Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Hubrisween 2020 :: W is for Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

On a lonesome highway, out of the heat and rippling haze of the desert, The Devil’s Advocates ride. Now that is one inspired name for a motorcycle club, and there appears to be about a baker’s dozen of them on bikes with a couple of biker skanks bringing up the rear in an old ambulance. 

And as they roll along, snogging their old ladies, popping pills, smoking some reefer, and dabbling in a few other hallucinogens, they continue to ride. And ride. And ride. And ride and ride and ride. Sensing a theme here.

Trouble starts when a straggler is run off the road by a couple of good ol’ boys in a pick-up truck; and as the other Advocates burn rubber in pursuit, these locals manage to give them the slip. Ah, but these not so bright hit-n-runners then make the bone-headed mistake of stopping at the very next available gas station -- so it isn’t that big of a surprise when the Advocates roar up and surround them, looking for a little payback. 

Led by Adam (Oliver), the gang’s leader, he forcefully pulls the driver out and then proceeds to give him a big old wet kiss on the lips!? (Wow.) He then punches him in the stomach (-- that’s better), and then turns him over to the rest of the gang, who proceed to beat the shit out of him. But the Advocates aren't completely ruthless as they leave the geriatric passenger alone; and after the bloodied driver is unceremoniously dumped in the back of the truck, the old man stomps on the gas and tears off.

Having had enough fun, the Advocates let them go and invade the gas station instead. And while the others imbibe huge amounts of beer, Helen (Anderson) -- Adam’s old lady, wants Tarot, the spiritual sage of this group, to tell her fortune. But Tarot (Barry) gets really crabby at this notion because he “reads” the cards and doesn’t “tell” fortunes. 


And it doesn’t matter anyway because he won’t do readings for chicks. At first, this makes Adam happy because he doesn’t like it when the morose Tarot starts messing with his cards -- I guess it makes him even more morose. But Helen is so insistent, he finally orders Tarot to do it, just to make her shut.  

Wanting to know how she's going to die, Helen watches as Tarot lays out the Chariot Card, the Lover’s Card, and the Angel Card. (Now do you wanna hit, or stand pat?) Next comes the Devil’s Card, which Tarot ominously warns will have a future influence on her future. And then he deals another, more ominous card that says her fate is predetermined, meaning she cannot change it.

Saying this is all a crock, Adam won’t let him flip the last card. But Helen's really got her panties in a knot to know, so Tarot continues with the final play: Helen will die by a lightning strike in the Tower of Satan. (You know, I had a vision once where mall walkers trampled me to death. Walked right out of the Sam Goody and BAM! -- I wonder if they have a card for that?) 

Suddenly, overcome with disturbing visions of death and the Cloven One, Tarot is visibly shaken by these results. But Adam snaps him out of it, still insisting it's all a load of bullshit, and then herds everyone outside to head deeper into the wilderness for a little R’n’R. So they’re off again, and we’re entreated to another long travelogue sequence until they eventually stop at a fork in the road for a beer break.

Unable to shake those apocalyptic visions, Tarot is still a bit uneasy as Adam chides him for believing in all that mumbo-jumbo. But Tarot says he only believes in the truth, and claims he can show them all the "real truth" if they're willing to follow. They are, so he leads his fellow Advocates down the fork less traveled into a primordial woods.


Ditching the bikes, they head further into the trees and find a huge circle of stones in a clearing -- obviously an altar of some kind, where they commence to have a drunken orgy. But it isn’t very hard to spot the Tower of Satan lurking in the background; an exact match to Tarot's prophetic vision.

And when Adam starts calling for the Devil to come out and join the party, he doesn't realize the Devil is listening -- and has every intention of taking him up on that invitation...

The origins of the Outlaw Biker flick can be traced back to the summer of 1947, when the American Motorcyclist Association [AMA] sponsored a Gypsy Tour and Rally in Hollister, California, over the July 4th weekend, where around 4000 bikers showed up -- mostly returning veterans, trying to readjust to civilian life, which was about 3985 more bikers than the town could really accommodate.

