Tuesday, 23 July 2019
The Female Bunch
(Al Adamson, 1969)
Of all the material I’ve read (and listened to) over the years concerning The Manson Family, no chroniclers seem to have made mention of the fact that infamous b-movie director Al Adamson was actually shooting footage for several movies on the Spahn Ranch during the height of ‘Helter Skelter’ in the summer of 1969. (1)
In itself, there is nothing terribly surprising about this. After all, Spahn was a movie ranch, and it was still (just about) open for business. Sure, it was in a pretty seedy and dilapidated state, but where else would you expect to find a seedy and dilapidated filmmaker like Adamson plying his trade?
What is more interesting rather is the eerie similarity between the storyline of Adamson’s ‘The Female Bunch’ – in which a gang of outlaw women who deem themselves “rejects” from society live on a remote desert ranch, obeying the orders of a controlling central figure (Grace, played by Jennifer Bishop) who encourages them to torture and kill outsiders – and the actual events which were unfolding in the immediate vicinity of the movie’s shooting location.
Given that ‘The Female Bunch’ was shot more or less back-to-back with Adamson’s better known biker flick ‘Satan’s Sadists’, which seems to have taken inspiration from both the nomenclature and degenerate behaviour of the biker gangs most closely associated with The Manson Family (the ‘Straight Satans’ and ‘Satan’s Slaves’), one can’t help but wonder to what extent Adamson and his collaborators interacted with, or were at least aware of, the whole Manson freak show, months before it became headline news.
Is this something Adamson, or anyone else involved in these productions, ever discussed in interviews? Have any of the cast members talked about their experiences filming on the ranch? I’m sure there must be some stories here. (Perhaps Severin Films’ forthcoming documentary on Adamson might shed some light on things?)
By the early ‘70s of course, just about every horror or exploitation movie being made in the USA was drawing to some extent on the feedback loop of new fears and cultural archetypes arising from the Manson murders, but, just as summer ’69 also found Hollywood hipster Dean Stockwell incorporating some notably Manson-like elements into his portrayal of Wilbur Wheatley in AIP’s adaptation of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (see my review for more on that), the notion that the bad vibes emanating from Manson were making their way into popular culture even before the whole story broke at the end of 1969, is fascinating to me.
So, although I’m certainly no fan of Adamson’s work (see below), I’m afraid I just couldn’t resist the temptation to track this one down and take the plunge. If my motives were impure, well, I’ll just let the lord judge me on that as a matter of heavenly routine, although I suspect that the experience of merely sitting through this damned thing was punishment enough.
To begin by stating the obvious then: anyone approaching this film in the hope of glimpsing some inadvertent verité footage of Manson-y type goings on will be disappointed. No obvious evidence of The Family’s presence made it into the film, no Manson girls were roped in as extras, and you certainly won’t get to see any of your favourite murderous reprobates hanging around in the background, waving to camera.
About the closest Manson-watchers will get to a thrill in fact is the realisation that the horses the “Female Bunch” ride throughout the movie are quite possibly the same ones that the Manson girls cared for and rented out to tourists as part of The Family’s deal with George Spahn (a duty they seem to have performed with surprising diligence, given the lack of concern they displayed for the well-being of their fellow human beings), along with a vague suspicion that the random automobiles which can be seen in the background of some shots may or may not have been Family run-arounds. (There is also a static caravan / trailer home visible in one shot – high excitement!)
The shabby corral buildings, paddock and barns around which much of the ‘action’ takes place are non-descript, bearing no outward sign of hippie witchery. Admittedly, the low light levels and the poor quality of the print makes it difficult to discern much detail, but, if it is possible for buildings themselves to actually look greasy, well, ‘The Female Bunch’ at least achieves this.
Elsewhere, the bar in which the women engage in a frankly disgusting drunken grope-fest with a bunch of sweaty-looking dudes during an excursion into “Mexico”, might perhaps have been shot within the café that formed part of Spahn’s standing sets... but it could equally have taken place elsewhere, perhaps even on a small sound stage. It all looks a bit too neat and tidy, to my eyes, although the footage of the actresses writhing around naked in the sawdust and spilled booze as the men paw them is authentically foul, irrespective of the production circumstances.
This too, is unsurprising. As much as I wish I could celebrate Al Adamson as some kind of wild exploitation maverick, the truth is that, to date, I’ve never actually managed to enjoy one of his movies. As a cult movie fan, I realise that I’m required to watch them once in a while, but it’s more of a purgatorial rite of passage than anything else.
I appreciate how difficult it is to make a good film, but even so, to be as consistently bad as Adamson takes some singular kind of anti-talent. Even in his most ostensibly entertaining productions (such as 1973’s Jim Kelly vehicle ‘The Black Samurai’, for instance), I find myself frustrated by the wasted potential, as theoretically cool and crazy scenes are ruined by clumsy framing, muffed action/effects shots, amateurish editing and lifeless performances... and then interspersed with interminably drawn out padding sequences of, oh, I dunno, people riding around on horses in the dark, for example.
