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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

PSYCHOMANIA -- DVD review by porfle

Here's an odd little artifact from the early 70s--a horror movie with no real horror or scares, a biker movie without a single "real" biker, and what appears to be an exploitation flick that's as tame as an extended episode of an old TV series.  In fact, director Don Sharp (CURSE OF THE FLY) helmed a few episodes of "The Avengers" and brings the same competent but rather dry style to PSYCHOMANIA, aka "The Death Wheelers" (1973), turning it into a pleasantly diverting yet ultimately bland experience. 

Still, this seems to be a fondly-remembered flick for a lot of people (including Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, who gushes about it during his five-minute introduction), especially those who look back on it through that nostalgic VHS-bargain-bin haze of their youth.  I can imagine enjoying it a lot more on a drive-in screen or some obscure late-night TV slot.  Seeing it now for the first time on DVD, it doesn't quite conjure up that magical feeling I still get from so many other guilty-pleasure films of that era.  Yet it's definitely an enjoyable little piece of goofball cinema. 

The main characters are a group of post-mod juvenile delinquent boys and girls who call themselves "The Living Dead" and ride around on wimpy bikes terrorizing the proper English citizenry.  Their leader, Tom (Nicky Henson, WITCHFINDER GENERAL), is a handsome sociopath whose mother (Beryl Reid, THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE) practices the occult arts.  From her, he learns that if one willingly commits suicide with the firm intention of returning from the dead, it will happen.  In one of the film's best scenes, Tom--buried by his friends in a sitting position on his beloved motorcycle--comes roaring up out of the grave in a shower of dirt.

After amazing the rest of the gang with his unexpected return, they can't wait to go out and start offing themselves in amusing ways.  These include some nice stunt scenes with them lunging off bridges and buildings, skydiving without parachutes, and (my favorite) crashing their motorcycles through the back end of a moving truck.  Now undead and unstoppable, the lethal pranksters go on a rampage which consists mainly of running motorists off the road and trashing a supermarket.  The latter scene features another cool stunt with bad girl Jane (Ann Michelle) gleefully running over a baby carriage and then crashing into a glass display case.

Tom, meanwhile, is having the time of his afterlife until he discovers that his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin), a nice girl at heart, isn't keen on dying.  This takes some of the fun out of spree-killing for poor Tom, who gives Abby an ultimatum--either die, or he will kill her.  Tough choice!  Disturbed by her son's evil ways, Mom takes steps to stop him with the help of her devoted servant, Shadwell, who is played by none other than top-billed George Sanders.  If Sanders looks a little bored in the role, which must've been a disheartening end to his distinguished film career, it's because he was soon to commit suicide with boredom being specified as one of the reasons in his farewell note.  However, his presence along with Reid's does help to class the movie up a little.

The actors portraying the "Living Dead" gang do an okay job, with Ann Michelle as Jane and Denis Gilmore (who reminds me a bit of Michael J. Pollard) as "Hatchet" making the biggest impression.  As a biker gang, though, these dweebs are a mixed-up bunch who kill for fun one minute and sit around singing folk songs and making floral wreaths the next.  Tom burial is accompanied by an ear-bending acoustic guitar ballad lip-synched by Miles Greenwood (as "Chopped Meat") while the corpse sits upright, mounted on his motorcycle, in the open grave.  In a film surprisingly devoid of the droll humor one might expect, this is definitely the most stupefyingly hilarious image.

The DVD from Severin Films is in 1.78:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital mono.  Taken from the best available print as the original negative is deemed lost, the image quality is good.  Extras include the lovingly-rendered 25-minute documentary "Return of the Living Dead", which features a charming Nicky Henson along with several other original castmembers.  "The Sound of Psychomania" offers composer John Cameron's recollections of creating the film's score.  In addition to Chris Alexander's introduction to the film and the original trailer, singer Harvey Andrews recalls recording the vocals to the awful folk song "Riding Free" which is heard during Tom's burial scene. 

With the emphasis on stunts and some really exciting car and bike chase sequences (but very little actual violence), PSYCHOMANIA's supernatural aspect is treated so lightly and matter-of-factly that it hardly registers.  Dying and coming back just seems to make these young smarties a little snarkier.  After an early scene in which Tom ventures into a mysterious locked room in search of some occult epiphany (his vision of a floating bullfrog shrouded in mist doesn't quite terrify), there's no attempt to scare viewers in any way until the slightly creepy ending.  What makes the film watchable is that it's lively, quirky, endearingly retro, and enjoyably dumb.

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