Psychomania (1973) (DVD/Blu-ray film review).

‘Psychomania’ is a low budget cult British horror film directed by Don Sharp and first released in 1973. It has been remastered and re-released by the British Film Institute on a Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray packed with extras. Is it worth watching again some forty-five years on, like the best ‘Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials’ or is it best consigned to the bargain bin of history?

The story is set in the England of the early 1970s and follows Tom Latham (played by Nicky Henson), the leader of a hedonistic, trouble-making, teen-age biker gang called The Living Dead. Latham’s upper-class mother (Beryl Reid) runs séances for her friends, while the family’s butler, Shadwell (George Sanders, in his last screen role before he committed suicide, allegedly after seeing a rough cut of this very film), also seems to have occult leanings. This, combined with the mysterious disappearance of Tom’s dad when he was just a baby, has left Tom with an unhealthy fascination with the question of how you might conquer death.

Once Tom finds out the theoretical answer to this question from his mother, he can’t wait to see if it works in practice. Given that Tom is a biker, killing himself is easy enough. Since this would be a very short and rather dull horror film if his mother’s theory didn’t work, it won’t surprise you to know that Tom’s death is short-lived. He’s no brainless zombie when he returns though but exactly the same person he was, except that he’s now extremely strong and seemingly invincible. Given his new abilities, it’s no surprise to see him graduating from mere hell-raising to the actual murder of anyone who crosses him, which brings the local police inspector (played by a youthful looking Robert Hardy) into the picture. Can Tom persuade the rest of his gang to join him beyond the grave or will the police find a way to stop him in his tracks?

‘Psychomania’ is an aptly named film. It’s gloriously, uproariously mad, combining elements of the horror, crime, coming of age and comedy genres in, an at times surreal, at other times laughable viewing experience. The juxtaposition of the suburban complacency of the middle-class establishment of Walton-on-Thames and the existential angst of a gang of good-for-nothing nihilist teenagers is symptomatic of the social problems that would assault England throughout the 1970s.

Nicky Henson, who was honing his craft at the Young Vic when he made this film, mainly for the extra cash, is a tremendous lead, combining the dashing good looks and easy charm of soon-to-be Formula 1 World Champion James Hunt with an intensity and energy that means he steals every scene he’s in. The other members of Tom’s biker gang, though, are uniformly nondescript, with the exception of the contrasting two corners of his love triangle, the pure and plain Abby (Mary Larkin) versus the crimson-clad temptress Jane (Ann Michelle). Even these two women come across as flat caricatures rather than real people. This lack of characterisation is problematic, as it’s hard to muster any great concern over the fate of most of the people we meet, whether gang members or innocent locals.

Beryl Reid, as Tom’s mother, and the fading George Sanders as her butler, provide a level of gravitas that balances the film’s more slapstick moments, even if both seem well aware that they are far too good for the material.

The package includes an interesting 32-page booklet, containing stills from the film and three newly-written essays, plus nearly three hours of DVD extras, ranging from interviews with the cast to short documentaries on the soundtrack, the clothing and the film’s restoration, as well as a subtitle track filled with interesting trivia on the film, as an alternative to an audio commentary.

‘Psychomania’ is one of the odder British horror films I’ve ever seen, more reminiscent of ‘Benny Hill’ than ‘Night Of The (Suburban English) Living Dead’. It is very much of its time and if you’re expecting something serious and scary, you’ll probably hate it. On the other hand, as a camp commentary on the concerns of Middle England in the early 1970s, it’s a surreal success. If you leave your critical faculties at the door, you may even come to enjoy it.

Patrick Mahon

January 2018

(pub: British Film Institute. 1 disc Blu-ray/DVD. 91 minutes. Rating: 15. Price: £10.99 (UK). cat. no.: BFIB1259)

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