And then a couple of rival clubs -- the Boozefighters and the Pissed-Off Bastards of Bloomington, allegedly got into a rumble, resulting in the so-called Hollister Riot. I say allegedly, and so-called, because aside from some public drunkenness and general disorderliness, there wasn't much of a riot. 

However, inspired by a (posed) picture he saw in LIFE Magazine about the rowdy weekend, writer Frank Rooney wrote a fictionalized tale called "Cyclists' Raid" for Harper's Magazine, where a gang of hooligans ride in and take over a small town. Fiction soon clouded the truth, and a legend was born.

Thus, it was Rooney's imagined Hollister Riot that inspired Stanley Kramer's The Wild One (1953), recognized by most as the first Outlaw Biker flick, which in turn helped create a whole new genre. The film also influenced the bikers themselves; but it should be pointed out most of them were emulating Lee Marvin's skuzzy Chino, and not Marlon Brando's pretty boy Johnny. 

And starting with Roger Corman's mucho profitable The Wild Angels (1966) -- inspired again by an article in LIFE Magazine about the massive funeral of a legendary Hell's Angel member, most subsequent biker films followed suit, focusing on the rough and rowdy world of life on the road, using real biker gang members in their films as extras.

With low production costs and money to be made, over the next few years some 40 to 50 Outlaw Biker flicks were unleashed on the public -- The Glory Stompers (1967), The Devil's Angels (1967), Angels from Hell (1968), Satan's Sadists (1969), Angels Die Hard (1970) and Angels, Hard as They Come (1971) to name just a few; but by the dawn of the 1970s the genre was no longer firing on all cylinders. And as filmmakers almost always do when a genre is about to die, they start tinkering with the formula or combine it with another to try and squeeze a few more box-office dollars out of it.

Cross-dressing homosexuals was the hook for The Pink Angels (1971). In the horribly mistitled Hell's Bloody Devils (1970), Al Adamson stuck some bikers into his James Bond knock-off with less than stellar results.

So it was inevitable, then, that somebody would start combining the biker and horror genres; and none other than Herschell Gordon Lewis got there first and started the blood flowing with She-Devils on Wheels (1968). And then there was Psychomania (1973) -- the tale of a British biker gang selling their souls to the devil for immortality. Strange film. They worship a toad. I'm serious.

Now, Michel Levesque had worked on a couple of these films -- Richard Rush’s The Savage Seven (1968), and Bruce Clark’s The Naked Angels (1969), crewing as a set designer or serving as an art director for both Roger Corman’s New World and American International Pictures. And the constant rumor on those sets was that if you could come up with a decent idea for a biker movie, a horror movie, a drug movie, or any combination of all three, odds were good it would probably get made by somebody.

And so, Levesque teamed up with his friend, David Kaufman, who turned out a seven page treatment that combined elements of Satanism, lycanthropy, and the burgeoning cinematic biker tropes. And taking these barest notions of an idea, they started scouting out some locations in the deserts of California to plug these notions into and expand on them. And once the first draft of the script was complete, they turned it over to producer Paul Lewis, hoping he would know someone to pass it along to that might be interested in making a slightly blasphemous Werewolves vs. Bikers flick.

By 1970, Lewis had carved himself out quite the niche as a production manager, breaking in on a couple of existential Monte Hellman westerns -- The Shooting (1966), Ride the Whirlwind (1966), before handling several genre milestones, including Tom Laughlin’s The Born Losers (1967), which introduced the world to that kung-fu pacifist, Billy Jack, Richard Rush’s ode to the Haight-Ashbury scene in Psych-Out (1968), and Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Outlaw Biker movie to end all Outlaw Biker movies, Easy Rider (1969).

