Monday, May 10, 2010

WILD RIDERS (1971): Don't F*CK with Classical Music!

"I'll show you what nothing can do!"

That's the defiant vow of Pete, a renegade biker and the main character of Richard Kanter's quasi-biker film. He and his sidekick Stick (Alex Rocco) have been exiled from their motorcycle gang after they raped and crucified a girl for sleeping with a black man. They set out on their own, a George and Lenny for the Savage Seventies, romping like children in a park in a just vaguely homoerotic vignette, busting each other's chops and scheming to score some bread. Stick is the Lenny of the pair, not quite as simple as the original but still the sort who's happy to eat lunch out of a trash can. He can be quite friendly but freaks out if he thinks people are insulting him. Pete tries to keep Stick out of trouble but gets into plenty on his own. It's his idea to crash a mansion where a classical musician's wife, Rona, is hosting her old sorority girlfriend Laurie while hubby's at a recording session for a movie score. There's something just vaguely homoerotic about their friendship, too, but once our biker pals settle in Pete and Rona pair off for some occasionally romantic coupling while Stick and Laurie get down to rape, Stick's naturally aggressive playfulness aggravated by his belief that a frog figurine is a personal insult to him. Wild Riders finds its tone in the scene in which Rocco flips out over the frog, demanding that Laurie tell him what it is and whether it looks like him. Rocco, best known as Moe Green from The Godfather, is the only real name in the cast and takes advantage of his top billing to give a performance of barnstorming barbarism, just the kind that a bad movie like this needs to keep you interested.

Alex Rocco earns his top billing in Wild Riders, and director Richard Kanter's camera clearly loves him, even if the women in the film (like Sherry Bain, below) don't.

The film's title leads you to expect a full-scale biker film, but while the old gang does reappear briefly, Wild Riders has little to do with the motorcycle lifestyle. It's mainly a four-player captivity psychodrama somewhere between Of Mice and Men and The House at the Edge of the Park. Kanter tempts you to sympathize with Pete and Stick and their two-against-the-world attitude, but cures you of it once they start roughing up the ladies while increasingly feeling sorry for themselves. Stick avenges his ugliness by raping women, while Pete resents the rich for getting all the breaks he feels he was denied. By forcing themselves on Rona and Laurie, they're playing a game of role reversal, and as Pete says, "There's only one law in this game and that's power, and I've got it all."

Wild Riders "introduces" Arell Blanton as Pete, above meeting cute with Elizabeth Knowles while coming on more forcefully below.

Despite Rocco's outbursts, Wild Riders starts to drag as it struggles toward the 90-minute mark. It looks like Kanter is setting up a twist as the women try to turn Stick against Pete while the latter is out trying to sell some antiques from the house. The twist comes when Rona's husband finally returns to the house. Stick subdues him and is happy to see that Pete's come back after all instead of abandoning him to take the rap for an earlier murder. Pete seems ready to kill all the hostages, but he wants to hear hubby, a cellist, play his instrument first. Hubby is defiant at first, determined to play only for those who can appreciate it, but he finally complies. Pete's impressed but wants hubby to slow down so he can study the fingerwork. He muses that he could have been as good on his guitar as hubby is on the cello had he enjoyed the same opportunities in life. Opportunities? Hubby's parents died in a death camp. This fact is established as a warning that the man of the house is one not to be trifled with. And as he builds to a musical crescendo, so the film builds to a sudden crescendo of violence as our virtuoso takes the offensive. As Pete intently studies the cello, hubby puts the bow through his eyeball! And as Stick stumbles to his friend's defense, the cello itself becomes a devastating weapon, at once a blunt instrument and a lethal stabbing tool as the man of the house reestablishes his mastery.

Damn! Whoever has a whole orchestra of men like that could conquer the world. Wild Riders is in some ways a generic biker-roughie-captivity film, but it definitely gets extra credit for that finale. There's little to see otherwise apart from Alex Rocco, but he may do just enough to tide you over until the deadly cellist arrives. This letterboxed edition is from the latest collaboration between Mill Creek Entertainment and Crown International, a 12-film Savage Cinema collection that also includes such beloved items as The Pink Angels and Death Machines. Given what I paid for the set at FYE, Wild Riders cost me not quite sixty cents. It's worth at least that.

Here's a TV spot for the film, including some of the cello attack, uploaded to YouTube by psychotronictv.

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