Friday, June 17, 2011

The Born Losers

The Born Losers
1968 (imdb says 1967, the DVD says '69; seems to have hit theaters in 1968)
D: T.C. Frank (Tom Laughlin, who also co-wrote with wife and EP Delores Taylor as "James Lloyd")

Claim to fame: The first Billy Jack film; one of AIP's all-time top grossers

A motorcycle club rapes four girls, and only a local outcast will stand up to them

Truth be told, I am not the world's biggest Billy Jack fan. Despite the fact that I own the boxed set, I have never seen all of "Billy Jack Goes to Washington," or, to the best of my recollection, any of "The Trial of Billy Jack." While "Billy Jack" is undeniably a drive-in classic (that I still enjoy), it also always left me a bit uneasy. Movies like it --as well as TV shows like Kung Fu-- helped cement my impression that most peaceniks aren't pacifists, but cowards looking for someone to fight their battles for them. For all of the left wing messages, the movies always ended up with an unintentionally hawkish payoff: Turn the other cheek all you want, but the bad guys are only thwarted by a Tony Lama to the ass... And just to be honest, it didn't help, by the way, that the female lead from "Billy Jack" on was Laughlin's unattractive, bad acress wife Delores Taylor... At any rate, before these three sequels (plus one or two that never came out), there was "The Born Losers."
Unable to get the film made that they wanted (released as "Billy Jack" in 1971), Laughlin and Taylor came up with a prequel film, with Billy Jack as a Shane type hero/anti-hero (and this has even more of a western feel than most biker movies, enhanced by Mike Curb's soundtrack) confronting a motorcycle club. Biker movies were really raking in the coin, and the plot was loosely based on a late '64 Hell's Angels rape and witness intimidation case that was still fresh in people's minds (with elements of the Kitty Genovese case thrown in as well), so this seemed a much better way to get the Billy Jack character over.
The Born to Lose MC rides into a small town, mainly to pick up its president's brother. While in town, they generally terrorize the citizens. Only Billy Jack, a loner, ex-Green Beret Indian (who's always recognized as such, despite looking 100% white) stands up to them, and for his trouble he's arrested and slapped with a crippling fine, a harsher punishment than the bikers received.
With no one to stop them, the club ends up raping three girls in their late teens and, separately, a spoiled college girl. Further, they appear destined to get away with it, as the victims are all afraid to testify.
The (mostly leftist) social commentary in this one is non-stop, though not all of it is as heavy handed as Vicky's painful graduate student speeches.
The role of bad parenting in helping turn kids into both criminals and potential victims is laid on pretty thick. Club leader Danny's father is a hard-ass bastard (and in a subtle scence shown later, it's implied that Danny is an uninvolved dad himself), Vicky's is rich and powerful but has no time for her, and the other victims' parents are overprotective, uninvolved, or too busy trying to make ends meet to be the parents the kids need. Adults in general, in fact, let the kids down, as they give in to the cowardly urge to look the other way.
The film is no less tough on the police, with a strong "they can't protect you" message. This is done pretty effectively, by not showing the cops as inept or unwilling; if anything, the deputy in particular would be seen by some as being overly harsh.
Besides all this, they're tossing other stuff at you as well --on racism, the enviornment, the inability of a poor man to get a fair shake, the selfishness of the rich, and on and on, finally padding the movie out to nearly two hours... With all this going on, it would seem to be exactly the kind of film I can't stand, but quite the contrary.
What saves this otherwise overly earnest script is its co-writer, Tom Laughlin. His understated performances rescued the Billy Jack character from ridiculousness, but it's as a director that he really shines. There are some great shots and all that (one of which led to the film's brilliant poster), but the performances he gets from his cast are what impresses.
Jack Starrett is always great, and I sometimes neglect how good Elizabeth James (essentially a stand-in for Delores Taylor) is because I hate her character so much. Jane Russell is often praised for this performance, but for me it feels a little too 1951. But aside from Starrett (one of the best movie cops ever, from these biker films to "First Blood" to "Death Chase"), it's the bikers who steal the show.
Jeremy Slate, who was never better, leads the way here as Danny. The character has surprising depth, which he draws out easily and convincingly. The confrontation with his father is closed out with a brilliant ad lib, and Slate's scenes with Starrett are just outstanding. William Wellman, Jr (son of the respected director) is great as the beatnik-ish Child, Paul Prokop is genuinely creepy as Speechless, and Edwin Cook is funny and very natural as Crabs. But Laughlin also gets solid performances from the rest of the bikers, who weren't actors but members of a small MC called the Devil's Escorts. One of them, Robert Tessier (here as Cueball, despite the fact that he had hair at the time), of course, went on to have a career as a great character actor.
Apart from some corny fake swastika and "13" tattoos, the bikers look great. I love the club's colors, and details like Danny's hands, with small cuts, knuckle band-aids, and a juvie hall type tattoo of his initials. The wardrobe is great, down to Slate's cool newsboy cap and his impressive ability to pull off wearing those outrageous sunglasses.
Which isn't to call the film flawless. Vicky can really get on your nerves at times, and while I enjoyed the hell out of Jodell's strip tease, it's not exactly realistic behavior for a girl who was just gang raped. It's hard to suppress a groan when the bikers trap Vicky by spinning the arrow on a road sign, and the post climax epilogue is pretty bad.
Overall, an even better mix of exploitation and earnesty (yes, I know it isn't a word) than "Angels Hard as They Come," and an MC prez as good as (while very different from) Heavenly Blues of "The Wild Angels" or Anchor in "Satan's Sadists." 4.5 for this bona fide classic.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hell Riders

