Black and white biker gangs battle for turf in Laurence Merrick’s “Black Angels”

By on November 25, 2016

Laurence Merrick’s Black Angels — about a white motorcycle gang versus a black motorcycle gang in a film simply jam-packed with absurdities, semi-authenticities, and some ass-kickin’ action! — is now streaming as part of our Something Weird collection on Night Flight Plus!

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Laurence Merrick didn’t direct too many movies, and he’s actually probably best known for co-directing the legendary 1972 documentary Manson with Robert Hendrickson, which featured interviews with the Manson Family before and after the shocking murders that rocked the nation in 1969. It ended up garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature-Length Documentary.

Merrick was also well-known in Hollywood for his acting school, the Merrick Studio Academy of Dramatic Acting, and for the fact that one of his students, Sharon Tate, would later be killed by members of Manson’s Family, during August of 1969, the same year he spent fourteen days directing Black Angels.

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In fact — in yet another example of the parallels that existed between Southern California’s biker and hippie countercultures — members of Manson’s Family would occasionally drop by Paramount Ranch, located at 2813 Cornell Road, in Agoura, California, and visit the set while Merrick and his cast and crew were filming scenes.

(The same thing also happened during the filming of The Girls from Thunder Strip at Spahn Ranch, which is now part of Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park, where members of the Family would drop in at lunchtime and beg for food from the production crew and cast… we told you about that here).

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In 1960, Merrick — who served in the Army of Defense for Israel — was sent to the U.S. to speak in support of Zionism, and while he was fundraising in New York City, he met his future wife, a dark-haired aspiring Broadway showgirl and wannabe actress named Joan Huntington.

Together they came out to the west coast, and set up the Merrick Studio, located at 870 N. Vine St. in Hollywood, California, and for a time it was an inexpensive place for actors (like the great Geoffrey Lewis!) to learn lessons about their craft.

The Merricks were subsidized by the government too, which enabled them to make a lot of money running the school. They bought a nice house in Beverly Hills and then decided to put their studio profits towards making their own movies, which they could then cast with students from the school, a win-win situation for everybody.

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Merrick’s wife — who continued with her acting career, and was nearly chosen to play Morticia on TV’s “The Addam’s Family” — came to see the movies they were making as training exercises, while her more business-minded husband thought more about the potential financial windfall for their production company, Merrick International Films, selling the films to distributors for even more big bucks.

He also liked the fact that since he had no one bossing him around, he could be as experimental as he wanted, since he didn’t have a movie company or studio head interfering with his creative process, and so he applied his experimental ideas, mainly to the camerawork, on each of the films he shot.

The Merrick’s first project, made in late ’68, was what Merrick would later refer to as a “nudie cutie,” a relatively plotless short film that featured three buxom housewives on the prowl for men. It wasn’t very good, and Merrick didn’t even bother to give it a title or a credit sequence.

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Their next effort, an odd little vampire movie called Guess What Happened to Count Dracula?, fared better than their short nudie cutie, although Merrick was so inexperienced that he didn’t realize he was supposed to say “Action!” at the beginning of every scene and was surprised to find his cinematographer, Robert Caramico, waiting on him to do so in order to begin operating the camera.

The movie featured several of Merrick’s students in key parts, and chiefly concerned what happened to Dracula’s son, Count Adrian (Des Roberts, who plays the vampire while sporting a wicked John Carradine-style goatee). Roberts and his musical partner, Andy Wilder, also provided the film’s musical score.

The film was shot at the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills, a mansion built in the 1920s which had been renovated for performances by magicians.

One of Merrick’s students owned the place, and had invited Merrick and his wife over for dinner, which left a lasting impression, and when the couple began thinking of locations where they could shoot their Dracula movie, they both remembered the Magic Castle, which was just about to undergo a renovation.

As you might expect, quite a lot of the movie is devoted to magic tricks performed by members of the Magic Academy, the castle’s troupe in residence.

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The movie also contains a subplot straight out of the then recent box office smash Rosemary’s Baby, when one character — an actor named Guy (just as John Cassavetes’s character was in Roman Polanski’s film), played by John Landon — is all too willing to sell his soul in return for being given a successful acting career.

It’s also interesting to note that Merrick’s film features a “surprise” ending that was clearly inspired by Polanski’s previous film, 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, when Polanski’s future wife Sharon Tate sprouts fangs in the film.

