In an otherwise peaceful English village, spoiled young brat Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is raising all kinds of hell with his skull-faced biker gang, the Living Dead. With his girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) by his side, Tom leads these malcontents up and down the roads at top speed as they clip pedestrians and cars and sometimes terrorize local businesses. Meanwhile Tom’s mother (Beryl Reid) and her butler, Shadwell (George Sanders), idle away their time worshipping a pagan frog statue capable of bringing humans back from the dead as long as they want it badly enough at the moment of death. (Apparently Tom’s late father didn’t quite pass the test.) Giddy at the thought of riding his hog for all eternity, Tom sails off a bridge during a police chase but, following a solemn, chopper-themed funeral, bursts out of his grave and becomes even more of a public nuisance than before. Every member of the Living Dead is soon following Tom’s example and turning into zombies on wheels, but Abby’s failure to join them causes a rift resulting in a final showdown between good and evil.
BEHIND THE SCENES/PRODUCTION
Directed by veteran British horror director Don Sharp and written by Julian Zimet and Arnaud d’Usseau. Psychomania (released in the US as The Death Wheelers) shares more than a few story elements with its more famous kissing cousin. In one of the film’s opening scenes, a gang of bikers, known affectionately as “The Living Dead,” force a motorist off the road, echoing the “hogs of the road” Durango 95 sequence in Kubrick’s classic. The film even sports a charming, young sociopath in the form of gang leader Nicky Henson, who recalls Clockwork’s protagonist, Alex DeLarge. But the similarities end there as Psychomania proceeds to manifest one of the most berserk plots of any British horror movie of the 1970s.
“At that time, I thought if you do dodgy films, nobody pays to see dodgy films. Of course, you’re not realizing that years later they become ‘cults,'” says Henson with a laugh, still very much in possession of the cheeky charm of the character he played nearly 40 years ago.
“Also, I was a mad motorcyclist,” he adds, “I never had a car. So this script comes through the door and I open it up and it says, ‘Eight Chopped Hog Harley Davidsons crest the brow of a hill.’ I rang my agent and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I didn’t read any further than the ‘Eight Chopped Hog Harley Davidsons.’ Anyway, I arrived on set the first day and there’s eight clapped-out 350 AJS’ and Matchless BSAs. I said, ‘Where’s the Harley Davidsons?’ They said, ‘You gotta be kidding?’ It’s the only show I’ve ever been on where there were eight mechanics working the whole time to keep the bikes fanning because they got ’em in some second-hand shop somewhere and they were falling to bits.”
Had he read the script further before signing on, Henson would’ve learned that his character was a rich, bored young man living in an opulent mansion with his clairvoyant mother, who would eventually be played by veteran British actress Beryl Reid and a mysterious butler named Shadwell who never seems to age, a role ultimately taken on by legendary British actor George Sanders. When Tom demands to know the identity of his deceased father, his mother allows him entry into one of the mansion’s perpetually locked rooms. Here he encounters a magical mirror that reveals to him a terrible secret: he is the son of Satan himself!
While recovering from the shock, Tom overhears his mother accidentally reveal to Shadwell the secret of everlasting life: kill yourself with the firm belief that you will return from the dead as an indestructible, undead fiend. Wasting little time, Tom initiates one of the gang’s mad motorbike rampages – which mostly consists of driving around the town square knocking things over – and when the “fuzz” come to bust up the fun. he careens off the side of a bridge hurtling himself into the waters below and to an untimely demise. After one of the most bizarre funerals in the history of cinema, during which he’s buried sitting upright on his motorbike in an open grave whilst a hippie plays a ballad for him on an acoustic guitar, Tom returns from the dead as an immortal zombie biker, this prompting the rest of the gang to follow suit and take their own lives in increasingly strange and hilarious ways. It’s a mental mix of black magic, black leather, black humor and toad worship!
