Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection
1965 – 1989 / 2841 min.
Starring Russ Tamblyn, Regina Carrol, Lon Chaney
Cinematography by Gary Graver, Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács
Directed by Al Adamson, David Gregory
The titles grab you by the collar like a desperate carny barker – Psycho A Go-Go, Blood of Ghastly Horror, Satan’s Sadists – then something for the raincoat crowd – Girls For Rent, Nurses For Sale, The Naughty Stewardesses. The rant turns political, incendiary: Black Heat, Mean Mother, Black Samurai. His last gasp – Cinderella 2000, Nurse Sherri, The Happy Hobo. The Happy Hobo?
Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection is an alarming new release from Severin Films presenting 32 of the director’s misbegotten “masterpieces” in beautifully restored transfers with enough added attractions to choke a horse. It’s the story of one man’s twenty year run in exploitation cinema that may be too exhausting for the casual viewer to contemplate. But for students of the lurid underbelly of motion picture production, it’s a fascinating ride – especially when it goes off the rails.
“Unwatchable” is a word that pops up frequently when talking about Adamson’s movies – nevertheless he and Sam Sherman, his longtime friend and producer, treated actors and crew like family. He remembered – and hired – stars from Hollywood’s golden age including John Carradine, Broderick Crawford, J. Carrol Naish and Lon Chaney Jr. He gave a leg up to cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács and 31 year old Gary Graver whose head-spinning resume notes everything from Invasion of the Bee Girls to Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind. Zsigmond wound up shooting four films for Adamson – one of them, Horror of the Blood Monsters, was produced in 1970, one year before McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
The merry-go-round begins with David Gregory’s fine documentary about the director’s life and final days, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death Of Al Adamson (reviewed by Glenn Erickson here). 1971’s The Female Bunch, a down and dirtier gloss on Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is included on the same disc as an extra. The second disc doubles back to 1965 with Adamson’s first credited directorial effort, Psycho A Go-Go.
The story of a deranged killer in hot pursuit of stolen jewels, Psycho A Go-Go was re-edited in 1969 with newly shot footage and released as The Fiend with the Electronic Brain. The new scenes reveal John Carradine as the surgeon whose mind control experiments led to the thief’s murder spree. But Adamson didn’t stop there – in 1971 he injected a voodoo element to the already harebrained story in which Kent Taylor plays a quasi-witch doctor and Tommy Kirk is a harried police sergeant. Adamson titled this mash-up Blood of Ghastly Horror – and like a cockroach the film kept coming back – producer Sam Sherman released it to television in yet another version called The Man With the Synthetic Brain.
At least the original Psycho A Go-Go had a coherent storyline – and it’s helped by Zsigmond’s cinematography which hints at the greatness to come; scenes in a dance club burn with the lustrous color that would bloom in Blow Out and the panoramas of Mammoth Lakes glimpsed during the film’s violent showdown are unusually vivid, reminiscent of Lucien Ballard’s work on Ride the High Country. But Adamson remained immune to such artistry – his fealty was to the box office even if his slice and dice methods exposed the contempt he had for his own product. He would spend the rest of his career vacillating between original productions and cut-and-paste hack jobs.
Produced in 1967 but not released until 1969, Blood of Dracula’s Castle starred John Carradine as… the butler? Yes, Al was funny that way. The role of Dracula was instead handed to the Egyptian actor Alexander D’Arcy who could boast of an extraordinary career with roles in Jacques Feyder’s Carnival of Flanders, Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the furry freak show Horrors of Spider Island. The film benefits from the cinematography of Kovács who was still paying his dues on skin flicks like Kiss Me Quick! and The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill. After working with Adamson he could consider that debt paid in full – his next film would be Easy Rider.