Hell Riders
D: James Bryan (also co-writer)

Claim to kinda fame: Starring Batman and Ginger

As a newspaper headline in the film puts it, "Bikers defy town!"

Uber-cheapo (direct to video?) trash from the man who brought us (the more entertaining) "Don't Go into the Woods Alone!" (and was also part of the Kristofferson/ Vincent crap classic "Vigilante Force"). The bulk of the budget clearly went into hiring the stars--and the stars are Tina Louise and Adam West. (The rest of the cast is filled out with Bryan regulars and actors who never worked before or since.)
Led by the cartoonish Snake, the Hell Riders (whose colors look like iron-ons bought at an '80s suburban head shop) go on a rampage in a '60s TV show set looking small town, terrorizing its citizens and the visiting Claire (Louise). They also do a lot of fighting with one another, as well as a larger group of bikers with whom they were once a part (and whose leader seems to be gay). Since the sheriff is a clownish coward, the town's chief protector is its doctor (West, who wears hilariously bad clothes and is never seen without a ball cap). Doc's daughter also happens to be engaged to the sheriff's son, who looks about 50. Got all that? Doesn't matter.
What you do get: Nudity and awkwardly placed profanity to remind you that this is not the TV movie that it appears to be; some of the worst fight scenes you'll ever see; Adam West calling someone a "sick fuck"; a Three Stooges level jailbreak; a "weirdo" biker who wears a football helmet a la Nicholson in "Easy Rider"; a gang member who had his hand cut off by Snake (though fortunately it grows back for riding scenes); bikers who prove their toughness by stabbing themselves and somehow burning themselves on cold exhaust pipes; a van that's a-rockin'; a biker who keeps a nude woman on a leash...
On the rare occasions that something happens that you didn't see coming a mile away, it's because it's so ridiculous that it never would have occurred to you. Surprisingly violent climax though.
As if it matters, the music is decent enough for the period and budget. A C&W type theme, bad "hard rock" and Devo-ish music for the bikers, a bluegrass type tune for "horny hillbilly" and chase scenes, etc.
As for a rating, that depends on how you feel about really bad movies. I'll leave you to decide whether this is a positive or a negative, but out of five choppers, this gets a Schwinn.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hell's Angels '69

Hell's Angels '69
D: Lee Madden

Claim to fame: Written by its two stars, who'd both been in two of the genre's best films; nearly all bikers are played by members of the Hell's Angels' mother chapter

Two spoiled rich boys who pull crimes for kicks pose as bikers to use the Angels as a decoy for a casino heist

