Monday, March 2, 2020

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 11

Biker movies: 

Bury Me An Angel (1971): More of a drive-in exploitation flick than a true biker movie, Bury Me An Angel is notable for featuring one of the more memorable trailers of the grindhouse era, sporting some of the most outrageously alliterative hyperbole of all time (“A howling hellcat, humping a hot steel hog on a roaring rampage of revenge,” etc). Unfortunately the movie does not live up to the trailer, the plot, or even the friggin’ title! This one’s also notable for being written and directed by a woman (Barbara Peeters, who’s probably spent her whole life saying, “No, it’s spelled with two Es”), something that would likely be made into more of a big deal today than it would’ve been then. Peeters injects a bit more pathos into the film than typical – foreshadowing, as it turns out, for the sick reveal at the climax – but truth be told she’s hampered by a nonexistent budget and the movie’s as scatterbrained as an Angel on meth.

Speaking of Angels…there isn’t one to be found here, much less buried. The movie opens with about three minutes of various bikers sitting around and drinking, smoking pot, and snorting coke. No one’s introduced, and we just sort of meet what will become our protagonist: Dag, an Amazonian blonde with some of the biggest hair you’ll ever see in a movie (an incredibly wooden Dixie Peabody, delivering some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in a lead role). Her brother Dennis (Dennis Peabody, presumably Dixie’s real-life brother) opens the front door and some mangy dude with shaggy hair and moustache tries to barge in with a shotgun. Dennis shuts the door on him and the shotgun goes off and there’s this awesome half-second clip of a mannequin getting shot in the head and red syrup flying everywhere; we’ll see this clip again and again throughout the flick as Dag flashes back on these events, as well as a close-up glimpse of Dennis’s bloody face.

The killer freaks out and runs away…and then the movie settles into a plodding rhythm until Dag can exact her revenge nearly 90 minutes later. Dag finds some info on who the killer was and where he might’ve headed and then sets out on her awesome purple chopper to kill him. She brings along two male buddies, both of them annoying as hell. The movie is so cheap, folks, like shoestring budget: all the interiors are drab white-walled affairs with maybe a pair of curtains. The film only seems cool when we get to see Dag and pals on their choppers, riding along to the original soundtrack by obscure rockers East-West Pipeline. Perhaps this is why Peabody even got cast in the role; maybe she was the only six-foot stacked blonde Peeters could find who knew how to ride a chopper, and it must be said that Peabody looks pretty damn good riding her chopper, even doing a little stunt work.

But sadly so much of Bury Me An Angel is tedious. There’s a total lack of understanding of how to tell a revenge thriller; it opens with Dag hellbent on revenge, but then she’s on the road and taunting redneck cops or meeting random “witches” who live in the desert. We also get that old standby of cheap movies everywhere: the interminable bar fight that’s played for laughs. Peeters doesn’t skirt on the exploitation, despite being a woman and delivering a “strong female character:” Dag goes skinny-dipping at one point and Peabody bares all. This sequence also illustrates the subtext of Dag’s true relationship with Dennis…the way she keeps freaking out over his memory, even unable to have sex with some dude she randomly picks up (ten minutes before the end of the film!), makes the viewer wonder what the hell was really going on between her and Dennis.

There’s no big action finale, no biker gang war. As mentioned there isn’t even an “Angel” for Dag to kill. We learn that Dennis actually stole that purple chopper, and the moustached killer was trying to get it back. When Dag finally corners him in the last few minutes of the film, the killer cowers and pleads for his life, swearing that he didn’t mean to kill Dennis. At this point we see that Peeters’s motive all along was to show us how sick Dag is, something we’d already gotten foreshadowing of thanks to the aforementioned witch appearance. But given this the delivery of “justice” is unsatisfying, and Dag’s final scream that she must “bury” her victim seems only to exist so Peeters could justify the title. All told, I’d suggest just watching the trailer for Bury Me An Angel instead of the movie itself. Oh, and Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty briefly appears as a biker, which if I’m not mistaken he actually was in real life before getting into the whole “TV actor” game.

