Category Archives: Cult-ish

‘There’s Blood on my hands from what you made me do.’ – Dead Man’s Shoes

Good Friday in Central London. Some people are are well into Bank Holiday drinking mode, namely downing booze as though it’s about to be banned. In Covent Garden, a young bloke wants to get a call and response thing going on, ‘When I say “chicken” you say “legs”!’ A slurred voiced joins in from across the piazza. ‘Chicken!’ ‘Legs!’ ‘Chicken!’ ‘Legs!’ All of this would be charmingly silly. Except I’ve just re-watched Shane Meadow’s splendid 2004 film Dead Man’s Shoes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. So there’s a bit of an edge to the jollity.

‘Dance at my party!’ Richard (Paddy Considine – super intense yet also believable – he could be a real bloke brimming with anger in the pub, perhaps glancing satirically at the ‘chicken legs’ lads whilst supping a pint) demands, as the targets of his vengence as they flop about the room under the influence of spiked tea. He’s a former soldier, back in his small hometown to track down the fellas who mistreated his mentally handicapped brother.

It’s a Western, basically. Richard is the British of the Man With No Name. What the gang have done is horrific, but Richard finds it impossible to destroy them without turning into a ‘monster’.

Dead Man’s Shoes is an experience. It shook me up when I first saw it and seeing it again (with a live soundtrack, no less) on a big screen made my brain ache. In a good way.

The following clip is a 2008 live version of Vessel in Vain, the song that plays over the film’s opening credits, The soundtrack to DSM is marvellous – Americana really works over scenes of violence in the damp English Countryside.

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‘It’s Easy to Kill Live People’ – Psychomania: Part 3

The undead, unstoppable bikers have ridden straight into the police station to bust their friends of a cell. The copper on the desk is very cross and just a little bit frightened by these crazy kids, who haven’t even bothered to dismount from their bikes to confront him. What terror awaits? At this point, a lady walks past the bikers to exit the police station. She wants to know if she should shut the door. ‘Yes, please, Love!’ the desk policeman says. And then he goes back to being outraged/scared by the bikers. And hijinks ensue.

The last part of Psychomania is where logic goes completely out the window. It’s a pot-pourri of black comedy (a biker chirps, ‘I’ll be right down!’ before jumping off a 60s concrete town block), strangely slow stunt riding, curiously bloodless murder and just – well – suburban ordinariness.
In order to join Tom in being bored and annoying for all eternity, the gang start to off themselves one by one, in a series of increasingly ludicrous scenes. Jane and Hinky ride into a lorry. Only Jane comes back, as Hinky ‘didn’t believe’ enough. There’s drowning, jumping off things and sky diving sans parachute. Abby goes down the less dramatic route and takes some pills only to wake up in hospital with Robert Hardy standing over her. This is fortunate as Abby doesn’t want to die. She’s probably smart enough to work out that trashing the town centre will get a bit dull after the first century or so.

The police want Abby to be a decoy for them. Which strikes me as bad policing. Basically, Abby says ‘look I’m dead’, Jane says ‘no you’re not’ and Abby’s like, ‘yeah I am’ and Tom goes ‘right – ride into that wall then.’ And when she doesn’t, he suggests that he should kill her himself. Ah romance.

Oh and before all of that, the living dead (except Abby) Living Dead ride their bikes around in a supermarket and make a right old mess. Jane rides straight into a pram with a baby in it. Had this scene been realistic (and not happened in the middle of the bikers throwing cornflakes about and breaking glass bottles containing cordial and weak lemon drink) it might have been terrifying and horrible. But no – it’s just a freaky live action cartoon.

And so we get to the final showdown at the Seven Witches. Tom is advancing on Abby with a knife whilst the rest of the gang try to look menacing. Ah, but elsewhere Mrs Latham and Shadwell have decided it’s time to stop the madness. Their magic can defeat Tom’s Clap Your Hands If You Believe magic. And there’s are some weird special effects, some of which are unsettling in that classic Old Doctor Who way. Mrs Latham vanishes and the frog from the beginning of the film appears in her robes and then…

Um, well, Psychomania is like nothing less than a live-action super freaky cartoon. It’s got a weird atmosphere that draws you in somehow. I like it, but I couldn’t really explain why. The director, Don Sharp, was also responsible for some 60s Hammers which I haven’t seen but feel like I really should.

So cultish is Psychomania that its (funksome, rocksome and eerie) soundtrack has its own story. An account of how it was tracked down and released by Trunk Records in the early 2000s can be found here. (Note: There’s a fairly good chance that there will be a vintage naughty picture – bosoms or hairy man-thighs – at the top of the Trunk website.) And it’s also possible to visit some of the sites of biker mayhem. Don’t look for the Seven Witches standing stones though. They were only pretend.

E.M.

