’s film should not be confused, as it often is, with Richard Hilliard and Del Tenney’s 1963 brutal, black and white psycho killer film entitled Psychomania (aka Violent Midnight) starring Lee Philips, Shepperd Strudwick and Dick Van Patten. Hilliard and Tenney’s film is an excellent and underrated thriller, but that’s not what we’re considering here.
Sharp’s Psychomania concerns Tom Latham (Henson), the leader of a teenage motorcycle gang, The Living Dead, who with the aid of his devil-worshipping mother (Reid) and her obedient butler Shadwell (Sanders) makes a deal with the Devil for his gang’s literal immortality. Soon the gang members are deliberately killing themselves in a variety of grotesque and spectacular fashions, secure in the knowledge that they will soon be immortal. However, as with all such arrangements, things don’t go precisely as planned. Suffice it to say that business transactions with Satan are a decidedly risky business, for as we all know, the Devil is in the details.
Tom is an impetuous fellow, and he’s suspicious (with good reason) about his parentage and his home life in general. “Why did my father die in that locked room?” he asks Shadwell petulantly. “Why do you never get any older? And what is the secret of the living dead?” Soon enough, Tom’s mother – a curiously distant maternal figure if ever there was one – inducts Tom into the cult. With that accomplished, the rest of the film is a series of violent action set pieces, involving the ritualistic suicide of the gang members and their almost immediate resurrection, in which supermarkets are ransacked, innocent pedestrians are mowed down, and general mayhem ensues.
But that’s just for openers. Like so many motion picture motorcycle gangs before them, Tom has bigger plans, and wants to embark upon a campaign of wholesale violence, murdering policemen, judges, teachers, any authority figure that might hamper the gang’s activities. At this juncture, Tom’s mother and Shadwell intervene to put a halt to Tom’s grandiose scheme, in a manner that’s both bizarre and apparently quite effective.
Sharp’s career as a director was long and distinguished. Psychomania was a distinctly down-market affair from such Hammer classics as Kiss of The Vampire (1963), one of the most lavish films the company ever produced; to say nothing of Sharp’s underappreciated work on Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), starring Christopher Lee in the title role, shot back-to-back with Terence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) on hastily re-propped sets with only a few days of preparation.
But like so many Hammer directors, Sharp failed to adapt to changing times, and while he gives his all to Psychomania, he was more at home at in his last years doing remakes of The Four Feathers and The Thirty-Nine Steps (both 1978). Psychomania was an attempt to break away from the Hammer Gothic formula and embrace an entirely new approach to horror that was far more graphic and violent, but one senses that Sharp felt somewhat out of his depth in this new territory.
Nevertheless, Sharp attacks the project with energy and splatterific panache, if only because the production schedule was so short, and the budget barely sufficient to cover the cost of shooting. Sanders’ role was finished in a mere six days, and he seems alternately baffled and grimly amused by the proceedings, painfully aware that the film is yet another in a long line of low-budget films the actor was obliged to appear in after the collapse of his Cadco Developments Ltd. Company in 1964. During this Sanders barely avoided serving jail time (though he was an innocent dupe in the affair) and he was also coping with the death of his wife, Benita Hume (widow of the late British actor Ronald Colman) in 1967.
After that, Sanders really didn’t seem to care what happened to him; perhaps he felt an affinity to the film because he, too, was one of the “living dead.” Sanders committed suicide shortly after Psychomania’s completion, famously leaving a note that read “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” He was just 65 years old.
But here, even at the end of his tether, brought in for marquee value and little else, Sanders still gives the role everything he has left. He manages to invest the film with an air of authenticity and reality, working for the most part with Beryl Reid. The bulk of Nicky Henson’s scenes concern his activities with the motorcycle gang, as relentlessly “hip” as the bikers Oliver Reed commanded in Joseph Losey’s These Are The Damned (1962).
Henson, at the time a member of London’s Young Vic theatre, jumps into the role of Tom with a dedicated fervor that raises the entire enterprise above the usual drive-in fare. Even as the premise of the film becomes more and more absurd, Henson’s performance never wavers, and he plays it straight throughout the entire film, when it would have been so much easier simply to treat the entire project as a joke.
Psychomania was a resounding commercial success when first released theatrically, and almost immediately recognised as the utterly bizarre film that it undeniably is. There’s an almost Buñuelian aura to the film, which asks the audience to accept an undeniably surreal scenario as entirely plausible, in true Surrealist fashion.
Taking every opportunity to offend and shock its intended teenage audience – even on the BFI restored DVD, the film is still restricted to age 15 and up – Psychomania was almost universally reviled upon its initial release. One critic for the Times of London even stated that the film was only fit to be shown at “SS reunion parties.” For his part, Nicky Henson agreed to appear in the film only because he was convinced that no one would ever see it. But now, of course, it’s become an iconic exploitation film from a bygone era.
The BFI’s restoration comes with a plethora of extras, including interviews with key cast members, an interview with the film’s composer, John Cameron; a brief documentary on Lewis Leathers, who provided the costumes for The Living Dead in return for copious screen credit; the film’s original theatrical trailer; and even a short film on the restoration process which made the current re-release of the film possible. On this last point, it’s worth noting that film, as always, is an inherently unstable medium, and that even relatively recent films require constant protection of they’re going to survive in the 21st century.
In the case of the restoration of Psychomania, as the notes for the disc detail, “the only surviving elements were a damaged Colour Reversal Internegative (CRI) held in Los Angeles, a heavily worn and faded 16mm print and miraculously, a set of 35mm black and white preservation masters (Promaster) held in the Filmoteca Española in Madrid . . . created from an original 35mm negative element in the 1970s.”
As the preservation notes further add, “black and white separations come in three reels for every one reel of film and are a form of preservation aimed at combatting long term colour fading.” The black and white separation masters are then combined, in the manner of classical three-strip Technicolor, using cyan, magenta and yellow filters to create a vibrant, full-color effect. That’s a lot of time, effort, and money spent to recreate the proper colour balance for the film.
Psychomania, of course, was originally shot in single strip Technicolor, in 1.85 : 1 format, and so it’s both reassuring and surprising that the ultimate restoration of the film harkened back to a process originated in 1935 in Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp, and then perfected in such three-strip Technicolor films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind (both directed principally by Victor Fleming in 1939) and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s visually dazzling ode to the silent era, Singin’ in the Rain (1951).
Of course, no one is making any claims for Psychomania to be considered in that august company. But what’s important here is that the artificial barrier between “high” and “low” art is continually being erased by projects such as this, and that the BFI is right to prize both big budget mainstream films, as well as more offbeat exploitation efforts in their continual fight against the ravages of time.
“Seven suicides” blares Psychomania’s tagline. “And they roared back as The Living Dead.” One might say the same thing for Psychomania itself; conceived solely for profit, but now a bonafide cultural artifact of an era almost lost to authentic memory, Psychomania is a film that shows the British film industry, and the horror genre, in the midst of a transformational period – bridging the older reign of Hammer, and the new 1970s era of splatter. It’s an entertaining, and worthwhile way to spend an afternoon or evening, and thanks to the BFI Flipside series, it’s never looked better. Hats off to the BFI! Long may the Flipside series continue!