WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS “Crash and Burn, Baby!”
By Dr. Abner Mality
What’s up, humanoids? Your medical deviant Dr. Mality here. You know, as much as I love working in the lab, there are times when I just need to get outside and feel the wind on my face. That’s when I jump on my hog and head out to the highway, as JUDAS PRIEST might say.
The biker movie genre is close to my heart and of course you know I love horror, so what could be better than a mashup between the two? The biker horror subgenre is not exactly bursting at the seams with films...”Psychomania” comes immediately to mind...but the undisputed king of this microgenre has to be 1971’s “Werewolves on Wheels”. Released at the very height of the biker movie craze and at almost the precise moment in time when the lovy-dovy optimism of the hippies was giving way to violence and anarchy, this dirty, dusty grindhouse epic has emerged as a cult film. And as you well know, we here at Wormwood thrive on such cinematic oddities.
The reputation of the film hangs almost entirely on the gimmick promised in the title. It’s absurd, easy to understand and sticks in your brain. The movie title in fact is a work of genius. But the reality of the film is that the werewolves have very little screen time and the amount of time they spend on bikes is negligible (although unforgettable). Looked at in that narrow context, the film is disappointing and could almost be considered a cheat.
But there’s a lot more to “Werewolves On Wheels” than that. There’s a deeper level of surreality buried in the movie and considered more generally as a supernatural biker film rather than a werewolf movie, it is altogether more successful. Believe it or not, it is only very recently that I watched the movie in its entirety. I was impressed by the excellent desert photography, the realistic quality of the biker scenes and the feeling of mystic doom that hangs over the cursed bikers. OK, this is not Orson Welles type major cinema, but it definitely was not the Al Adamson style trash I was expecting.
The movie was the creation of young director Michael Levesque, who cut his teeth working on Roger Corman films like “The Trip” and “Naked Angels” and who would go on to work extensively with Russ Meyers. Levesque not only directed the movie, but co-wrote it with David Kaufman. For his first true feature, “Werewolves on Wheels” has some impressive shots (and admittedly some less than impressive ones as well). He captures the grit of the biker lifestyle and the vast emptiness of the desert Southwest.
The cast is an odd collection. Adam, leader of the bikers, is played by Stephen Oliver, who sure looks different than when he was a hunky love interest on “Peyton Place”. Oliver worked as a bounty hunter early in his career, so he likely drew on that experience for his portrayal. Biker “Pill” is actually Billy Gray, who was the clean cut son on “Father Knows Best” and the young boy who befriended Klaatu in “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. “Scarf”, another one of the Devil’s Advocates, was Barry McGuire, a former Vietnam vet who performed the hit song “Eve of Destruction” and was known for his anti-war activism. Although we never get a really good look at him, character actor Severn Dardern played “One”, the leader of the satanists. Usually known for droll humor, Dardern played it very straight in his ominous role.
Many of the other bikers are actual motorcycle club members, giving the movie an authentic look and vibe. “Duece Brown”, who played the mystic Tarot, was actually Gene Shane, while Helen the main biker chick was Donna Anders, who I haven’t seen in any other role, but who sure looks nice dancing in the nude with a snake.
Well, brothers and sisters, let’s kick this hog into gear and take a ride with the “Werewolves on Wheels”…
As every good biker movie does, this one starts with a slow panning shot of riders cruising up the highway en masse. Our biker anti-heroes are called The Devil’s Advocates, a name rich in irony considering what happens later in the movie. A lot of them look well on the way to full blown lycanthropy already. Now is a great time to mention how totally fitting Don Gere’s excellent music for this film is. A ragged slow burning psychedelic blues tune accompanies the shots of the Advocates’ highway ride, building steadily in intensity and getting under your skin. Even the most cynical critics would have to admit Gere’s music is the perfect match for a Satanic biker grindhouse flick…
It isn’t long before a couple of hillbillies in a junky old pickup decide they don’t like the hairy cyclists and force one of them off the road in a prime example of impolite vehicular assault. These rubes look like they might be the same hicks who shot Wyatt and Billy in “Easy Rider”...just a coincidence, I’m sure. As you might expect, the Advocates don’t take kindly to this and they roar in pursuit of the pickup truck, fueled by righteous anger. And who can blame them? They finally catch up to the rednecks at a grimy gas station/cafe and get their revenge, pulling one of the men out of the truck and beating the holy hell out of him. They stop short of killing him and throw him back in the truck, to limp off and think better of messing with any bikers in the future.
