Fantasia 2019: Severin’s David Gregory on the Al Adamson documentary
During Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival we were able to speak with Severin Films’ David Gregory about his new documentary feature Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson. Check out the interview below!
Produced and directed by Severin co-founder David Gregory – and the follow-up to his award-winning Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau – the documentary explores the strange life and gruesome demise of exploitation maverick Al Adamson, revealing perhaps the most bizarre career in Hollywood history. Told through over 40 first-person recollections from friends, family, colleagues and historians plus rare clips and archival interviews with Adamson himself, Blood & Flesh is a delightful, dirty and deadly saga of bikers, go-go dancers, aging Hollywood actors, porn stars, freak-out girls, Charles Manson, Colonel Sanders, alien conspiracies, bad contractors and “scenes so SICK the Movies could never show them before!”
ComingSoon.net: This movie is so satisfying because it starts as a straight up movie doc about an obscure genre director then naturally evolves into a very creepy true crime story. How did you decide how much of the runtime to devote to Al the filmmaker vs Al the murder victim?
David Gregory: It wasn’t a straightforward balance because it was important to me that we explored the life and work of Al in some detail — previous documentaries on the subject had mainly been concerned with the murder and been quite dismissive of his career. It’s understandable because to the mainstream audience, they want to hear details of a grim and bizarre death and dismissing Al as a B Movie guy who made silly monster movies gets the message across to the layperson the kind of movies he made. But to me and plenty of other admirers of the history of low budget and exploitation filmmaking, those stories from a bygone era of gathering a colorful company of varied and talented people from behind and in front of camera and heading out with a few bucks to make a film, then market it as something spectacular that can make a splash in an overcrowded market are where the real gems of the story lie.
CS: Severin as a company puts a lot of energy and love into unearthing and celebrating genre films like Al’s, as you did with the Hemisphere collection. What made Al’s story in particular resonate with you above so many other B-filmmakers?
Gregory: It has to be said that it’s the turn the story takes in the third act which makes Al’s story so unique. And it’s not just the murder, it’s that after a traumatic life event his focus and drive completely change. He goes into territory he never went before. Of course, prior to this, he has an incredibly colorful career in pictures working with Hollywood stars way past their prime as well as up and coming kids hungry just for experience, who would go on to major award winning careers. But also his passions were quite a bit removed from the movies he made so there is something very strange about them. His partner and producer Sam Sherman was the real horror, sci-fi and western movie fan, so he would come up with titles and campaigns and Al would go make the movies… for such little money. Pennies. But fascinating stories come out of these kinds of challenges when you gather the right people to come along to patch it all together.
CS: In what ways did you have to put on your detective’s cap to unearth some of the footage and individuals you use in the doc?
Gregory: I roped producer Heather Buckley in, gave her a bunch of people and things I wanted to find and told her to get everything and everyone she could. I’ve known Heather for years and we’d worked together on a couple of projects previously and I know that when she has a challenge she’ll do her very best to go over and above. In this case she did and got us in with the Indio Police Department who gave us access to all that crime scene footage and imagery. She also, with the help of a private detective and co-producer Nicole Mikuzis — the backbone of Severin — found the retired cops who worked the case, locations, news items, and ultimately Lupe Garcia, Al’s housekeeper: the heart of that final act. This was new territory for all of us as we had tracked down and interviewed plenty of movie people in the past but finding those involved in the investigation and solving of a crime was not something we’d never done before.
CS: I know Heather and she’s one of the most resourceful people I know in the horror community. What was her biggest contribution to the film?
Gregory: To go into more detail on my previous answer, she had to learn the protocol of penetrating a California police department and district attorney. At one point they told her off for being too persistent! I guess they had other things to do. But ultimately she got us pretty much everyone we needed. For example, we thought we weren’t going to be able to find Al’s brother Ken. Didn’t know if he was even still alive. But through perseverance she eventually got me an address which may or may not have been current. Turned out it was only a mile or so from my home in LA so I dropped a note in his mailbox and a few hours later he called me up. But the other major thing Heather brought to the project was the prison phone interview with convicted murderer Fred Fulford. Heather had to become his penpal and earn his trust in order to get that audio recording. She also set up a lot of the other interviews in the doc. You have to understand this was a lot of people who had retired from movies some time ago and didn’t necessarily have current info easily accessible. There was a lot of detective work here and coordinating interview shoots in odd places.
CS: What was a “eureka moment” where you discovered a fact about the case or Al’s life that blew your mind?
Gregory: It has to be the interview with Al’s girlfriend in later life Stevee Ashlock, which we shot in Vegas. Initially we hadn’t realized that she played such a major part in his later life where things get weird with the unfinished UFO project “Beyond This Earth.” Stevee gave me a really incredible interview which took things to another level. It was like the true crime element was always going to take things in another direction but the UFO segue introduces a whole other shot of mescal into an already potent cocktail. Stevee was unreserved. She opened right up for this interview and it was quite something. Then on my way home from Vegas I think I encountered an alien at a rest stop in Baker, CA, but that’s a long story.
CS: There’s a great conspiracy thread that you touch on where Al’s experience with the UFO community (and a supposed meeting with an actual alien) has led some to speculate his death might have been somehow tied to the UFO doc he had been making. Where do you fall in that camp? Are you skeptical of that line of thinking, or do you think there’s something to that?