Chuck (Tom Stern from "Angels from Hell") and his brother Wes (Jeremy Slate from "The Born Losers") are suave and partying but jaded and bored products of inherited wealth who, unbeknownst to their freinds, commit major crimes on the side. Posing as members of a Boston club called the Salem Witches who are visiting California, Chuck and Wes befreind Sonny Barger and the Angels, and even convince them to make a run to Vegas and let them tag along. Their plan, of course, is to focus the cops' attention on the Angels while they rob a casino. What they don't figure on, however, is that they'll be stuck with Terry the Tramp's ex-old lady Betsy (Conny Van Dyke) tagging along --and, worse for them, the unforgiving Angels figuring out that they'd been made saps.
The Stern/Slate story is a novel one for the genre, and it progresses quite well. The storyline with Betsy has a tacked-on feel to it, but not so much so that it drags down the action. So it's hard to pin down where it went wrong.
Sonny Barger (who does a very good job here; portaying oneself in film isn't always as easy as it sounds) had previously had frustrating (and sometimes infamous) dealings with authors and filmmakers, but here presumably got his club fairly paid for a change and, one would guess, also had quite a bit of say in the film itself. The image of the club as bad motherfuckers who just want to be left alone and extend the same courtesy --unless you cross them, in which case they're coming at you with everything-- comes across just as he'd like it to. Though I wonder if he's also responsible for the film's rather dull title.
Oddly, I think it's the realism that is its undoing. Though Terry the Tramp is particularly fun here and Barger always has that great creepy/cool quality, the Angels, being actual Angels, are not as fun to watch as the cartoonish Satan's Sadists, for example. In the end it's a great story, professionally told, but nothing special.
And what's with the music? What little there is is impossibly dull. Sonny couldn't have asked the Dead for a couple tunes or something?
I should stress again that this is a good story, and aside from stuntman Bob Harris nearly every biker here is a real one. So it qualifies as essential viewing, despite its grade of 3.

The Angry Breed

The Angry Breed
D: David Commons

Notable: Bike 'em, Danno!

A brash young actor wants to make his film his way, but must contend with a sleazy producer, a double-dealing agent, and another actor --who happens to be a lunatic biker on the side

I don't even know where to start with this one, except to assume that writer Rex Carlton was probably rather bitter when he penned this story, and go from there.
While in Vietnam, aspiring actor Johnny (a miscast, too young, over-acting Murray MacLeod) saved the life of a legendary Hollywood writer also serving there who, in gratitude, gave him his latest can't-miss script before dying in a seperate incident. Johnny's unable to sell it, however, because he insists that as part of the deal, he play the lead. His luck changes --he thinks-- when he saves Diane (Lori Martin), who turns out to be the daughter of a big-time producer, from some bikers with bad intentions.
Ah. The bikers. While some extras are sometimes used, it's usually Deek (James MacArthur), who's also a young actor (and has the same agent as Johnny, no less), and two other guys. Not content with merely the occasional Nazi regalia seen on other movie bikers, Deek & co dress up in complete SS uniforms. And that's not even close to being the weirdest thing about this film.
Diane takes Johnny home to meet her parents: Mom (Jan Sterling, a long way from the roles that won her awards in the '50s) is a heavy drinking, bitter ex-actress, while dad (William Windom) is a sleazy, twisted movie producer who gets off on mentally abusing his wife, has a kung fu chauffer and a mute Asian girl he "adopted" (read: bought), and, it is implied, kinda wants to fuck his daughter. Though he acts as if he's interested in doing the film with Johnny, he makes a backdoor deal with Johnny's (and Deek's) agent to cut him out. A plan is hatched to use Deek and his biker pals to get Johnny out of the way.
It's tough to know how to take some of this. It seems like MacLeod is awful, but the directing is so bad that I'm not even sure. It seems like he's supposed to be brash and cocky, but he just comes off as a prick. Then again, every other film industry-related character is so unlikeable that it may be intentional. The "clever," "witty" verbal sparring between Johnny and Diane's father Vance is absolutely painful.
With a pretty good "decadent party" scene (featuring Melody Patterson, who was then Mrs MacArthur, also dressed as a Nazi), lines like "Dance. You may dance" and "You need killin'," and an ending so bad that it's enjoyable. The Curb label soundtrack music is by Jamie & The Jury and the Orphan Egg, edited in with a butcher knife.
While not exactly good (and in fact it barely even qualifies as a biker movie), getting a grade here of, oh, say 2.5, I still highly recommend checking this one out, simply because it's so fucking warped.

Savages from Hell

Savages from Hell
D: "Joseph G. Prieto" (Joseph Mawra)

Notable: Produced, co-written, and with music by K. Gordon Murray, the man behind classic sleaze like "Shanty Tramp." With Cyril (older brother of Sidney) Poitier, and members of the first Florida chapter of the Outlaws.

