Halloween Movie Special: Psychomania

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Psychomania Quad poster & Odeon ad

Back in the early 1970s, I remember seeing cinema ads in newspapers for Psychomania and thinking it just had to be amazing. That name alone. This was something I had to see.

Problem. I was still in primary school and Psychomania was an X and I wouldn’t even have been admitted into an AA film at the time so it joined a long list of films I desperately wanted to see but couldn’t.

Psychomania Opening

Instead I had to make do with STV’s Friday night horror slot Don’t Watch Alone for any potential horror thrills. Which meant classic oldies like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy along with more recent Hammer Horrors.

I kept missing out too when Psychomania started being screened on late night TV. Then, back in the summer of 1994, I finally caught it on Moviedrome, the BBC 2 strand that covered cult cinema. Introduced by Alex Cox, my hopes deflated slightly when Cox let it be known he didn’t really rate it that highly himself, noting that it was ‘nowhere near as good as Girl on a Motorcycle.’

Critics, it would have to be admitted, have generally despised Psychomania over the years and even the cast have been known to put the boot in. Asked in the documentary British B Movies; Truly, Madly, Cheaply how he felt about watching the film nowadays, Nicky Henson offered a one word response: ‘Ashamed.’

For a man who has recently plied his trade on EastEnders and Downton Abbey that truly is a harsh judgement albeit I will admit that the film is absolutely absurd. Especially the hokum involving frogs.

Psychomania - The Frog

Frogs are a big part of Psychomania although even after watching several times now I’m still unsure of their exact significance. They do though seem to play a vital part in the process in bringing back the dead. ‘Anyone taking a Maximus Leopardus from a graveyard is either foolhardy or ignorant,’ we’re informed. So be warned, folks!

Motorbikes are an even bigger part of the film. As far as I can tell this was the first British motorbike feature since Morrissey favourite The Leather Boys from 1964. This might have told the story of a young ton up boy and his rocker pals but it could be better described as a kitchen sink drama – that just happened to involve motorbikes.

Since that film’s release, Roger Corman’s biker flicks had proved a big box-office hit in America with young people who wanted to be free to do what they wanted to do which included wanting to get loaded (Primal Scream borrowed that dialogue from 1966’s The Wild Angels incidentally).

Inevitably, audience interest in Born Losers, Angels From Hell and Wild Rebels began to wane after a few years of this deluge of exploitation rip-offs. The formula needed perking up. All female biker gangs appeared in Sisters in Leather (1969). The Pink Angels (1971) featured an all gay gang while The Black Angels (1970) mixed the biker subgenre with blaxploitation. Then there was the truly dreadful horror/biker hybrid Werewolves on Wheels from 1971.

I’m guessing that the makers of Psychomania thought they could do better with this kind of thing, replacing werewolves with zombies – albeit zombies that looked as they did in life and who didn’t feel the need to constantly gorge on human flesh. Night of the Living Dead was still something of a drive-in hit and midnight movie favourite in the States at the time and the biker gang here are even named the Living Dead.

And as A Clockwork Orange was at the time attracting a broad spectrum of eager movie-goers – until Stanley Kubrick made the decision to withdraw the film, I reckon the Psychomania scriptwriters (Arnaud d’Usseau & Julian Zimet) might have been persuaded to include a little ultraviolence – for some curious reason, the Dead have a bit of a thing for ramming their bikes into pram pushing young mums.

While they were at it, with Rosemary’s Baby still fresh in the minds of horror fans, why not include a little Satan worship?

Mix these ingredients together, add some full throttle silliness and away they go!

Psychomania - The Living Dead

Tom (Nicky Henson) and Abby (Mary Larkin) are a pair of Home Counties poshos. Tom, the leader of the Living Dead, lives in a huge home with his spiritualist mother (Beryl Reid) and an elderly and mysterious butler named Shadwell. Played by Oscar winner George Sanders, a man who The Kinks once sang about, the role of Shadwell turned out to be this Celluloid Heroe’s last appearance onscreen. It’s been claimed he killed himself after seeing an early print of Psychomania but this sounds rather apocryphal to me.

As biker gangs go, the Living Dead are far from the most frightening. A little delinquent yeah but their idea of devilment is more likely riding into a mini-market and scattering as many tins of beans and packets of cereal as possible than the type of brutal torture, carnage and bloodbaths that were such a regular feature of Sons of Anarchy.