And by mere happenstance, Lewis now had two proposed scripts for a Werewolf Biker movie on his desk. The other had an entire gang of werewolves that rode from town to town on a massive killing spree. But he liked Levesque and Kaufman’s more cost-effective ideas better, who were surprised that Lewis not only liked their pitch but planned to produce the movie himself. And not only that, but he pegged Levesque to direct it; something he had never done before. Kaufman, meanwhile, had hoped to take another run at their script but Lewis felt it was ready to go, as is.

And to me, this kind of explains a lot from what we’ve seen thus far as most of the dialogue appears to be ad-libbed over the barest bones of a script -- but ad-libbed very well by the mostly amateur cast. Stephen Oliver, a last second casting decision, was already a genre veteran and provided a solid anchor for the others to follow; and if you look closely among the Advocates, you can spot folk-singer Barry "Eve of Destruction" McGuire and former child star Billy Gray -- most likely known for playing young Bobby Benson in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and for being one of the kids in the long running sit-com, Father Knows Best (1954-1960), who had just come off a much publicized marijuana bust.

Donna “DJ” Anderson had just appeared in Count Yorga (1971), and does pretty well with a pretty thankless role. Noted comedian Severn Darden played Satan's head disciple, whom we'll be meeting in a sec. Turns out he was a friend of Lewis’ and apparently made up most of the ritualistic mumbo-jumbo he spouts in the film. And according to Levesque in a later interview, most of the cast were completely stoned for the entire shoot. Method acting, I guess.

When an initial deal with American International fell apart, another distributor was soon found with Joe Solomon's Fanfare Productions. Now Solomon was one of the quieter patron saints of exploitation cinema -- Simon King of the Witches (1971) Tower of Evil (1972), who brought us plenty of biker mayhem: Wild Wheels (1968), Run, Angel, Run (1969), and Nam's Angels -- a/k/a The Losers (1970), where the government sends some renegade bikers to Vietnam on a covert rescue mission. 

When Fanfare released Werewolves on Wheels (1971), the poster and press-kits screamed, "The gang thought it was tough 'til they met THE BRIDE OF SATAN!" And all the promotional materials, including a complimentary barf-bag in case the film made you sick (-- hopefully for the right reasons), promised us lycanthropic hooligans on Harley's. 

But what we really got was a different kind of monster altogether, which will soon present itself as the Advocates' drunken orgy continues unabated until a platoon of monks appear from out of nowhere, who offer the revelers some bread and wine.

Unknown to the slovenly bikers, however, who greedily accept and gorge themselves, the wine has been drugged and they all start dropping like flies. (And can you imagine the potency it would take to knock this crowd out? Wow.) Once they’re all out for a snooze, the head monk shows up, announcing himself as One, the spokesman for He Who Must Remain Silent Forever (Darden), who babbles in a satanic circular logic for a while, and then removes a strand of hair from Helen.

Returning to the tower, One calls upon his Master and sacrifices a cat, draining its blood into a cup, and then throws the carcass into the fire. Taking the collected blood, he draws a crude circle around himself, leaving only a small gap for the Bride of Satan to enter. He then constructs a crude fetish doll out of wax and sticks Helen's stolen hair onto it. Then, after inviting the other monks to circle up and join the ceremony, One leads them in a chant to summon their Master's new Bride.

Outside, in the passed-out pile of Advocates, Helen stirs and slowly rises. Compelled by One, she is mesmerized and drawn into the temple; and at this point ya might think that you’ve had some spiked wine, too, as she switches frequently from biker gear to a wedding dress. 

And when she enters the altar room in a puff of smoke, One dips some bread into the cat blood and feeds it to her. And before you know it, she’s buck-naked and doing a strangely provocative dance number around the large fire-pit while caressing a human skull and a snake!

When the other Advocates slowly start to wake up, Adam is the first to notice Helen is missing. Hearing the hootenanny going on inside the temple, he rousts everybody else up to go and rescue her.

