Monday, June 22, 2020

Dipping Into Al Adamson's Masterpiece Collection

Truth be told, I've never been a particular fan of Al Adamson's movies; however, from the moment Severin Films announced their MASTERPIECE COLLECTION box set - encompassing 32 films over 14 discs, along with extras and a detailed 126-page paperback guide by Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes - I knew I had to have it. Such a thing is more object than product and mysteriously more than the considerable sum of its parts; it is a cart before the horse, a fetish that embodies one's love of all that is scraggly and strange about our favorite genre. For those of us who carry that additional OC gene (which, let's face it, is much too fanatical about order to be called a "disorder"), such an object becomes at least twice as attractive. It embodies a curative interest given full reign, tied up in a neat little bow. What's not to love? 

I can hear the wittier among you grumbling "the movies themselves," and on some days I might be inclined to agree with you. However, one thing I am learning from the MASTERPIECE COLLECTION already is that a love for Al Adamson's films doesn't have a whole lot to do with the movies themselves. In some ways, Adamson was the last real drive-in movie director; I've checked some old newspaper archives and was surprised to discover that Independent-International's double feature of HORROR OF THE BLOOD MONSTERS and BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR was booked into drive-ins in the early months of 1974 - when THE EXORCIST had already redefined the horror film for audiences world-wide. On the second of our two visits to Chicago, in the late 1970s, Donna and I decided to spend an afternoon at the movies and happened to catch a double bill of a very faded print of Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977) and Adamson's DEATH DIMENSION (1978) - and with the former disavailed of its original Technicolor palette, the Adamson picture was plainly the one that won over our inner city audience, especially when the lady tied to her chair was threatened by the OMFG production of a gigantic snapping turtle held suspended over her by its tail. The place went crazy, and it's shared memories like this that bind certain movies to us forever. 

The cold-blooded jewel thieves of PSYCHO A GO GO, with Al Adamson in the middle and lead psycho Ray Morton at right.
Before proceeding any further, I must mention that this limited edition box set is already officially out-of-print, so your best bet to find it is probably on eBay, where I have already seen Buy It Now prices topping $300. That's the going price for the unlimited edition that CBS Video just released of GUNSMOKE: THE COMPLETE SERIES, which is 143 DVDs... not 14 Blu-rays.

As Adamson's frequent producer and collaborator Samuel M. Sherman remembers it, Al Adamson came into his life one day after driving the first 35mm print of his directorial debut, a heist thriller called ECHO OF TERROR, cross-country to screen for him in New York. Why Adamson went straight to Sherman, in the unfamiliar east coast side of the film business, rather than drive his movie across town to show to Roger Corman or Sam Arkoff, I don't know - but it changed his career in incalculable ways. In Sherman's hands, or at least under his direction, ECHO OF TERROR - a surprisingly competent B-picture (thanks in no small part to being photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond prior to his proper discovery in Hollywood), though it had no stars and no specific genre alliance to make it easily exploitable - underwent a series of fine (de)tunings that lasted from 1965 through 1971 as it was serially tweaked and retweaked into PSYCHO A GO GO, THE FIEND WITH THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN, MAN WITH THE SYNTHETIC BRAIN, and BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR. Sherman's slowly dawning eureka about the picture was to make it more commercial by bringing it down to the lowest common denominator of taste; he advised Adamson to turn it into a psycho thriller, then a mad science thriller "featuring" John Carradine, and finally a kind of "Mad Doctor of Long Island" picture adding Kent Taylor and Tommy Kirk (both sweating like mad on cardboard sets that make PRC labs from the 1940s look like rooms in Jay Gatsby's summer house), a zombie that set the style for those we see in ZOMBIE LAKE, and Adamson's poor wife Regina Carrol turned into what the trailer called a "1,000 year-old mummy." I can't help but think that either Corman or Arkoff would have agreed to hiring Carradine or Taylor for reshoots, but toward the end of making it a better, more playable picture. This was not the advice Adamson received and I don't think he should be blamed for wanting to do whatever was being offered him to help repay his original investors. And speaking of Regina Carrol, though I have no idea what Adamson saw in her, she gives the only halfway decent performance in this mish-mosh of a picture.

