Saturday, March 24, 2012


by Chris Poggiali & David Konow

If you're a fan of low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exploitation movies and you did your time at the local drive-in or inner-city grindhouse during the 1970s (or spent hours channel surfing at three a.m. during the 1980s), then most likely you've been exposed to the unique films of Independent-International Pictures (IIP) and that studio's top in-house director, Al Adamson. Voodoo, vampires, blind zombies, sexy Swedes, Spanish werewolves, blazing stewardesses, naughty cheerleaders, bikers, blaxploitation, kung fu, chicks in chains, "in search of" documentaries -- IIP touched all of the big exploitation bases of the '70s, often re-titling and re-releasing older films to fit a certain niche market or to take advantage of whatever trend was popular at the moment. Today, IIP is one of the oldest independents still in business, and company president and co-founder Samuel M. Sherman is more willing than ever to share with us his experiences working in the industry and his vast knowledge of movie history.

BLACK HEAT, one of IIP's most audacious experiments in exploitation distribution, began life as a telephone conversation between Sherman and Adamson in 1975. The two were discussing GIRLS' HOTEL, a 3-D sexploitation flick that Sherman was trying to get off the ground. "[It] was a stewardess kind of movie," Sherman remembers, "and then I said, 'Can we add a black story into this?'" Black exploitation movies were still big box-office attractions in the inner cities, despite a mass exodus from the genre by the major studios that left many independents (Dimension, Atlas, AIP) happily picking up the slack with low-budgeters like THE BAD BUNCH (1976), THE BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH (1977), and PETEY WHEATSTRAW (1978). “There were a limited number of theatres that could play [blaxploitation], maybe two or three hundred theaters," Sherman reveals. "These were big downtown theaters with thousands of seats that catered to African-American audiences -– but once you played these theaters, the film was done."

Sherman and Adamson quickly hatched a scheme to create one movie that could play two different niche markets, under two different titles, with two different advertising campaigns. The secret would be to shoot two separate opening reels, which would take the film in one direction or another. The drive-ins would get the film as GIRLS’ HOTEL, and the opening reel would have “girls taking showers in the nude, and somebody in the hotel having sex, to kind of set it up as more of a sexy kind of movie,” while BLACK HEAT would open with “the munitions smuggling and the black actors, to establish that part of the story. I said to Al, 'If we could make a two purpose film that could go to either market, we could go to the urban theaters with BLACK HEAT, and then switch the first reel and go to the drive-ins and indoor theatres that play the T&A product with the GIRLS' HOTEL campaign.' So that’s what we did.”

To get the script they needed to pull off the ruse, the duo brought in several writers they had worked with previously: John R. D'Amato had penned GIRLS FOR RENT (1974), BLAZING STEWARDESSES (1975), and THE DYNAMITE BROTHERS (1974) for IIP, Budd Donnelly was credited with the screenplay for Adamson’s JESSI’S GIRLS (1975) and would go on to write CINDERELLA 2000 (1977) and SUNSET COVE (1978) for the director, and Sheldon Lee had been a makeup artist on DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1972) and JESSI'S GIRLS. The hero they created was a no-nonsense African-American cop named Kicks Carter, and Sherman had one man in mind for the part – Timothy Brown, former running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, who had co-starred in the IIP/Adamson production THE DYNAMITE BROTHERS (a.k.a. STUD BROWN) one year earlier.

"I'm not a sports fan, but I like athletes because there's something real about them – they do something real to get their fame and success,” Sherman states. “My wife Linda and I had gone to see a small independent film called BONNIE'S KIDS (1973), and Timothy Brown was in it as one of the heavies. I said to Linda, 'This guy is really good. We should use him in something.' So I talked to Al, and I said, 'Maybe we have something he can do, he's very good.' Al said, 'You mean Timmy Brown? I play basketball with him every week!' Al liked to play basketball at the Hollywood Y. I said, 'When you see him next time, tell him we'd like to have him in a picture.' So that's how he ended up the star of THE DYNAMITE BROTHERS."