“A very recognizable face in British films and TV since the 1960s, lead Nicky Henson had small roles in films such as Mike Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and the Peter Sellers comedy There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) before graduating to lead roles in the ’70s, though he mainly worked in television for most of his career. Following Psychomania he returned with a more broadly comic horror film as the hero in 1974’s Old Dracula with David Niven, followed by the lead in 1976’s sex comedy The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones. However, his most memorable performance from the era for most viewers came in 1979 as the chain-wearing, open-shirted “monkey” Mr. Johnson in the classic “The Psychiatrist” episode of the immortal British series Fawlty Towers. More recently he had a regular role throughout 2006 on the popular UK series EastEnders and returned to the big screen with roles in Vera Drake (2004) and Syriana (2005).
Henson recalls. “I had a stunt double whose name I won’t say, ’cause he might still be alive, but he did three stunts for me in the movie and ended up in the hospital after each one. When I drive off the bridge to commit suicide, he managed to hit the water before the bike and the bike landed on top of him. But the weirdest one is when I drive through the wall. It was a polystyrene wall and they painted it to look like bricks but we didn’t shoot it for two or three weeks. And of course the paint kept on fading so they kept painting it over. When he came to do the stunt, the bike went through the wall and he didn’t. He was stuck on the other side. It was like a cartoon.”
The film would also feature Sanders’ in his final role. Legend has it that Psychomania inspired the actor to take his own life. The story went that after filming on Psychomania for about five or six days, Sanders returned to Spain where he was sent a copy to run to assess the production. On watching it, he promptly returned to his hotel room, wrote a suicide note saying he was bored with life and took a bottle of pills, expiring soon after. Was this movie so awful that it caused the suicide of one of its actors, the man who was indeed first billed in the opening credits? It’s a good yarn, and lends the film a dose of macabre potency, but the truth was rather more complicated, as Sanders was suffering from broken relationships, failing business enterprises and a general depression about growing old, all of which contributed to his death; besides, by all accounts he had a pretty good time making Psychomania, that devil may care attitude very much the overarching mood of the shoot.
“He was great fun on the movie,” Henson adds. “We laughed and laughed and laughed and spoiled an awful lot of takes. I mean, it must have been a nightmare for the director because we were all so young and behaving so badly and realized that we were all working on something that was kind of peripheral, that would just disappear. But of course it hasn’t. That’s the weird and wonderful thing about it. People come up to me in the street and quote lines from it now.”
Sanders’ co-star in the film, seasoned British stage and screen actress Beryl Reid, was one of the country’s most familiar media personalities and a regular TV fixture, even hosting multiple self-hosted variety shows. She became extremely in-demand starting in the late ’60s with roles including Robert Wise’s Star! (1968), Robert Aldrich’s highly controversial The Killing of Sister George (1968, with Reid cast as a bullying lesbian), the excellent cult favorite The Assassination Bureau (1969), the Joe Orton adaptation Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970), the drive-in fixture The Beast in the Cellar (1970), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) and Joseph Andrews (1977). Her last big-screen role was in another British horror film, Freddie Francis’ The Doctor and the Devils (1985).
BEHIND THE SCENES/Interview with actor Nicky Henson
So, you know that in some circles, PSYCHOMANIA is considered the epitome of cool…
Nicky Henson: Cool? I can’t believe that, I don’t think it was ever cool! But I’m astonished at its popularity, really. It’s just bizarre that I now get invites to go to universities and talk to their film societies about it.
Well it was written by two ex-patriot Communist sympathizers. And if you really dig, there IS subtext there…
Nicky Henson: There is? Well, I guess you can make anything mean anything, can’t you!
You’ve had such a long and varied career on stage and screen, but can you recall the time when the script for PSYCHOMANIA ended up in your hands?