‘He rode that sweet machine just like a bomb’ – Psychomania: Part Two

The locked room, then. So, Tom’s in there and has been given a huge pair of glasses to wear. These are not explained. There is a flashback in which a pleasingly be-hatted Mrs L, with her infant son in tow, meets up with a man in a black cape at the standing stones and signs some sort of contract. The cape wearer is presumably either the devil or the God of big sideburns, but whoever he is he’s wearing a nifty ring with a frog design on it.

From all of this, Tom infers (and his mother confirms) that the secret to coming back from the dead is just to believe that you will come back. With this new-found knowledge, Tom gets on his bike again and they ride around the town centre, knocking things over, pestering hot pant wearing young mums. A few grown-ups say, ‘Geddoutofit’ and the Fuzz are nowhere to be seen.

And at the end of this suburban rampage, Tom speeds off and rides straight off a bridge. Two minutes later, his body bods up out of the river only to be discovered by two cute children (apparently straight out of a Ladybird book) who seem quite non-plussed by the discovery of a corpse.

And so Abby puts a frock (one of those fantastic polyester based numbers) and visits Ma Latham, who doesn’t seem to be that bothered about her son’s death. Perhaps she knows something is going to happen. Mrs L gives the gang consent to bury Tom in their own way. And then…

Oh dear God, the funeral scene. It’s batty. And brilliant. In a very odd sort of way. At the ‘Seven Witches’ standing stones, The Living Dead all dress like hippies and sensitively play with flowers. Chopped Meat, who once his out of his leathers reveals himself to be a slender wisp of a folky boy who probably couldn’t actually chop anything bigger than a slab of ultra-thin turkey without help, strums a guitar and sings a folk song called ‘Riding Free’. And it’s revealed that Tom has been buried on top of his bike in a very shallow hole. How does he stay on there? Sticky backed plastic? Presumably someone had to fish Tom and his bike out of the water separately, so did the same person then sit him up on the bike before rigor mortis set in. And why isn’t the bike rusty? And why…

‘Riding Free’ is a pleasant bit of Donovan-esque strumming and fittingly the lyrics make no sense at all. There’s a lot about Tom’s general sticking it to The Man, who as the song says, ‘tried to clip his wings just like a fly.’ Who clips a fly’s wings? Who’s got clippers small enough?

Anyway, so Tom is left to presumably rot (or get vandalised) in his half dug grave and the gang disperse. Cut to a couple in a broken down car. The man decides to take a sort cut to the garage across the Seven Witches. So he does. Cue the sound of revving.

Now, here’s the thing – Tom has come back from the dead but aside from the fact that he can’t be killed he doesn’t seem to have any special powers. And what does he want to do now he’s back from the world of shadows? Erm, much the same as before really – knocking things over, riding too fast, being a bit of a dick – only this time with some added (and curiously bloodless) murder. The hapless garage hunter is the first to die and then Tom’s on to a pub (with the verger from Dad’s Army behind the bar) where he rings his Mum (‘Well, I’m dead, Mother, but aside from that never better!’) and gets a young lady to buy him a drink.

Unfortunately, the lady is a bit too interested in getting onto the back of Tom’s bike so she becomes his next victim, along with (we find out later) several other people. But not to worry – the cops have called in a Police Inspector, played by Robert Hardy (either the sensible one from All Creatures Great and Small or the Ministry of Magic dude from the Harry Potter films, depending on your age) and he’s going to sort all of this out. By driving around really slowly. In a Morris Minor. Ah, the 70s.

The Living Dead are befuddled and somewhat thrilled to see their leader resurrected. Hatchet is so excited, he knifes Tom in the back to no discernable effect. ‘You can only die once.’ Tom says. This makes the gang decide that being undead is pretty groovy. And in order to make themselves undead, they go off to make themselves, um, dead.

Next time: Suicide is (not) painless! Take that, Fine Fare! Cheap but strangely creepy Special Effects! And don’t worry – we see the frog again!

E.M

‘Hello, little green friend’ – Psychomania: Part One

Late at night in 1994, whilst flicking channels in search late night music videos and dubious anime, I came across the BBC 2 Moviedrome screening of Psychomania. A British 70s cult film in the freakiest, silliest possible sense of the word, Psychomania contains motorbikes, satanic magic, frogs and Beryl Reid. And some highly memorable bits of oddness. Needless to say, it left quite an impression on me. I was dreaming about standing stones and scenes of bikes hitting lorries and being ridden off bridges for quite some time.

Re-watching it now, I’m struck by how it’s not quite comedy, not quite horror, but it is very enjoyable. It’s not entirely clear if the film’s taking the piss or not, which makes it all the more fun.