Those outlaw bikers covered in their entire backs with their gang’s Grim Reaper tattoos. The Living Dead wear ludicrous crossbones crash helmets and have their names stitched neatly into their jackets. Abby doesn’t even wear leather. The Sons snorted coke, smoked weed and gulped back Scotch. The Dead, well, Tom does have a pint of bitter at one point while none of the members even smoke a cig (unbelievable in the 1970s). The Sons rode massive Harley Davidson Dynas, the Dead make do with some past their best AJS 350s.

But hey, the SOA never figured out a way to come back from the dead, did they?

To explain briefly, you can commit suicide and come back from the grave if you truly believe you will come back – added to that obscure frog related hokum mentioned earlier. Tom is first to try this out, driving his bike off the motorway into a river.

Buried sitting on his bike around some standing stones known as the Seven Sisters, he’s mourned with a folky song, Riding Free (Born to be Wild it ain’t). As you can see below, the hole hasn’t been dug deeply enough and his head protrudes out of his burial spot, requiring an extra mound of soil to be shovelled over it. Are you allowed to bury someone in this way?

Psychomania - Funeral

This becomes a moot point as he soon revs back to life, driving his bike straight from his grave back on to grass, knocking down a passer-by on his merry way. I did mention full throttle silliness, didn’t I?

Soon the gang are all topping themselves and, of course, none of them go down the bottle of Scotch and handful of tranquilizers road. Instead they hatch a number of inventive ways of joining Tom.

One wraps himself in heavy industrial metal chains and walks with a great determination into a lake; another leaps from a high-rise while my favourite has to be the one who decides to jump from a plane without the use of a parachute. Even critics would surely have to acknowledge the impressive panache of this scene’s execution.

Other aspects of the film, though, do at least partly explain why it was critically panned on its release.

There are continuity errors. Where did Tom get that half baquette from when he discusses some family mysteries with Shadwell? Some of the dialogue is horribly stilted and the bargain-basement special effects weren’t even very good by the standards of the early seventies, especially during the finale.

I also doubt it has ever scared a single adult. But, but, but. It’s like the person who is maybe a little chubby, maybe has bad skin and dry hair but still has something indefinable about them that somehow makes them majorly attractive despite these flaws.

The British Film Institute’s Vic Pratt has recently praised it as: ‘the greatest, weirdest British post-psychedelic undead-biker horror movie ever made.’ He did, though, also admit it is the only the British post-psychedelic undead-biker horror movie ever made.

Obviously I love it and would have likely have loved it even more as a ten year old. Why the British censors ever slapped an X on it remains a mystery. There’s not a single sweary word used and the nearest thing to a sex scene is when Tom and Abby are about to get it on in a graveyard until Tom is distracted by a frog.

Here’s the strange thing. You could shoot a remake of it on a far bigger budget with better bikes and more spectacular special effects, add more convincing dialogue, include some real scares and even inject it with some sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

And there’s just no chance it would be as good as the original.

Here’s the trailer:


For more on Psychomania click here.

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Think Small – Downsizing Film Review

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Downsizing

Downsizing is one of those films that will routinely be described as high concept. That high concept being that when it comes to overpopulation and dwindling resources size really does matter. So, when Norwegian scientists discover a process known as cellular reduction, a method that can shrink humans down to a fraction of their current size, many begin volunteering, thus helping the survival of the human race by making much more of the planet’s food and energy supplies.

There are other advantages too beside being environmentally very, very friendly. Anyone undergoing the process will instantly become financially far better off, $152,000 translating to around $12 million. Well, just think of the hundreds of times you’d be able to get drunk on a bottle of Buckfast if you were only five inches tall.

The operation, I should also explain, is irreversible.

Okay, a giant-sized suspension of disbelief is be required here. I’d imagine my local foxes would have me for a late night snack if I decided to go for a night out. And what if some vore fans got the idea of using me as their plaything?

Downsizing_-_Matt_Damon_&_Kristen_Wiig

Among the volunteers considering this brave (and very tiny) new world are Audrey and Paul Safranek (Kristen Wiig & Matt Damon), an affable but aimless American couple. Paul is an occupational therapist and all round good guy while Audrey prefers to focus on the financial upside.

They agree to go through with the operation, leaving their Omaha home, family and friends to live in a miniaturized community in New Mexico called Leisureland, whose motto is ‘It’s like winning the lottery everyday’.

Apparently most big acts include a date there on their tours, crime is almost non-existent and the place is pristine with all kinds of activities constantly available to residents.

So, does this Lilliputian lifestyle lead to a vibrant utopia where problems of old disappear?

Well, as the old phrase goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Relationships can still be difficult and noisy neighbours still enjoy cranking up their music (although I assumed that Paul’s mansion was all his, someone lives above him). More worryingly, a ghetto whose occupants are cooped up like chickens has sprung up near to the estate where Paul lives – although I have no real idea why this has been allowed to happen, why so many people agreed to go small and live there and why Paul has been completely unaware of all this.

