Written by: Julian Zimet and Arnaud d'Usseau
Directed by: Don Sharp
Starring: Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, and George Sanders
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"There are times when you think the living dead are coming to get you, ya know, then you realize they really are!"
If anyone could produce bizarre, off-kilter cult classics, it was the British in the 1970s. Between Hammer, Amicus, and other productions, the Brits produced a wealth of films based on witchcraft, cults, bizarre rituals, and the like. This movement arguably peaked with 1973's The Wicker Man, but that didn't stop anyone from producing similarly strange films with some rather outlandish plots. From veteran director Don Sharp, 1973's Psychomania is one such film. Featuring a frog-worshiping cult and an undead motorcycle gang, there's no doubt the film has all the makings to be a cult classic, but, as we all know, a lot can go wrong between script to screen.
A motorcycle gang calling themselves "The Living Dead" terrorize their local town with various acts of hooliganism. However, such an existence has grown boring to the gang leader, Tom, whose father apparently had some mystic ties to the aforementioned frog-based cult. After learning the secret to returning from the dead, Tom commits suicide by driving off a bridge. The gang promptly buries him sitting upright on his motorcycle before going their separate ways. A couple of hours later, Tom comes roaring back from beyond the grave with superhuman strength and seemingly unable to die. He then tries to convince his fellow gang members to do the same, apparently so they can return and engage in exactly the same kind of terrorizing behavior as before.
Personally, Psychomania has always been such an intriguing title with an interesting premise to be sure; however, having finally seen it, I can say that something definitely did go wrong between script and screen here, as it's not nearly as entertaining as its absurd storyline sets it up to be. It's not a particularly poorly-made film, but the film is lacking something to accompany its wacky plot. The film never fully ventures into campy, comedic territory, nor does it really ever become a horror film from a suspense or gore perspective. Instead, it just sort of langushes in the middle and never commits to being either type of film.
And that's really the biggest problem with Psychomania: for a movie that's about witchcraft and an undead motorcycle gang, there's very little actual horror to be found here. For what could have been a nice, over-the-top, gory, undead romp, there is simply a bunch of guys that come back from the dead and look exactly the same as they did before they died. Indeed, the film takes this to absurd levels: one gang member commits suicide by skydiving without a parachute, and, even though his body should be liquefied, he returns without a scratch. I understand that you've got to suspend your disbelief for a film like this, but this is stretching it, especially because the film never makes light of this fact. Instead, it just glosses over it and expects you to accept it.
At its heart, I think Psychomania actually attempts to be a character-driven film that's focused on Tom and his girlfriend, Abby, who he tries to convince to join him as part of the undead. If anything, the conflict that emerges between the two during the last act is somewhat interesting, even if its resolution is kind of befuddling. Let's just say it involves the aforementioned frog cult, whose existence in the film I'm still trying to justify. It's such a random, strange presence in the film that adds an air of mystery and mysticism that I admittedly enjoy, but I still have no clue what's going on with them in the film. Is the frog supposed to be a stand-in for the devil? I'd forgive such unresolved mystery if the film threw in some gratuitous gore or nudity, but neither is to be found. In fact, pretty much every death happens off screen and you have no clue how the victims met their fate.
From a visual standpoint, Sharp holds everything together, but his direction is akin to cheap glue holding together a house made out of popsicle sticks. If you can't tell, said house's foundation (the script) isn't very strong to begin with, but Sharp directs a few scenes nicely, particularly the various motorcycle chases and sequences. The film is paced decently, especially considering there's not a whole lot going on except for assorted motorcycle mayhem. Why anyone would want to return from the dead with god-like powers to trash a grocery store is beyond me, but hey, whatever floats your undead boat, I guess. I generally enjoy films based upon witchcraft, pagan cults, and rituals, and the film is without a doubt at its best when this subject matter takes center stage. Unfortunately, that isn't for very long, but there are some nice, surreal sequences with some interesting imagery involved.
Suffice to say, Psychomania was a massive disappointment for me personally. If not for the few, brief moments of interest, the interesting subject matter, and the score that combines elements of 70s funk and 50s b-movie kitch, it would have been an entirely worthless experience. The film was first released by Image Entertainment as part of their popular Euroshock Collection, which is what garnered my interest in the first place. This disc is long out of print and fetches far more than the film's worth on the secondary market. Luckily (or not), Geneon has also released the film on a disc that features a non-anamorphic transfer that's decent at best and a mono soundtrack that's always clear and intelligible. There's no special features of which to speak, which is too bad because I'm still waiting for someone to enlighten me about the frog cult in this one. Then again, I guess films featuring frogs just sort of automatically lend themselves to being fromage fests. Only the most devout fans of 60s and 70s British cult films need to seek this one out; anyone else might find themselves contemplating driving off a bridge about halfway through. Rent it!
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