Under the leadership of Adam, the bikers pretty much take over the cafe and have fun teasing and tormenting the inbred owner. The poor schmuck does manage to grab the tits of biker chick Shirley, though. Adam’s girlfriend Helen approaches the mystically inclined biker Tarot and asks him to break out his deck of Tarot cards and do a reading for her. Adam sneers at fortune-telling, telling Tarot “Hell, we all know how we’re gonna die, baby...we’re gonna crash and burn!” Tarot seems to know nothing good will come of his using the cards, but he ends up doing a reading for Helen. It is not a happy result. He foresees a violent end for the girl, involving the Devil himself! Unfortunately for Tarot, his talent with the cards is pretty much spot on…
The Advocates ride on into the dusty horizon and finally pull off the road into a secluded green valley,where they plan on camping for the night. There is a peculiar looking church nearby, with a kind of horned cross on its steeple. A bad sign...Tarot recalls hearing that there was a strange cult somewhere in vicinity. After some drinking, drugging and carousing, the bikers are approached by a line of hooded monks. And man, these guys are REALLY hooded...there’s almost no sign of anything human deep within the darkness of those hoods.
Despite looking ominous as hell, these monks don’t seem to be bad cats. They’ve brought free wine and bread for their biker friends, who are only too glad to accept the freebies. Nothing too suspicious about being given a drink by guys that look like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I guess. Well, as you might suspect, the Advocates soon collapse into a drugged slumber. They are left on the monastery lawn...except for Helen, who is taken deep into the chambers of this devil’s church.
The leader of the cultists is a bearded, face painted weirdo known only as “One”. He’s played by the cultured character actor Severn Darden, who got his start with Second City in Chicago. Darden popped up in a lot of genre TV and film during the 70’s, usually playing a drolly humorous character. There’s nothing funny about him here, though. He is interested in offering Helen as a bride to Satan himself and he helps prepare the way by killing a black cat and draining its blood for use in the ritual.
As the monks chant and intone satanic mumbo-jumbo, the entranced Helen strips off her clothes and begins a sexy dance with a snake and a skull. Donna Anders looks hot enough to make the Devil sweat in this bizarre scene, which is again greatly helped by cool psychedelic music from Don Gere.
Meanwhile, Adam and the other bikers have woken up and discovered that their “old lady” is missing. They make the decision to raid the monastery, take back their girl and lay some smack down on One and the monks. They break into the ceremony and start taking whacks at the monks, who don’t seem to put up much of a fight. Many of the bikers get what looks like paint smeared on their faces during the fight, but beyond this, they don’t suffer any casualties, as a dazed Helen is rescued and the Advocates take off, deciding they’ve had enough of the Devil for one night.
They seem to put the bad experience behind them as they once again roar out into the desert Southwest in some more impressive road scenes. They stop at an ancient gas station that seems to date back to the Depression (at the very least...you have to hand pump these old dinosaurs) where they run into a cantankerous old owner who isn’t afraid of them in the least. This sour old cuss looks 100% authentic in his role and in fact, my research shows that he, like some of the bikers, was exactly what he appeared to be. In some biker movies, he would have been killed or at least beaten up, but the Advocates seem to actually respect the old coot, who tells them “You know where you are? The desert!”
That night, they camp out in the open desert under the stars and engage in more boozing and doping. The big biker Mouse decides to get his freak on with loose and crazy Shirley. They run off to a secluded gully to do their thing...but they aren’t alone. Something wild and feral falls upon them when they’re getting it on and tears them to pieces. A werewolf has made its first kill!
When the bodies are discovered in the morning, the mood of the bikers becomes glum and uneasy. Tarot says the bad vibes he’s foretold are starting to come true. Adam has none of it, saying that a cougar or wild dogs tore Mouse and Shirley apart. But Tarot’s words linger and they all remember the strange experience at the Devil’s monastery.
Mouse and Shirley get a rough biker’s funeral in the desert...one of the best and most poignant scenes in the movie. Adam tries to find good things to say about the pair, but winds up with “they were one of us”. Another Advocate laments that “Shirley was a great freak!”, which I guess is a great epitaph for any biker chick. That leaves Helen as the lone female to service the rest of the boys.
The crew drives off once more on their endless trek through the desert, but feeling as if they are pursued by something. The next night, they wind up at what can only be described as a graveyard for vehicles...a massive junkyard out in the wastelands. A lot of booze and drugs are ingested and Adam tries to reconcile with Tarot. “I love you guys,” Tarot laments, “But I can’t ride with you anymore!”
The bikers get the bright idea to ignite the old wrecks in the junkyard, which explode into flame and provide eerie flickering light for their night time carousing. Not only will the fire light up their partying, but it may also keep wild animals...and maybe evil spirits...at bay. If that was the idea, it doesn’t work! The drugged up biker Movie does a kind of strip-tease by himself...until the werewolf appears and claws his throat open! Making the kill even more brutal, the beast throws Movie’s body into the blazing fire.