In this dystopian environment he helps Ngoc Lan Tran, a dissident Vietnamese environmental activist, involuntarily resized by her government, who has ended up in America as a refugee and now works as a cleaner for Paul’s neighbour Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a past his prime Serbian playboy and shady entrepreneur.

This will lead to an oddyssey to the original scaled down community in Norway, the end of the world looming and a gigantic decision for Paul to make. These developments, though, fail to prove as intriguing as might be imagined.

Downsizing - Norwegian still

This kind of fantastical movie is a real departure for director Alexander Payne (Sideways and Nebraska), more the kind of thing you might associate with a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, who I’m guessing would likely have handled the project more imaginatively.

A combination of science fiction, social satire and love story, Downsizing is ambitious, unpredictable and often funny – like the sight gag involving Little Ronni, the first baby born to a reduced size couple and something of a celebrity.

It’s also overlong and, considering the buzz emanating around it, slightly disappointing.

Matt Damon does what he does, oozing likeability, and he really needs to start stretching himself more as an actor. Here he is impressed by just about everything, easily bossed around and much less interesting than those around him. A not very incredible shrunken man.

As ever Christoph Waltz is superb and I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of Hong Chau on the big screen in the near future. Kristen Wiig, who I normally like a lot, is largely wasted in her role, her character as bland as Waltz’s is magnetic apart from one particular scene involving an interesting twist.

Udo Kier from Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, Suspiria and The Story of O makes an appearance too as Mirkovic’s buddy Joris Konrad. If, like me, you haven’t seen him in a while he now looks like George Galloway with Terence Stamp’s eyes.


6/10

Fab 5 Freddie Told Me Everybody’s Fly

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Jean-Michel Basquiat - Two Heads

Over the weekend I’ll be spending some time in London where one highlight of the trip should be the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition Boom For Real at the Barbican.

Back in the 1980s I remember reading a copy of Art Monthly magazine, the cover reproducing a painting by Hans Haacke titled Taking Stock that acted as a conceptual critique of the involvement of Saatchi and Saatchi in the international art world, the Saatchis at the time being the favoured PR company of the Tory Party. This was Haacke’s favoured modus operandi, investigating the links between the art world and capitalist corporations. A key to the work was necessary to understand it fully.

The artist might be making valid points but I doubt that Taking Stock changed the opinion of a single person who viewed it and could Haacke not just have written an essay on the subject instead?

Much more satisfying was an article focussing on New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a self-taught painter still only in his early 20s, who’d started out as a graffiti artist, using the tag Samo on the streets of SoHo and the East Village. Fiercely creative, his improvisatory work was bold and vividly coloured. It engaged the eye and mind rigorously with a mixture of hieroglyphics, tribal art, bits of mysterious text and logos while referencing a diverse range of sources such as Gray’s Anatomy and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Hollywood Africans (1983)

For me, the NYC of this era conjures up images of scuzzy lo-fi movies like Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer and Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens; early rap, no wave and punk funk; and graffiti art by the likes of Kenny Scharf, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A member of the Brooklyn based graffiti collective the Fabulous 5, Freddy also rapped while Jean-Michel co-founded his own ‘noise’ band Gray. Both became regular guests on Glen O’Brien’s live cable show TV Party where they would meet many other talented young artists from varying fields and make connections.

The city had transformed itself into a cultural melting pot where ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, uptown and downtown increasingly collided. The burgeoning graffiti scene was moving from subway train to art gallery, just as other underground movements manoeuvred themselves overground.

Fab 5 Freddy's SoupCans

Early in 1981, Jean-Michel and Freddy took part in the New York/New Wave exhibition at PS. 1. Later dubbed ‘The Armory Show of the ’80s’, this mammoth show embraced art, music, fashion, photography and cartoons. A few months later Jean-Michel was shown at the seminal Beyond Words graffiti show at the Mudd Club in Lower Manhattan, an exhibition co-curated by Futura 2000 (who went on to colloborate with The Clash) and Fab 5 Freddy, the venue being a favoured hangout for a variety of artists from Robert Mapplethorpe to Madonna, Kathy Acker to Klaus Nomi.

Arguably the highpoint of all this artistic cross-pollination was Blondie’s American #1 single Rapture with Freddy and Jean-Michel both making cameo appearances in the promo – that’s Freddy in the background creating some graffiti while Jean-Michel is the DJ that Debbie Harry gets chatting to around the two-minute mark. He was actually standing in for Grandmaster Flash who couldn’t make the shoot.