I realise that the ragged (presumably VHS-era?) transfer of ‘The Female Bunch’ under consideration for this review probably didn’t help matters, but even so, the quality of much of the photography in this film is extremely poor, even by Adamson standards. Much of the footage is handheld, with zooms and wobbly focus pulls used to cut down on set-ups, including a lot of that Doris Wishman type stuff where the camera drifts in close-up across characters’ clothing and boots whilst they’re speaking, but even more problematic are the lengthy day-for-night (or possibly just “shit, it got dark”) scenes, which are pretty much incomprehensible in their current iteration. (2)
It’s possible I suppose that a more sympathetic presentation of the film may save the day here, but I equally suspect that the insufficient light levels in these secenes may be baked into the original footage - providing one explanation perhaps for why ‘The Female Bunch’ sat on the shelf for two years following its completion. (The credited Director of Photography, by the way, was Paul Glickman, who went on to work extensively with both Larry Cohen and Radley Metzger. What gives, Paul?)
Given the wealth of extraordinary sights and sounds offered by the precarious wonderland of Southern California at the end of the 1960s (some of them, I hasten to add, literally round the corner from the sets used here), not to mention the surrounding areas of outstanding natural beauty, it seems extraordinary to me that Adamson could manage to make a movie this drab, featureless and ugly. But, then I recall my recent attempt to sit through 1971’s ‘Brain of Blood’ (I still wake up at night crying tears of pain), and think, well… yeah, of course he could.
On the plus side, the opening and closing segments (actually shot in Utah I believe), in which the film’s lead couple make their getaway in a red convertible whilst somebody in a light aircraft blasts away at them with a shotgun, comprise some pretty decent low budget action stuff, and some of the day-time horse riding footage is competently done, with some bright colours and classic Western-style low angle shots and such. (3)
Oh, and I quite enjoyed the theme song as well – ‘Two Lonely People’, a cool Tom Jones-meets-Lee Hazlewood style country-pop belter, performed by one Bruce Powers. (I did check Youtube to try to share it with you, but no dice.)
I’m guessing that ‘The Female Bunch’s largely undistinguished female cast must have been picked on the basis of their physical attributes, riding ability and willingness to get naked rather than their thespian talent, but nonetheless, The Russ Meyer-esque “hard as nails bitches” plotline at least helps the early scenes detailing the gang’s hierarchy and initiation rituals to remain somewhat entertaining, although the absence of even the slightest iota of Meyer’s talent, wit or bravado is sorely felt.
Notable amongst the assembled “bunch” is the flaming red haired, whip-wielding Aleshia Brevard, a performer who worked extensively as an actress, ‘show girl’ and Marilyn Monroe impersonator during the ‘60s and ‘70s, revealing only later in life that she was actually born as Alfred Brevard in Tennessee in 1937, before undergoing an early version of M to F gender reassignment surgery in 1962. (Thanks, IMDB!) Her character name here? Sadie. (Cue your spooky music cue of choice.)
This leads to one of the most horribly skeevy shooting up scenes I’ve witnessed in ‘60s cinema, as she ties off with what looks like some kind of transparent plastic tubing before – rather unfeasibly - enjoying a rough bit of sapphic sex with another girl as the drug kicks in (cue kaleidoscope effects, and stripper jazz on the soundtrack). Perhaps it was just the fact that the performers look so tired and sweaty that creeped me out, but seriously, this was grim.
Viewers of ‘Satan’s Sadists’ meanwhile will recall that one of the main things which propelled that film toward the giddy heights of watchability was Russ Tamblyn’s startlingly sleazy lead performance as a psychotic biker, and happily he is on similarly fine form in ‘The Female Bunch’, essaying the role of a shiftless desert layabout who defiles the all-female sanctuary of the gang’s ranch after making a covert date with one of the girls.
Although he doesn’t get a great deal of screen time here, Tamblyn embodies the spirit of a leery, Mansonite scuzzball with worrying conviction, especially during the film’s overall creepy-crawliest scene, in which the women hold him down and carve a cross onto his forehead. Later, after vowing revenge, he also has the misfortune to suffer one of the most pathetic, anti-climactic “death” scenes I’ve ever seen in an American b-movie (seriously? “Pitchfork stuffed down the back of his pants, then he falls over, in long shot”? you’re really going to go with that?), but, we’ll take our yukks where we can get them in a movie like this.
