Fantasia Review: Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson
A life in the grindhouse is not obscured by a tragic death
By Richard Whittaker,
1:11AM, Mon. Aug. 5, 2019
Al Adamson was a hack. He was a grindhouse schlock vendor who churned out movies designed to unspool while horny teens made out at the drive-in, or play on the VHS at pizza and beer parties. He was a nice guy, and he died a death that was as unbelievably gruesome as anything he filmed.
When the line between fiction and reality is so bloodily smeared, how does a documentary not cross the line into exploitation? In the case of Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, it's by being respectful of the source material, and the fact that Adamson was a real person, with friends and family, who happened to live an unusual life and then suffered a horrific, tragic death. It's a jaunty, well-researched, if by-the-numbers film history documentary for much of its length – and then it's a sad story of a man who murdered in bizarre circumstances.
Anyone interested in how the grindhouse scene really worked – of how films were reshot, rename, repackaged, and would sometimes turn up years after their initial release with a new poster and new ticket sales – will find the middle act fascinating. It's nothing that those with a deep knowledge of the shadier (if harmless) business practices won't know already. However, the time dedicated to the long, bizarre history of how a grimy L.A. crime thriller called Echo of Terror ended up as brain-swap slasher/zombie bank robbing starring an ailing John Carradine called Blood of Ghastly Horror (and that's after a brief run as the sexified Psycho-a-Go-Go) is a phenomenal case study. At the same time, it's a great examination of life on the fringes of Hollywood, where a director with a good eye could catch falling stars like Carradine, or Aldo Ray, or Yvonne De Carlo, and give them one last run, or find a rising young cinematographer before they start shooting for Oscars.
What's touching is that Adamson is shown to have cared about his films. With Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau and Master of Dark Shadows, director David Gregory has proven his compassion for cinema's forgotten masters and forgotten power players. While no one would ever claim Adamson reached those heights, in the interviews with his surviving peers and the snippets of conversational footage with the man himself, he comes across as a good man with ambition beyond his skills, and the instincts to occasionally create something truly special. After all, there are good reasons why Quentin Tarantino is a massive fan of biker flick Satan's Sadists, and it isn't just Russ Tamblyn's awesome hat.
Fantasia Festival in Montreal runs through Aug. 1. We'll be running reviews to give you a first glimpse at some of the underground and genre titles you'll be seeing in the months ahead.