The plot of Psychomania*, concerns a gang of bikers called The Living Dead. They wear pretty funky skull designed motorbike helmets and have their names on their jackets. Tom (Nicky Henderson) is their side-burned posh-boy leader. Abby (Mary Larkin) is his Ziggy-haired girlfriend. There’s also Jane, the red-jacketed thrill minx. And some boys called called Chopped Meat, Gash, Hinky, Hatchet and Bertram. Yes – Bertram. Is that his real name? Or is it just possible that his real name is even less cool than Bertram?

Anyway, that’s the Living Dead and their main sources of entertainment are causing accidents and riding around their local town centre knocking things over. Outrageous. Post delinquency, Tom and Abby have a snogging session when he’s distracted by a very large frog. Which he captures, places in his inside pocket and THE KISSING RESUMES. It’s established that Abby is a bit more sensible than the rest of the gang (when Tom suggests they kill themselves, she says that she can’t as she’s promised her Mum to help with the shopping tomorrow), but she doesn’t seem to be so bothered about the amphibian in Tom’s leather jacket at an amorous moment. Young people, eh?

Anyway, the frog survives (who knows, maybe it thought of the biker lovin’ as some sort of funfare ride) whatever happens next, as Tom gives it to his dear old Mum as a gift. Mrs Latham (Beryl Reid), lives in some kind of super modern (1973 modern) mansion with her possibly immortal butler, Shadwell (George Saunders) and likes to give seances for free whilst burning black candles. She’s pleased with the frog but tells Tom that she’s quite concerned that the police have been in touch about the gang’s antics. (‘The FUZZ, Mother!’ says Tom, in an attempt to educate her in the ways of yoof.)

Tom isn’t bothered about that. But he is quite bothered about death. Or more specifically how to die and come back from the dead. He asks Shadwell to tell him the secret of the living dead. The real living dead, that is, not Tom’s posse of puddle splashing hoodlums. Shadwell and Ma Latham decide it’s time to introduce Tom to ‘the locked room’. The room in which Tom’s father died. Whilst, I dunno, mucking about with evil or something like that…

*This is the UK title. In the US, it was called The Death Wheelers and was released on video as Death Wheelers are…Psycho Maniacs. The German title was ‘Der Frosch’ – The Frog.
**Psychomania has a PG-Rated approach to sex. Unless you count Tom’s tight trousers.

Next time: The locked room! Bad riding! Folk music! And an unusual burial!

E.M.

‘Where ARE my doggie-woggies?’: Theatre of Blood

1973’s Theatre of Blood is the prince of horror-comedies. And if it actually was a prince it would be an indecisive Danish one. The ‘haha’/’erk’ balance is a difficult one to get right, but this film manages it splendidly. The splendid story-telling helps – Vincent Price is prime ham Edward Lionheart, back from a faced suicide to take his blood vengeance on the pompous theatre critics who denied him a ‘Best Actor’ award.
The critics are offed in series of Grand Guinol Shakespeare homages. George Maxwell (Michael Horden) is stabbed like Julius Caesar. The fantastically named Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe)* loses his head, Cymbeline style. There’s death by wine barrel, death by hairdo** and death by poodle pie***. And for all of the horrible things that Lionheart and his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) get up to, you can’t help but enjoy their villainous crusade.
Vincent Price seems to be enjoying himself so much that you can see the glee beneath his theatrical pan-stick. There’s a flashback sequence in which he recites the ‘To be or not to be’ speech whilst the Critic’s Circle sneer and applaud sarcastically. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor old over-acting Lionheart. Price’s version of the speech manages to be both suitably OTT and strangely moving. Prior to a bonkers fencing match (with trampolines) he sneers at the one vaguely decent critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), ‘What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production?’
Early on in the film, Devlin receives a beautifully wrapped package apparently from his fellow critic, Dickman****. The attached note reads, ‘I am sorry to miss the meeting, but my heart is with you.’ Of course, the package is really from Lionheart and it contains – well, Dickman’s heart. It’s not subtle, but it is funny. And genuinely icky.
Director Douglas Hickox gets the right balance of camp and darkness, which fits Anthony Granville-Bell’s wonderfully. This film is a genuine one-off. ‘Lionheart is immortal!’ Price proclaims. It’s hard to disagree.
*Poor Devlin opens his front door the morning after to find poor Sprout’s head perched on top of a milk bottle. I felt a bit sorry for Sprout. He is Captain Mainwaring, after all. And in Theatre of Blood, he’s married to the 80s BBC incarnation of Miss Marple (Joan Hickson).
**Miss Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) gets electrocuted by a booby-trapped hairdryer, in homage to Joan of Arc’s death in Henry VI: Part One. Browne and Price later married. Insert ‘sparks fly’ gag here.
***Robert Morley’s character, Merridew, unwittingly eats his beloved poodles.
****Yes, Dickman. And guess what? The character’s a big old letch and is easily lured to his Merchant of Venice inspired doom by Edwina and her go-go boots.

