A successful formula in horror is this: keep making what sells, but when the black ink begins to turn red, it may be time to tweak that formula. Come to think of it, “tweaking” may be a solid descriptor for Werewolves on Wheels (1971); this is a film that boasts not only bikers and werewolves, but a satanic cult behind it all! Can three genres and subgenres bump uglies and still provide coherent entertainment? Coherence? No. Entertainment? Most assuredly.
One could start with the title, getting the ball rolling on marketing, and as with most low budget bonanzas, delivering something not quite as good as one’s imagination. But recalibrated for that 1970s nihilistic molasses, it rides just fine.
Released in late November, WoW did well on the drive-in circuit and escaped critics’ wrath as just another second (or third) billed programmer. After all, the biker subgenre had been on fire since Easy Rider (1969), and continued well into the seventies, at least until the “anti-hero” label started to peel off the bikers’ longnecks. So, WoW then (at least for me) is best viewed as a snapshot into a time where the vicious are celebrated, the evil is cloaked, and the werewolves are most hairy. In this case, the deeper you dig for meaning, the more useless dust fills your lungs. Just enjoy.
Let’s tell a tale, shall we? There’s a biker gang called The Devil’s Advocates, and they roam the countryside, stealing here, assaulting there, generally being a menace to society. After a long day of driving, they come across a castle with a satanic symbol atop. When the boys start taunting Satan, a group of robed individuals come out, and give the gang a dose of hospitality with bread and wine. (Drugged, of course.)
Once our weary travelers are asleep, the satanists grab leader Adam’s (Steve Oliver - Peyton Place) old lady Helen (Donna Anders - Count Yorga, Vampire), and subject her to a ritual (including an unfortunate little kitty) where they place a spell, curse, hex, something upon her. The gang wakes up and rescues the naked damsel, although her nude writhing suggests she may not be exactly in distress.
Once back on the road, the gang is viciously murdered one by one at night by something beastly… ghastly… and also still wearing a biker’s vest. Can Adam stop the curse, or are they all doomed?
Werewolves on Wheels. Such a spectacular title that once again I feel the need to tell folks: keep those expectations in check -- the title is designed to draw you in, and offers no promise of accuracy. Yes, there is a werewolf on wheels, but that doesn’t happen until the last five minutes of its runtime; instead you get Werewolf on Foot when the deaths occur.
Surely we could go on about what the film doesn’t have, but let’s focus on what director Michel Levesque (Sweet Sugar), co-writer David M. Kaufman (Girls on the Road) do bring to this rambling road show.
A special mention off the top should go out to cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky (Scream Blacula Scream, The Muppet Movie, Better Off Dead); he captures the look and feel of the California desert in all its vast loneliness, and the slow motion werewolf kills are shot very effectively. I’ve said it a million times: always look to the “minor” leagues as it were; it’s where you’ll find the hungriest talent.
I’ve mentioned 1970s molasses because many films of the era do move at a more methodical -- sometimes to their detriment -- pace; but again, the adjustment is all on behalf of the viewer. If one is used to today’s nanosecond editing, it can be jarring at first to see a shot last longer than three seconds. The solution? Just lay back and submit to the laid back vibes.
And you will be hearing a lot of talk about “vibes”, and “old ladies”, and such because that’s where it was at, you know? (I will not be ashamed of saying “vibes” as it is part of my everyday vocabulary, okay?). What’s interesting is that the bikers aren’t mythologized or fetishized by the filmmakers, but are presented more as workaday layabouts than warriors of the wasteland; no great goals or quest ahead, and nothing but felonies in the rear. The satanists lose out too; they set the plot in motion -- such as it is -- and bookend with the finale back at the castle. While we’re here: yep, could have used more furry foe attacks as well.
So there’s the rub and you’re welcome to it: three subgenres duking it out in a film that just wants to chill; each one acting more as totems than full realizations of their field. And I’m here to tell you: just mellow out. The fact is, there is no organic or sane way for this epic tale to flourish and reveal itself as a measured, lost masterpiece. No, Werewolves on Wheels (sorry, I’m old enough to think “Meals On” immediately before “Wheels”) is not that; it’s way more in line with the other exploitation films that started poster-first and worked backwards. The pieces are on the board, they’re moved around for 80 minutes with some clashing for conflict, the game’s packed up and everyone goes home. It’s really how most of them are played.
This works for me. I want to see the flawed works, the high concept film stock that just tries to entertain the people still awake at the drive-in, and I’m always down for something different. With decent performances, some fair fileting, and impressive makeup (he looks just like the cartoon poster!), Werewolves on Wheels offers enough entertainment value to wear its title of “best satanic werewolf biker movie” proudly. Sure, it’s the only one, but that’s even more reason to dig it. You dig?
Werewolves on Wheels is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)