Collins’ Crypt: Diving Into The World Of Al Adamson

Back when my site Horror Movie A Day was living up to its name (it is now more like “Horror Movie A Week Or So”), one of the things that kept it engaging for me – and relatively easy to justify the time it would take every day – was having a good excuse to finally catch up with the filmographies of directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, whom I knew more by reputation than by my limited experience with their work (I think SUSPIRIA and the US cut of PHENOMENA were the only Argento films I had seen prior). And even for filmmakers who I did know well, like Tobe Hooper, the site provided the proverbial kick in the ass to fill in those few gaps in their body of work – even if it meant suffering through the likes of SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION to find a minor gem like his TOOLBOX MURDERS remake. 

But what was far more exciting was discovering a filmmaker who I had never even heard of, let alone seen any of their films. One such auteur was Al Adamson, whose work I actually “discovered” in my own collection. You see kids, back in 2010, we didn’t have all the streaming sites we have now; Netflix was still mainly a disc operation, Amazon Prime was called something else and didn’t have much of a library, and there certainly wasn’t anything like Shudder. So to make sure I always had something to watch, I’d buy budget packs with X number of movies on Y number of discs, the sort of thing you find in dump bins or being the last thing left on the shelf when a DVD-carrying store goes out of business. These sets are how I found CATHY’S CURSE and other faves, so they weren’t just providing filler, they actually yielded a number of offbeat films I continue to champion to this day, and I’d grab them whenever I saw one in the wild. 

One such set was called the Gorehouse Greats, which only had 12 movies (some sets had as many as 50) but proved to have a pretty great ratio of “Hey that was pretty good!” to “Well, at least I kept my streak going” thanks to new faves like Norman Warren’s TERROR and the killer snake opus STANLEY. Anyway, one of the twelve was BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE, which sounded like the sort of mindless nonsense I’d have trouble remembering anything to write about by the time it finished, and the only name I recognized in its cast OR crew was John Carradine, hardly a sure sign of quality. The director’s name (you guessed it, Al Adamson) meant absolutely nothing to me when it flashed by in the opening credits, but by the end of the film I considered myself a fan and realized I should check out more of his work. Wondering if he was still around, I looked at his IMDb, only to sadly discover that he had been murdered in 1995.

That murder (the details of which I won’t “spoil” for the uninitiated, only to say it’s kind of nuts) is the focus of the last half hour of BLOOD & FLESH: THE REEL LIFE AND GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON, a new documentary that serves as the anchor for Severin Film’s whopping 31 film boxed set that covers just about everything the filmmaker ever made. He’s known as a horror filmmaker, but such films only account for about a quarter of the set, as he dipped his toes into many genres, all of which are accounted for here. Over a span of about fifteen years, he made westerns, blaxploitation, sex comedies, biker films, and others that combined two or more of those styles, seemingly never taking much of a break in between projects. There’s even a “children’s film” called CARNIVAL MAGIC that… well, isn’t exactly Disney. Each of the films has been remastered and given some bonus features, ranging from a few trailers and tv spots to commentaries full-blown video essays that celebrate that respective film’s contributions to the genre. I haven’t taken an Adamson disc out of my player for over a week now and I’ve barely covered 25% of the set – it is MASSIVE.

And yet, I’m not even close to sick of it either. The films vary in quality of course, but they’re rarely boring, as Adamson (who claims to have not even liked horror films) has a certain “kitchen sink” approach to them that makes them full of surprises, and loads of fun if you’re willing to meet them at their level. These were not expensive films to make, and the productions were often kept to a week or so, which means comparing them to even notable independent films of their day like TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE wouldn’t exactly be fair. But there’s a strange energy to most of them that more than makes up for their cheap costumes and non-actors, as Adamson (and frequent partner Sam Sherman) were always chasing trends and throwing them into their films, often creating a sort of cinematic stew that a sub-genre label can’t even begin to fully describe.

