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Al Adamson’s prime period as a director of drive-in films was that hothouse period where the ’60s gave way to the ’70s. The hippie dream was dead, America was embroiled in the Vietnam War and the Cold War echoed the frosty relations between the silent majority and the young adults who wanted a life filled with sex, drugs and rock & roll. It was a tense time, often a violent and cynical one, and cinema got wilder in response.

If you were making movies for the drive-in, they had to be tough. Adamson teamed up with fellow film lover Sam Sherman and formed a company called Independent-International that could make that kind of movie. Though they would explore a variety of genres, tough exploitation cinema was a specialty – and you can see that side of Adamson’s filmography highlighted in these five films (all available on Severin Films’ excellent Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection blu-ray box set). Background intro for these capsule reviews is derived from The Flesh And Blood Files, the excellent liner notes booklet by Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes included in the box set.

Satan’s Sadists: after a few attempts at low-budget mainstream flicks, a new Al Adamson was born with this mean and violent biker picture. The premise, concocted by then-Adamson cast regular and future exploitation auteur Greydon Clark, pits a handful of “straights” against a biker gang that is drugging, raping and murdering its way across California’s highways. It’s a fascinating piece of work because it is as much a survival thriller pitting the civilized against savages as it is a biker flick, complete with a desert-set second half that prefigures The Hills Have Eyes at times, right down to death by hurled rattlesnake. It takes a little time to heat up but eventually delivers a barrage of squalor and carnage (favorite moment: a montage contrasting a suicide-by-cycle with an LSD-fueled desert orgy). Despite this, it has a conservative, pro-America streak that fits Adamson’s personal leanings. It benefits from a cast packed with Adamson film stalwarts – Gary Kent, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Robert Dix, John “Bud” Cardos and, of course, Regina Carrol – but the real action comes from Russ Tamblyn, who gives his MGM musical past a Viking funeral with his sarcastic, improvisational performance as a head biker who gets more nihilistic with each passing reel. His self-penned monologue to the straights about his motivation for being a complete bastard is typical of the tossed-off, grizzled brilliance of his work here.

Hell’s Bloody Devils: after Independent-International hit paydirt with Satan’s Sadists, it gave Adamson and Sherman the fever for more biker movie money. To scratch this itch, they came up with the unlikely but effective solution of refashioning Smashing The Crime Syndicate into an ersatz biker flick. This was achieved by cutting down the original film and adding a newly-shot subplot involving a biker club who works for the Nazi leader from the original film: Vicki Volante and Greydon Clark return from the original project (in hairstyles and outfits that don’t match) and the bikers include Robert Dix, a Satan’s Sadists biker who performs similar duties here. The blending of the two films is haphazard at best but the fun new scenes add violence, a little T&A, creative use of a felt-tip pen and a wild verite opening scene where a police bust of the shoot was captured on the sly by cinematographer Gary Graver.

Five Bloody Graves: Adamson returned to his childhood training ground of the western with this film and made a sort of Americanized spaghetti western that updated its carnage to meet end-of-the-’60s drive-in standards of sleaze and brutality. Star Robert Dix penned the script and it’s one of the best Adamson ever worked with, an episodic but eventful tale of revenge that pits a widowed ex-soldier against a brutal Native American leader, with a variety of settlers and wanderers caught between. It’s even got wry, sarcastic narration by Death himself about the fateful nature of the story’s events.  Adamson populates it with his regular cast members like Brady, Cardos (in a dual role!) and John Carradine and Dix’s script gives them all something interesting to do: Carradine in particular gets his best Adamson film role as a boozing preacher with a hidden reserve of bravery. Also,  if you grew up thinking of Jim Davis as noble Jock Ewing from Dallas, you’ll be shocked by his turn as a nasty, murdering rapist here. The quirks add offbeat texture, like knife fights set to canned crime-jazz music, and the ‘scope photography of picturesque Utah desert settings by a young Vilmos Zsigmond gives the mayhem an epic look. One of the hidden winners in Adamson’s filmography and one that deserves reevaluation.

The Female Bunch: this one found Adamson collaborating with producer/writer Raphael Nussbaum, best known to grindhouse buffs for the kinky sexploitation fave Pets. Its sexploitation edge is amplified by the fact that Nussbaum took over the film in editing and added a bit more bump-and-grind to the film using body doubles. That said, the Adamson-ness of the entire experience shines through in the choice of cast – Cardos, a returning Tamblyn, Albert Cole, etc. – and the way the film wallows in the surly attitudes and day-to-day melodramas of its anti-heroines, a gang of she-woman man-haters who live on an isolated ranch and swear to an outsider’s code (shades of Manson).  Even with the re-editing, the pace rambles in that classic Adamson mode but there’s enough bad behavior to keep the audience engaged.  Acting note: Tamblyn has star billing here but his role is essentially a character role… the real action comes from Lon Chaney Jr. as a pitful, lovelorn drunk of a ranchhand. He was in a bad way with cancer and alcoholism by this point and manages to channel that into a surprising Method performance full of pathos.

Girls For Rent: this sexploitation/crime hybrid ranks as one of the meanest films in the Adamson oeuvre. The plot revolves around an escort service that deals with upper-class customers. When a prostitute who is an unwitting party to an assassination goes on the run, a couple of female enforcers are sent out to get her. The resulting crime noir kind of plays like an Adamson version of Bonnie’s Kids, pitting hapless small-timers against relentless and cold-blooded career criminals. Georgina Spelvin, adult film legend and star of The Devil In Miss Jones, plays the head assassin and is genuinely effective as a stone-cold sociopath who enjoys inflicting pain. Reportedly, she and Al didn’t get along but they fuel each other’s work here, with her steely performance allowing him to get really vicious: a scene where a car thief is brutally yet casually executed on the side of the road and another scene where Spelvin uses seduction as the prelude to an up-close killing are the most chilling moments in Adamson’s filmography.