Monday, 12 June 2017

THE CULT OF OBSCURE ODDITIES: An Essay on classic “Psychotronic” movie Psychomania (a.k.a. The Death Wheelers)

By: Mark Ambrose

Media Format: Blu-ray/DVD
Original Release Year: 1971
Home Video Release: 17/02/2017
Label: Arrow Video

Directed by: Don Sharp
Written by: Arnaud d’Usseau & Julien Zimet
Starring: George Sanders, Beryl Reid, Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin
Music by: John Cameron

Runtime: 95 minutes

The Review

Every few years, an aging nerd will contrive a long form essay about the sorry state of genre/music/movie fandom.  The internet, you see, actually ruined everything, and the golden age of pop culture (an era said writer thankfully experienced firsthand) has come and gone.  This wistful bullshit sounds more appropriate from pastors and politicians, not metal heads and gore hounds.  The internet has complicated a lot of things, but access to undiscovered gems and genre oddities of all media abounds, and the crossover potential from music to film to literature to comics is so abundant that practically everyone has a Tumblr account just to keep track of their favorite Doctor Who slashfic authors.  Bandcamp, crowdsourcing, home recording, and social media have brought new voices into heavy music at an astounding rate, and resurrected out of print and obscure oddities on a weekly basis.

More and more, to be a serious fan of music is to be a student of pop culture.  With that in mind, we at THE SLUDGELORD are going to be examining those interstices where our obsessions meet: movies, literature, comics, artwork, and more.  In short, all the shit we think is cool, that deserves coverage, and will probably appeal to everyone who loves the music we’ve been highlighting on here.

In the spirit of cultural cross-contamination, it’s appropriate that our first movie review is one of the video cornerstones for none other than Electric Wizard’s Jus Oborn: “Psychomania (a.k.a The Death Wheelers)”.  A cult staple on late night British TV, “Psychomania” features all the elements you’d expect in a doom rocker’s favorite film: longhair bikers, devil worship, occult rituals, suicide pacts, ancient stone circles, trippy sequences, and a funky prog score that has moments of straight up doom dread.  Though this functions more as a sequence of atmospheric set pieces and pretty impressive stunt work, the plot, as such, is fairly simple: Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of The Living Dead – a morbid, occult-minded motorcycle gang.  His mother (Beryl Reid) is an outrageously wealthy medium with her own manservant, Shadwell (George Sanders in his last film role).  Tom’s father disappeared years ago, conducting some kind of ritual to learn the secret of eternal life, and Tom wants to succeed where his dad failed, leading to one of the best frog-focused, psychedelic movie freak outs of all time.  Tom learns the secret – kill yourself believing you really will come back, and eternal life is yours.  And after Tom’s miraculous resurrection that’s basically what the gang does over the course of the movie!

After the whole gang is undead, minus an unbeliever and Tom’s girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin), The Living Dead rampage through their little town, alternately causing silly mishaps and straight up murdering people… including an infant (we assume).  The violence is all pretty tame, but the practical, low budget stunt work has become legendary.  Tom eventually confides in his mother that he wants to take the chaos international and destroy… the authorities?  The police?  Squares?  It’s all pretty vague, but the silly, murderous fun gets a lot more sinister, especially once Tom decides wet blanket Abby needs to die – by her own hands or the gang’s.  It all builds to a remarkably atmospheric finish that I won’t spoil here.

Arrow Video, located in the UK but now offering many titles for US release as well, have really become The Criterion Collection of weird and shocking films, offering a pristine print of the movie that preserves some of that film grain we all love, plus a host of featurettes, as well as a booklet with essays on “Psychomania’s” legacy, Sanders, and director Don Sharp.  The cast is mostly unimpressed or perplexed by the film’s longevity (which honestly gets a bit tiresome), but fondly remember Sanders, who would kill himself at the age of 65 before the film’s release – allegedly after seeing a rough cut of the film, but more likely from the onset of dementia and a lifetime of depression.  The featurettes on the stuntmen of the film and the distinctive leather style of the gang are the real highlights, especially for those pulled in by the distinct aesthetic of early 70s outlaw culture.

In short, “Psychomania” is the type of movie you’d hope to stumble across in a late night screening or VHS dub in an earlier era.  In the parlance of genre hero Michael J. Weldon, “Psychomania” is a classic “Psychotronic” movie – a mishmash of genre weirdness that may not be “great” filmmaking, but is certainly a lot more fun than most movies in the local theater.  With internet streaming and rental, online retailers, brick and mortar (where you can still find it) and labels like Arrow Video putting out beautiful, collectible editions of movies like “Psychomania” on a weekly basis, there’s more weirdness to discover out there than ever before.