And who was the first person to buy a Basquiat?

Debbie Harry, that’s who.

 
I have read a coupla eejits online writing off Rapture as another example of ‘whitey’ stealing black culture and dumbing down the content but, firstly, this fails to point out that this kind of thing was a two-way street. A number of hiphop related acts repeatedly sampled acts like Kraftwerk, Queen and The Incredible Bongo Band. Or, as another example, look at how Fab 5 Freddy reappropriated Andy Warhol’s soup cans for a massive mural on a subway train.

As for dumbing down, well, Debbie’s rap certainly doesn’t take itself very seriously and could even be called spectacularly daft but in the days before the release of The Message, rap wasn’t exactly socially conscious and thought-provoking, the average track consisting mainly of egotistical boasting together with a few ‘throw your hands up in the air’ or ‘Lemme hear you say paaaaaarrrrrty’ chants and some overused sample (and if in doubt chuck in a little Good Times seemed to be the motto of many on the scene).

And finally some more NYC music from the era. This is Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force with Planet Rock, a track that sampled Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and Numbers very imaginatively:


The Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition continues in London until 28 Jan 2018. For more information click here.

If you fancy having a gander at the recent BBC documentary Basquiat – Rage to Riches head here. You have seventeen days left to view it if you pay your license or know your way round a good proxy site.

The three images used in this post are Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) & Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat, both from 1982, and Fab 5 Freddy’s Soup Cans of 1980.

Ooh Woo Hoo Hoo! Ça Plane Pour Moi? Non, c’est Jet Boy, Jet Girl

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7-by-7-1977-logo-2016

Elton Motello – Jet Boy, Jet Girl (Pinball Records)

Until last night I was unaware that Elton Motello had ever been captured by a television camera. It turns out, though, that they’d appeared on European TV a number of times and on mainstream shows at that. Even though the song they were performing contained unapologetic lyrics about a fifteen year old boy having sex with an older guy and the repeated lyric ‘He gave me head’.

I guess the language barrier worked in their favour here and this also likely counted in their favour with the singer’s Fuck You T-shirt.

Don’t you just have to love any act that gets their big chance on TV and the singer chooses that T-shirt and covers his hair and face in talcum powder. Which he proceeds to shake off by slapping his napper at various strategic moments. Very strange times.

  
Discussing the single’s prospects in Britain with Alan Walton in Sounds, singer Alan Ward was circumspect: ‘We knew it wouldn’t get any airtime, but we thought, what the hell, it’s a good song so we’ll put it out anyway.’

Elton Motello grew out of the band Bastard, a Crawley act that took inspiration from The Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper. And here I should mention that like the early Alice Cooper, Elton Motello is the name of the singer and band. Ward later described Bastard as a ‘pre new wave thrash band’. One of their songs, Dr Gong, has been called an ancestor of New Rose, Brian James being at the time the band’s guitarist.

The Bastard boys decided to decamp to Belgium when singer Alan Ward was offered a job as a recording engineer in swanky new Brussels studio Morgan. They had set out to find a more imaginative audience but although they performed in Belgium, Holland and France they were largely ignored, just as they’d been on home soil.

Brian James returned home and made connections with Mick Jones and Tony James, tentatively joining their band London SS before forming The Damned while Bastard morphed into Elton Motello.

Concocted in the studio with Ward and Brian James replacement Mike Butcher, together with a couple of session musicians, Jet Boy, Jet Girl is sometimes thought to be a cover version of international hit Ça plane pour Moi.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was recorded and released before Plastic Bertrand’s version. The two tracks, incidentally, also utilize the same galloping backing track.

 
Designed as a pastiche, a cash-in on punk, Ça plane pour Moi went on to be a big hit around the globe in 1978. Hollywood loves it and in recent years it’s made an appearance on Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (when Jordan Belfort is arrested) and in The Perks of Being a Wallflower during a party scene. There’s been a steady stream of covers too, including unexpected takes on the song from Sonic Youth, Thee Headcoatees, Richard Thompson and Nouvelle Vague.

Pepsi even used it for an ad recently, so, if the two songs had been adversaries and involved in a commercial mano a mano then Ça plane pour Moi really wins hands down. I do prefer Jet Boy, Jet Girl myself even though Plastic Bertrand does a good pre-chorus ‘Ooh woo hoo hoo’.

Okay, when I say that I should explain that for years there was a debate on who actually sang on the hit: Roger Jouret, the ‘singer’ who appeared as Plastic Bertrand or the song’s co-writer and producer Lou Deprijck.

