To say that Al Adamsons’s death was ‘stranger than fiction’ might be something of an exaggeration, given that his fiction included Dracula and Frankenstein, stewardesses battling cowboys, vampire men from lost planets and movies that would have wilder and weirder elements added to them over the best part of a decade in the search for box office success. But certainly, in an increasingly fickle and narrow cult movie world – where many people never look back beyond the start of the century or keep their interests to a small and pre-approved collection of filmmakers – Adamson seems increasingly overlooked, and if he is remembered at all, it’s for the strange circumstances of his murder.
It wasn’t always this way. When the VHS explosion occurred at the start of the 1980s, Adamson’s films were everywhere, on fly-by-night labels like Rainbow Video. Starved of mainstream product, rental shops were awash with the likes of The Man with the Synthetic Brain, Dracula vs Frankenstein, Vampire Men of the Lost Planet, Killer’s Curse and Five Bloody Graves, most of which were retitled releases of other films (themselves often cut-ups and rejigs of previous movies). That didn’t matter, because most of us were only vaguely aware of Al Adamson, who was never given the time of day in serious horror movies books by people like Alan Frank, and might have only had passing mention in the horror mags of the day. Even Fangoria, which did a sterling job of covering oddball filmmakers from years ago in the early days, didn’t do Adamson as far as I recall. It would be a few years until he was written about by anyone (and then not approvingly), and so his movies felt like a genuine discovery at the time – you’d see a couple, clock the name and then start deliberately hunting out more. That wasn’t unusual – as baffling as it might sound to the instant experts clogging the field now, back in the day we had to search for these films and piece together knowledge about their maverick directors as best we could. Renting films you knew nothing about was part and parcel of a movie education.
Of course, Adamson had been both prolific and successful in the 1970s, but his films perhaps never had the consistent eccentricity of Andy Milligan or the outsider art vibe of Jess Franco, and so he was always an unlikely cult figure. Yet there’s an oddball quality to his movies, partly because they really were made up as he went along – The Man with the Synthetic Brain is actually Blood of Ghastly Horror, which itself began life as a regular thriller, had go-go dancing added mid-Sixties to become Psycho A-Go-Go and then was finally spliced with more new material to turn it into a tale of brain transplants and zombies. Vampire Men of the Lost Planet is better known as Horror of the Blood Monsters, and is half new material, half a Filipino monster movie, shot in black and white and now tinted with various colours, which Adamson and long-time partner Sam Sherman hyped as ‘Spectrum X’. A James Bond-style thriller was rebooted into a biker movie, Hell’s Bloody Devils. And Adamson’s films were routinely retitled and re-released throughout the 1970s, leading to many a disgruntled viewer who only realised once the film started that they’d seen it before.
Adamson’s best films – Satan’s Sadists, Naughty Stewardesses, Cinderella 2000 – are pretty good. His worst films are pretty bad, but never to the point where they stop being interesting, even if you are simply marvelling at the audacity of it all. There’s nudity, violence and excess in most of them and they are never boring. And both Adamson and Sherman seemed to genuinely love cinema and were happy making films for the average Joe, packing them with fading stars of yesteryear who critics have bemoaned having to appear in rubbish like this while overlooking the fact that no one else was offering them a payday at this point. It might seem sad to see Lon Chaney Jr, old and drunk and incoherent – but the guy probably needed the money, so it’s hardly degrading, no matter what the likes of Dennis Gifford might have claimed.
David Gregory’s new documentary Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson gives long overdue attention to the director. A genuine labour of love, the film tracks his career as a filmmaker through the eyes of those who worked with him – still disgruntled or amused about never being paid, mostly chuckling at the sheer audacity of the Adamson working method. They include people who went on to bigger and better things, as well as Russ Tamblyn, who sandwiched the likes of Satan’s Sadists and Dracula vs Frankenstein between West Side Story and Twin Peaks. For those of us who know the movies, this is a fun behind-the-scenes memoir, with great movie clips punctuating the interviews – caught just in time, it seems, given the age of many of those involved – and plenty of entertaining anecdotes about the resourcefulness, meanness and likability of Adamson, with stories about possible Mafia murders, Charles Manson and masturbating monkeys along the way. As a cinematic history, this would be enough. But the film swerves into darker territory, as the title might suggest, firstly with a long-gestating and unfinished UFO documentary-drama that all involved seem reluctant to talk about, but which everyone seems to have been scared off from by – I hope you’re sitting down for this – a half human, half alien who seems to have had some governmental position. Given how many films and books there are about UFOs, you have to wonder why Adamson’s project would be the one to attract the attention of this powerful hybrid, but there you go. Everyone seems very convinced.
Things get worse when Al disappears and is eventually found buried in concrete in his home. Clearly, not a natural death. This murder was committed by his shifty and light-fingered in-house handyman – though some people (mainly Sam Sherman) seem to suggest that it might have been shady government forces and / or aliens who bumped him off. The documentary’s switch from fun-times movie biopic to X-Files level conspiracy theory to true crime story is thankfully handled carefully and so doesn’t seem jarring – things are helped by the fact that Adamson was effectively retired by the time these strange facts occurred, and so the story doesn’t have to mix rubber-fanged monsters and naked starlets with the very real drama. The audience I saw it with – clearly not familiar with Adamson at all for the most part – laughed, gasped and otherwise cried out loud as the strange story unfolded, which seems a pretty good sign of a movie working.
Gregory’s documentary, which will be part of a gargantuan Adamson box set – we’re talking upwards of thirty films here – as well as a stand-alone release might not exactly rehabilitate the director’s cult film reputation. You either like his work or you don’t, though perhaps many people have never really had the chance to make up their minds – and you probably need to see a handful to really get the sense of his career, given than he made horror, sci-fi, westerns, sex comedies and biker movies. The film is not going change the fact that for most people, if they have heard of Adamson at all, it’s because of the brutal circumstances of his death. But as you watch the documentary, you do get the sense of a story that was waiting to be told – and that’s as much the making of the films as the violent death. Perhaps that’s true of any prolific director of the past. Certainly, Gary Graver, who pops up here in retrospective interviews and worked as a cinematographer for both Adamson and Orson Welles simultaneously, could be the subject of a feature doc, and there’s the feeling that all these old exploitation guys who cranked out movie after movie have stories to be told before they and their crews all die (too late in many cases, of course). Adamson’s life was remarkable simply because his sort of career is unthinkable today. The idea of maverick directors working outside the system must seem utterly alien to people who think that Ben Wheatley is the height of independence. In many ways, these stories work best not as nostalgic tales for cult movie fans of a certain age, but as extraordinary histories for people who have never even heard of the filmmakers in question and can’t remotely imagine what the independent film landscape was like in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps, in the end, it is Adamson’s life, not his death, that really is stranger than fiction.