Merrick’s Dracula movie was later released in Europe in an “adults only” version which featured more nudity and sex, courtesy of performances by Olga Copa and someone named “Horror-Charlie.”

The additional nude scenes were shot by Mario d’Alcala, who was given the sole credit as director for the European-distributed version of the film on the poster. The film was in distributed in Germany as Lüsterne Vampire, and in France as Dracula Vampire Sexuel.

For his next film, Laurence Merrick realized that outlaw biker flicks were all the rage, and so he began developing the film which we present to you here on Night Flight Plus.

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Wanting to also cash in on the fairly new phenomenon of Blaxploitation, Merrick’s script focuses on two biker gangs at each other’s throats, a white motorcycle gang called Satan’s Serpents — led by Chainer (once again played by Merrick’s favorite leading man, Des Roberts) — and a black motorcycle gang, called the Choppers (their leader was played by Bobby Johnston, whose biggest role previous to this one was as a prison guard in In Cold Blood).

The film’s title, Black Angels is actually the name attributed to the highway patrolmen who observe the two rival biker gangs from a distance, waiting for the race-motivated war for turf to explode.

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Merrick recruited a real black biker gang to play the Choppers in order to provide authenticity.

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The main plot concerns one “Black Angel” in particular — a lieutenant for the highway patrol named Harper (Clancy Syrko, who also edited the film) — who wants to see all of the biker gangs wiped off the the face of the earth, and he plots to pit the two gangs against each other so they will end up in a race war leading to both of them being destroyed.

A renegade racist Southern biker named Johnny Reb (John King III) is just the man to help Harper have his wish fulfilled, and he becomes a member of the Serpents after Chainer kills a black biker, which, of course, sets the two gangs on a mission to kill each other as fast as possible.

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Reb starts spouting off racist slurs when the Serpents stop off to have a beer and are served by a black waitress, but that’s when Chainer tells him their conflict with the Choppers is over turf, not skin color.

Chainer then gets to deliver the movie’s best line: “This country is getting so you can’t have a decent fight with a black man without somebody making it out to be about race.”

When the Choppers nearly kill the Serpents’ leader during an ambush, Reb ends up saving Chainer’s life, and this calls for a party, only they find out too late that the bag of pills that Johnny Reb has handed out at the party aren’t uppers, they’re downers, sending the Serpents on a bummer of a trip.

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Reb almost gets away with the sabotage it until a biker named Frenchy (John Donovan) reveals to Reb that he knows what’s going on, but Frenchy pays the ultimate price for telling Reb what he knows, which then stars a white-on-black biker race-driven battle for turf while Lieutenant Harper looks on from atop a hill in the distance.

It’s interesting to note that this film’s concept of pitting white against black in a race war, in the year 1969, is very similar in some respects to Manson’s concept which he called “Helter Skelter,” an apocalyptic war arising from racial tensions between blacks and white, which he believed was foretold in Chapter 9 of the book of Revelations in the bible (as well as hidden messages he believed he heard in the Beatles’ “Revolution #9“).

Makes you wonder what kinds of conversations they were having at Paramount Ranch between members of the cast and crew and some of Manson’s followers.

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There were also many interesting cameo appearances, including a real member of Charles Manson’s gang,  Mark Ross (he plays “Singer”), who later claimed to write a theme song for the film that was never used (the original rock music soundtrack contains several decent instrumentals and songs in assorted styles, some performed by Smokey Roberds, previously of soft rock band The Parade).

There’s also an appearance by Merrick’s oldest acting student, Sumner Spector, who also appeared in the 1971 Warren Oates film Chandler.

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An interesting sidenote is the fact that one of the bikers happened to have a cougar as a pet, and the Merricks thought it would be fun to put the big cat in a scene or two (their previous film, Count Dracula?, had also featured a similar appearance by a big cat). Merrick’s wife was a little concerned about the presence of a cougar on set, as she’d brought their nine year old son Adam to the Paramount Ranch location, and sure enough, the cougar did jump at their son.

Merrick — who shot the film in and around Paramount Ranch, and some surface streets in L.A., in just fourteen days — experimented even more on Black Angels than he had on Count Dracula?, adding subjective shots from a biker’s P.O.V. which give the viewer the feeling they too were hurtling along on the highway on a motorcycle.

