Motorcycle mamas on a highway to Hell!
The Hellcats (1968)
Tuesday, June 14th 9pm
Otto’s Shrunken Head
538 E. 14th street (A & B)
(Crown International Pictures, 1968)Writer-philosopher J. Buck Millaway used to caution his artistic friends about revealing their new ideas to others: “Once something gets in the dream stream,” he’d say, “everybody can pick up on it.”…
Surely that was the case with the notion of girl biker gangs, which blossomed into a cycle-movie mini-trend in 1968, following the release of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ She-Devils on Wheels. Even if you don’t includeNaked Under Leather — which you probably shouldn’t, since it was about only one woman, not a whole gang, and didn’t even come from the U.S. — the next few months brought both The Hellcats and Hell’s Belles to America’s screens. Publicity material for The Hellcats, in fact, claimed that it was the first of the girl-biker pictures, as this excerpt from the film’s pressbook indicates:
Anthony Cardoza, producer of the thrilling “Hellcats,“ coming to the ……… Theatre on ………. believes in doing timely films. This is the first movie based on the exploits of a girl motorcycle gang, a way of life becoming part of today’s scene.
Once a race car driver himself, Cardoza knows and understands motorized vehicles and was able to introduce some unique and dramatic sequences in the picture. Also, he did a brilliant job of casting unknown players in the roles of the girl gang, and a minor male gang [member] important to the plot. For the role of the leader of the girl gang he found Sharyn Kinzie riding her cycle down Hollywood Boulevard and gave her her first film role. She was an airline hostess before coming to Hollywood for a vacation.
If the idea of a producer seeing a girl riding a motorcycle down a city street and then doing a girl-biker movie sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s exactly what happened to Herschell Gordon Lewis in Miami, Florida, as noted in our She-Devils on Wheels entry. The Cardoza version of the story could simply be pressbook fabrication, of course, which happened a lot. But given the proximity of the two films’ release dates, and Millaway’s axiom about the dream stream, it’s just about as likely that the two exploitation-filmmakers simply got the same idea at about the same time. (Like Lewis, Cardoza had been kicking around the lower socioeconomic levels of the feature-film business for awhile, producing the infamous 1961 picture Beast of Yucca Flats, among other things.) And a third party tapped into the dream stream as well — producer-director Maury Dexter actually got his Hell’s Belles into theaters via American International in May of 1968, a couple of months before The Hellcats.
Hellcats producer Anthony Cardoza must’ve been quite a wheeler-dealer. Not only did he get Ford Puckett of San Pedro, California, to supply the bikes for his picture, he also got Ford Motor Company to contribute vehicles and Pacific Lear Jet to pony up a … yeah, you guessed it.
In The Hellcats, soon-to-be cycle-film superstar Ross Hagen plays Monte Chapman, who gets on the trail of the Hellcats after his detective brother (Bro Beck) is killed. Along the way, he picks up his brother’s fiancee, Linda (Dee Duffy), and the two head for the mountains with the intention of infiltrating the gang.
As it turns out, there are two gangs, segregated neatly by gender. The male gang is headed by a gentleman named Snake (Sonny West, at the time attempting to parlay his work as an Elvis bodyguard into a film career), the female by a woman named Sheila (Sharyn Kinzie, the biker Cardoza allegedly saw riding down Sunset Strip). After the usual initiation rituals, they head with the rest of the cyclists to what the pressbook synopsis describes as a “freak-out-love-in.” Soon, they get involved in dope trafficking with the two gangs, leading to a conclusion that pits a big-time dope dealer (Bob Slatzer, also the film’s director and co-writer) and his minions against the gangs.
The Hellcats was the first biker feature for Ross Hagen, whose previous career at the time consisted of some TV roles and a supporting part in the Elvis picture Speedway (1968), where he just might’ve run into his Hellcats co-star, Sonny West. Hagen would go on to do several more bike pictures — including that year’s Mini-Skirt Mob — as both hero and villain, becoming one of the most familiar faces in the genre. Big blonde Dee Duffy, on the other hand, had previously provided set decoration as one of the “Slaygirls” in two of the Matt Helm spy pictures with Dean Martin: Murderer’s Row (1966) and The Ambushers (1967).
Director Robert F. Slatzer plays the oily drug kingpin, Mr. Adrian, a role he reportedly took after the actor who’d been cast in the part became ill. His producer, Cardoza, also appears, playing an artist. And way down in the credits, in the role of Mexican-American drug runner Scorpio, is future director Gus Trikonis, who’d helm his own bike film, 1969’s The Sidehackers — produced by and starring Ross Hagen — before going on to a long career that began with exploitation movies for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (1976’s Nashville Girl, 1977’s Moonshine County Express and 1978’s The Evil) and continues to this day with a long string of TV episodes.
Merchandising for The Hellcats included book and record-album tie-ins. The book, with Slatzer credited as author, came out from that weird paperback outfit Holloway House, whose product at one time included biographies of both upbeat actor James Backus and doomed Hollywood player Barbara Payton. The album was issued on Tower Records and included three different versions of the film’s theme song: an instrumental by The Arrows — presumably without guitarist Davie Allan, who’d helped make the Wild Angels-derived “Blue’s Theme” a big Top 40 hit in 1966; a garage-band-style take, featuring a wonderful cheesy-organ break, by Davy Jones (not the Monkee) and the Dolphins; and a surf-music approach by The Sunrays, who make lyrics (written by an uncredited songwriter) like “Hellcats … paradin’ through the street/Hellcats … shockin’ everyone they meet” sound almost chipper. The Sunrays, you may recall, were the band that Murry Wilson began managing after leaving a similar position with his sons’ band, The Beach Boys. By the time The Hellcats rolled around, The Sunrays were signed with Tower and had recorded a couple of middling surf-music hits, “Andrea” and “We All Live for the Sun.”
A year or so after The Hellcats’ release, Slatzer and Cardoza would again team — using Hellcats players Sonny West , Nick Raymond, Ray Cantrell, Walt Swanner, Noble “Kid” Chissell (a character actor whose career dated back to the ‘30s) and Cardoza himself in supporting roles — for the horror movie Bigfoot. As far as we know, unlike The Hellcats, it spawned neither novel nor soundtrack disc.