Fear and Loathing in Walton on Thames: ‘Psychomania’

❉ Hell’s angels, frogs and Beryl Reid! A gang of bikers discover the secret of coming back from the dead, and proceed to wreak havoc in suburban supermarkets.

“Beryl and George and I would just break up, it was such a dreadful script. I kept saying to the producer, ‘How did you get away with this?’ and he would say ‘I just thought motorcycles, stunts, horror – it can’t lose.'” – Nicky Henson (‘Ghoul Britannia’)

1973’s ‘Psychomania’ is in many ways a British cult ‘ur-text’. It effortlessly evokes a very specific time and place – the post-hippy, pre-punk England of the early ‘70s, was unlamented in its lifetime but acquired a following almost by accident thanks to late night airings on terrestrial TV (and, later, Bravo in the late 90s), and like all guilty pleasures swings like a pendulem from the sublime to the ridiculous, often in the space of one scene.

The opening minutes of the film sets the tone for all this. Underpinned by a goth-prog score of mournfully chiming guitars and brooding bass, we are treated to an opening sequence of masked bikers emerging from a mist of fog, weaving through standing stones. It promises so much – a youth subculture, a hint of spooky, mystical goings-on, at a time when the pulp end of the paperback industry (stand up, New English Library) was cashing in on the post-hippy zeitgeist with a raft of shlocky exploitation novels centred around anarchic biker gangs and the everyday occult.

But then, when our squadron of biker rebels are fully revealed, we are faced with a motley bunch who more recall the cast of ‘Please Sir!’ or ‘The Double Deckers’ than the Hell’s Angel chapter whose bloody antics at Altamont in ’69 made them public enemy number one. Leader of this unlikely band of teenage tearaways is Tom Lathan, played with admirable stoicism by Nicky Henson, the poshest biker you ever did see, with his full head of very secure, blow-waved hair, ever-present cream rollneck pullover and RADA-shaped received pronunciation.

Tom’s mum is none other than Beryl Reid, the Tony-award winning, fruity actress for whom ‘Psychomania’ was the third act of a veritable hat-trick of modish cult films (following her turn as washed-up soap star and needy, alcoholic lesbian in ‘The Killing of Sister George’ and dysfunctional floozie in ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’) and would be just one of many colourful episodes in a varied CV that encompassed everything from star turns in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole’, ‘The Peter Cook Show’ to ‘Doctor Who’ and kids show ‘Get Up & Go’.

The perilous Beryl isn’t just any old mum. She communes with the spirits as a medium in her garishly upholstered living room, and carries a few secrets. In a swift info-dump moment, we learn that Beryl, somehow, knows the secret to eternal life, a secret to which the family butler Shadwell (no relation to ‘Naked Video’s Celtic correspondent) remains privy, and which involves Tom’s dead dad’s Buddy Holly specs, a sealed room and… frogs. With me so far?

Yes, the Latham family have the secret of eternal life and living death. It turns out that if you kill yourself and fully believe you will come back from the dead, you may return from the grave, ageless and indestructible – what larks. Sounds legit, right?

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Just a typical crazy kid living for kicks, for Tom this sounds like a “gas” and, henceforth, he tons-up into oblivion, to the shock and consternation of his fellow gang members – not least his goody-two-shoes girlfriend Abby. In one scene that’s memorable for all the wrong reasons, Tom is buried – sat upright, on his motorbike – in a stone circle, while one of his gang members turns troubadour and sings a hippyish ode to his quest for freedom against the straights (man), “Riding Free”.

Tom’s gambit with the reaper pays off and he roars out of his grave, atop his Triumph, to enjoy the infinite benefits of being undead and untouchable, namely causing a minor ruckus in a country pub and not paying for his pint.

Reunited with his gang members, they take Tom’s return from the grave remarkably well, and follow his example by shuffling off their mortal in a variety of comic book ways – leaping from a high-rise, throwing themselves off a motorway bridge weighed down by chains from Acme, and playing a fatal game of chicken with a Bedford van. The little tinkers.

Thus revived and reborn, Tom’s gang proceed to enjoy their everlasting life by – what else- creating a bit of a scene in a Walton on Thames supermarket (which will be familiar to Python fans as the scene of ‘Bicycle Repair Man’ and ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’), colliding into stacks of tinned peaches and soap boxes, upending a shopper’s pram, and doubtless pocketing some Green Shield stamps into the bargain.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that at the same time ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was giving it a bit of the old ultraviolence in cinemas up and down the country, shortly before Stanley Kubrick withdrew it from general release in the wake of tabloid reports of copycat violence.

