Hey, Man, Dig the Crazy Hippie Flicks ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’
from the New York Times by J Hoberman
American International Pictures, the studio that pioneered the low-budget drive-in fare of the 1950s, specialized in two genres: horror films and youth pictures. Often, the two modes were conflated. In 1957, AIP unleashed “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”; in 1966, the studio brought forth “The Wild Angels.”
Out on Blu-ray and DVD in a fine digital transfer, “The Wild Angels” may not have been the first movie in which a character exclaimed “Out of sight, man!” but, released three summers before “Easy Rider,” and introducing much of the same iconography, this “brutal little picture,” as the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther characterized it, made the hippie youth film possible — and also transformed Henry Fonda’s 26-year-old son, Peter, into Hollywood’s personification of the generation gap.
Exuberantly directed by AIP’s mainstay, Roger Corman, and propelled by a twangy surf-music score (credited to California’s future lieutenant governor, Mike Curb of the singing group the Mike Curb Congregation), “The Wild Angels” traffics in speed, drugs and nihilism. Mr. Fonda stars as the diffident leader of a biker gang, a character he has said he named Heavenly Blues after an allegedly psychedelic strain of morning-glory seeds. Swastikas abound, beginning with the logo for the movie’s title in the opening credits, which transforms a capital T into a version of the crooked cross.
Heavenly Blues’ love interest is played by Nancy Sinatra. Her hair frosted and teased and her part underwritten, she is required to adore Mr. Fonda, although this devotion seems tinged with disdain. Ms. Sinatra had a No. 1 single earlier that year with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” — a proto-punk anthem far tougher than her co-star’s petulant posturing. (Would that the Scopitone film made to promote the song were included as an extra with the disc!) Michael J. Pollard, a year away from his career peak as a sidekick in “Bonnie and Clyde,” plays the gang’s resident beatnik, but the movie belongs to Bruce Dern.
Cast opposite his wife at the time, Diane Ladd, as the wild man the gang calls the Loser, Mr. Dern has a fabulous death scene. His last request is a hit of weed, and his funeral — over which, having been liberated from its coffin, his corpse presides — provides the movie’s most outrageous scene. “We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man,” Heavenly Blues proclaims, “and we want to get loaded!” thus signaling his fellow Angels to trash the church, beat up the preacher and stage an orgy in which the Loser’s grieving widow is raped behind the altar.
“The Wild Angels” was hugely profitable and received with appropriate alarm, particularly after being selected to open the 1966 Venice Film Festival. This disgrace “caused a few diplomats to mop their brows,” Crowther wrote, calling the event “an embarrassment.” But the times were changing, and, released 18 months later, in 1968, AIP’s “Psych-Out” (also from Olive on Blu-ray and DVD), an even more delirious exercise in exploitation grooviness, would be praised for its “élan” by Crowther’s successor, Renata Adler.
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