Roger Corman's landmark biker epic, THE WILD ANGELS, features a gang of reckless Angels led by Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda). Decked out in a black leather jacket, Nazi cross pendant, cool shades, and moppy brown hair, Fonda looks stylishly cool! His girlfriend Mike (Mike?) is played by bleached-blond cutie Nancy Sinatra. Bruce Dern (as Loser) and his then wife, future Academy Award winner Diane Ladd, play a wed couple. MGM has now re-packaged the film on DVD with the 1969 biker epic, HELL'S BELLES on the flip side to make for a rip-roaring evening of drive-in entertainment.
In THE WILD ANGELS, Blues and Loser lead an assault on a rival Mexican gang. 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. The Angels discover that Loser is in a hospital and realize that he will ultimately be handed over to the cops. They cleverly bust him out by having Mike (Nancy baby) pose as Loser's sweet and innocent looking sister to obstruct the guard. They escape with their sickly pal, but a nurse 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 before this). What 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), 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 widowed old lady 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 commences in the middle of this 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 shocking by some and important by others. Corman wanted to make the film after he saw a picture of the Hell's Angels on the cover of a magazine during the early part of that year. His idea was to make the film as realistic as possible, so real Angels were employed to tell their stories and appear in the film. The ideas 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, no stunt doubles would be used. 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 making one of the best American movies of all time, EASY RIDER (1969). This film 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 real life husband and wife team of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (Laura's proud parents) starred in the following year's REBEL ROUSERS, another biker tale which also featured Jack Nicholson.
Director Corman was 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 nice 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 Fonda's gang, as well as veteran Dick Miller as a frustrated construction foreman.
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. That vision can be appreciated on this DVD, which fully restores the original 2.35:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio. The widescreen transfer looks superb, with distinguishable colors and only slight negative damage. The mono sound is fine (turn up those great guitar tunes by Dave Allan and the Arrows), and there is an additional French language track, as well as optional French and Spanish subtitles. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Originally released before the rating system, the film now carries an "R."
Side two of this double feature disc features HELL'S BELLES, directed by Maury Dexter, who also helmed THE MINI-SKIRT MOB for AIP. Dirt bike racer Dan (biker film regular Jeremy Slate) has his winning prize, a hot new bike valued at two grand, stolen by a jealous competitor. As he treks out to get it back, he finds out that it has ended up in the hands of a tough gang led by Tampa, played by Adam Roarke (who else, right?). In an attempt to ride off with it, Dan is socked in the chest by Tampa who apparently is not gonna give that bike up too easily. He tries to explain that the bike really belongs to him, but is roughed up and pinned down by the gang as the compromising Tampa makes him a deal; he gives him one of his chicks, Cathy (Jocelyn Lane), in an even exchange.
Dan is now reluctantly(!) stuck with the lovely, black mini-skirted Cathy (neither of the two are too happy to be together, at least at first), but vows to get revenge on the gang and get his prized bike back. He is able to stop them at an average of two at a time as they try to make their way across the Arizona desert. He does this by either injuring them or leaving them for the police, but tries to stop the cat and mouse games when one of the gang is fatally bitten by a rattlesnake. Tampa is angry as all hell, but at this point, the rest of his gang are either impaired or have deserted him. It comes down to a duel intended to be to-the-death as Dan and Tampa battle it out on bikes, striking each other with heavy chains.
HELL'S BELLES is not as exploitive as many other biker films of the time, but it's still fun and has a number of action-filled scenarios and colorful characters to keep things moving along. The gang (and nowhere in the film are they called anything, no "Hell' and no "Belles') comes off as wimpy and stupid. Roarke is able to pull off his usual biker film character: the short guy who makes up for his size with intelligence, a small touch of class and restraint when needed, and venomous when his limits are pushed to the max. Slate plays a good-natured country bumpkin who just wants his bike back to help make a payment on the ranch he has worked so hard to build (ah, the American dream). He battles his opponent in a fair and ultimately harmless manner, and he wins the attentions of Cathy after demonstrating some humorous macho man tactics (he pretends to fight off a snake that's actually a long rope). The dated music score is by Les Baxter but somehow works, and cult favorite Angelique Pettyjohn also appears in the film as a biker babe in the same year she made THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND and THE CURIOUS FEMALE. Jocelyn Lane has to be one of the sexiest starlets ever to ride a cycle, and it's too bad she retired from films shortly afterwards to wed Spanish royalty.
HELL'S BELLES is presented on DVD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but no anamorphic enhancement. This is a nice-looking transfer overall, but some day-for-night scenes suffer on the screen. The image is mostly sharp with nice bright colors, and the Dolby Digital mono audio is strong despite dialog being a bit low in some scenes. Also included are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The only extra is the theatrical trailer ("Hip chicks with an itch for the kind of action it takes a lot of man to scratch!").
NOTE: MGM's August 24 Midnite Movies are in-store exclusives to Best Buy, but they can also be found online at CD Universe, as well as Canadian retailer DVD Soon. (George R. Reis)
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