Naked Angels (1969): First of all, this one features the most fuzzed-out soundtrack ever, courtesy future Mothers of Invention guitarist Jeff Simmons (it even scored an LP release on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records). Like some others on this list, the movie received a better production than I expected…I mean so many of these ‘60s/’70s biker movies were cheap exploitation, but Naked Angels clearly has at least a few artistic inclinations behind its low budget. Also, this one’s got more bike footage than most of the others reviewed here; there are lots of sequences of vintage choppers tearing along desert roads while fuzzy guitar rock blasts on the soundtrack. Even better, a couple such sequences feature topless biker mamas.

The plot follows a revenge angle which is unfortunately muddled. Mother (brawny Michael Greene, who legitimately looks like he could beat the tar out of just about anyone) returns to his club, The Angels, and drafts them into a run. I didn’t quite get the gist of the backstory, but apparently Mother’s been in jail the last couple months due to the actions of a rival biker gang. He wants his club to get on their bikes asap and head for the desert headquarters of the rival gang and dish out some bloody payback. The only other bikers of prominence here are Fingers (Richard Rust), Mother’s second in command who gradually becomes a Doubting Thomas, and Marlene, Mother’s mama (Jennifer Gan, who looks like a biker Stevie Nicks and wears hot lace-up jeans).

Along the way they stop in Vegas, and we’re treated to some cool shots of the contemporary sleazy glitz and glamor. There is a definite Easy Rider influence here, as there is with most other flicks on this list, with “artsy” angles and even still photography interspersed with the action. However an unfortunate tendency toward random runtime-filling hampers the movie. I mean Mother picks up some gal with no explanation, we’re treated to some good T and A, and then dudes in suits bust in and chase Mother out of the hotel room. Who they are is never explained. As for Mother’s random picking up of this chick, right in front of Marlene, it’s to demonstrate how he is increasingly becoming a psychotic prick in his quest for revenge.

Mother makes for one of the most unlikable lead characters I’ve ever seen; he pushes his club to the limits, making them chopper through the desert without stopping for water breaks. Even when a couple of his bikers crash out he wants to keep moving at all costs. He pushes things too far when he “turns out” Marlene because she questions his authority – “turning out” meaning that she’s now become the gang mama and prime for an initiatory raping. Fingers stops this and kicks Mother out of the club…and the movie becomes bizarrely flabby with interminable, poorly-edited scenes of the various bikers driving across the desert and meeting random people. And even worse the big brawl at the end is anticlimactic; we never get a good understanding of the rival gang, nor even what exactly they did to Mother. Hell, one of the gang even has to tell Mother who their president is, so Mother knows who to beat to death. Stranger yet the movie climaxes with a Mother-Fingers brawl, even though Mother’s just saved his former gang.

At any rate Naked Angels moves fairly quickly and features enough vintage biker action to keep you happy. And as mentioned there’s occasional nudity, which should please all my fellow sleazebags, though for some damn reason a late scene, where a blond Angel mama gets full-on nekkid (“Property of the Angels” written on her behind), is obscured by heavy shadow. There’s also a random psychedelic sequence in the latter half where Mother, apparently suffering from extreme dehydration, imagines himself in a Wild West saloon. Anyway I enjoyed Naked Angels, but I’d advise not making it your first bikersploitation movie; the editing is sometimes sloppy, the characters and plot are not fully developed, and the finale is underwhelming. But other than that it’s a pretty cool.

The Peace Killers (1971): My gateway drug into the biker exploitation universe, The Peace Killers melds Easy Rider artsiness with grindhouse sleaze, and does well on both counts. I really enjoyed this one and it was a lot better than I expected it would be. What I love about these vintage exploitation films is they don’t waste your time with backstory and setup – we learn from the get-go who is good and who is bad. This one’s a revenge thriller with the bikers being the bad guys (and another gang serving as the anti-heroes), thus the bikes themselves aren’t as central to the plot.

Kristy (a very attractive Jess Walton), a former biker mama, is trying to live the dropped-out life on a commune run by Alex (Paul Prokop, looking a little like Trapper John M.D. meets the Beach Boys’s Mike Love). One day Kristy and her brother Jeff (Michael Ontkean) run into a few members of Kristy’s former gang. Word of warning for modern sensitive types: women are treated incredibly poorly in these vintage biker movies, there to be fondled, exploited, raped, etc. Kristy’s backstory has it that, as the mama of nutjob biker president Rebel (a truly menacing Clint Richie), she witnessed a brutal gang-rape carried out by Rebel’s gang on some poor girl (we of course get some full-on exploitation material in a flashback sequence). After this Kristy escaped the biker life, and Rebel has vowed that if he ever finds “the dirty whore” he’ll rape her to death, too.

