Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Werewolves On Wheels (1971)

There are ideas which, on their face, seem incredibly cool and intriguing. Extraterrestrials visited ancient humanity, inspiring a polytheistic religion as well as architectural accomplishments. Dracula fires a vampire army at the Earth from his sanctuary on the dark side of the moon. A man has to cut off his demon-possessed hand and, in its place, rigs a chainsaw. Satan is a swirling, green liquid that sits in the basement of an old church. There exist points in space which contain infinity and, when peered into, the viewer can clearly discern everything in the entirety of the universe at the same time and be able to comprehend it. Whether they just get your geek motor revving or launch your mind down a thousand theoretical avenues, the sheer imagination involved in concepts like those above is the reason imagination was invented in the first place. 

This brings us to today's movie, Werewolves On Wheels. The idea of a werewolf motorcycle gang should set just about any genre/exploitation fan to salivating. Unfortunately (and all too typically when it comes to films of this sort), the actuality does not equal the hype. But this is still a movie that has something to offer film fans, if they're willing to change their expectations a bit.

The Devil's Advocates motorcycle gang like to cruise around, get into fights, get high, and cruise around (that's not a typo). Mystically connected member, Tarot (Duece Berry), likes to read the cards for other members, even though leader, Adam (Stephen Oliver), gives him crap about it. When Tarot reads Helen's (D.J. Anderson) future, he foretells a fate intertwined with the Devil. The gang visit a mountain monastery populated with satanic monks. The monks drug the bikers and the abbot, One (Severn Darden), performs a ceremony transforming Helen into the Bride of Satan. After the gang comes to, beat up the monks, and rescue Helen, they take off for the desert but become lost. During a makeout session shortly thereafter, Helen bites Adam. Soon, bikers start getting knocked off by someone with very hairy hands.

For those expecting a slam-bang lycanthrope flick, look elsewhere. There are werewolves here, and there is some blood and gore on display. Nevertheless, the film is not centered on werewolves as monsters, per se. Rather, the majority of the film is focused on the gang's search for themselves, even though they say that they reject any concept of spirituality. This is shown in the many, many montage sequences of the bikers riding down roads, usually accompanied by either the driving, catchy Don Gere score or by elegiac folk/country songs. The further the group travels, the more lost they become, until they are literally lost in the desert at one point. Since their world view is generally nihilistic, they are incapable of gaining any positive spiritual enlightenment and in fact, are made easier targets for Satan and his machinations (if the Prince of Darkness actually has any in play here to begin with). 

The Devil's Advocates don't seem to truck with any religion really, probably because the whole idea of obedience and organization in general would be antithetical to their individualistic ethos. The only organized religion the bikers encounter is that of the satanic monks, and then the only reason they seek the monks out is to make fun of them. The monks, in turn, drug the gang with wine and bread, here a play on the Catholic sacrament of Communion. Later, the monks will again use the bread and blood motif (though this time with "real" cat's blood) in their transformation of Helen into the Devil's betrothed. Helen then dances (and it must be stated here, Ms. Anderson's not much of a rug-cutter) with a python and skull in a symbolic consummation with Satan. This scene is shot with moody lighting, heavy shadows, and is edited together using dissolves, imbuing the goings-on with an eerie quality that overlaps and (seemingly) compresses time.

The acting is passable for the most part. No one flubs their lines, and the bikers all act like outlaws. They fight and bite their enemies (putting paid to the film's title, figuratively if not factually) with abandon. What I found most interesting in this aspect is that the dialogue which feels most authentic and is delivered most naturalistically are the lines that have nothing to do with the diegetic story. It's all bon mots, idioms, and ballbusting, evidently improvised by the actors. These bits create a strong sense of kinship between the gang members and consequently draw us into their world. While Anderson has not much to do in the story other than strip, strut, and curse Adam's soul, Oliver and Berry dig into their roles as agnostic and believer, respectively. Both do an adequate job limning the opposing forces that drive the film.

The cinematography is well-done throughout, and there are some nice locales/setpieces utilized. A barren, desert road is swathed in an uncanny fog. The desert itself is shot from afar, showcasing its expansive desolation, threatening to swallow the gang whole. The bikers' riding scenes are shot usually from either right in front of or alongside the riders or from a low angle, capturing the power of the motorcycles in tandem with the heat shimmering off the blacktop. Mellow, fluid shots of birds, either in flocks or solo, create a metaphor for the bikers' freedom. They can come and go as they please and soar along the highways, but eventually, they must come back down. The birds also make a predator/prey connection to the gang. Which are they, and can this dynamic change at any time?

The werewolves and the killings are handled mostly in shadow. Like with the monks' rituals, this makes the fantastical scenes more effective. There is also an abundance of slow motion employed here, and unlike with the "wedding" scene, here the device is used to expand filmic time. The horror is dwelt on at length, increasing our uneasiness. The slow motion also helps build some tension at the film's climax when the bikers react to the lycanthropic revelation. The actual makeup effects are decent. They're hardly Oscar-worthy, but I've certainly seen far worse.

I have to say (and thanks to Aaron for suggesting I review this film), I was pleasantly surprised by Werewolves On Wheels. I went into this with low expectations. Everything I have ever read about the film has been fairly negative. However, when you look a bit deeper than the surface, exploitation level, there is something else going on in this movie. Its message may be a tad muddy, weighed down with the psychedelic trappings of the day and New-Age, mystical gobbledygook, but it does give one something more to think about. At least, it did for me. 

MVT: Director Michel Levesque and co-writer David M. Kaufman's screenplay is deeper than first glance would suggest. And while there is considerable padding in the film, the story's themes support it rather than treating it like excess baggage to reach feature length.

Make or Break: The opening bike run sets the tone for the movie and introduces us to the land of the outlaw biker. If this scene intrigues you, you'll probably find something to like in the rest of the film.

Score: 6.5/10


  1. Love this movie and love this blog for even mentioning this movie. I've got this film free to view on my blog and I may now need to watch it again.

  2. Thanks for reading, John.

    I gotta say, this flick took me by surprise.


  3. Great, spot on write-up, Todd. Yeah it's not a masterpiece by any means, and I can totally understand how most people would be disappointed by it for obvious reasons, but there's something about it that I like a lot. I'm not unbiased because of my love for biker films, and I love the desert locations. I heard somewhere that the werewolves in the film were supposed to be a hallucination because everyone was so high on drugs, but I don't remember where I heard that. The commentary track on the Dark Sky DVD is great and very insightful. Mike Levesque, fortunately, has a sense of humor about the film, and judging by what he said about it, Werewolves on Wheels was just something for him to do at the time. Levesque worked quite a bit with Russ Meyer as an art director or something like that, and Stephen Oliver played one of the leads in Meyer's Motorpsycho. A bunch of the supporting cast members in Werewolves ran in the same circles as Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, etc. back in the day, and they even turn up in a lot of their films (The Hired Hand in particular features a couple of actors from Werewolves). Thanks for giving this one a shot!

  4. Arron, thanks for reading and (again) for suggesting I check it out. Also, thanks for the wonderful background details. Much appreciated.