He also sped up a chase scene at the beginning of the film which makes the entire world look like it’s comically spinning in fast motion.

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The film features all kinds of pissed off biker-on-biker punchouts and Evel Knievel-ish action scenes, lots of horizontal topless biker babes (slightly NSFW) and just about anything else you’d expect from a low-budget 70s biker film shot on a shoestring budget.

The film’s tagline “God forgives, the Black Angels don’t!,” incidentally, was borrowed from the hugely successful 1967 Italian spaghetti western, God Forgives… I Don’t.

Another tagline — and perhaps another reference to Manson? — was “A portrait of the family.”

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Speaking of Manson and his family, again, it was during the film’s production that Merrick was invited to head over to Spahn Ranch, with a 16mm camera, in order to film the Manson family on their own turf.

Merrick also shot footage of them at Devil’s Canyon, their Barker Ranch hideout in Death Valley, and then later — during the Manson trial — at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, in addition to other locations.

Much of this footage would end up being included in the 1973 documentary Manson, which is why Merrick initially shared the director credit with Robert Hendrickson (who these days doesn’t mention Merrick on the film’s official website, but this original poster lists Merrick as the film’s sole director).

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Years later, Manson was banned from being screened in the U.S. by order of Judge Thomas McBride, the District Court judge presiding in the case of Lynette”Squeaky” Fromme — who had attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford — in order to preserve Fromme’s constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial. Hendrickson became and still is the only U.S. citizen to have had his U.S. Constitutional right to “free speech” set aside.

The legal matter was taken by the ACLU to the Supreme Court. In 2001, Manson was the subject of the Federal Court’s “first impression” decision regarding the legal interpretation of liability under provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the DMCA).

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After Manson lost the Academy Award to the fundamentalist exposé Marjoe (about televangelist turned b-movie actor Marjoe Gortner, another Night Flight fave), Laurence Merrick became the first president of Independent Screen Producers, Inc., a film market intended to promote independent filmmakers.

It later grew into the largest film market in the world, and today is called the Independent Film and Television Alliance.

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Then, in 1977, Merrick’s life would intersect fatally with a potential acting student named Dennis Mignano, who — much like Manson himself — had really wanted to have a music career, but when that didn’t pan out, the struggling rock singer decided to take acting lessons.

That decision had led him straight to Merrick Studio — which by now was teaching classes in acting, directing and cinematography — where he applied to be a student.

He believed that Merrick — due to his association with Manson, bikers, and magic — was the perfect person to help him launch a successful acting career (Mignano had reportedly been obsessed with magic as a child).

Mignano filled out an application to be a student, and then was told he was eligible for government assistance to pay for his tuition, but he had to wait for three weeks for the application to be processed.

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Mignano grew irritated and felt like the delay was yet another setback and a disappointment, but he waited, and while he did so he watched episodes of a 1976 TV mini-series called “Helter Skelter,” which just happened to be re-airing on TV.

The TV series may have played a small part in reminding him that his life was now intertwined with Merrick’s and he then became obsessed with the idea that Merrick had actually placed a curse on him.

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On January 26th, 1977, he went to the school and waited in ambush for Merrick to appear in the parking lot for a few hours and then pulled out a pistol and shot 50-year old Laurence Merrick in the back.

Mignano then fled the scene, and much like the opening scene of Richard Rush’s 1980 action film The Stunt Man — which, and get this, starred actor Steve Railsback, who had played Charles Manson in the “Helter Skelter” mini-series — he, by pure chance, happened upon a movie being shot mere blocks away,  on Willoughby Ave., and the killer blended in with the crew (just as Railsback’s character did), pretending to be part of the film production team.

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Merrick, meanwhile, staggered into his office at the studio, telling his student’s “Some son of a bitch shot me and I don’t even know why!” Some of the students thought they were witnessing an impromptu acting exercise, but quickly realized that their teacher was dying in front of them.

Merrick was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, but he was pronounced dead within an hour. Students at the Merrick Studio Academy of Dramatic Arts said that Mignano had been hanging around the building all morning, asking them questions about Merrick and his Manson documentary.

Watch Laurence Merrick’s Black Angels — now streaming as part of our Something Weird collection on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.