Bike club leader falls for the daughter of a migrant worker and won't take no for an answer

Marco (Diwaldo Morales), son of a migrant worker, has dreams of a steady job and planting roots, and of success as a swamp buggy racer on the side. But for now he and his buddy Reuben (Cyril Poitier) have more pressing concerns --protecting Marco's sister Teresa from High Test (William P. Kelley) and the bike club he leads. But while his brothers may have his back, High Test's girl Lucy (Bobbie Byers, looking for kicks again) isn't too hot on the plan.
The story, while pretty standard, isn't too bad. Lucy's character is particularly good, and she plays the vengeance-seeking, passive-aggressively bitchy, jilted lover well. The problem is just about everyone else.
Morales isn't terrible, I suppose, but Poitier is the complete flip side of his younger brother and clearly got the few roles he did based on his name. I think Teresa is supposed to be naive and innocent, though Viola Lloyd's portrayal comes off more as retarded and mildly creepy. While Kelley had been in "The Wild Rebels," it should be noted that he played a bank teller. Seeing a supposed MC leader act like such an inept dork while hitting on a chick (you're waiting for him to kick at a pebble and mutter, "Aw, heck...") is simply ridiculous. As for the rest of the bikers, the guests --"Fuzzy Miller, Bones Cogeswell & The Outlaws Motorcycle Gang" (a credit they probably didn't care for)-- really stand out from the actors.
A number of scenes really drag; the catfight between Lucy and a big-titted MILF that High Test (what a stupid name, by the way) hit on even gets boring. All of the fight scenes, in fact, are terrible. But the bulk of the filler is swamp buggy race footage, which I actually enjoyed the hell out of.
The film builds toward the ending with a scuzzy, scream-filled rape, but then it just gets stupid.
Murray's soundtrack is quite good. Some songs sound, jarringly, more like early-'80s neo garage than music actually from '68.
I'm in a good mood, so since they threw a little (probably very little) dough at an actual club and the soundtrack was pretty OK, I'll give these "Savages" a two.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Savage Seven

The Savage Seven
D: Richard Rush

Minor trivia: A very early role for future Laverne and later director Penny Marshall. The pic at the top of the blog page is from this movie, and she can be seen on the far left. Produced by Dick Clark

Bikers and Indians feud both with one another and their common enemy, the bossman of a company town

A bike club makes a stop in an Indian work camp/company town in the middle of nowhere. Though the club initially clashes with the Indians --especially the white-looking Johnnie (Robert Walker Jr)-- they soon find a common enemy in he boss men, Fillmore (Mel Berger) and his muscle, Taggert (Charles Bail). Further friction comes via a possible romance between the (unnamed) club's leader, Kisum (Adam Rourke) and Johnnie's sister Maria (Joanna Frank).
But the club is new in town and not exactly attached to it, and owes it no allegiance. And Fillmore is looking to drive the migrants off so he can make a profit on the land...
That's really about it for the plot, but it does move along nicely. The uneasy and fragile alliance between the bikers and the Indians is built up well, with little padding. They don't go overboard with riding scenes, and the party and fight filler is well done. A satisfying violent climax, somewhat undone by a payoff after that was pretty lacking.
No complaints about casting, except that as usual for the time, Mexican or Indian leads had to look white.
Fillmore and Taggart are appropriately hateable, and the background bikers, like the oaf Bull (Richard Anders) and Joint (Larry Bishop), who's always stoned and keeps a pot plant on his bike ("potted pot, man"), are all good.
The soundtrack is worth noting. The bulk of it is hit/miss soundtrack type music by Barbara Kelly and the Morning Good, and Iron Butterfly add five more. But the standouts, for the sake of weirdness alone, are two by Cream, though you wonder how Jack Bruce got Clapton and Baker on board. "Anyone for Tennis?" is a laid back thing with winds and lyrics that, for random stupidity, blow away even the shit about rainbows with moustaches in "Swlabr" (you can see them mime "Tennis" on a tv appearance here). "Desert Ride," which clocks in at 1:23, is their (Bruce's?) take on a standard biker movie insrto--and it's my favorite Cream song (though I'm not much of a Cream fan).
Overall, nothing special but a solid and reliable 3.