Movies, Sex and the Driver's Seat
Sam Sherman sits in his basement, surrounded by film cans of movies he’s collected over the years, many you’ve probably never seen—old Western serials, horror flicks and old forgotten foreign imports. “Someone came up to me once at a movie convention and said, ‘My kid was conceived during one of your movies—Angel’s Wild Women’.” Sam’s eyes went wide as he laughed, “I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be flattered or insulted.”
You may not have heard of the film director Al Adamson, but Sam Sherman doesn’t want you to forget him. Al and Sam have been called “movie sleaze merchants” by some, maverick filmmakers by others, but whatever anyone says, they laughed all the way to the bank.
Unable to break into the Hollywood system, the two found their niche with the drive-in film audience. Drive-ins were more about the social aspects rather than the cinematic. In that respect, Sam and Al decided to forgo any desire to make A-pictures and resigned themselves to the drive-ins.
“I never made a film I really liked,” Sam said. “We made pictures that cost X, made Y, but they weren’t the films I wanted to make. I made the films the exhibitors wanted made and the drive-in audiences wanted to see.”
The duo are responsible for such drive-in movie classics as Satan’s Sadists, Angel’s Wild Women and Girls for Rent. When asked what kind of film he’d really like to make, he replied, “A little New York romantic comedy.”
Sam has always thought outside the frame. Whether it was using his 8mm camera growing up in the Bronx, or shooting little black and white movies with his friends at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, it was society’s fringes that captured his attention. At age 17, while his peers were watching Doris Day flicks, Sam enrolled in film school at New York’s City University (CUNY).
“Somehow, everything I did revolved around horror movies,” he said. “Most of the people at CUNY wanted to make documentaries and ‘artistic’ films with serious social comment. I wanted to make horror pictures.” Yet Sam’s professor begrudgingly gave him an “A” on his senior film, The Weird Stranger. “I had synch sound, special effects, and a complete music score that I lifted from old horror movies. He had to give me an A.”
Sam once went back to CUNY’s end-of-year student film screening. When the MC asked them what film the audience wanted to see the most, their reply was The Weird Stranger. “I couldn’t believe it,” Sam said in awe, “I don’t even know how they got a copy of it, but they played it and the audience went crazy!”
When the nostalgic film magazine Screen Thrills hit the newsstands in 1958, Sam applied to the publisher Jim Warren for a writing position. Although he was only 17 and still in school, Sam’s knowledge of old films impressed Warren. Sam had phoned Jim and in his most adult voice asked for an interview. “I was expecting an older man,” recalled Warren, “but this kid from the Bronx walked in and he knew more about movies than anyone I’d ever met.”
After graduating from college in 1960, Sam continued to write for Screen Thrills and worked as a film editor at night. His passion for movie-making landed him a job doing PR at New York’s Hemisphere Pictures where he learned the art of movie marketing. “Dan Kennis [Sam’s boss] and I would come up with a marketing plan first, design a poster, then write a movie around it.” Most of the time Hemisphere would buy a Philippino import, shoot some additional scenes ala Ed Wood, re-title it and send it out to the masses that didn’t know the difference.
In 1962, Sam met Al Adamson while interviewing his father, the cowboy actor Denver Dixon, for Screen Thrills. He and Al hit it off, and Sam decided to join Al in Los Angeles to produce movies together, with Al directing them.
After much bad luck, many attempts to break into Hollywood, and a failed production in Spain, Sam and Al decided to finance their own films. In 1969, they scraped together $50,000 and made Satan’s Sadists, starring Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame. Tamblyn had recently been busted for marijuana and no studio would touch him. Sam didn’t mind and utilized Tamblyn’s notoriety in his marketing campaigns.
Critics have lambasted Satan’s—awarding it the Golden Turkey Award for the worst biker movie ever made—but movie audiences thought it was “pretty groovy.”
Al had written the film in one night while staying in the Edison Hotel on 47th Street. The two had been so frustrated with their lack of success that Sam believes the story of Satan’s came out of that angst. A tagline from the movie trailer says it all: “Sinning, slugging, and drugging their way to hell, these are no imitation angels…they’re modern rebels!”
“The film is particularly nasty,” Sam remarked. “There are no redeeming characters. Yes, it was the era of unbridled youth rebellion, Vietnam, and the worst of that time is reflected in the film.”
Dubbed by some as the Citizen Kane of biker movies, the film grossed more than $10 million dollars at the box office, and the duo’s Independent International Pictures (IIP) was born.
IIP’s financial success, however, did not transform Sam and Al into “Big Time Hollywood Moguls”. Most of their films were shot in a week or two with very little money, using actors like John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr. at the end of their careers. Sam recalls that during the shooting of Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Chaney had lung cancer so bad, he could hardly get out his lines. Half the time he was drunk. “It was sad,” says Sam, “but I was working with one of my film heroes.”
