Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (2019) at Fantasia 2019

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (2019) at Fantasia 2019

Apart from directing one of the best entries in the anthology film The Theatre Bizarre (2011), David Gregory has carved a niche for himself making countless documentaries of varying length on films, filmmakers and film production – the kinds of pieces that are typically found as extras on home releases. His most famous of these is the feature-length Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (2014) – and this year he has helmed two further documentaries, Master of Dark Shadows on television’s long-running vampire soap, and Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson

What gives Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson its appeal – beyond careful research and an impressive range of interviewees (including much archival footage of Adamson himself) – is that it has found for its subject a filmmaker who not only comes surrounded in colourful, larger-than-life anecdotes, but who also embodies a relatively unsung era of ‘B’ movie-making, exploitation cinema and cheap psychotronica. Adamson was a man who would “go out and make the film, no matter what the budget was”, and who made it “for the average person, not for reviewers.” The natural homes for his one-take indies were the drive-in, the grindhouse, even television – anywhere, really, that would take them, typically less on the basis of the films’ actual content than on their lurid poster art and sensational titles. Those titles would change, too, as films were recycled, sometimes with a few added scenes, to latch onto whatever the latest trend was.

So his shelved crime film Echo of Terror (1967) had voguish dance scenes gratuitously inserted to be released as Psycho a Go-Go, and then a zombie subplot shoe-horned in for its rerelease as Blood Of Ghastly Horror, engendering, as Adamson’s business partner and producer Samuel M. Sherman puts it, “the biggest mishmash ever seen on this planet.” Similarly his Blazing Stewardesses (1975) was nominally a sequel to his The Naughty Stewardesses (1974) which was in turn a softcore cash-in on the popularity of Al Silliman Jr.’s 3D sex comedy The Stewardesses (1969) – but as its very title, riffing on Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), suggests, it was as much concerned with old-school oater antics as air hostesses’ high jinks. Blazing Stewardesses would subsequently get repurposed, retitled and rereleased, first as The Great Trucking Robbery in the midst of a trucking movie craze, and then as Cathouse Cowgirls to exploit the success of Colin Higgins’ The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). He would even rerelease foreign schlock under new titles with extra scenes cut in, often entirely incoherently. 

Adamson was always ready to make a quickie which would cater to the fad of the day. He helmed biker flicks, cowboy films, ‘adult’ pictures, blaxploitation, spy films – and specialised in perennially sellable sex and violence. He tended to work with the same core cast and crew, often bringing back now affordable stars of yesteryear (John Carradine, Yvonne de Carlo, J. Carroll Naish, Aldo Ray, Lon Chaney Jr.), and also working with future big names at the start of their careers (like cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács). He showed a Corman-esque stinginess when it came to paying those who worked for him, but was otherwise well-liked, even if his film-making talents remained limited. “A lot of directors start off making B movies,” observes Russ Tamblyn (cast in Satan’s Sadists, 1969, because Adamson was a big fan of West Side Story), before adding the wry contrast, “but they then graduate…”.

A non-union filmmaker who often worked guerrilla-style, Adamson used Spahn ranch as a location for shooting The Female Bunch (1971) – and had to have a leering Charles Manson thrown off the set – just weeks before Manson and his Family were arrested for the Tate-LaBianca murders. It was an encounter that seems oddly in keeping with a director whose films typically featured violence, gore, depravity and horror. Yet in a case of truth being stranger than fiction, at the end of his career Adamson would himself be murdered by contract builder Fred Fulford, hired to fix up Adamson’s home in Indio, California. There his corpse would lie, buried beneath concrete, for some weeks before being unearthed by police. Gregory’s film covers all this, and ends up being an elegy not just for the man, but for the brand of bargain-basement cinema that he once made and somehow managed to sell. His films have since undergone one final reconfiguration, elevated from disposable programme filler to cult status.

© Anton Bitel