Nicky Henson: Yes, I remember distinctly. I was in the theatre, I have always been at the theatre, that’s me, that is where I live. But at the time, I was at new theatre called The Young Vic, run by Frank Dunlop, who was my mentor. It was a theatre for 15 – 25 year olds, for a young theatrically virgin audience, to show them the classics. The money was low – only 35 pounds a week – but it was a great experience. Now in England at the time, we still had the B movie industry and the unions would allow you to be in a play in the evening and you could do films in the day time, until 5:30pm. So this script comes through the letterbox one day from my agent and I since I was always a motorcyclist…
In your first film, you played a biker…
Nicky Henson: Yes, I did! It was called FATHER CAME TOO, you’re right. So, this script comes by and it opens with the line “Eight chop hog Harley Davidson’s crest about a hill…” and I said, ‘hey I’ll do the fucker!’ without even reading it. Then I get on set and they weren’t Harley’s at all but rather they were these terrible Norton’s that were 20 years old at the time. They had four mechanics working full time on set just to keep these things going and that was the biggest expense in the movie, believe it or not.
Did you do your own stunts?
Nicky Henson: I did, yes. All but three. You know, in America a professional stuntman can specialize; one makes a living falling off horses, another flips cars, others fall off houses. But English stuntmen at the time had to do it all. My guy – and God, I don’t even know if he’s still alive – was a bloke named Cliff Diggins and for those three stunts for me, he ended up in the hospital every time. I always knew Cliff was doing a stunt when I heard the ambulance wailing…
Was one of those stunts the scene where Tom goes through the wall?
Nicky Henson: Yes, and again he ended up in hospital after that. The first one he did was the bridge, where I fly off and kill myself, that was him and he managed to hit the water before the bike did and the bike landed on top of him. The second was the wall. It was a polystyrene wall which was painted, and when he went through it was like a Warner Bros. cartoon in that the bike went through but he stayed the same side!
One of the great eccentric touches in the picture is the very odd, unhealthy relationship between Tom and his mother, played by the great Beryl Reid…
Nicky Henson: I knew Beryl from before, in the theatre, and she was lovely. They were originally going to cast another American actress but she turned it down at the last minute, so Beryl was having a quiet time and she did it. And of course , there was George Sanders…
Yes, whatever was he thinking doing this grotty little film?
Nicky Henson: Exactly. That’s what he was thinking, I’m sure. They shot all his scenes in 10 days to save money because he was making so much, more than any of us. In order to save 15 bob or something, the production gave Beryl and I chairs that didn’t have our names on them so when George arrived two weeks into production, there were these two famous prop men at Shepperton Studios named Jack and Bobby who were so ashamed that they brought a chair out onto the set with his name printed on the back in ball point pen. And poor George , the story goes, eventually saw a answer print of the film and went back to his hotel in Madrid and killed himself.
He did kill himself and there was that very sad, despondent suicide note. Do remember Sanders as being morose on set?
Nicky Henson: No, not at all, we laughed and laughed and laughed. There are even moments in the film that are meant to be serious where you can see the corners of his mouth start to twitch because he couldn’t contain his laughter.
Tom is such a charming character and its clear at all times that you’re having a good time…hard to take such a cheeky lad seriously as a villain.
Nicky Henson: Yes, I know, I know. Incidentally, all the gear I wore in the film was mine, the leather pants and jacket. I used to arrive in work in them actually.
Do you still ride?
Henson: No I stopped riding at 40. I had a big smash and burned myself very badly and so my kids said no more dad, sorry.
Those bad-ass helmets have become iconic. Did you get to keep one?
Nicky Henson: No, no, none of us kept them. They had to hang on to them for re-shoots, I believe. It’s too bad because maybe they’d be worth money now…
In some circles, yes, they would be. Everyone loves the scene when that beautiful folk song ‘Riding Free’ is played with you about to be buried while mounted on your bike. Was that you in that shallow grave or a dummy?
Nicky Henson: That’s me! Had to sit there while this guy is singing this stupid fucking song and throwing flowers at me and keep a straight face. Ridiculous!
What are your memories of Don Sharp?