E.M.

‘All these children out on the streets at night’ – The Sorcerers

Director Michael Reeves* is best known for Witchfinder General, one of those legendary films which comes to the viewer ready wrapped in myth, infamy and a big pile of anecdotes. In places, Witchfinder is as disturbing and brilliant as its reputation suggests. In others, it’s a tad hokey.

Anyway, that’s Witchfinder General. But also worthy of note is Reeves’s earlier film The Sorcerers (1967), a weird and fascinating horror/sci-fi tale weaving in and out of Swinging 60s London. The story concerns an elderly couple who happen to be ‘brilliant’ hypnotists:  Professor Morris Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). Morris has built a mind control machine and they’re looking for a test subject. After unsuccessfully advertising in a newsagent’s window, Estelle suggests that they try and persuade one of the young people they’re seen swaggering around town. They can offer it as ‘an experience’ she says. Something new.

Meanwhile, in a dingy nightclub, we find Mike** (Ian Oglivy – a childhood friend of Reeves who also starred in Witchfinder General) with his beautiful girlfriend Nicole and awkward Dad-dancing buddy, Alan. Mike is restless. ‘How long do you think all this can last?’ he asks.

A bit later, Mike abandons his friends for a solo wander through the dark streets.   Morris (on a groovy young person hunt) spots him and follows him into a Wimpy Bar.  The London of this film is full of grubby cafes, dingy alleyways and shadowy interiors. A grimy, lonely place.

Mike is sceptical about Monserrat’s offer of mind-bending groovy funtimes, but agrees to come along and give it a go anyway. And so he’s taken to their flowery wallpapered home and escorted into the laboratory. Which looks like some kind of stark pop-arty recording studio, a mass of dials and wires against white walls.

Monserrat’s marvellous mind control machine is pretty lo-fi – just a chair and some headphones. Somehow, it’s powered by Morris and Estelle’s thought waves. Plus a swirly lightshow. The couple are thrilled to discover that their experiment has worked. Mike is completely in their control and they can both feel what he feels. He’s somewhat befuddled but they send him on his way, to find out if their powers still work at a distance. It turns out that they do and Mike finds Nicole and takes her for a beautifully photographed late night swim in a hotel pool.

The Monserrats discuss how they are going to use their power. Morris wants to ‘help people’ but Estelle has other ideas. Their lives have been hard, she reasons, so why not have a bit of fun getting Mike to do things on their behalf? The things they’ve never been able to do.

What follows could be described as an interesting meditation on power and responsibility. Or a Frankenstein style tale about science and morality. Or, as someone on IMDB puts it, ‘a film in which Ian Oglivy listens to Cliff Richard*** and stabs Susan George with a pair of scissors.’ Whatever approach suits, it’s certainly an unusual tale which avoids camp silliness for the most part. The performances are relatively naturalistic. Karloff brings gravitas. Lacey is extraordinarily scary and tragic.

Estelle is frighteningly happy about getting Mike to speed madly on Alan’s motorbike. Her pleasure increases as she gets him to steal, fight and eventually kill. Morris is terrified, but he can’t stop her.

Their psychic powers give the Monserrats a chance to hang around the youth-centric world of the nightclub, an experience from which would people of their age would normally be excluded. This makes it sound a bit like ‘one way Freaky Friday, plus spooky murders’, but honestly – it’s better than that.

Would things have been different if they’d chosen a young woman instead of a young man for their experiment?  A lot of the ladies in this film wear gorgeous mini-dresses without hosiery, so presumably the film would have involved Karloff constantly saying things like, ‘My knees – they are so cold.’

Morris wants to stop Estelle from sending Mike out on a crime spree, but find that he is unable to do so. She smashes up the machine (so Mike can never be ‘deprogrammed’) and her hypnotic powers beat down her husband’s. ‘My will is stronger,’ she proclaims triumphantly.

It is her ‘will’ which makes Mike commit violent acts. He’s a young man callously killing young women, because an old woman made him do it. Is this because she resents their youth or because she’s doing it just because she can? A bit of both, possibly. And it’s either misogynistic (women despise other women) or a bit feminist (the women Mike kills are seen as disposable, Estelle is limited in her choices and relishes the chance to take on a male role).

You could view The Sorcerers as a meditation on the nature of cinema and violence, dressed up in a funky sixties sci-fi/horror cape. Whether the films motives really run this deep or whether it’s simply (as my Dad would say) ‘a good yarn’, it’s certainly 81 minutes of fascinating oddness.

*Tragically, the extremely talented Mr Reeves passed away in 1969 when he was just 25. Witchfinder General was his last film.

**Hmm – Reeves co-wrote this (with someone called Tom Baker. No, not that Tom Baker) Was he getting his friend to do an impression of him?

***’Go Wild in the Country’ is on the soundtrack.

E.M.