Meantime, inside, One is smearing blood all over that wax fetish doll until Adam and the others burst. Seeing what they've done to Helen, Adam and the other bikers start kicking some evil monk ass. But as the Advocates make quick work of his minions, One drops the wax doll into the fire; and as it melts, Helen screams. 

But this also seemingly frees her from his spell as Adam grabs his girl and they make their escape -- though not before each biker gets some ash smeared on his face, marking them for future malfeasance.

As day breaks, to put as much distance between themselves and that damnable tower, the Advocates head further into the desert. (Yay, more travelogue footage.) When night falls and they make camp, Helen drops some acid and starts doing a standard freak-out dance around the fire (-- that's nowhere near as entertaining as her earlier number if I’m being honest). 

Suddenly, she has a horrific vision of the wax doll bearing her face, melting in the fire, and goes screaming into the night. As Adam chases after her, the other bikers decide to mock the ritual they just witnessed and start chanting, "Oobla doobla ooggla urbla," and chase each other around the bonfire until Mouse (Orr) decides to make Shirley (Brown) his own personal Bride of Satan. She’s willing, but he’ll have to catch her first.

Meanwhile, one sand dune over, Adam and Helen are in the process of doing the nasty; but she throws a hitch in their foreplay when she bites her lover on the neck. Nearby, Mouse and Shirley’s game of tag has degenerated into a wrestling match; only their foreplay is interrupted by a several hairy paws that start ripping them apart as we're entreated to not one, but two, slow-motion throat slashings -- complete with a rupturing geyser of arterial blood. (And just in case you missed it, they repeat this for you. Like, three times!) We then leave this scene with the shadows of two monsters savaging their victims to pieces.

The next morning, the other Advocates make the expected grisly discovery. Now, it’s pretty obvious who the monsters are, but I will point out that Adam and Helen seem to have no recollection of their actions last night. Assuming something from the desert wandered in and killed them, Adam says all they can really do now is bury them with honor under a pile of beer cans and urine and move on. Which means even more travelogue footage -- only this time it leads us to Scene 85: the gas station interlude.

Ah, the gas station interlude, my favorite part of the movie. (More on this later.) Here, the pudgy and cranky owner is a Mr. Burke -- heavy on the Mister, mister, who doesn’t like their kind and makes them pump their own gas. (Damn hippy-pinko-commie biker freaks!) He also warns them to be careful as not to burn his place down with all those lit reefers near his fuel tanks, and constantly reminds them they’re in the desert and that the only way out is to parachute straight up. (What a great kook.)

After this brief interlude ends way too soon as far as I’m concerned, Adam has them back on the road again until they finally stop for the night at an old landfill, filled with the beaten husks of dozens of old rusted-out cars. As the others get a bonfire going, Tarot goes off by himself to meditate. When Adam finds him, they get to talking. Seems Adam thinks they need to head off to Florida, like the good old days; but Tarot says something’s wrong, something bad, and has come to the regrettable conclusion he can no longer ride with the Advocates anymore.

Ignoring these qualms, Adam continues on reminiscing, making it harder for Tarot to convince him there’s evil afoot. Alas, I think Adam does hear his old friend; he just chooses not to listen and instead warns Tarot to lay off all the bad bummer vibes because he’s starting to freak everybody out. 

Again, Tarot presages that he’s just telling the truth, and then, right on cue, he is gripped by another vision: He’s back in the temple, and is being force-fed some bloodied bread at the foot of a crucified Helen!

Later that night, while the others sleep, the same furry claws attack the sole biker standing watch. And after the monsters ravage and kill him, the body is unceremoniously tossed into the bonfire. (They had lit up the entire landfill, making things nice and creepy in the flickering light.) 