Take DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, for example. Based on the title you’d assume it was something akin to the old Universal Monster team-ups (and it even had Lon Chaney, Jr – Lawrence Talbot himself! – in its cast), but none of those films also offered biker gangs, ax maniacs, Vegas dance numbers, and hippie protests in the mix. And my memory is fuzzy, but I don’t recall Bela Lugosi or any of the other Dracula actors literally tearing Frankenstein’s monster apart in the climax, even though it seems like a pretty obvious thing to do since the guy was stitched together from body parts. Part of the film’s wackiness wasn’t by original design – it was originally called THE BLOOD SEEKERS and didn’t have anything to do with Frankenstein or Dracula, but when Adamson and Sherman decided to bulk up the film’s horror elements, some of the original actors (such as the bikers, led by Russ Tamblyn) saw their parts reduced, but in turn made the film more memorable and interesting, because you never knew what might happen next. 

The practice wasn’t exclusive to this movie either; the team’s earlier effort BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR began life as a robbery thriller titled PSYCHO A GO GO* before it had some mad scientist stuff added in for a new cut titled THE FIEND WITH THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN, and when that didn’t work either they added even more horror elements to arrive at the GHASTLY HORROR version. That’s one of the more extreme examples, but the general “let’s fix it” attitude was present throughout; the aforementioned BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE had a werewolf subplot added into it at some point (not by Adamson, best as anyone can tell, though the director behind the additions is unknown), and several other productions had similar retooling efforts. Adamson even occasionally directed scenes for another person’s movie; in fact, included on the set as a bonus supplement are the scenes he directed for a reworking of Paul Aratow’s LUCIFER’S WOMEN (1974) for a 1978 release titled DOCTOR DRACULA. Of course, your mileage will vary re: whether or not Adamson was making these films better or worse, but I can say that one of the few I watched that WASN’T changed all that much, NURSE SHERRI, was also the least memorable of the lot, so take from that what you will. 

Speaking of the films’ various reworkings, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the incredible restoration efforts from the Severin team when it came to putting the set together. The box comes with a 126-page book that kicks off with an essay on Adamson and his legacy, but the real meat of it is an entry for each film in the set. Along with the title, production dates, release/cast info, etc (i.e. IMDb kind of information) it contains an explanation for how Severin got the film into your hands. Given the quick, low-to-no budget practices behind the films, not to mention Adamson’s untimely passing making him unavailable to help, it’s no surprise that their original elements are hard to find if not lost forever for some films, so Severin had to recreate them from whatever individual sources they could track down. If there was no negative available, they would scan the best sections from all available release prints, not to mention working with other studios to license their versions (DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, for example, comes from MGM).

With that in mind, you can understand how easy it would have been for them to just ignore this or that film because it was too much of a pain to put together, using the excuse that there were still 30 others on the set. Instead, they went above and beyond to make sure Adamson’s fans could get the most ideal presentations of his films, while also making sure newfound fans like me wouldn’t have to miss out on anything that sounded interesting. Indeed, part of why I never actually watched another Adamson movie until this set arrived is because the films were often presented in such a shoddy manner (cheap DVDs sourced from cropped/edited VHS tapes were the norm), so I held out on watching them until better copies arrived. I wasn’t expecting something as lovingly crafted and exhaustive as this, of course, but in this day of declining interest in physical media, it’s commendable that they would put this much effort into a cult filmmaker’s body of work for those who can appreciate it. Yes, it’s obviously not inexpensive, but if you’re a fan I can assure you it’s worth the cost, and if you’re a newcomer like me with a decent budget (and a sense of appreciation for this kind of fare) then it’s a relatively safe blind buy as well. Even Al Adamson himself wouldn’t think it needed to be fixed somehow. 

*PSYCHO A GO GO was, itself, a new version of ECHO OF TERROR, which was also horror-free but also lacked the go-go dancing parts that gave it its new title.