Not content with scavenging his own films, Adamson spent the late 60’s manhandling the work of German director Rolf Olsen. He took three of Olsen’s films – each starring Curd Jürgens – and added additional footage and grindhouse-friendly titles; The Bedroom, Nurses for Sale and, for those ticket buyers who needed it spelled out, Bedroom Stewardesses. Nurses for Sale or Captain Rauhbein from St. Pauli as it was known in Germany, ran 84 minutes in its native country but after Adamson was finished it was a short and not so sweet 66 minutes. A light-hearted adventure farce featuring Jürgens as a grizzled sea captain and some rough and ready nurses, Adamson’s only contributions were a few hapless sex scenes which resemble stag reels. In the Spring of 1969 Adamson began production on a film all of his own making – Satan’s Sadists.
Shot in eight days at the now-infamous Spahn Movie Ranch (that same year the Manson Family set up shop on the premises), Russ Tamblyn stars as Anchor, the leader of a gang whose members flaunt the unsubtle nicknames Firewater, Acid and Muscle like some dirt bike version of The Avengers. The creeps certainly live up to their name as they brutalize women and destroy diners across the California desert until the inevitable moment when Anchor gets his grisly comeuppance. The violence is pervasive but laughable – blood never looked so unreal. But the portrayal of women – Adamson makes sure they groan with pleasure while they’re being raped – is as mean-spirited as anything in an Andy Milligan movie. Equally sordid, once the movie was released its advertising traded off Sharon Tate’s murder using the Spahn Ranch connection.
At the dawn of the 70’s Adamson directed Five Bloody Graves, a retrograde western featuring bloodthirsty native Americans as the antagonists, the sci-fi vampire thriller Horror of the Blood Monsters and 1971’s Brain of Blood, a brain-swapping fiasco with Grant Williams. Later that same year Adamson attempted to one-up Universal’s classic horror with Dracula Vs Frankenstein. The film is actually another of Al’s patchwork efforts – he and Sam Sherman took an unfinished biker/horror film called Blood Seekers and began to add and subtract from it over a two year period till most of the biker elements were excised and the horror – oh, the horror – was all that remained.
Writer and editor Forry Ackerman had a minuscule cameo in the completed film but more importantly, he plugged it plenty in his own magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland (Severin’s cover art apes the layout and typography of that long-running journal). The movie itself is stillborn, one of Adamson’s most inept, lifeless creations, but it opens with one of the most stupefying scenes in the director’s oeuvre – a recreation of Regina Carrol’s Las Vegas act, a routine that’s more Lola Heatherton than Joey. The laughter fades when Lon Chaney and J. Carrol Naish appear – this was the final film for them both and it’s nowhere near a fitting exit for two men who just 25 years earlier starred with Boris Karloff in a bona fide Universal monster rally, House of Frankenstein.
In the years that followed Adamson discovered new genres to fiddle with – Kung-fu and Blaxploitation. He combined them both in Dynamite Brothers, the story of Larry Chin and Stud Brown, a Chinese martial arts pro and a black drifter who become reluctant allies. Adamson stayed the course over the coming years with a mix of sex films and downtown action fare including Mean Mother, Black Heat and 1974’s Girls For Rent featuring a women-in-prison plot ala Roger Corman’s Philippine outings. Then Adamson glommed on to one of the oddest sub-genres in sexploitation history, one that came with its own catch phrase – Coffee, Tea or Me.
In 1958 Frank Sinatra sang Come Fly With Me and everyone from lounge lizards to librarians knew what he meant. The song presaged the beginning of a new kind of air travel in America; with the introduction of the status-conscious 747, commercial airlines became high-flying luxury hotels and flight attendants were reinvented as combination cocktail hostesses, au pair girls and playmates – which meant taking their place in soft-core cinema alongside nurses and chain gang girls. The titles alone could make you reach for the Dramamine; The Swingin’ Stewardesses, Swedish Fly Girls, Supersonic Supergirls, on and on and on. Adamson’s contribution, The Naughty Stewardesses, is a sleep-inducing soap opera detailing the tribulations of some particularly horny flight attendants. On the same disc is a quasi-sequel, Blazing Stewardesses which features some of the same cast and the depressing addition of a few Hollywood stars far past their glory days including Yvonne DeCarlo, Don Barry and two of the Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy, who remain troopers to the bitter end. Also present is one of the set’s best extras – Fly Girls: The Stewardess as Lifestyle Icon in The Golden Age of Exploitation, a fascinating if too brief documentary on the Mile High Club craze.