The team even recycled their earlier movies, re-releasing them under new titles. Their film Psycho-A-Go-Go was made in 1965, then re-packaged as Fiend With The Electronic Brain in 1969, and then as Blood of Ghastly Horror in 1971. It seems Sam’s education at Hemisphere was coming in handy. Fred Olen Ray, former IIP cameraman said, “By the time you realized you’d seen the movie, you’d already paid for your ticket.”
But audiences didn’t seem to care. Or maybe it was Sam’s trailers that kept them coming, including this one for The Female Bunch (1971): “They dare to do what other women only dream about…their law is the whip, their trademark a branding iron!”
Sam’s marketing campaigns were brilliantly conceived manipulations. In 1972, he was ready to release The Naughty Stewardesses, a soft-core comedic romp into the world of airline flight attendants. Sam’s idea was to create a fictitious organization called “Stewardesses for a Better Image”. He had women dress up in flight uniforms, carry placards and picket the film.
Just in case reporters would think the campaign a big hoax, Sam set up a bogus telephone in a hotel where Al’s wife, Regina Carroll, would answer the phone, “Stewardesses for a Better Image, how may I help you?” For a small campaign, it gave Sam free public relations and put the film over the top of the New York film market.
Their nickel and dime filmmaking is truly the stuff of B-Movie legends—Al casting Colonel Sanders in a film in return for all the fried chicken his cast and crew could eat; Sam building the set of Dracula vs. Frankenstein in one night from a junk heap; and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond being paid two hundred dollars in single bills. (Al had left the set early to collect money from his newspaper route to pay him.) Zsigmond went on to win the Academy Award for cinematography forClose Encounters of the Third Kind. He is one of many people who got their start with IIP, including cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, actor James Spader, and football star Jim Kelly.
In 1972, Al and Sam were at the top of their game, producing or distributing over thirty films that year. Yet even the two men’s enthusiasm for schlock couldn’t keep audiences at the drive-ins. With the advent of the VCR, cable and more lucrative air-conditioned multiplexes, the late 1970s spelled the end of the duo’s drive-in movie career. “That’s how it ended,” Sam lamented. “One day everybody woke up and it was over. Boom! It was gone.”
Sam continued running IIP as a distribution company, and Al invested in real estate.
Drive-ins were a cultural cinematic phenomenon. On June 6, 1933 the world’s first drive-in opened in Camden, NJ. By 1942 there were 95 drive-ins spread across 27 states, with Ohio boasting 11 theaters. With the onslaught of baby boomers, the drive-in heyday was underway, peaking in 1957 to a whopping 5,000 theaters.
Sam stated, “Drive-ins appealed to a youth market on wheels. You drove your car to the theater, you ate corndogs, made out, drank beer, and the movies reflected what you had planned for the evening. You get a girl good and scared—boom!—she’d be right next to you and one-two-three you’d be making out with her and hop in the backseat.
Today, the “passion pit with pix” has almost become a dinosaur with less than 529 left. But, according to Dan Kietz, president of the Drive-In Theater Fan club (the web-based club boasts over 700 members) the 1990s were the beginning of a drive-in renaissance, evinced by the 100 or so theaters that re-opened in the US, Russia and China have also opened drive-ins.
Sam believes that drive-ins have faded into the background of the history of the US because when cities grew out to the suburbs, the land became too valuable to dedicate to the theaters. Reminiscing about this golden era, Sam reflected, “Kids of the future generation are gonna say, ‘Yeah, I like these drive-in films, but why are they called that?’ The whole meaning will be lost.”
Drive-in movies are as American as apple pie, baseball and beer in paper cups. When asked about going to the drive-in, people who grew up in the 1960s wax nostalgic and say “it was a rite of passage.” Take this caller on CNN two years ago: “I came to this drive-in when I was 16 years old. I was sitting in the car with my girlfriend and we were making out. All of a sudden, this large man appeared at my door. We jumped, and I rolled the window down and said, ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘your brake light has been on for the last twenty minutes, and I can’t see the movie.’”
Barbara Roche, former New Jersey drive-in theater manager, recollects, “You knew that when the rats started eating Ida Lupino, it was time to get the pizzas in the oven.”
Don Sanders, author of “The American Drive-In Movie Theater”, describes his drive-in experience this way: “You didn’t go to watch the movie. You could have sex, drink beer, socialize around the concession stand and not miss a thing.”
In 1994, Sam and Al began production on one of Sam’s pet project films, a UFO documentary entitled Beyond This Earth, inspired by his own 1961 saucer sighting in New York. The unfinished film would be their last production together.
In July of 1995, Al went missing from his ranch house in Indio, California. Resembling a scene from one of their horror movies, Al was found bludgeoned to death and cemented into the floor of his hot-tub, possibly buried alive. When Al’s handyman, Fred Fulford, was discovered vacationing in Florida with Al’s credit cards and wearing his suits, he was charged with murder. (He also ordered the cement in question.) Fulford is now in prison serving a life sentence.
“People say our heads were in the gutter, that we were incapable of making good films,” Sam said, “but it’s easy to write. It doesn’t cost anything to throw mud at somebody else.”
When asked if he has any regrets, Sam replied in his dead-pan way: “I wish I’d been born a blonde.”