Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson is a Tribute to Low-Budget Film (Fantasia 2019)

Fantasia Festival always features a few interesting (and bizarre) documentaries mixed in with their genre films. Last year, Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana was among my favorite views at the festival. At Fantasia 2019, it’s Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, a strange, funny, sorrowful documentary about filmmaker Al Adamson, who made some of the most influential and oddest exploitation pictures of the 1970s and was working on a docudrama about UFOs prior to his murder in 1995.

Blood & Flesh traces Adamson’s history through extensive interviews with the people who knew him, loved him, and worked with him. The son of a Hollywood cowboy/maker of indie westerns, Adamson would eventually work with pretty much anyone he could get for little or no pay, including friends, stunt actors, Hollywood stars on their last legs, and even cinematographers like Gary Graver, who worked with Orson Welles on The Other Side of the Wind, and Vilmos Szigmond, who would go on to win an Academy Award for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The results were some bad, amazing films with titles like Blood of Ghastly Horror, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, and the Russ Tamblyn-starring motorcycle movie Satan’s Sadists. Interviews with actors, producers, and cinematographers abound, all of them deeply affectionate about Adamson and his influence, and the way in which he contributed to cinematic history, as so many would-bes and has-beens (including John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr.) worked on his low-budget films. Even those who had conflicts with Adamson, mostly over money, seem to love him and his memory, relating what a kind, generous man he was as a director as he wrangled a group of actors and stunt people who also took turns as editors, key grips, and camera people.

This affection runs through the entirety of Blood & Flesh. Actors and producers embrace how much fun it was to work on an Adamson film, even if they were often being paid nothing or next to nothing. Longtime friend and producer Sam Sherman reminisces about how they reshot or recut films three or four times, slapping on new titles, inserting new scenes (usually involving breasts or blood), and trying to re-market movies. The whole film showcases the wild west of low-budget filmmaking in the 1970s, a market that existed outside either the Hollywood mainstream or the union indies being produced at the same time. It’s a generation that is gone but that still maintains its grip on the imagination (one Adamson film, Carnival Magic, was featured in the reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000).

Despite the title, the film actually spends little time on Adamson’s murder, preferring to focus on his life and work rather than his death. But as the viewer has come to know Adamson through people who have a deep affection for him, so does his death feel less like one of his own exploitation pictures and more like the horrible tragedy that it really is. There is a touch of the weird that creeps in here, as several of Adamson’s friends and family appear to think there was more to his murder than could be shown in court, and this underscores the sense of loss in combination with the strange, outsider world in which he often lived.

Blood & Flesh comes to us from director David Gregory, who also made Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, another movie about an outsider film production, told with understanding and affection. The film was a long time in the making—Gary Graver, shown in several interviews, died in 2006—and plays as a labor of love. Adamson stands in the pantheon great bad movie directors with Ed Wood Jr., Coleman Francis, and even the equally influential Roger Corman. Blood & Flesh is a delightful, melancholic tribute to a man and an era that we’ll never see again. But the films, dubious though they are, live on.

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson is now showing at Fantasia 2019.

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