Wednesday 11 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #28: Psychomania (1973)

Psychomania is not, by most usual metrics, a good film. Nonetheless, Psychomania is terrific.

Obviously, I'm going to have to unpack that, but I do not say this lightly. I have no truck with the idea that a film can be "so bad it's good". Either you think a film is bad or you think it's good. Watching a film out of irony, or to take pleasure in mocking it, that's unkind to the film and more importantly it's unkind to yourself. If I don't enjoy a film, I probably won't watch it again.

But then, the context in which films are made means that it's impossible to have a perfect film or TV show. If all media products are in some way broken, being products of a broken society, then the most useful thing to do is not to tear down, but to see what you can redeem.
The mean streets of Walton-on-Thames.
The redemptive reading is a valid critical practice, and, opposing arguments regardless, often requires more intelligence and rigour than tearing things down does. Essentially my basic principle is "good until proven rubbish". It won't surprise you that my biases come in hard in this process, and it doesn't mean that I'm not going to hate a film. I'm not inclined to forgive misanthropy in a movie (so, for all that Cry of the Banshee has going for it, the basic fact that all the women in the film end up raped, stripped, tortured or dead isn't something I'm going to get past). Sometimes if a movie is exquisite but has something deeply, profoundly wrong with it, it's actually easy to find a better reading of the bad bit, because the rest of the film is strong enough to stand up to some mental gymnastics (as with my post colonial reading of The Shout).

Sometimes it's easy to find a redemptive reading of something that's a bit messed up when it's something that is formative to you. For example, I first saw Barbarella when I was 17. When you are 17, certain things pass you by. And when you are 17 and you are becoming aware of the limits and directions of your sexuality, and you see a film with images like, oh, for example, this:
John Philip Law. Anita Pallenberg. Oh my. (Oh, and the other one.)
Well. You're grown ups. You can fill in the gaps. Now as an adult with a bit of critical experience I can see that Barbarella is deeply, deeply flawed and troublesome, but at the same time I think it has a lot to commend it, but that's a whole essay and I have too many film essays to write anyway. But the point is, I'm predisposed to like it because of, you know, having deep-wired teenage crushes on all three leads, and the design and the sense of fun and the way it's about Good Sex versus Evil Sex rather than abstinence vs sex, and there I go, I'm already finding ways to redeem it. Because that's how it works.

Which brings us to Psychomania.
"Maximus Leopardus, isn't it?" "That's right."
Psychomania is, as I said, terrific. Many of its performances are ropy as all hell. Its premise: undead outlaw bikers terrorise the mean streets of Walton-on-Thames. It's pure exploitation. The script is a parade of outrageous, quotable dialogue. For example.
Tom: Let's get out of it, Abby. Let's cross over.
Abby: Cross over?
Tom: To the other side!
Abby: How do we do that?
Tom: We kill ourselves.
Abby: Oh, Tom. Not that again.
Tom: Yes! (he moves in to kiss her)
Abby (laughing):Well, I'm sorry, but I can't.
Tom: Why not?
Abby: Well, I promised my mother I'd help her go shopping in the morning. 
Tom: You're always saying I'm foolhardy, Shadwell, but I'm not ignorant!
Shadwell: Except about certain things.
Tom: Three things. So answer me. Why did my father die in that locked room? (He takes a swig of his drink.) Why do you never get any older, Shadwell? (Shadwell raises an eyebrow) And what is the secret of the living dead? (He bites from a baguette that has inexplicably appeared in his hand where the drink was)
Mrs Latham: I've had a telephone call from the Police.
Tom: The word, Mother, is "fuzz". 
(And that's just in the first ten minutes.)

It's cheap! Its terrifying undead bikers dress up as hippies and ride clapped out old Triumphs. Special effects are sparse. It's on a small scale. It piles absurdity upon absurdity.
Fatty, Smiffy and Plug not pictured.
The bikers have names like Hinky, Hatchet, Chopped Meat and Bertram, and they terrorise provincial shopping centres. Let's be honest, it's not really this... much as this:
And yet. And yet. Psychomania really is absolutely fun to watch. And impossible to categorise.