Green-faced zombie Richard Smedley probes helpless Regina Carrol in BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR. 

For all the troubles taken, ECHO, PSYCHO A GO GO, and FIEND WITH THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN never did see the light of day, and the TV version of BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR (entitled MAN WITH THE SYNTHETIC BRAIN) got shown before GHASTLY HORROR ever turned up in theaters, which as I've said didn't happen till years after its completion. It was never the A-picture on a double bill (at least not until random dusk-till-dawn packages in 1978!) and, in looking through the newspaper archives, I can't find a single ad for it that shows more than a printed title for it, though a Gray Morrow-illustrated campaign was designed for its press book. In his rambling audio commentary for the film's final and messiest draft, Sherman goes into some detail about the costly punishment that he and Adamson ended up taking over Al's early decision to shoot in Technicolor and two-perf Techniscope, which was a retired format by the time the zombies came into their rewrite. Even with three version of the film included in this set, it's a shame that the cut Sherman originally saw as ECHO OF TERROR was not reconstructed, as changes based on his advice were made even well before the decision to turn it into PSYCHO A GO GO.  The commentary was originally recorded for an early Troma DVD release of BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR and much of what Sherman envisions as a future possibility for releasing the picture in a fully restored and properly contextualized format comes true, thanks to Severin's dedication to the cause.

All of this is included on the second disc in the set. The first disc pairs David Gregory's Adamson documentary BLOOD AND FLESH (which I reviewed for THE CHISLER over here) with another Adamson feature, THE FEMALE BUNCH (1971). Shot under the title TWO TICKETS TO TERROR, the latter film shoehorns Russ Tamblyn and Lon Chaney into a story about a group of Las Vegas showgirls who form a guerrilla girl gang to run roughshod over men from a headquarters out in the desert. Made in a modern Western format, with lots of sloppy, fumbly sex scenes and "cantina" fights and frightening scenes of empowered women "taking control," the movie is pretty much a working class male's fantasy of this time period, as well as a catalogue of his worst fears about women - all of them comfortably overcome by the finale. The movie has an almost feature-length, odd (and oddly unnecessary) flashback structure that encompasses story elements not involving the character telling the story, and in a bonus visit with surviving BUNCH members, Jenifer Bishop recalls her surprise when, attending a New Beverly screening with her son, she suddenly saw a body double adding nudity to her love scenes - so it would appear Mr. Sherman had some notes for Al on this one, as well.

I was surprised by the sex scenes as well, because their content somewhat surpasses what the MPAA would reward with an R rating in those days, venturing into territory shared with soft-X movies like THE SCAVENGERS, FANDANGO or HOT SPUR. It's possible that, in their reconstruction of a most complete copy from a number of choppy surviving 35mm prints, that Severin ended up putting back some material that was cut from the print screened for the MPAA. As a frequent drive-in attendee of this period, I can attest that even the newest R-rated movies being shown in those days would be fraught with once-spicy, now-splicy passages, either because projectionists kept collections of such stuff or because the law was cracking down on drive-in screens that faced the open road. While I can't say THE FEMALE BUNCH is a good film, watching it definitely gave me the feeling of sitting out under the stars with a concession stand nearby - and what it inadvertently tells us about the secret hopes and fears of the average 1971 man gives us something to chew on for days thereafter.

With two discs down and a dozen left to go, I can already feel my feelings and assumptions about this filmmaker changing - not really becoming more enthusiastic, but certainly more appreciative and sympathetic. As I continue to make my way through Severin's AL ADAMSON - THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION, I'll be sharing notes here with you. Stay tuned.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.