When morning comes, Movie is nowhere to be found, leaving the other bikers to wonder if he deserted them. Tarot guesses that he is dead, which leads Adam to explode in rage against him. Eventually, the two come to blows in a nasty fistfight in the desert sands, with the other bikers circling around them. Tarot is thrashed pretty good, leading Adam firmly in control. After his beating, Tarot has a strange vision of Helen dressed in a kind of bridal outfit, surrounded by chanting monks. Nevertheless, he meekly gets back on his bike and follows the other Advocates back on the road.
Later that night, the club gathers around another bonfire in the desert. Adam has a strange vision where the other bikers faces seem to be painted like they were in the monastery. Things are coming to a head. The club leader finds himself growling like a beast as Don Gere’s soundtrack throbs with psychedelic noise and tribal beats. Adam has become a werewolf! And he’s not alone...Helen, too, has turned into a slavering lycanthrope!
The two rage amongst their former comrades, but the bikers are ready. They grab dry branches and soon are defending themselves with torches against the monsters. The camerawork is deliberately dark and chaotic here. Not an example of “bad” cinematography, but rather a deliberate choice by director Levesque.
NOW we finally get to the part of the movie that lives up to its title! A beleaguered Tarot finds himself holding off both Adam and Helen with just a torch. Things look tough for him until the other bikers, all bearing torches, join the fight. Helen is set on fire and is soon consumed by flame, snarling her way to a burning death...or so it seems. Werewolf or not, Adam knows he’s in trouble so he does the one thing he’s always done...get on his chopper and ride! This werewolf is on wheels at last!
Gotta admit, even though the scene is short and comes at the end of the movie, there’s never been anything like this on film before! The other Advocates, still toting their torches, all jump on their hogs and take off after their hairy former leader. There’s some wild, almost GoPro footage of Adam tearing off across the desert. Finally, a well-thrown torch causes him to catch fire and in a hellacious slow mo stunt shot, the burning werewolf and his bike explode in mid-air! Now THAT’s entertainment!
The remaining Advocates are not done yet. They are close enough to the monastery to try and raid it, killing the evil monks who brought the werewolves’ curse to them. Led by Tarot, they gain easy access to the ritual chamber. Too easy! The monks are waiting for them and for the first time, we can see who is in the hoods...the monks are the Advocates themselves, face painted as they were earlier! As each biker sees his duplicate face to face, he falls slowly and helplessly to the floor. All except Tarot...his duplicate offers him a piece of bloodsoaked bread, which he eagerly eats. While Helen, dressed as a bride of Satan, seems to float above the altar.
Tarot is the new One and he intones...”we are all One with the Prince of Darkness”. The final shot of the movie is the Devil’s Advocates riding down the highway as a vision of Hell’s flame engulfs them. The circle is complete. Their name is now much more than just a nickname.
For a movie considered a gritty grindhouse staple, there’s a lot of surrealism in “Werewolves On Wheels”. How much of what happened was actually real? Remember when the Devil’s Advocates first arrived at the Satanic monastery and were given drugged wine and bread. Was everything after that point just a drug-induced nightmare? When the bikers confront their doubles, they simply seem to fall into nothingness. Have they embraced the ultimate rebellion? Just like Adam and Helen seemed to have embraced the beasts inside themselves? Or is ol’ Doc Mality just off his nut?
A peculiar thing about the Devil’s Advocates...they are far from the nastiest bikers ever seen on screen. Compared to Al Adamson’s “Satan’s Sadists” or Corman’s “Wild Angels”, they are positively benign. Sure, they talk rough, drink and use drugs, but they seem to engage in very little crime. The beating they administer to the rednecks in the early scenes is one that is richly earned. Their hijinks at the diner and the old man’s gas station seem more like the pranks of rowdy high schoolers than brutal criminals. They’re always looking to party but never to really hurt or destroy. Until the curse of the wolf is laid upon them.
One thing’s for sure...they are a true brotherhood. This is best seen at the roughshod funeral of Mouse and Shirley. Some scenes of comradeship border of the homoerotic, which I guess was a subtext in many biker movies. Director Levesque does a good job of capturing the rugged camaraderie of the road. Of course, this humanity is in contrast to the other brotherhood we see in the movie...the diabolical cult of Satan. The cult ultimately seems to be the bikers themselves, but stripped of their human side. Which leads to another question. Is One really the Devil himself, just playing games with his followers before taking Helen as his bride? It’s worth pondering.
So there’s more to “Werewolves On Wheels” than what immediately meets the eye. That’s the sign of a movie that can stand the test of time, no matter how cheap or rough-hewn it is. I went into the film looking for more than a stupid Rifftrax experience...and found it.