So, Tom (Nicky Henson) is the leader of a biker gang called The Living Dead. Tom does stuff like hang out in stone circles and has sex on gravestones, and do wild things like forcing lorries off roads, and knocking over traffic cones and ladders. And collecting rare frogs. Edgy stuff.
"Don't cry, Mummy."
But Tom is also the moneyed son of Mrs Latham (Beryl Reid), high-class spritualist, who, it is established in the early minutes of the film, is a) the Real Deal, connecting families with dead kids and b) in league with Satan. Who may or may not be demonic butler and occult oracle Shadwell (legitimate screen legend George Sanders, who committed suicide not long after finishing Psychomania). Tom wants some of that Satanic action and convinces his mum and the spooky butler to explain to him how you come back from the dead.
Tom and his mum.
Shadwell delivers the goods (and the scene where Tom learns the secret is as psychedelic a trip as you would hope for) and soon Tom knows how to return from the grave: you kill yourself, and as long as you go out with absolute belief that you'll come back, you come back, invincible and immortal. 

Tom takes the first opportunity to go out in style, careening off a bridge at 100mph.
"I'm going! See you round!"
One of the most bizarre funeral scenes ever filmed ensues, with Tom buried upright, on his bike in a stone circle, while the gang, shedding their leathers and dressed as hippies with flowers and everything, sit around the grave listening to one of them sing (mime) "Riding Free", a song that owes more than a little to "The Ballad of Easy Rider" or would if "The Ballad of Easy Rider" was an unglued valorisation of motorcycle-assisted suicide.
He really got it on
He rode that sweet machine just like a bomb
They tried to clip his wings just like a fly
So instead of standing still he chose to die
"He left those fools behind him."
Shadwell comes up and chucks in a frog amulet, as you do.
Frogs are a Thing in Psychomania.
Before you know it, Tom is roaring out of his grave on the bike, running down pedestrians, strangling pump attendants with their own hose, and massacring the patrons and staff in a country pub, but not before stopping to ring his mum.

Mrs Latham: How are you?
Tom: Well, I'm dead, Mother, but apart from that I couldn't be better.
"Look! No hands!"
He returns to the gang and presents his findings. Straight away they take to killing themselves in a parade of baroque and ridiculous ways, apart from Tom's girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), who neither wishes to die nor really sympathises with the now-indestructible gang's increasingly murderous antics (like riding into Safeway and running innocent people over among the cans and packets).

And then the whole plan of bringing down the Whole Fabric of Society Itself comes out. By running people over. And kicking over traffic cones.

Meanwhile, the police (sorry, the Fuzz) get on the case. Chief Inspector Hesseltine (Robert Hardy) and his men are hot on the heels of The Living Dead and when Abby fails to top herself, they enlist her to catch them. But the final defeat of Tom's nefarious plan might in the end be down to his mum. And a frog. 
Hesseltine hatches a plan.
I haven't really touched on how ridiculous Psychomania is, I mean nothing I've said isn't really silly, but I'm still not close to representing the giddy lunacy of it. But it works, and it is the most unvarnished fun I've had watching a film for ages. And I think that's down to everyone involved giving it their absolute best (except possibly George Sanders, but he's more of an Evil Greek Chorus sort of a character anyway). Don Sharp, the director, stages some genuinely cracking car chases and action scenes and the cast just run with the bonkers ideas that tumble out of the screen at you. Which, I think, is why Psychomania wins out over a film like The Wicker Tree, which never quite manages to own what it is with adequate conviction, and which is consequently just terrible.
Abby finds kicking over traffic cones problematic.
When I do poetry open mics, I find that the people who tend to bring the best performances are not necessarily the ones who have the best material, they're the ones who act like they believe in it, no apologies, no hesitation. And it's like that, or like skateboarding, where you can only manage to do the tricks if you just forge through without losing your nerve or hesitating. Or like pronouncing sentences in conversational Welsh, in my experience anyway. That's what Psychomania is like.
Look at that helmet design. Look at it.
And that's how it works. But it also works because it has a weird sort of resonance, absurd as it is. Subtext maybe wasn't fully in the mind of Don Sharp and co, but I think that a real contributing factor to its entertainment value is that it brings horror into mundane spaces.

Because you have these stone circles and toad-worshipping satanists bikers in a countryside that's both otherwise enclosed and close. Nowhere in the movie is more than a hundred yards from a road, and the bikers bring their zany mischief and, later, murderous frenzy to mundane spaces. Shopping precincts. Road works. The inside of a supermarket. Sure, you might be shopping, or having a drink with your mates at the pub, or pulled up at a layby, but these places aren't safe. It's not really so much that the haunted countryside is domesticated. It's all built, even the countryside, but that doesn't make the countryside safe, it makes the town unsafe. The paraphernalia of mundane life are at risk in Psychomania. The cartoonish, unglued delirium brought by pagan bikers from beyond the grave extends into the ordinary. Like I keep saying. It's terrific.