Brown had dated Diana Ross, and was a fixture in the L.A. nightclub scene, frequently turning up in such trendy spots as The Candy Store on Rodeo Drive and Maverick’s Flat on Crenshaw Boulevard with pals Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. In fact, both Timothy Brown and Williamson had co-starred in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) – Brown as Corporal Judson, Williamson as Captain “Spearchucker” Jones. When M*A*S*H became a TV series on CBS two years later, Brown replaced Williamson as “Spearchucker,” but worked for Altman again on NASHVILLE (1975) – which Sherman took full advantage of in the press materials for BLACK HEAT/GIRLS’ HOTEL. Brown’s other exploitation credits include BLACK GUNN (1972) with Jim Brown, the women’s prison movie SWEET SUGAR (1972), and Cheri Caffaro’s third “Ginger” film, GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING (1973).

Stunning newcomer Tanya Boyd was hired to play Brown’s love interest, a gutsy TV news reporter named Stephanie. Later the same year, Boyd would land roles in BLACK SHAMPOO (directed by former Adamson/Sherman crew member Greydon Clark) and ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS (teamed with Marilyn Joi, a regular in Adamson/Sherman productions). Her other acting credits include THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES HOLLYWOOD (1980), WHOLLY MOSES (1980), UP THE ACADEMY (1980), JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING (1986), and the ABC miniseries "Roots" (1977). For nearly 15 years she appeared on the popular daytime drama “Days of Our Lives” as Celeste Perrault (Beverly Todd now plays the character). As a singer, she briefly replaced Marilyn McCoo in The Fifth Dimension, and toured for several years with Lou Rawls.

Former star Russ Tamblyn, who had lit up the screen in big budget productions ranging from SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) and PEYTON PLACE (1957) to WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE HAUNTING (1963), was hired to play the sleazy villain, Ziggy. It was his fourth and final film for Adamson, following SATAN’S SADISTS (1969), THE FEMALE BUNCH (1971), and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971).

"In my opinion, Russ never again got a role equal to SATAN'S SADISTS,” Sherman comments. “Al liked him a lot and wanted to work with him more. We always discussed that. 'Al, we've gotta do a picture around Russ Tamblyn. He was so great in SATAN'S SADISTS, he could be so good – can’t we do something with him?' And I don't know if we didn't have such a picture, or if the films were going in a different direction, or if Russ just didn't want to do those films anymore. When you think about what a great actor Russ Tamblyn is, it’s sad that his career didn’t skyrocket again after SATAN'S SADISTS. I think people were afraid of a picture that was that rough in those days."

After BLACK HEAT, Tamblyn didn’t work in front of the cameras again for nearly 10 years. B-movie director Fred Olen Ray employed him regularly during the ‘80s, but David Lynch provided something of a comeback in 1990 with the television series “Twin Peaks” and its 1992 feature film follow-up, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME – both of which reunited Tamblyn with his WEST SIDE STORY co-star Richard Beymer.

Another veteran of SATAN’S SADISTS who had a leading role in BLACK HEAT was Adamson’s wife, Regina Carrol – “the love of Al's life,” according to Sherman. “He’d never been really that smitten by anybody before, so the world revolved around her. They were a great couple – they were a lot of fun together. After they got married, she had some health challenges, which eventually caught up with her in the '80s. Al spent all his time taking her to doctors, trying to save her. His dream was that each year medical science would advance another year so they could keep her alive another year. That's all he wanted – to keep her alive and keep her well." Regina, a heavy smoker, lost her long battle with cancer in 1992. “Everybody liked Regina. She and Al looked at Independent-International as kind of a family business we were running."

That image of IIP as a family business was further solidified by the presence of many others who had previously worked with Sherman, Adamson, and Carrol. Geoffrey Land, who plays Timothy Brown's partner, Tony, had been in THE FEMALE BUNCH (1971), JESSI'S GIRLS (1975), and BLAZING STEWARDESSES (1975), and would go on to star in two IIP horror movies directed by Adamson, NURSE SHERRI (1978) and DOCTOR DRACULA (1980).

