Still years away from mainstream Oscar-worthy stardom, Jack Nicholson stars as Poet, a down and out gas station attendant who is able to make his way into the local chapter of the San Franciscan Hell's Angels (a couple of years before they wreaked havoc at Altamont), which are led by Buddy (Adam Roarke). Poet also becomes attracted to Buddy's flaky, promiscuous girlfriend, Shill (future California state senator Sabrina Scharf), but a relationship can only lead to trouble. Poet is tough and he fits right in, 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 killing a sailor who roughed up Poet, tripping to Nevada to have a wedding (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, as if the makers didn't know how to end it, yet HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS is an entertaining piece of trash. 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 this haphazard lifestyle can't last forever, but they constantly block out that notion and immaturely parade around.
One of the film's best scenes includes an orgy that has a beatnik painter marking up some half-naked females as the drunken, stoned Angels indulge in the perverse proceedings. As a tike, 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 my science test, and I sure learned a hell of a lot more!
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). 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 role he would revamp for several other films, including producer Joe Solomon's follow-up, ANGELS FROM HELL. Al Adamson regular Gary Kent did the stunts (watch him doubling for Nicholson) 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, again starring the criminally underrated Roarke as the gang leader.
Image's early press on this title had us believe it would be a standard, open-matte, fullframe transfer. Thankfully, the film is actually presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio with anamorphic enhancement, so now László Kovács' compositions can finally be seen they were meant to be. Going back to the original negative for this transfer, the color schemes come off bright and bold, and there is only minimal debris and dirt visible. Needless to say, detail is extremely sharper than any previous video release or TV airings, and although it has a few instances of hiss and crackling, the audio is still rendered well, highlighting the lively but dated score of Stu Phillips ("The Monkees" TV series). The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)
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