We never, ever went out to make a bad film. I don’t think anybody goes out to make a bad film.—Al Adamson
Bad films or B films? You can be the judge when the Bicknell International Film Festival presents “King B, The Fine Films of Al Adamson,” a retrospective of the director’s work. Bicknell is located 18 miles west of Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah.
The festival, now in its fifth year, specializes in showcasing B films from the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Affectionately known as “the other film festival,” B.I.F.F. was founded by Utah filmmaker Trent Harris and the Utah Film Commission’s Lory Smith. Harris directed the cult classics, Rubin and Ed and Plan 10 From Outer Space. Smith is a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, and author of a history of that festival, Party in a Box.
Program organizer Galen Rosenthal says B.I.F.F. is the smallest film festival in the world. It also boasts the distinction of featuring the longest and fastest parade—eight miles from nearby Torrey, Utah, and sometimes exceeding speeds of 50 miles per hour—as well as being the only film festival with its own swap meet. “The B.I.F.F. is a film festival with personality,” says Rosenthal. Each year the festival has a theme. This year’s theme is Al Adamson; previous themes have included UFOria, Giant Bugs, Japansters and Mean Teens.
Why Al Adamson this year? There is a local connection to Adamson, Rosenthal explains: He owned The Rim Rock Inn in Torrey, just down the road from Bicknell. “He ran it into the ground as a matter of fact. But that’s another story,” Rosenthal says. “There is a great deal of local interest in this year’s theme as Al was kind of “unique” around here. Almost everyone has a story about him.”
Adamson was known as the Ed Wood of the 1960s and ’70s. “By virtually any standard, the 32 films of Al Adamson embrace badness,” says James Anderson, another of the festival’s organizers. “Some contain a surprising number of saving graces, intentional or otherwise, and remain entertaining, watchable and occasionally inspired. A few shock and disturb. Others are merely foul cinematic miscarriages, deserving only anonymity. Adamson’s films—designed for a once-thriving drive-in market—are blatant product, if seldom more. Even a casual viewing of any of his movies reveals that art was not only unintended, it was likely impossible.”
That said, Anderson also believes Adamson’s work is undervalued. Critics have dismissed virtually every Adamson effort, regularly dubbing him as heir to the “Worst Director of All Time” title since the pop-culture rehabilitation of Ed Wood. “Genre mavens, if they acknowledge Adamson at all, do so with a distancing stance, while most film websites denounce his work with indulgent glee,” Anderson says. “Attempts at honoring the filmmaker—most notably, David Konow’s recent Schlock-o-Rama: The Films of Al Adamson—routinely rely on personal reminiscence or the self-promoting blather of Adamson’s partner, producer Sam Sherman, at the expense of critical interrogation. Can Adamson be so without merit as a filmmaker that he deserves such vigorous critical spite and oversight? Can the small but vocal fan base his paltry movies boast (a group to which I confess membership) be so utterly, laughably deluded? Perhaps.”
Adamson and his work will undoubtedly always annoy, even enrage, Anderson says. But they also will continue to entertain anyone willing to look hard (or look at all) for some sign that he did the best he could with what he had, despite what he may have lacked.
Life imitating his art, Adamson died badly, murdered in 1995 by a contractor living in his home while remodeling it. Grotesquely, he was entombed by the perpetrator in the structure supporting a new Jacuzzi, where his body went undiscovered for many weeks. “Unfortunately,” Anderson says, “this remains the filmmaker’s most wide-reaching claim to mass recognition. Worse, it begs the kind of loony karmic hypothesizing that fuels fundamentalist views: He got what he deserved; he made violent, mostly amoral movies for venues aimed squarely at young people, and he died violently at the hands of a monster devoid of conscience. Irony.”
Joining the retrospective at Bicknell will be Adamson’s partner and producer Sam Sherman, actor John Cardos (one of Adamson’s main actors), cinematographer Gary Graver and David Konow, author of Schlock-o-Rama: The Films of Al Adamson.
The festival kicks off Friday, July 21, at 7 p.m. with the Big Parade (theme: “Be a B Movie Star”), which starts at the Torrey Chuckwagon and ends at the Wayne Theatre in Bicknell. The opening-night film, Halfway to Hell (1955), begins at 7:30 p.m. It’s a formulaic, low-budget western that wasn’t released until 1961. Adamson’s father, Denver Dixon, started the work, and Adamson, who also played the role of Rick Adams, finished it. A party of the stars will follow at Cafe Diablo in Torrey.
Saturday begins with a swap meet at 9 a.m. in front of the Rabbit Valley Cantina in Bicknell. Festival participants are invited to bring their stuff to swap. A mutton-and-taters lunch is set for noon at the Teasdale Fire Department, eight miles from Bicknell.
Closing-night festivities begin at 7:30 p.m. with the presentation of the Prestigious Wayne Award, which, festival organizers say, will once again not go to Wayne Newton. Hells Bloody Devils (1971) is the closing-night film, which throws together Nazis, bikers and international spies. “Virtually every Adamson regular is in this one,” Anderson says, “kind of like a slumber party with peculiarly famous chaperones.”
The weirdest casting decision in the film, however, was that of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders as himself. Sanders apparently agreed to appear in Devils as a publicity gimmick. He also offered his services as caterer to the cast and crew during production on this and many other Adamson films.
The festival finishes with a closing-night gala at Rim Rock Restaurant & Motel in Torrey, the same one once owned by Adamson.
The Bicknell International Film Festival will be at the Wayne Theatre in Bicknell, Utah, July 21-22. The Fast Pass, good for all events, costs $30; single events cost $6. Information: www.waynetheatre.com.