Category Archives: Horror

‘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.

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‘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.

They mostly come at night. Mostly.

So let’s talk about Newt.

I recently rewatched the first two Alien films after quite a few years. Living in internet nerd culture as I do, I felt deeply familiar with these movies despite my relative lack of that familiarity. Game over, man! Get away from her, you bitch! There are aspects of the films that have settled deeply into pop culture. And one of the things that everyone knows, so much so that it makes people defend Alien 3 (ugh), is that Newt is apparently really annoying.

So sitting down to watch, I was expecting the kid to be shrill, or whiny, or badly-acted. Any of the things that can happen to make children irritating in film. And I was completely surprised. She’s well-acted, she’s amusing, she’s about the only rational actor in the whole film and she’s certainly less whiny than Hudson, brilliantly played by Bill Paxton as a combat veteran so completely unmanned by the failure of firepower that all he can do is cry about how they’re all going to die this time, really guys, he means it.

If the Sulaco’s marines had taken Newt aside and asked her how she survived for weeks without getting caught, maybe they would have been luckier. All I can suppose is that the ‘nerd narrative’ on Newt was written by people who, when they saw Aliens, were little boys. And there’s not much that reads as annoying to little boys as little girls. Would the child be so disliked if it had been the brother who survived instead of the sister? I doubt it, even if the girl does have a scream that can shatter glass.

Also, considering how powerfully feminist Aliens is, I’m amazed nerds like it as much as they do. The finale is two women fighting over a little girl, the men rendered helpless. You don’t see a lot of that.

‘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.