Jan 10 2008

Rebels Without a Cause: The Wild Angels

Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels took the outlaw culture of the biker movie into nervy, nihilistic territory. Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) presides over a chapter of Hell’s Angles, a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress, but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

Real members of the Venice chapter of Hell’s Angels fill out the gang and provide the stunt riding, which helps give the film its rough and ready character, but it’s the anarchy of this gang and the chaos they leave in their wake that makes it so memorable.

They are truly rebels without a cause, a tribal gang that we watch devolve into primitive savagery in the wake of the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill.

“We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna have a party.”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels becomes a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction.

Director/producer Roger Corman was more than a B-movie legend. From 1955 to the late ’60s, he was America’s most prolific low-budget director, and he grew more ambitious and more inventive throughout the decade. The eight features in this box set, on four two-sided flipper discs in four thinpak cases, collect many of his best films, two of them making their DVD debut here. The most notable is Bloody Mama (1970), his wickedly weird twist on the “Bonnie and Clyde” outlaw gangster picture, with Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, who loves her demented sons so much she sometimes sleeps with them. Don Stroud and Robert De Niro are two of Ma Barker’s boys, and Bruce Dern, Pat Hingle and Diane Varsi co-star. Previously released but even more essential are Corman’s notorious biker classic The Wild Angels (1966) and the quintessential 1960s head film The Trip (1967), written by Jack Nicholson and starring Fonda as a burned-out TV director who drops acid under the protective watch of Dern and Dennis Hopper. The trippiest film of the bunch is Corman’s hippy apocalypse Gas-s-s-s (1970), a groovy satirical road movie set in a future where everyone over 25 is killed by an experimental weapon, and a group of peace-loving hippies goes looking for utopia amidst the fashionable fascists that have taken root. It was his last film for his longtime studio home, AIP, because it (along with “The Trip” and “Bloody Mama” before it) was re-edited behind his back.

The DVD pictured above is actually out of print, but you can still get it on a biker double feature with Hell’s Belles and in the 5-disc, 10-film Roger Corman Collectionbox set, an odd collection that includes Corman’s other great counter-culture classics The Trip and Gas-s-s, his perverse take on the Ma Barker story Bloody Mama, and his great black comedy A Bucket of Blood.

I reviewed the box set for MSN.

Read the entire review here.

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