Nicky Henson: Don was a man under a huge amount of pressure. He had just done the second unit on PUPPET ON A CHAIN, doing boat stunts in Amsterdam so he chosen because he knew how to film these stunts. There was no budget, it was a short shoot and it was terrible with these bikes breaking down and all these young kids who we could never find were always sneaking off, having smokes in the bushes and playing this card game we always played, which actually makes it into the picture in the scene when we’re in jail, he could never finds us. He was very patient, because we were a nightmare.
Genre fans also remember you for your part in an equally celebrated , but for very different reasons, film: WITCHFINDER GENERAL. And like Sanders, director Michael Reeves took his own life not long after that film…
Nicky Henson: God yes, it was a great loss, and Michael was a great friend. It was a great loss to cinema and a great loss to us – me and my best friend (and WITCHFINDER co-star) Ian Ogilvy, who used to make movies with Micahel when they were kids. We would have all been movies stars if he lived. He was supposed to do BLOODY MAMA for Roger Corman and we would have been in it. WITCHFINDER was important, we knew it was important when we made it. It’s the only British Western, really.
And Vincent Price was magnificent…
Nicky Henson: Yes, Michael never wanted Vincent, he wanted Donald Pleasence and Vincent had heard this and it bothered him to no end. At the time he was one of the foremost art lecturers and collectors, acting was just his hobby. They would fight endlessly. Michael would say “Vincent do nothing, do nothing, stop acting!” and Vincent would retort “ This is my 94th picture and you’re doing the wrong way, how many pictures have you made young man!” and to that Michael said “three good ones, Vincent.” Vincent walked off the set and never said goodbye. Three months later he saw an answer print and wrote to Michael and said” my god I’m sorry, this is the best acting I’ve ever done.”. When Michael died Vincent paid his own way to come to London to tell that story at a tribute festival.
You’ve had a very fruitful, interesting career as an actor, Nicky.
Nicky Henson: Yes, I’ve been very, very lucky. And lucky that it didn’t all end with PSYCHOMANIA!
Psychomania was filmed at Shepperton Studios in 1971 with some exterior scenes filmed in the (now demolished and rebuilt) Hepworth Way shopping centre and Wellington Close housing block in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. It was produced by Benmar Productions, which predominately made Spaghetti Westerns in Spain but also produced Horror Express later that same year.
Also notable is the film’s hypnotic, experimental score courtesy of veteran British composer John Cameron, which from the opening shots of the bikers driving though a fog-drenched stonehenge delivers some instantly memorable progressive rock hooks accompanied by an array of unusual organic sounds. This was one of the earlier scores by John Cameron, a name best known to devotees of vintage library recordings for labels like KPM and DeWolfe whose work appeared in countless TV shows and commercials. His other scores written for the big screen include Kes (1970), The Ruling Class (1972), A Touch of Class (1973) and The Mirror Crack’d (1980).
“I knew we needed a score that was spooky and different but had kind of a rock feeling to it and it was kind of pre-synthesizer,” explains the composer. “I mean, you could get Mr. Moog and his synthesizer but you needed a room about the size of Abbey Road Number 1 to get the bloody thing in. So you had to be a bit ingenious. By that time, we’d been working in really quite high-tech studios. For this one, we had to use Shepperton’s recording studios and it hadn’t been updated since before the war. The hilarious thing is actually having these hooligan musicians all trying to do strange things, scratch inside pianos and turn sounds inside out, but the recording engineer still had a suit and tie on. It was so anachronistic.”
Two of Cameron’s pieces from the score—”Witch Hunt (Title Theme from the Film Psychomania)” and “Living Dead (Theme from the Film Psychomania)”— were released in 1973 as a 7” single on the Jam label, using the artist name “Frog”.
George Sanders as Shadwell
Beryl Reid as Mrs. Latham
Nicky Henson as Tom Latham
Mary Larkin as Abby Holman
Roy Holder as Bertram
Robert Hardy as Chief Inspector Hesseltine
Ann Michelle as Jane
Denis Gilmore as Hatchet
Miles Greenwood as Chopped Meat
Peter Whitting as Gash
Rocky Taylor as Hinky