Gregory: I’d rather not discuss this on record.
CS: You had previously helmed the documentary about Richard Stanley. Do you think there’s any commonality between Al and Richard as subjects for you?
Gregory: The commonality is two guys who operate best on the outside edges of Hollywood. Richard’s story is one where he attempted to play the big studio game with a passion project and how that turned very quickly from a film with incredible potential to something that got pummeled into a mis-shaped box, shoved on the conveyor belt and battered some more before coming out the other end like one of Moreau’s early failed experiments, screaming in pain for being given a life it never asked for. But Richard is a man with tremendous vision and love for all aspects of the genre. Al’s talent was in finding the right people and elements to make his films happen. The excitement in his productions were in the process and the end result wasn’t always what he set out to do. I guess you could say there is another commonality in that his films often started out as one thing and became another, but, as was the case with “Dracula vs Frankenstein,” the mutant child that emerged was gloriously fun.
CS: Like Stanley, Al kind of went off the grid and stopped making movies at a certain point, in this case after the death of his beloved wife. Do you think if he had continued to make films through the 80’s and 90’s that he would have evolved as a filmmaker, or was he always destined to be a B-level exploitation director?
Gregory: Al always wished he had a decent budget, just once. As you see in the movie he becomes quite competent at churning out the drive-in features in the 70s, but even by drive-in movie standards the budgets were pretty miniscule. So with that in mind, after 30 movies, if someone had come along with a fair budget, who knows what he could have accomplished? Of course he would have made a musical or a melodrama, his favorite kinds of films, rather than a horror, biker or sexploitation film.
CS: Which of Al’s films do you love the most? The least?
Gregory: While I think “Satan’s Sadists” may be Al’s best film, for me I’ll always have a soft spot for “Dracula vs Frankenstein.” My partner in Severin Films, Carl Daft, and I were in school together when the video boom began in the early 80s. We would go to the video store near his house and stare at the covers, the more lurid the more we wanted to see them. “Dracula vs Frankenstein” had an incredible hand painted cover on the Rainbow Video release and we just had to rent it. It was one of the first films we got our parents to rent for us. And we loved it. Watched it two or three times that weekend. You see, as Al says in the doc, he was making films for a certain audience with no pretense that they were going to see high art. And that was just fine for these two monster hungry 9 year olds! Worst? Well there are a couple in that filmography which are hard to make it through, but I’m not going to say which because we’re likely going to be releasing them on Special Edition Blu-ray. This journey started with one movie and a single interview, now three and a half years later, we have a feature documentary and we’re neck deep in the biggest restoration mountain we’ve ever attempted to scale.
CS: A lot of people got exposed to Al’s work when “Carnival Magic” appeared on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” recently. I’ve spoken to Jonah Ray and Joel Hodgson and they both consider that film to be one of the strangest and most special “bad movies” they’ve ever run on that show, which is saying something. What is it about that film in particular that you think is so beguiling?
Gregory: It was Al’s first bona fide kids’ movie. And I’m not sure Al knew much about kids or what they expected from a movie. He had his usual elements of Regina Carroll in a skimpy outfit, a little person, car chases, but then the protagonist is a chimpanzee. And apparently an elderly, angry chimpanzee. Not the cheeky talking chimp the movie portrays at all.
CS: Do you have another filmmaker in mind that you’d love to put the spotlight on for yet another doc?
Gregory: Next doc is on Bruceploitation. We’ve been shooting it over the past few years concurrently with the Al doc and “The Master of Dark Shadows” which we made for MPI about Dan Curtis (also showing at Frightfest next weekend). Excited about Bruceploitation because that particular sub-genre hasn’t really been widely documented and it was a massive wave in 70s and early 80s. Everyone with a passing interest in kung fu movies has had a chuckle at names like Bruce Li and Dragon Lee and titles like “The Clones of Bruce Lee,” “Bruce Lee’s Greatest Revenge,” “Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave” and “Enter Three Dragons” when they’ve seen them on marquees or in video stores, but there was a whole industry there with solid directors and terrific action. This stuff was produced and marketed internationally and had some decent commercial success. Even Bruce Lee is in the “authorized” ultimate Bruceploitation movie, “Game of Death.” And then “Game of Death II,” also produced by Golden Harvest. We went over to Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea to shoot the main interviews, and also bits and pieces in the US, UK, France and Germany too. Bruce Lee was big everywhere and Bruceploitation followed, with a vengeance.
CS: What upcoming Severin releases are you the most excited for genre fans to get ahold of?
Gregory: So much amazing stuff coming up. Very excited to unleash the first US blu-rays of Alex De La Iglesia’s “Perdita Durango” and “Day of the Beast.” A new 4K of “Santa Sangre.” A blu of our first ever DVD release “Gwendoline.” The mental Canadian kids movie “The Peanut Butter Solution,” Luigi Cozzi’s “Paganini Horror,” Penelope Spheeris’ “The Boys Next Door,” “Blood on Satan’s Claw,” “The Beast in the Cellar,” “Wax Mask” and, of course, an Al Adamson “Masterpiece Collection.”