There’s a definite sense of danger that Rebel and crew will catch Kristy, but humorously no one else’s safety is a consideration; she hides in the commune farm at one point while the bikers run roughshod over everyone, even attempting to rape one of the women (there’s plentiful toplessness in this one, but it’s always as a result of a woman’s shirt being torn off by a biker attempting rape). When Rebel’s men catch Kristy there’s some crazy stuntwork, with her bundled up and strung between two choppers as they tear along the road. This leads to some cool unexpected plot detours, though; Kristy manages to crawl from where Rebel’s stashed her outside a bar and onto a road, hoping to stop whatever traffic happens to come by…and finds herself surrounded by another biker gang. What’s worse, one that has a score to settle with her from her days as Rebel’s mama.

This rival gang has gotten its Diversity and Inclusion checklist decades before anyone else; it’s a multi-racial mix of men and women, led by a fierce black lady called Black Widow (Lavelle Roby, sporting a perfectly spherical afro). Hell, there’s even a sexy Asian babe in the mx, but the camera never really captures her face and her dialog is clearly dubbed. Even more “D&I before D&I,” she appears to be in a lesbian relationship with Black Widow. This movie would perplex all the Safe Spacers of today; the diversity and female empowerment is through the roof…but the women are constantly being fondled, stripped, and raped. Oh and also in this new biker gang is Albert Popwell, who of course is most remembered for his appearances in the first three Dirty Harry flicks; his character gets the most focus outside of Black Widow, and he wields a nasty pitchfork in the final battle to memorable effect.

The cool thing about The Peace Killers is that it strives to be more than just a simple revenge film; one could argue Bury Me An Angel tried the same, but that one constantly fell on its face with jarring tonal changes, going from revenge thriller to slapstick comedy and back again. The Peace Killers delivers a slew of strong characters – strong in context of the genre, that is – and has them react in ways that cause for change and growth. For example commune leader Alex preaches against violence and turns his other cheek to Rebel and his men as they tear up the commune, to the point of course where Alex starts to look like a foolish coward. But baby when push comes to shove…maybe you should put your money on the rail-thin pacifist hippie guru instead of the brawny speedfreak biker.

The climax is great and everything Naked Angels should’ve been; in a prefigure of John Milius’s Conan The Barbarian the communers (is that a word?) sharpen stakes and set up a series of deadly booby traps to snare the bikers. A busty brunette communer really kicks some biker ass, but Black Widow and her gang don’t come off so well, Black Widow in particular. But as stated Albert Popwell gets to pitchfork someone, but this too has an extra element, as the victim, who himself has murdered innocents, starts pleading for mercy. I mean I liked this one a lot, but wish the finale had paid off a little more…we only learn what happened to Jeff, for example, due to some off-hand dialog, and I would’ve preferred to see more of a comeuppance for Rebel.

Werewoles On Wheels (1971): I was familiar with this title from various grindhouse trailer compilations, and also several years ago Andy Votel released the fuzzed-out soundtrack on his Finders Keepers label. I was under the impression this would be a campy biker-horror cash-in, but as with The Peace Killers I was surprised at how good Werewolves On Wheels really was. It’s more along the lines of Easy Rider with an overlay of the Satanic renaissance that was going on at the time in the counterculture; I mean if Kenneth Anger ever made a werewolf biker film it would’ve surely been like this. Somehow this low-budget bikersploitation picture captures the burned-out, occult-heavy vibe of the early ‘70s, and it does so incredibly well.

The focus is more on mounting suspense and terror, and while we do get to actually see a werewolf on a chopper, it doesn’t happen until the very end of the film. But man the bikers in this film seem legit, even if one of ‘em was a former child actor on Father Knows Best! (Billy Gray as “Pill,” who doesn’t get any lines until the third act.) Our heroes are the Devil’s Advocates, an outlaw biker gang who when we meet them are tearing through the desert roads of California and raising hell. These aren’t the peaceniks of Easy Rider; the movie opens with a pair of yokels running a couple bikers off the road, and the gang goes for some beatdown revenge.

