To the untrained eye, the classification of a film as a B-movie is the kiss of death for any film, with its natural habitat being filler for daytime television stations. If it weren’t for my mother championing the worth of the dreaded B-movie I would have avoided them for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps it was my grandmother’s affection for Graceland that began my mother’s appreciation of all things cult, campy and kitsch. My grandmother characterized her love of The King’s estate as “fabulously tacky”. As a nurse working the 3-11 PM or 11 PM – 7 AM shift, my mother became an expert on tacky daytime television and low grade B-movies. Her pick of the litter? Dark Shadows.
The mystique of Dark Shadows was finally revealed to me after years of confusion. As a kid I would only see snippets of the show, missing out on the outrageous story-lines. Every episode was shot in one take — even if someone goofed horrendously, they kept the tapes rolling. The budget was so low that this practice became standard for the series. Those goofs became anticipated and legendary — comprising the backbone of the show’s appeal.
Dark Shadows (1967-1971) amassed 1,225 episodes over 5 years. Why would my mother devote herself to a series like Dark Shadows as opposed to a more celebrated and critically acclaimed series?
Director Al Adamson knows the answer. From 1969 to 1984 Al Adamson made more than 20 B-films. At first I thought he had to be absolutely bonkers to subject himself to a career of failures. After watching CARNIVAL MAGIC (1982), one of his last films, I realize he’s enjoying a freedom that a majority of the films I call my favorites suffer from: the critics.
When a B-movie emerges, critics are not panting to review it. They are not even deemed worthy of such treatment. I had no idea what to expect when I watched CARNIVAL MAGIC but I was pleasantly entertained. It met all of the requirements of my mother’s school of bad film greatness. The opening credits tip us off to this film’s impending cult status: “starring Trudi the Chimp” and my favorite, “introducing Missy O’Shea (The Girl in the Car).
CASABLANCA and many other classics were ruined for me by critics. When a film is classified as “the best American film of all time” (VERTIGO) or “the greatest love story ever told” it kills the objectivity of the film. Or when a big name director or star is associated with the film it’s nearly impossible to purge your wandering mind of previous associations or decisions you have made as to whether they are worthy of your consideration.
CARNIVAL MAGIC, on the other hand, is objectively bad. This is distinct from a box office flop. Al Adamson treats his films as an exercise in control. He brings his films so close to being a disaster but there’s an important element that sustained his longevity: his films are bad yet watchable.
Adamson, in a rare interview with George R. Reiss in 1994, said “the things I worried about most were having a good cameraman and a sound man. That’s all. I need me, a cameraman and a sound man and I could make a movie right now.” Therefore, all Adamson has to do to succeed as a director is having you hear him out and producing a watchable film. Adamson had Gary Graver, Orson Welles’ cameraman working for him and a troupe of other well-known creative associates.
Examining a director’s career in retrospect it’s obvious when they are in their prime and the graph indicates a rise and decline. Al Adamson’s career graph would be a straight line across. He doesn’t kid himself, either, once joking, “I know I didn’t get rich”. I appreciate Adamson’s self critique, he’s not aiming for glory, he just wants to entertain you with such lines as, “we can’t stay together if I can’t feed you”, delivered by the telepathic magician to his trained chimp companion, complete with an unnecessary pause so the audience can insert a chuckle.