As you may have gathered, ‘Psychomania’ is a very silly film indeed. But there’s something about its ingredients that gives it a hypnotic power and has engendered an enduring attraction with its aficionados, many of whom first caught it in ITV’s ‘Appointment with Terror’ late night slot, as part of Alex Cox’s ‘Moviedrome’ or Bravo Channel’s cheerful ‘90s mix of B movies and kitsch.

For one thing, there’s something very treasurable about enjoying a film that’s clearly lagging behind the zeitgeist. Biker gangs were exploitation fodder the moment pop culture began to monetize ‘yoof’ subcultures, from Marlon Brando’s breakout movie ‘The Wild One’, via Hunter S.Thompson’s 1966 expose ‘Hells Angels’, to novelties such as AIP’s ‘The Hellcats’ and Burt Topper’s ‘The Hard Ride’. They had also proved easy fodder for sensationalist documentaries keen to capitalise on the latest youth-orientated ‘moral panics’ – 1965’s ‘Chelsea Bridge Boys’ comes to mind (also repackaged on a BFI Flipside disc) – but by the time of ‘Psychomania’, the whole subgenre had fizzled out. Brit bikers in particular were seen to be sadly lacking in the edgy, transgressive danger of their American partners – the BBC’s human interest series ‘Man Alive’ gave an unflinchingly bathetic glimpse into the parochial, stunted nature of British biker gangs in 1969 with ‘What’s The Truth About Hells Angels And Skinheads?’ that was spiked by Monty Python’s contemporaneous spoof ‘Hell’s Grannies’. When the Beeb returned to the same theme in 1973, the year ‘Psychomania’ limped onto movie screens, its follow-up documentary was mainly concerned with the efforts involved in trying to borrow a portable TV off the gang leader’s mum in order to watch ‘Planet of the Daleks’. (no, really).

In essence, ‘Psychomania’ is as English as cucumber sandwiches and as terrifying as a glass of Corona. But viewed through the prism of the cultural conversation of the time – when the occult was not just a fringe interest but something that garnered full page articles in Sunday supplements – it feels as much an integral cultural document of its time as public information films, ‘Nationwide’ regional opt-outs, those aforementioned New English Library pulp novels and techno-pagan weirdo progs like ‘Ace of Wands’, ‘Sky’ and ‘Children of the Stones’. It’s all part of a very strange time in media and society where the world of new builds in Walton on Thames and contemporary fears about youth subcultures sat beside a crepuscular obsession with ‘Wyrd Britain’s pagan heritage, a fascination for the diabolic, and the seedy, sleazy atmosphere of the 1970s. Basically, ‘Psychomania’ makes Scarfolk redundant. It’s virtually an ur-text of what some commentators call ‘hauntology’ – or, in Vic Pratt’s words, “social anxiety about what had gone before, what was being lost in the rush of the modern, and what as to come.”

‘Psychomania’ is also worth a watch for anyone with an IMDB-style obsession with noting guest turns by veteran Brit actors – Robert Hardy, June Brown, John Levene and Bill Pertwee all make their presence felt in various scenes, although no one puts Beryl in the corner!

In bringing ‘Psychomania’ under the BFI Flipside umbrella, the film has received a respectful treatment including a top-flight remastering of the film based on the best available sources, a wealth of witty, informative liner notes by Andrew Roberts and Vic Pratt which take into account its cultural context and provide a welcome biography of its ill-fated guest star George Sanders, and a bevy of special features including a two-minute featurette on the restoration process and a ‘trivia track’ by the Wilson Brothers.

‘Psychomania’ may not be a great movie, but it’s a fascinating one. On one level, it is a johnny-come-lately exploitation film that doesn’t quite deliver what it promises, yet on another level it’s such a curate’s egg that if you’ve a fascination for all things ‘70s, quirky, and campy, you’ll get a lot more out of it than than the makers ever intended. It is, as Tom would say, a “gas”.


❉ ‘Psychomania’ (BFI Flipside 033) is out now in dual format (Blu-ray and DVD), RRP £14.99.

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