Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) leads a reckless gang of bikers on a search for a motorcycle stolen from one of their number. After a run in with a group of Mexicans a cop shoots The Loser (Bruce Dern), Blues’ second in command, in the back. The bikers bust The Loser out of the hospital but he is too injured to survive, and dies. What ensues is a funeral of debauchery and rape. The gang proceed to the cemetery to bury The Loser but the cops arrive. The gang scatter leaving Heavenly Blues behind, as he solemnly declares that “There’s nowhere to go.”
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The Wild Angels was very influential, and was also wildly controversial and popular when it was released. The film successfully captured the imagination of the teenage audience that it intended to exploit by setting up the figures of authority as the ‘bad guys’, and the fairly nasty gang of bikers as anti-heroes to be cheered for. Director and writer Roger Corman saw the 1953 biker movie The Wild One starring Marlon Brando (“What’re you rebelling against Jonny?”, “What you got?”) but thought that his target audience would prefer to see a similar movie from the perspective of the biker gang, and not the townsfolk.
Corman quickly became the king of the exploitation movie as he realised that providing an edgy alternative would bring masses of disenchanted teens back to the movie theaters. Exploitation movies were called so for that very reason: They exploited the curiosity of their core audience. Corman played up sex, violence and anti-establishmentarian themes in order to attract those rebellious teens, while overhyping the promotional material. The Wild Angels, the most successful exploitation movie ever released, was no exception. The teenage audience lapped The Wild One up, having never seen scenes of rebellion such as this on the big screen before.
To be fair Corman’s direction often borders on the skilled, and a young Peter Fonda puts in a great performance, but even at this early stage in his career it’s clear to see Fonda was destined for better things. Even the real-life Hells Angels that were hired as background artists deserved better than the representation they got in the finished movie. Clearly they agreed, because after they saw the finished flick they attempted to sue production studio AIP.
Nevertheless, the teenage audience loved it. The movie took a staggering 5.5 million dollars at the box office and the people were hungry for more, and the exploitation movie studios were happy to give it to them. The Wild Angels influenced a string of similar genre-within-genre biker exploitation movies all looking to cash in and exploit the audience.
Looking at The Wild Angels in isolation, viewed in 2009, it’s barely watchable. Bad script, bad acting, annoying story, pointless rape and violence. But in its day The Wild Angels was like nothing seen before at the movies. It was a far cry from the sanitised middle-aged output being released by the major Hollywood studios of the time, but the output of exploitation movies such as this made those big players sit up and notice, and eventually change their ways.