There’s a subtle bonkers vibe to the film, too, I mean there just happens to be a friggin’ Satanic temple in the countryside (hey, it was California in the early ‘70s), and the bikers carouse on the temple grounds and raise hell. Then a bunch of robed monks come out and serve them bread and wine. The bikers partake gluttonously and then pass out. Here the flick goes full-on Satanic Psych, with a surreal sequence of the monks doing a ritual (complete with a sacrificed black cat!) while the soundtrack goes into an unhinged bolero that sounds like the last part of The Doors’ “The End.” Then the main biker mama (ultra-sexy Donna Anders, here credited as DJ Anderson, herself a former TV actor) wakes up in a trance and, as the “Bride of Satan,” doffs all her clothes and does a Satanic go-go before the assembled monks. Cool stuff and very well staged – and Anders is hot stuff for sure. You know I like my sexy Satanic chicks.

After getting his woman back, Devil’s Advocates president Adam (Steve Oliver) leads the bikers back off into the desert. Here the bad trip sets it – and I forgot to mention, but one of the bikers is a spaced-out cat named Tarot (who gives ridiculously literal readings of his tarot cards), who keeps warning the others that they’ve gotten into some heavy shit. At this point the werewolves show up, mostly kept to the shadows, appearing with the full moon each night and killing a few of the bikers. There’s some brief and well-done gore here, too, including a half-second shot of a female biker’s eye slashed out of her skull.

The werewolves don’t make a big appearance until the final minutes, and they’re along the linese of how Lon Chaney, Jr. looked back in the day, if maybe a little hairier. What I also enjoy about these old exploitation flicks is there’s no belaboring the point; the bikers realize that two of the gang are werewolves and give chase, determined to destroy them. It’s all just handled matter of factly and almost casually. There’s a fair bit of motorcycle stunt work here, with werewolf bikers on fire and doing mad leaps off cliffs and such. The finale delivers the mandatory downbeat ‘70s ending, but the shock reveal at the end is a bit muddled because we’re supposed to be surprised to see certain characters hanging out with the monks, but given that they no longer have beards or wear sunglasses and the like it’s hard to tell at first who they are.

Director Michael Levesque does a phenomenal job of keeping the film moving while delivering on both the exploitation and the Easy Rider-esque artsy angles. Some reviewers have complained the film is flabby in the midsection, but I thought it moved at a snappy pace, mostly because I just dug the vibe. It’s a mystery why this one isn’t better known; I’d guess it suffered from poor VHS or DVD releases in the past and no one felt like sitting through a film they could barely see – so much of it occurs in the dark that I could imagine a subpar print would render most of the action and actors invisible at some points. Anyway I really enjoyed this one and will certainly be watching it again in the future.


Zwolf said...

I actually love the hell out of Bury Me An Angel, to the point that if I ever had a daughter somebody'd have to stop me from naming her "Dag." :) Yeah, Dixie needed different hair, for sure, and some acting lessons wouldn't hurt, but she still manages to be kind of imposing. I love how her big insult for everybody is "ass." And the guy telling her, "Wow, you've got NO sense of humor" and her saying, "Just none whatsoever" is classic. :) The movie is a mess, but I love it anyway. Notice how she fixes up the purple chopper... but then that's not what she rides. And also notice that she's wearing the same thing in every scene where they're riding... and then as soon as she gets off the bike she's wearing something else. They just shot all the riding scenes at the same time. Anyway, yeah, it's kind of a bad film, but if somebody let me re-make ONE film, this is the one I'd do. The idea's great, just needs a better script 'n' such. I think I could do it if somebody gave me, say, several million dollars and maybe Megan Fox or AnnaLynne McCord.

Werewolves on Wheels reeks as a horror movie, but once you get over that it's not bad as a biker flick. I think they pretty much forgot they were supposed to be putting horror in there.

Peace Killers is also pretty much of a rape-happy mess, but the guy crucified on the giant peace symbol showed some panache.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Zwolf -- and glad to hear someone out there liked Bury Me An Angel more than I did! I'm ashamed to admit I didn't notice how Dag's clothing changed between the bike scenes...but I did sort of notice the bike-riding stuff seemed to look different than anything else in the film. I also thought I just imagined it that she was fixing up a purple chopper in that opening scene.

I recently watched Chrome and Hot Leather, and liked that one a lot more. Also watched The Losers. I think next up I'll do a roundup review of William Smith biker pictures.

Chris Lopes said...

You should review Born Losers.