Years before his mainstream Oscar-worthy stardom, Jack Nicholson had already graduated from the Roger Corman School and had become something of a counter-culture figure due to his appearance in EASY RIDER. But several years before that landmark film, a second-billed Nicholson starred in his own biker epic, HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS, now out on Blu-ray from Hen’s Tooth Video.
After getting fired from his gas station attendant gig for squabbling with a cantankerous customer, Poet (Jack Nicholson, THE TERROR), a down and out loner, has a run-in with a local chapter of the San Franciscan Hell's Angels (a couple of years before, in real life, they wreaked havoc at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont). After one of their group, Bull (Richard Anders, DEVIL’S ANGELS) busts Poet’s cycle headlight, the leader Buddy (Adam Roarke, FROGS) promises to replace it. Not only do they make good, but they confront a bunch of sailors who beat up on Poet at an amusement park, killing one of them in self defense after he pulls out a knife. In the meantime, Poet also becomes infatuated with Buddy's flaky, promiscuous girlfriend, Shill (Sabrina Scharf, THE VIRGIN PRESIDENT), but a relationship can only lead to trouble. Poet is tough and he fits right in (and soon finds himself up for club membership), but he is a bit more morally conscious than the other Angels and seems to want to go on to better things even though his life is going absolutely nowhere.
The Angels' exploits include not only killing the sailor who roughed up Poet, but tripping to Nevada to for a biker wedding procession (including a bit by B-movie legend Bruno VeSota as a chubby reverend), brawling with just about anyone, and running an old geezer off the highway. The film finishes abruptly and on a down note, almost as if they didn't know how to end it, yet HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS is an entertaining piece of trash, one of the better of the motorcycle quickies rushed into production after the success of Roger Corman’s THE WILD ANGELS. It's padded with fluffy, colorful sequences, but manages to make its lead characters interesting and very human. We really get a sense that Poet, Buddy, and Shill know that their haphazard lifestyles can't last forever, but they constantly block out that notion and immaturely parade around. One of the film's most memorable scenes is an apartment orgy that has a beatnik painter marking up some half-naked females as the drunken, stoned Angels indulge in the perverse proceedings. As a lad, I used to catch this film on Sunday afternoons, after my family and I went to church. This was one of my first experiences of cinematic sleaze, as my television reeked with the imaginary smell of unbathed, unshaven, and horny bikers, engulfing my impressionable mind. Watching this was much better than studying for that science test, and I sure learned a hell of a lot more, at least in terms of something that would stick with me.
Real life Angels' President, Sonny Barger (who appears in the film briefly with real San Francisco Angels), was credited as a technical advisor (I suppose it was hard to instruct the cast and crew how to get stoned, get drunk, get laid, get into fights, ride around on a hog, and avoid bathing for a month… just kidding). Future directors John "Bud" Cardos (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, THE DARK) and the late Bob Kelljan (the "Count Yorga" films, SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM) also appear in the film. The late actor/director Jack Starrett appears as the cold anti-biker sheriff, a persona he would revamp for several other films including producer Joe Solomon's follow-up, ANGELS FROM HELL (where he would play the same exact character of Bingham). Al Adamson regular Gary Kent did the stunts (watch him unconvincingly doubling for Nicholson during the climax) and can be seen as two different characters in two different fight scenes! The following year, director Rush gave us the ultimate biker film, THE SAVAGE SEVEN (an MGM property still unavailable on DVD) again starring the criminally underrated Roarke as the gang leader. As members of the gang, both Anders and John Garwood also showed up in THE SAVAGE SEVEN, basically playing the same parts. The score by Stu Phillips ("The Monkees" TV series) is lively and cheerful (in a dated, “Summer of Love” kind of way), nicely counterbalancing the rough nature of the film’s characters yet emphasizing their carefree nature. The cinematography by László Kovács, with its numerous hand-held shots and natural locations, frequently gives off a sense of gritty realism.
A darling of the public domain companies, with numerous VHS and DVD releases, the best one was a DVD released from Image Entertainment about a decade ago. Hen’s Tooth Video now presents HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS on Blu-ray in a 1080p High Definition transfer preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Aside from a few light lines and a few blemishes, the image is impressive with sharp detail and only occasional soft spots. Black levels are mostly deep and grain is never excessive. Colors come off bright and distinct and the framing looks accurate and fully complements the excellent cinematography. The mono audio is also clean and as good as can be expected, with no noticeable background noise detected. Optional English subtitles are included. A standard DVD (using the same HD transfer found on the Blu-ray) presented anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and with the same features.
Thankfully, Hen’s Tooth went through the trouble of getting director Richard Rush to record an audio commentary. Although the commentary could have used a moderator (there’s some quiet spots), once Rush gets going, he has a lot to say about shooting the film in 13 days. Originally he was not crazy about the idea (knowing the reputation of the Hells Angels and having to work with them on the set), but says it was a great experience, having a positive effect on his career. Rush discusses the cast (he loved working with Nicholson and Roarke), the stuntmen, cinematographer Kovács and his style of shooting, producer Solomon (who, as he points out, has a cameo), and mentions how finding the location for the church scene really strengthened the relationship between himself and his production manager. He also mentions that Roarke and Sonny Barger became “fast friends” and that Roarke wasn’t expecting the impromptu kiss planted on his mouth by Barger (as you’ll see at the beginning of the film) while they were sitting on their bikes. There’s a still gallery included (with some behind-the-scenes shots and newspaper articles) but no original trailer (it can be found on Synapse’s “42nd Street Forever: The Blu-ray Edition”). (George R. Reis)
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