Friday, 22 May 2020

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death Of Al Adamson

For a brief moment as I watched David Gregory’s superb 2019 documentary, I dreamily contemplated ordering Severin’s 14-disc Al Adamson set, despite swearing a few years ago I would never see another Adamson film after the death march that was a late-night TV screening of Psycho-A-Go-Go. But the moment passed, and I'll put that little slippage down to the sheer pleasure of hearing veteran movie folk (most of them well into their 70’s and 80’s) recount war stories from the halcyon days of American exploitation cinema. Al Adamson wasn’t the worst of the schlockmakers, in fact some of his better made films are actually quite... watchable - his 1969 outlaw motorcycle film Satan’s Sadists in particular is a minor classic of the late-60's biker pic craze. Adamson is best remembered nowadays for his horror films but as a journeyman film maker he dabbled in westerns, crime films, science fiction, blaxploitation, even a family film (the very skewed family film Carnival Magic). If Adamson had a genuine talent it was his ability to make films dirt cheap, often financed with loose change and it remained a source of pride for Adamson that he made entertaining and profitable films at a fraction of the spend of the major studios. With the decline of the drive-in market in the early 80's (the natural home for Adamson's films), the director for the most part retired from movie making and branched into real estate, virtually disappearing from view until he made headlines in 1995 with the shocking discovery of his body, bludgeoned to death by a handyman he employed, and concealed for weeks under a freshly laid tiled floor at his remote home in Southern California.


Dramatic stuff indeed, and director David Gregory to his credit has made a film that finds the right balance of light and shadow. Told in a chronological order, the first hour or so is dedicated to Adamson’s film-making career and assembles all the major surviving members of Adamson’s repertory of cast and crew (and sometimes there was little to differentiate both), as well as the affable director himself culled from an archive interview he gave before his untimely death. The tales from the trenches of low-budget film-making are often hilarious. We hear about Adamson's penchant for casting washed-up actors who came cheap but not without their eccentricities. Lon Chaney Jr, performed in a fog of alcoholism, while actor J. Carrol Naish was in poor health was by the time he appeared in Dracula vs. Frankenstein in 1971. The twice Oscar nominated actor was incapable of remembering his dialogue and when huge cue cards were provided for the semi-blind actor, his line readings were accompanied by distracting loud clicks from his unruly dentures !

Producer and close friend Sam Sherman, himself a great chronicler of Adamson’s films on several laserdisc and DVD commentaries, explains how Adamson’s films were often re-shot, re-edited, (re-colored!) and fashioned into completely different films from what they originally started out as. For what was one of Adamson and Sherman's most infamous cut n' paste jobs, the 1965 film crime thriller Echo of Terror was overhauled and re-released as Psycho-A-Go-Go, then in 1969 it mutated into the science fiction film The Fiend with the Electronic Brain, before being reworked again and re-packaged as a horror film called Blood of Ghastly Horror. Elsewhere, colleagues recall with some affection, Adamson's notorious thriftiness which often meant his cast and crews went unpaid. Vilmos Zsigmond who shot 3 films for Adamson before graduating to McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Robert Altman, recalls how the director paid him for a day's directing work with the proceeds of a newspaper delivery job which Zsigmond found endearing enough to continue working for him. Actor and stuntman John "Bud" Cardos fondly explains how he often appeared as two different characters in Adamson’s films, as in the scrappy 1970 western Five Bloody Graves, where he is actually killed by himself ! The documentary also draws on dark connections with the Spahn ranch (Satan’s Sadists and some pick-up shots for 1969's The Female Bunch were filmed at the ranch when it was home to the Manson family) and in the early 90's Adamson appeared to make a return to film-making only to get tangled up in quite a bizarre UFO conspiracy which those close to the director, Sam Sherman included, seem very reluctant to discuss on camera (!)

With the final years of Adamson’s life, the documentary shifts gears and turns a darker shade. Adamson spent the early 90's caring for his terminally ill wife and muse, Regina Carrol and was heartbroken by her premature death. Tragedy would continue to dog Adamson as the decade wore on when Fred Fulford entered Adamson's life. Friends and family recall the increasingly sinister behavior of Fulford whom Adamson hired as a live-in handyman and there are disturbing accounts of trust being abused and financial exploitation. It's a terribly sad coda to Adamson's life, with old friends seemingly gone, and it was only through the interventions of Adamson's brother and his housemaid that police took an interest in Adamson's sudden disappearance. When the police finally recovered Adamson's remains (seen in a quite astonishing and grisly VHS recording of the actual excavation), the moment is genuinely upsetting. When news of his death first emerged, some of the more unsavory elements of the press relished the irony of a horror movie director dying in most horrific circumstances ("This story reads like a plot of a bad horror film" one news report led with). Thankfully though what lingers in the mind after watching David Gregory's moving film is not Al Adamson's gruesome demise but his joie de vivre for making films, a director who delighted in entertaining audiences with cost-effective, unpretentious movies, and a man who was loved and adored by friends, colleagues and fans alike.

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