After years of acrimony and threats between the pair, the argument ended in court, when a Belgian judge acted on the opinion of an expert linguist who, after hearing the 1977 hit attributed to Plastic Bertrand and the 2006 version by the producer concluded that Deprijck had sung on both.

Jouret later finally admitted that he is indeed not the vocalist on Ça plane or any of the songs on the first four albums released under the Plastic Bertrand moniker.

Wham Bam!

Strange how many feelgood songs have acrimonious stories behind them.

The Group That Should’ve Written Star Wars

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seven-by-seven 77 logo (2016)

Hawkwind – Quark, Strangeness and Charm (Charisma)

Me and science fiction have never been the closest of buddies. Yes, I have enjoyed a number of sci-fi films over the years from Metropolis through to Blade Runner 2049 (a Hollywood sequel definitely worth seeing, whatever next?) If I ever had to appear on Mastermind, though, sci-fi would not be my specialist subject, believe me. In fact, I only finally got round to watching Star Wars for the first time a few months ago, aged 55.

Hawkwind – Quark, Strangeness and Charm album cover

As 1977 dawned and punk increasingly made an impact on British music, Hawkwind seemed pretty much irrelevant to me. Past their sell by date psychedelic crusaders whose following consisted mainly of acid casualties and the kind of space cadets who might have seriously struggled to distinguish between New Year and New York.

Lemmy had been sacked and their dancer Stacia left to settle down to family life.

‘What did you do before you got married, Mummy?’

‘Well darling, I used to paint my body with luminescent blue paint and dance naked with Hawkwind.’

According to Ian Abrahams in his book Hawkwind: Sonic Assassins, Robert Calvert wasn’t making any effort to get the new generation on his side despite privately appreciating some of the music. He dismissed The Clash as ‘The most orthodox band I’ve ever heard. They just play three-minute pop songs and throw in a few slogans’ and he slagged them off for not playing enough benefits.

Which is ironic as Joe Strummer’s initial thoughts on the idea of covering Police and Thieves was to do it like Hawkwind. Famously, the pre-Pistols John Lydon had been a big Hawkwind fan and Robert Calvert was by this point on friendly terms with the younger man and surely, while I’m at it, the single Quark, Strangeness and Charm betrays a definite punk/new wave influence?

Calvert really seems to have missed a trick by declining to publically embrace punk. Doing so certainly hadn’t harmed Marc Bolan’s career.

And – speaking of Bolan – one afternoon, just over forty years ago, I came home from school and switched on the TV to watch Marc where the great man introduced the band as ‘The group that should’ve written Star Wars and didn’t.’


Doesn’t Marc look very relaxed in that clip? I suspect a few glasses of champers may have been quaffed on the day. Funnily enough, I only discovered a few years ago that when he called Hawkwind ‘my best friends’ he was totally fibbing but, hey, this is showbiz and they shared the same management.

The truth is that guitarist Dave Brock didn’t even bother turning up at the Granada studios for the recording as he’d maintained a grudge against Bolan since the early 1970s after they’d taken a dislike to one another at a party. He wasn’t very keen on miming the song either.

*

‘Even this doggerel that flows from my pen has just been written by another twenty telepathic men…’

No, that’s not me (and any telepathic twins). This is a lyric from Spirit of the Age, a chilling Robert Calvert poem set to music and the longest – and possibly best – track on the Quark album.

Here it is.


And if you’re wondering about my thoughts on Star Wars and why I’d never seen it until this year. Well, when it came out I was sixteen and very adult in my own head at least and didn’t remotely fancy paying good money to see a blockbuster featuring badly designed robots and furry animal thingies in lead roles. Nope, that money was instead likely spent on buying records by the likes of XTC, The Stranglers and Wire.

A few months ago, though, I watched a documentary Elstree 1976 which focussed on a number of the minor actors and extras who’d appeared in the movie. The main reason for seeking this out being that I’d did a number of stints as an extra myself decades ago. Not on anything as grand as Star Wars mind you.

Anyway, seeing Elstree 1976 did persuade me to finally give Star Wars a go. Even if I didn’t rate the movie myself I could at least maybe gain an insight into the mindset of the kind of uber-fan who turns up at a convention and voluntarily queues for half an hour to get their mitts on a signed photo of someone who’d only ever been briefly glimpsed in a couple of scenes. Maybe even behind a mask or helmet.

Perhaps inevitably, the film bored me at times and I truly cannot begin to understand why it ever became such a global phenomenon. The plot was predictable, the acting and dialogue often mediocre at best and I suspect if Ed Wood had still been making movies at the time, even he might have been slightly embarrassed by the scene in the intergalactic boozer.

Star Wars? It might actually have been better if Hawkwind had written it.