The next morning, while fighting over the last beer, the Advocates realize someone’s missing again. Finding the burnt remains in the ashes, as a raving Tarot lays more negative waves on everybody, Adam lays the blame on those damned monks -- and he has a hankering to break his boot off in a certain evil monk's ass. And it's here, with this fateful decision, where our movie takes an even more surreal turn:

For as they head back the way they came, a freak sandstorm blows over the highway; and after the cloud engulfs the bikers this wall of sand quickly dissipates and the bikers are gone! Vanished before the very eyes of the two gals in the trailing ambulance. (I can’t begin to tell you how effective this scene is in motion.)

We then cut to the middle of the desert, where the mystically displaced Advocates find themselves lost in a sea of sand dunes with absolutely no idea how they got there. And since their bikes aren’t really built for off-road travel, it takes them a while to make it back to the highway.

Still believing those monks are behind this, Adam is still determined to settle the score; even though he's warned by an insistent Tarot that they obviously shouldn't mess with them anymore and just leave well enough alone. Fed up with all the doom-saying and questioning his every move, Adam sucker punches Tarot, triggering a brawl, where Tarot is quickly beaten into submission.

However, this initial fight and mystical detour has taken up too much valuable daylight and they have to stop for the night, where their descent into hell continues as their campsite is in the middle of a scorched piece of land and they’re up to their ankles in ash, where it once more comes to blows between Adam and Tarot, who is thrashed once more. 

And as an eerie silence hangs over the Advocates gathered around the campfire, the silence is broken when Adam sees a vision of a wax dummy -- this time in his image, melting in the fire. Obviously, he freaks out at this, and then starts to painfully change. 

Meantime, Helen sees her wax effigy in the fire, too, and also starts to change. Unsure of what's happening, the other bikers back off -- except for Tarot, who tries to help Helen; but it isn’t long before the remaining Advocates are facing two snarling werewolves.

Before these transformations can really sink in, the blood starts flying as Were-Adam buzzsaws through a couple of bikers, while Were-Helen chases after Tarot. Circling back to the campfire, he snatches up a makeshift torch and manages to hold her off. 

Following his lead, the other Advocates take up torches, too, and set Helen on fire, who screams, falls into the campfire, and is consumed by the flames. We then get a quick, nearly subliminal blip of her in that wedding dress rising up out of the pyre like a Phoenix. 

Outnumbered, the remaining werewolf jumps on his bike and roars off. With torches in hand, the others mount up and go after him, eventually catch up, and put the torch to him, too. Soon engulfed in flames, Were-Adam quickly loses control, crashes, and goes up in a huge fireball when his gas tank explodes.

To avenge their friends, Tarot leads the remaining Advocates back to the temple and heads the charge into the altar room, where they find One and some other loitering monks. But as each Advocate picks a partner to beat down, and raises his arm to strike, they see the faces of themselves under the hoods and quickly collapse.

Summarily defeated, they all succumb to the power of One, whose robes are now occupied by Adam; and Tarot is the first to be fed some bloodied bread at the foot of the crucified Helen; thus fulfilling his vision. Thus and lo, on a lonesome highway, out of the heat and rippling haze of Hell, the Devil’s Advocates will now ride for all eternity.

If I could sum up Werewolves on Wheels in one sentence it would probably go something like this: I like it -- a lot, but I don’t quite get it, especially that ending. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. At one point, during a third or fourth viewing, in a brief moment of clarity, I had it and it all made sense; but this was quickly lost before I could write it down. That happens to me a lot. Like, AH lot a lot. *sigh* 

But it begs an important question: When does an exploitation film move beyond the usual crap to inspired filmmaking? I think Werewolves on Wheels definitely qualifies for the latter. Which begs an even bigger question: Was this by design, or by some divine cinematic accident?

Now, a film that promises you werewolves on wheels but doesn't really deliver them until the 70th minute of an 85-minute movie has a lot to answer for and has a pretty steep hill to climb for some. And this movie should be terrible based on that title alone; but if you can move beyond that and your preconceptions, you can see some pretty ingenious stuff going on here.