Al Richardson – Alphonse in BLACK HEAT – had been in HAMMER (1972), MEAN MOTHER (1972), THE DYNAMITE BROTHERS (1974), and THE NAUGHTY STEWARDESSES (1974). Jerry Mills (Narc) was a veteran of three Adamson/IIP productions – HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS (1970), THE NAUGHTY STEWARDESSES, and BLAZING STEWARDESSES – and Jana Bellan (Terry) had been in CRY RAPE, a CBS television movie co-produced by Adamson in 1973. And even though BLACK HEAT was the first movie for J.C. Wells (Guido), he would later turn up in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1976) and NURSE SHERRI.

When discussing the distinctive look of the IIP/Adamson films, enormous credit must go to the contributions of cinematographer Gary Graver and title designer Bob LeBar. A former protégé of Orson Welles, Graver shot a dozen of Adamson’s movies (beginning with SATAN’S SADISTS), as well as numerous Roger Corman releases of the ‘70s and Fred Olen Ray productions of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He also directed many of his own horror, action, and exploitation movies, and had a lengthy career in the adult film industry under the pseudonym “Robert McCallum.”

An IIP movie just wouldn’t feel like an IIP movie unless Bob LeBar was on hand to create the opening credits, and the BLACK HEAT title sequence stands with SATAN’S SADISTS and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN as one of his most exciting openers. In addition to doing the title sequences for almost every IIP release (and a few for Hemisphere Pictures as well), LeBar did optical effects for a few of the movies – such as the animated green mist in NURSE SHERRI – and whipped together the infamous Wolfstein prologue for the IIP import FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR (1972).

Filming for BLACK HEAT went smoothly overall, with only one serious incident that stands out in Sherman’s mind: a potentially dangerous run-in with the law. "Al didn't want to spend money on film permits, and tie up traffic and all that, so he would just go ahead and shoot. Well, we had a scene where J.C. Wells and one of his guys attack a messenger on the street, shoot him in the head, and drag him into a car. Al and Gary Graver were shooting it from the back of the van, but there was no other presence on the street, and some woman saw this happening – saw two guys come out of a car, shoot a guy in the head, grab him and the attaché case handcuffed to his wrist, drag him into a car, and drive away. She called the police! The police went after them, chased them down, had everybody spread-eagle over the hoods of the cars, and had a shotgun pointed at Al’s head! And somewhere, we've got stills of this!”

When BLACK HEAT was released in 1976, it was a big hit for IIP, playing inner city action houses on double bills with the studio’s earlier blaxploitation efforts MEAN MOTHER and STUD BROWN (a re-titling of THE DYNAMITE BROTHERS). The GIRLS’ HOTEL prints were in circulation for most of 1977. “We played off the BLACK HEAT version, and then we changed the prints and put it out into the market as a new picture, GIRLS' HOTEL. While this was happening, we still wanted to sell the picture overseas, and I felt that neither campaign was strong enough for that market — but a straight action approach would be better for the foreign territories, so I came up with the title THE MURDER GANG.”

Sharp-eyed schlock fans in the New York City area got a chance to see this version when it played for a week in 1983, courtesy of Aquarius Releasing. “We had a number of prints that were sitting around in New York, and our sub-distributor [Aquarius president Terry Levene] said, 'I think I can play THE MURDER GANG in New York.' So we re-titled all those prints, and even after it had played there first-run as BLACK HEAT, we went back into the same market as THE MURDER GANG, like it had never played at all!"

During the home video market boom of the 1980s, the film was released by Super Video as THE MURDER GANG, and later issued in the ‘90s as BLACK HEAT (Xenon Entertainment) and U.S. VICE (Lettuce Entertainment).

One more note: If you keep your eyes peeled during the Las Vegas casino sequence in BLACK HEAT, you’ll catch sight of Al Adamson himself at one of the tables. Think about it – Sherman and Adamson were gambling on the 2-title approach with BLACK HEAT, and in the end, it paid off for both of them: Sherman gained a movie he could keep in circulation for several years, and Adamson was immediately hired to direct two more urban action flicks, BLACK SAMURAI (1976) and DEATH DIMENSION (1978), both starring Jim Kelly of ENTER THE DRAGON fame. Now that’s playing your cards right!

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