By Betsy Sherman
“They were pieces of shit when we shot ’em, but later on they became relics.”
Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson at the BUFF-o-WEEN festival at Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville. Showing on Sunday, October 20 at 6 p.m.
The Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) is a trusty harbinger of spring, blooming as it does in March. But this month brings a mini-fest, called BUFF-o-WEEN, taking place at the Somerville Theatre from Oct. 17 to 20. This isn’t your average classics-heavy Halloween lineup. True to its mission of sniffing out the latest thing in weirdfilmdom worldwide, BUFF gives us five brand spankin’ new horror features, the restored 1994 Tammy and the T-Rex, and a short film showcase (all directed by women) courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival.
BUFF-o-WEEN opens on Thursday at 7:30 with the Irish paranormal comedy Extra Ordinary, directed by Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern and starring comedian Maeve Higgins (my favorite panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me) and Will Forte.
Sunday at 6 p.m. is the local premiere of Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, a documentary by David Gregory (Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau). Its subject, Al Adamson (1929–1995) represents, I’m ashamed to say, one of the gaps in my psychotronic film knowledge — I’m much better versed in the work of Florida-based gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis. But Gregory’s doc has made me eager to delve into the gooey oeuvre of the West Coast–based Adamson, who, in the ’60s and ’70s, supplied drive-ins and grindhouses with brassy if incoherent pictures that exploited trends in monsters, gore, motorcycles, go-go dancing, and the eternally popular female flesh. This king of the shoestring budget had a sorry and shocking end, as balleyhooed in the documentary’s title. Adamson was brutally murdered in a desert community, his corpse meeting an even sadder fate than the cheesy props in his movies’ dismemberment scenes.
Blood & Flesh is bookended with tabloid-TV reports of the tragedy, but the bulk of the film is a celebration of independent exploitation filmmaking in the pre-home video days. It’s a group portrait of the men and women who worked with Adamson, and while they frankly call out his foibles (not paying people is the biggest one), they perhaps paradoxically remember him as a stand-up guy who just wanted to make entertainment. In this way, the documentary is a valuable oral history.
Nobody is claiming the product in question is great, or even good, movies. Except maybe Adamson’s loyal partner-in-crime, producer Sam Sherman, who recounts the pair’s adventures in brainstorming, finding financing for, getting made, and distributing their schlock features. The guys loved a catchy title, and had a fondness for a certain, um, substance: there was Five Bloody Graves, Hell’s Bloody Devils, Horror of the Blood Monsters, and Brain of Blood. And we mustn’t forget Psycho a Go-Go, Satan’s Sadists, and Blazing Stewardesses.
Gregory grounds his film in the landscape of the American West, which makes particular sense since Adamson’s father starred in and directed cowboy pictures under the name Denver Dixon. Dad wanted Al to follow him into the genre, and while the son took a different path, a whiff of sagebrush remained, even as horses made way for motorcycles. Several of the Blood & Flesh interviewees are cowboy types who started out as stuntmen. Some went on to bigger things, but retained their places in Al’s stock company because it was fun, and everyone got to wear several hats on a production. This extended, as Bob Dix tells it, to “sweeping up horse apples’’—and he was the producer. Heck, even cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider) and Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) worked for Al.
Adamson was known for snagging past-their-prime movie stars whose names could be used to secure financing. John Carradine, usually cast as a mad scientist, was a heavy drinker, but never flubbed his lines. After hiring Lon Chaney Jr., who was ill as well as alcoholic, Adamson learned that the actor could barely speak anymore; no matter, his part was changed to a mumbling hulk. Most of those cameo actors are long gone, but luckily Russ Tamblyn, star of Adamson’s motorcycle pic Satan’s Sadists (1969), is very much with us. He has a twinkle in his eye as he reminisces about his Adamson shoots. This phase of his career began after the West Side Story star had quit acting in order to make art — and had run out of money. Tamblyn appreciated that Adamson let him write the dialogue for his psycho-biker character. This includes a speech that, years later, fanboy Quentin Tarantino recited back at Tamblyn verbatim. Speaking of QT, some of the Adamson gang remember shooting scenes at the Spahn ranch during the time when Charles Manson and his “skeevy girls” were squatting there (as recreated in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
Gregory was able to include clips from Adamson’s last interview, but it’s all anecdotes about the work, rather than anything personally revealing. Judging by Blood & Flesh, Adamson’s personal life was tied up with his professional life. True to tradition, he sought a mate from among his leading ladies; according to his pals, actress Vicki Volante didn’t welcome the attention. But Al found love with the waitress he cast as the motorcycle mama in Satan’s Sadists, Regina Carrol, whom he married.
Eventually the drive-in circuit upon which Al and Sam depended was wrested away from the marginal moviemakers: major studios realized that hits like Jaws and Animal House could extend their lives in those venues. Adamson’s directing career petered out not long after his bizarre family movie Carnival Magic (1981), which co-starred a chimpanzee. He turned to other business ventures; then when Regina got cancer and died, he sank into grief.
But just when you think the weirdness factor’s about to taper off, the erstwhile schlock director enters a phase that makes interviewee Sherman shake his head, still — he becomes obsessed with UFOs. Adamson shot footage in Australia for a docudrama on the subject, starring a new find, Stevee Ashlock. She recounts the pair’s close encounter with a “being, half-alien, half-human” who “had documentation it was not from Earth.” This interlude would later provide fodder for conspiracy theories about Adamson’s 1995 murder at his home in Indio, California. However, the perpetrator of that act was a sicko who was all too human.
It’s some comfort that Adamson, during the ’90s, was able to enjoy a newfound status as a genre-movie legend at fan conventions, his movies having been rediscovered on home video. As one of the old gang says, with some amazement, “They were pieces of shit when we shot ’em, but later on they became relics.”
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.