The film itself looks great and was shot with a keen eye for composition and framing, and exploits it's locales beautifully. You can really feel the heat of the desert and smell the sweat of the bikers, so to speak. 

This was cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky’s first feature. A noted documentary filmmaker, it was Mankofsky’s influence on a lot of the travel footage; and it was his suggestion to capture the murmurations of all those birds and scavengers that always seem to be circling ever closer to the Advocates, ready to pick their bones clean. Levesque, meanwhile, definitely has a thing for fire purification imagery. All the fires in this film are huge, and the resulting, flickering shadows are captured beautifully by Mankofsky and will have your eyes playing tricks on you. Editor Peter Parasheles had worked with Orson Welles on Chimes at Midnight (1965) and the extended attempt to get Don Quixote (1972) made, who does an admirable job of cutting all of this together.

With the barest bones of a plot holding things together, there are enough surreal ambiguities to keep you interested, too; and the film really does feel like it was made up as they went along. Case in point: that gas station scene. From the camera angles used and the reaction of the cranky owner, I don’t think he had a clue he was being filmed. Either that or he was a colorful local that they decided to stick in -- or maybe they let him in the film to pay for the gas? 

Overall, the acting is above average considering 90-percent of the cast were strictly stuntmen (the bikers) and refugees from a hippy colony (the monks). And if the majority of the dialogue was improvised, there are no blaring incidents and everything seems natural enough. And the southern-fried rock soundtrack by Don Gere is dang near perfect. E'yup, I got another song stuck in the old random play jukebox in my noggin: "Oh I've got one foot in heaven, and the other in hell..."

If the film fails at all, and it's only a small bump, it's in the make-up department. According to the commentary track on the Dark Sky Films release of Werewolves on Wheels, the film had a sixteen day shooting schedule and the budget only allowed for three days with the uncredited make-up man, whom Levesque claims worked for Walt Disney. The werewolves themselves look fine enough to me when we finally do get to see them, I just don’t think we get to see them enough. As for that somewhat abbreviated climactic battle, Levesque also claims he was supposed to get another day of shooting to shore up the chase scene when they run down Were-Adam on the bike but, once again, they had simply run out of time and money and had to make due with what they had. Another budget casualty was a Divine lightning strike that was supposed to blow up the tower to fulfill Helen’s prophetic fate, too. 

Apparently, there was a lot more explicit gore in the film, too. And while we do get to see a few geysers of blood, the newly formed MPAA came down hard on the film due to it's excessive violence and harsh language used in all that ad-libbing. After submitting the film twice, they were slapped with an X-Rating each time and were told unless they got serious and really started editing things down for a third try there would be no fourth. And so, they complied -- though it should be noted a lot of this excised footage was restored for the Dark Sky DVD release, which looks so much better than those old murky VHS tapes, where you can actually see what’s going on in the dark now.

As I said before, there are several elements of this film that I just can’t quite figure out, or quite piece together, and it's really bugging me. Was Tarot in league with the Satanists to begin with? He led them down the path to the Devil’s Temple in the first place, right? Right. But then he did try to save them. And then he led the late charge to avenge his friends, right? Right. Maybe it was his fate -- and he knew it, and he knew he couldn't change it, and therefore he was just fulfilling his own destiny ... Oh, wow. Maybe I do get it. 

Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 23 films down with THREE yet to go. Up next, The King of Terror is Dead, Long Live the King.

Werewolves on Wheels (1971) South Street Films :: The Fanfare Corporation / EP: Joe Solomon / P: Paul Lewis / AP: Stuart Fleming / D: Michel Levesque / W: David M. Kaufman, Michel Levesque / C: Isidore Mankofsky / E: Peter Parasheles / M: Don Gere / S: Steve Oliver, DJ Anders, Gene Shane, Billy Gray, Barry McGuire, Owen Orr, Anna Lynn Brown, Severn Darden

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