Another thing that bugs me about Adamson’s films is his habit of digging up forgotten actors from the golden age of Hollywood b-movies… and then ensuring they remain forgotten by squandering their talents in demeaning, undignified roles that make you wonder why he bothered to track them down in the first place. Fulfilling this role in 1969 was poor old Lon Chaney Jr, who actually had the misfortune of making his final screen appearance in ‘The Female Bunch’. Though Chaney is given a lot more to get his teeth here into than in his mute role in Adamson’s ‘Dracula vs Frankenstein’ (filmed a few months earlier), the poor man was clearly in a sorry state by this point.
Playing an aging ex-stuntman, the only male whose presence is tolerated on the Female Bunch’s ranch, Lon’s character is, strangely enough, the only figure in this movie who is actually given an emotional arc or any kind of depth. He has been lured to the ranch as a result of his infatuation with Grace, but, now that her sexual favours have (understandably) been withdrawn, he has found himself bullied by her and reduced to a mere caretaker and domestic servant for the women.
The perpetual blundering sad-sack, Chaney fits this role like a badly soiled glove, and, though his voice is already ravaged by the throat cancer that would contribute to his death in 1973 and he seems to be having trouble walking, he nonetheless throws himself into the part with gusto. Nice work, Lon.
For better or worse, some of the footage of Chaney that Adamson presents here is unsettlingly candid. There are some lovely (though sadly curtailed) moments which find him regaling the girls with (apparently genuine) memories of his time working as a stuntman on westerns, but elsewhere, seeing him unshaven and watery-eyed, slugging straight from a rapidly emptying bottle of vodka whilst apparently unaware he is being filmed, is absolutely heart-breaking.
I mean… I don’t know, man. I don’t want to sit here passing moral judgement on some film shoot half a century ago, but I think they owed the big guy a bit more respect than that. Against all the odds, Lon was trying here. I wish I could say the same for Al.
Given its shooting location and storyline, one thing I find curious about ‘The Female Bunch’ is the fact that it wasn’t rushed out to cash in on the Manson hysteria in early 1970 -- unlike ‘Satan’s Sadists’, which was soon cleaning up in drive-ins with an especially lurid ad campaign promising “wild hippies on a mad murder spree”, “filmed on the actual locations where the Tate murder suspects lived their wild experiences”.
This is probably a result of the fact that, whereas ‘..Sadists’ was released by Adamson and his long-standing partner Sam Sherman through their fledging Independent International Pictures operation, ‘The Female Bunch’ seems to have been the result of a one-off production deal Adamson inked with Raphael Nussbaum (the director of 1973’s ‘Pets’ and eight other features I’ve never even heard of) and Mardi Rustam (the man who later fired Tobe Hooper from Tourist Trap / Eaten Alive).
Trivia on IMDB states that Adamson shot ‘Satan’s Sadists’ at short notice after “..a more expensive production that he’d been working on collapsed” – this one, presumably. Reading between the lines, I suspect there may have been a falling out between Adamson and his producers, but either way, when ‘The Female Bunch’ eventually appeared in ’71, it was jointly “presented” by Mardi Rustam Films and Dalia Productions (Nussbaum’s company), suggesting that those guys perhaps took control of the film after shooting was completed, preparing it for release at their leisure.
Whether Nussbaum and Rustam had more qualms than Adamson and Sherman did about cashing in on mass murder, who knows (the end credits on the film pointedly mention only Utah as a shooting location), but alternatively, perhaps by ’71 the Manson angle simply seemed like old news and didn’t occur to them. So, they went for the Peckinpah angle instead, I guess..?
I’m equally unsure whether this film did much for them at the box office (I doubt it), but they at least commissioned a great poster for it. Let’s close proceedings by taking a look at it and imagining how much fun this movie might have been, had circumstances been different.
(1) Some wag has actually added 11th August ’69 – the date of the Cielo Drive murders – as a shooting date on IMDB, but I think this can probably be discounted. Given how extensively the comings and goings at the ranch during that day have been chronicled by authors and investigators, I’m sure they would have found time to mention it if somebody was shooting a movie there with Lon Chaney Jr and Russ Tamblyn!
(2) Regular readers might well cry foul here, recalling that I’ve often praised Jess Franco for precisely this kind of off-piste camerawork, but I dunno, what can I say? If Franco (at his best) wields the camera like a visionary jazz player, Adamson and his operator by contrast feel as if they’re still thumping away in the basement trying to figure out the chords to ‘Louie Louie’. Which… actually sounds quite fun, now that I think about it? Note to self: music / cinematography metaphor needs work.
(3) It should perhaps be noted here that Adamson’s protégé John ‘Bud’ Cardos – future director of such solid b-movie fare as ‘Mutant’ (1984) and ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ (1977) – is credited with “additional direction of action and continuity footage” on ‘The Female Bunch’. From my admittedly biased point of view, I will take this to mean that he directed the bits which are not terrible.