Adamson came down to earth with two more blaxploitation films and one ringer, Black Heat, Black Samurai and the explosively titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Heat and Samurai are standard issue rip offs of similar but better films like Truck Turner and Enter the Dragon. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is in fact a no-nonsense German epic from 1965 called Onkel Toms Hütte, directed by Géza von Radványi and starring Herbert Lom as Simon Legree. It was sexploitation maven Kroger Babb who obtained the film for distribution in America whereupon Adamson added new scenes of sex and violence to the originally G-rated film. As opposed to Al’s previous tampering, the new footage shot for von Radványi’s film is surprisingly well integrated but typically salacious. Like Satan’s Sadists, the result was promoted in the most tasteless way possible by leeching off the sleazy thrills of Mandingo and the gravitas of TV’s Roots.
Cinderella 2000, Adamson’s 1977 sci-fi “epic”, was filmed in Todd AO, the same process as Oklahoma and Around the World in 80 Days. There the comparison ends. A musical comedy with the production values of a middle school play, the movie is a mash-up of Cinderella, Barbarella and Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics but is even less witty than Flesh Gordon, Howard Ziehm’s execrable space farce from 1974. It does reveal a more playful side of Adamson which continued with 1978’s Sunset Cove, a dismal comedy that pre-dated the teen-sex comedies of the 80’s. That same year Al cobbled together Death Dimension in which he hit an action star trifecta, Enter the Dragon‘s Jim Kelly, Harold Sakata from Goldfinger and George Lazenby of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – their presence had little effect on the quality of the typical Adamson production.
Al’s real last hurrah was Nurse Sherri a more lethargic than usual potboiler about a zaftig night nurse taken over by a supernatural force. More soft core porn than hard core horror, it was, naturally, later re-edited by Al with new footage featuring Carradine and Barry and dumped into theaters as Dr. Dracula.
By the late 80’s the grindhouse era had become a distant memory so Al began a slow turn toward family fare with Carnival Magic and a little girl lost saga called Lost starring Sandra Dee and Jack Elam (it was Dee’s last film). He did the bumper segments for a TV pilot called Chuck Conners’ Great Western Theater which, in true Adamson style, consisted of patched together episodes of Branded and The Guns of Will Sonnet. Other projects were begun but never finished including another family-friendly effort, The Happy Hobo.
In 1992 Al was hit hard by the death of his wife Regina Carrol. In an effort to restore his friend’s spirits, Sherman suggested shooting footage for a film about UFOs and alien abductions. The aimless project never gathered steam and it would be Al’s final shot at a real movie. In 1995 Adamson went missing. Five weeks later his body was found buried beneath his hot tub, murdered by the man Al had contracted to renovate his home. Which brings us full circle to Glenn Erickson’s review of the documentary that takes a detailed look at the tragedy.
With this box set, Severin dares other home video companies to try and top them – counting both the features and supplements the set houses over 47 hours of material. The majority of the films look tremendous with bright, candy-colored hues and rich texture. Due to Al’s frequent use of unsynchronized audio the dialog can sound muffled but Severin has captioned each film. The extras are a tale in themselves bringing together commentaries from Sam Sherman, interviews with Adamson’s actors, the Adamson-directed scenes of Bedroom Stewardesses and Dr. Dracula, documentaries galore and, snuggled inside the box alongside the beautifully designed disc sleeves, The Blood and Flesh Files, a 126 page book full of photos and facts with detailed info on the films, their production histories and many permutations.
Here’s a link to the complete line-up of extras.
And here’s the trailer produced by Severin with just a few of the eye-popping thrills in store: