Inspired by a January 1966 Life magazine photograph of a gang of Hells Angels riding their choppers to the funeral of one of their members, Roger Corman's landmark pic THE WILD ANGELS was the film that ushered in the biker movie craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Made entirely on location in Southern California in three weeks with a budget of roughly $360,000, the film raked in millions at the box office, and it now makes its Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films.
Decked out in a black leather jacket, Nazi cross pendant, cool shades, and moppy brown hair, Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda, THE TRIP) is president of a reckless gang of Hells Angels motorcyclists, with his blondish “old lady” Mike (Nancy Sinatra, THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI) faithfully by his side. Blues is instrumental in getting his sidekick Loser (Bruce Dern, THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT) fired from his job, much to the disappointment of his wife Gaysh (future Academy Award winner and then Mrs. Dern, Diane Ladd, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) who wants a better life for the two. Blues and Loser lead an assault on a rival Mexican gang over a stolen chopper. Their commotion is interrupted by the fuzz, which causes Loser to panic, defect from his pals, and take off in one of the cop's cycles. A chase ensues, causing the pursuing cop to drive off a cliff with Loser badly injured enough to be brought to a local hospital. When the Angels catch wind of this, they realize that he will ultimately be handed over to the police. They cleverly bust him out by having Mike pose as Loser's sweet and innocent looking sister to obstruct the police guard (Frank Gerstle, THE ATOMIC BRAIN). They escape with their sickly pal, but the on-duty nurse (Kim Hamilton, THE LEECH WOMAN) is raped in the process.
Being ignorant, the Angels remove the intravenous system that he was hooked up to, and Loser dies shortly afterwards (at least they did let him get high one last time). What’s next? How about a funeral? Better yet, a party/funeral for dear old departed Loser. Blues and the others take over a church, knock out the preacher (Frank Maxwell, THE HAUNTED PALACE), and turn Loser's final farewell into an all out orgy! This humorous and disturbing sequence has them taking Loser's corpse out of his coffin, sitting him upright, covering him with the Nazi/swastika flag, and placing a joint in his mouth (a good 20 years before WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S folks) while his mourning widow is raped by his friends! The rest of the Angels take this grand opportunity to ball, drink, and get very high. They later usher the body (motorcycles and all) to the local cemetery as the townsfolk maliciously look on. As the unwanted Angels commence the grave digging, they are attacked by the apprehensive spectators and a huge brawl breaks out in the middle of the graveyard. As police sirens are heard wailing loudly, everyone splits except the unaffected Blues who stays behind to make sure that his pal gets a proper burial. "There's nowhere to go," he exclaims.
In 1966, THE WILD ANGELS was considered brutal and shocking by some and important and aesthetic by others. With a loose-plotted script by frequent Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith (based on Corman’s own treatment “All the Fallen Angels), Corman’s idea was to make the movie as realistic as possible, so real Angels were employed to tell their stories and appear in the film as background characters (a chapter of the Hells Angels later tried to sue Corman and AIP for defamation, but failed), and the plot points of freeing Loser from the hospital and the biker funeral were taken from real-life Angels' exploits. AIP originally cast George Chakiris for the role of Heavenly Blues, but Corman demanded that all the actors playing Angels must ride on the cycles, without the use of stunt doubles. Chakiris was not kosher with this so he was dismissed from the project and the role was thankfully given to Fonda (who was originally cast to play Loser). This role made Fonda an American icon, as he was on his way to conceiving one of the best American movies of all time, EASY RIDER (1969), along with Dennis Hopper. THE WILD ANGELS was such a hit that a celebrated shot of Fonda mounted on his bike smoking a joint was turned into a black and white pop poster which became a real hot seller. The then real-life husband and wife team of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (the parents of actress Laura Dern) starred in the following year's REBEL ROUSERS, another biker tale which also featured Jack Nicholson (who supposedly came up with the title for this film).
Corman carefully directed the film as to add a convincing sense of realism. The scenes of the Angels partying or brawling make full use of widescreen photography in order to illustrate multiple activities occurring all at the same time. He was reportedly confronted with extortion threats from an Angel involved in the production (the always resourceful Corman was able to convince him that putting his life in danger would not be a very wise idea). His assistant, Peter Bogdanovich, was an extra during the cemetery brawl and ended up getting a beating from a couple of real Angels! Film buffs might want to take note of early performances by Michael J. Pollard (BONNIE AND CLYDE) and Gayle Hunnicut (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) as members of Blues’ gang, as well as character actor veteran Dick Miller (A BUCKET OF BLOOD) as a testy rig foreman and Corman regular Barboura Morris (THE DUNWICH HORROR) as a young mother in the opening scene. Other aptly-named gang members in the film include Dear John (Buck Taylor, THE DEVIL’S ANGELS), Medic (Norm Alden, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), Joint (Lou Procopio, REBEL ROUSERS), Frankenstein (Mark Cavell, OPERATION BIKINI) and Momma Monahan (Joan Shawlee, WILLARD). Although the music score is credited to Curb Records founder Mike Curb, it’s the fuzz guitar instrumentals by garage rock legends Dave Allan and the Arrows that give the soundtrack its distinction.
First released on DVD in 2001 as part of MGM’s “Midnite Movies” series (when it was presented on home video in widescreen for the first time) and then in 2004 on a double feature with another AIP biker movie, HELL’S BELLES, THE WILD ANGELS now arrives on Blu-ray in 1080p HD preserving the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. A noticeably vast improvement over the standard DVD, MGM’s HD transfer has superb detail and bright colors with a good amount of pop to them. The elements show some speckle from time to time, and a few brief scenes are a tad soft, but this looks to be inherent of the original cinematography. It doesn’t appear that the picture has been tweaked or modified in any way, and the grain structure is well maintained. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is fairly strong, delivering the dialogue and the guitar and drum driven score with nice clarity. There are no subtitle options or extras on the Blu-ray. Originally released before the MPAA rating system existed, the film now carries an "R." (George R. Reis)
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