This week’s film came as a recommendation by Nerdist News’ Ben Mekler. I’d certainly heard of the 1971 movie Werewolves on Wheels, but more in conjunction with Rob Zombie’s Grindhouse fake trailer, Werewolf Women of the SS. A biker movie with werewolves just seemed too ridiculous to actually exist, right? But, no, Werewolves on Wheels is very real, and very, very weird. It was made in the ever-steadying wake of Easy Rider, when the counterculture decided being a douchey motorcycle gang was the way to go. This movie’s got that part in spades, complete with a noodling country-blues-rock score. And, hey, throw into the mix some Satan worship and inexplicable lycanthropy and you’ve got yourself a drive in movie people will want to forget immediately.
The above trailer, as all good ones do, makes the movie look exciting and of the time and full of horror. That’s silly, of course;
The “story” of the film is as such: a biker gang of weirdos and degenerates drives around the open highways and byways of the desert. They’re led by Adam (Steve Oliver), the beardiest one of them all. During the film’s lengthy opening credits sequence, all scored by the bluesy riffs of Don Gere, we see one of the bikers get knocked over by two jerks in an old pickup. A chase ensues, but it comes to a close when the pickup has to stop for gas. The bikers then beat the two guys nearly to death. Fun! Next, they ride off in search of whatever and come across a strange church, which is the home of Satan-worshipping monks led by the one called One (Severn Darden).
The monks allow the bikers to stay in their garden, eat their bread, and drink their wine, so you know this is going to end really well for everyone. That night, the monks (who all put smeary grease paint on their faces to show it’s night) hold a ritual in which Adam’s girlfriend Helen (DJ Anderson, no relation) is drawn in and made to dance nude on the pyre whilst holding a boa constrictor they just happened to have lying around. It’s this ceremony that turns Helen into a werewolf, or a woman whom we’re led to believe by the title is a werewolf. The bikers come in and stop the ritual and pull Helen away and ride off elsewhere. But the damage is done; that night while getting it on, Helen bites Adam in the neck. Much more vampiric than lycanthropic, but hey.
From here, there’s an HOUR of the bikers just frittering away their afternoons. They hang out in the desert, spend a huge amount of time in a junkyard, get into fights because of what may or may not have happened with the cult, and toke up and act real homoerotic. In the evenings, members of the gang are torn apart by something we never quite see. One guy is even tossed onto a burning junked car. Always, though, it’s just one or two of the members, and nobody ever hears anything. Finally, they decide to go back to the church to get their revenge when suddenly, at night, both Adam and Helen turn into Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and the other gang members burn them to death with torches. Evidently, werewolves are not as indestructible as lore would have us believe. The rest of the nameless bikers go to the church to enact their revenge only to see themselves as members of the cult already… WHAT?!?!?! No, seriously, what? I don’t understand this at all.
I’ll admit, when the movie started, I was kind of into the aesthetic of the whole thing. It was just the bikers out biking while Gere’s music rambled just as aimlessly as they did. The biking shots as a whole look pretty cool and set the desired mood, even if they are just aping Easy Rider. However, it never really picks up from here. The pace just stays ambling and the cinematography disengaged. Most of the bikers aside from the leads were actual bikers, and a lot of the scenes of them just hanging out were exactly that. It adds this weird verisimilitude to what is clearly a very forced merging of genres. And, it seems like most of the improvised scenes ended with two burly dudes rolling around on top of each other. There’s zero wrong with this, but it seems to happen a lot.
As for the horror aspect of Werewolves on Wheels, the title might be the scariest part. I feel like the filmmakers thought they were going to make a Satanist movie but then the producer or somebody was like “No, let’s make it werewolves instead. I know a guy who can glue fur to faces.” They had a church location and some robes, and theatre legend Severn Darden was available, so they made a claim that a cult could curse people to werewolfism. Just because scenes are lit with torches and bonfires does not mean they’ll be scary or atmospheric. Most every one of these scenes is shot so weirdly and kind of ineptly that any fear the audience may have begun to feel is immediately stifled. You can’t even see the wolves until the very end anyway. And since they never howl, only kill a couple of people, and still mostly walk upright, it’s a pretty big stretch that they’re even werewolves at all.
There was so much potential for insanity here, but Werewolves on Wheels is little more than just a meandering exercise in shoving two genres together with only the thinnest strand to connect them. None of the acting is very good, the writing is kind of nothing, and the horror is about as unhorrifying as it gets. The opening sequence is pretty impressive, though, I will admit that, but by the end of the picture, when the jangly guitar score begins to rattle for the 80th straight minute, I began to long for a pipe organ or a bagpipe sonata.