The best-remembered work of the filmmaker Al Adamson – outside, perhaps, of his sleazy biker picture Satan’s Sadists – tends to the hodge-podge, with reshoots, retitlings, rethinks, rehashes and reissues turning seemingly simple projects into metastatising mini-filmographies that suckered Drive-In fans or VHS renters into buying the same terrible movie under some new name and with a different edit over and over again … you might guess that Fiend With the Electronic Brain, The Man With the Synthetic Brain and The Man With the Atomic Brain were the same film, but Echo of Terror, Psycho a Go Go, The Love Maniac, Two Tickets to Terror and Blood of Ghastly Horror are too. Adamson was the director of most of this – though producer Sam Sherman seems to have been what you might call the creative mind in the partnership – but one of the odder aspects of his work is that for all the bizarre behind-the-scenes stories (told here in amusing bytes) the films never manage to show that much personality.
Adamson’s father was Denver Dixon, an Australian who became a cowboy star in the silent era, and Adamson never really progressed as a filmmaker beyond the basics necessary for poverty row westerns – his most personal film might be the gory oater Five Bloody Graves, and it’s suggested here that his big missed opportunity was the chance to make a Western in Spain with Robert Taylor that collapsed. However, after the period of patchwork horror/exploitation pictures – Dracula vs Frankenstein, Hell’s Bloody Devils, Brain of Blood – Adamson and Sherman switched to less picturesque, equally flat sex and action films, riding the stewardess boom, the blaxploitation wave, the martial arts craze and the crazy comedy boom (Blazing Stewardesses is most of these). Anything they threw together, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures made better … and the Adamson-Sherman films didn’t even have the occasional stretches of dementoid frenzy found in the catalogues of peers like H.G. Lewis, Ray Dennis Steckler, Andy Milligan or Ted V. Mikels.
The clips showcased in this very entertaining documentary convey the ramshackle nature of Adamson’s films, with their solid cinematography (Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond and Gary Graver all shot films for him) and scotch tape editing, repetory casts of friends and hangers-on and washed-up names (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr, Broderick Crawford), and occasional bursts of inept action … but my major memory of watching all these films is the padding (the endless dolphinarium scenes of Blood of Dracula’s Castle) between the funny or shocking moments. Even the real talents who passed through the Adamson-Sherman gang – Russ Tamblyn, lured back from an early retirement, stunt man and later director John Bud Cardos – were often let down by the direction of the films. Yet, this is a story worth telling as Adamson slides his way through the movie business while connecting with tabloid sensations – he shot one movie on The Spahn Ranch while the Manson Family were in residence (even if showbiz-crazy Charlie didn’t try to score a role or get a song on the soundtrack), let his career peter out with a long-in-the-making UFO docudrama shot around the world (Sherman hints that Men in Black shut the project down while star Stevee Ashlock claims he was scared off by meeting a half-alien being), and finally (in 1995) was discovered buried under concrete in his home jacuzzi out in the California desert.
David Gregory’s film is book-ended by the murder case, which spun off the inevitable headlines about the horror movie-like death of a horror movie director – Alan J. Pakula died in a car crash, but you don’t hear stories about the conspiracy movie-like death of a conspiracy movie director – and raised interesting questions not entirely answered by the murder conviction of live-in building contractor Fred Fulford. One of those parasites who latch onto minor celebs, as Manson wanted to be and the character played by Willem Dafoe in Auto-Focus was for the actor Bob Crane, Fulford creepily seemed to change his appearance to look like his patron, which may have been more to do with wanting to raid his wardrobe and use his credit cards than any Single White Female business. The bulk of the film depends on clips and talking heads relating to the movies – with a wide range of collaborators, enthusiasts and critics – but the last third pulls in witnesses, investigators and true crime folks to rake over a gruesome mystery that in retrospect fits Adamson – who was otherwise not as peculiar personally as, say, Milligan or Mikels – a fitting addition to the ‘incredibly strange/psychotronic’ auteur pantheon.
Watch the documentary – but be wary of the films …