New memoir tells the tale of a prolific B movie producer….
By Don Stradley
Sam Sherman has been producing movies for more than fifty years.
Astute film buffs will know him as the force behind a bevy of low budget masterworks ranging from Satan’s Sadists to The Naughty Stewardesses. Sherman’s new book, When Dracula Met Frankenstein: My Years Making Drive In Movies with Al Adamson, looks back at his career and the creation of Independent-International Productions, the launching pad for his cut-rate classics. During the 1970s, Sherman’s hectic schedule saw him producing two or three movies per year, as well as overseeing campaigns for such cult hits as The Boob Tube.
Sherman credits IIP’s astonishing output to his “need to survive,” and his willingness to do whatever it took to stay in the movie business.
Sherman and his partner, director Al Adamson, worked in a variety of genres, putting their own twists on whatever was popular at the time. Several of Sherman’s productions are making their way to Fandor as part of an IIP celebration, including Angels’ Wild Women, Hell’s Bloody Devils, and Raiders of the Living Dead.
Sam considers himself a “media buff,” and has worked in many capacities, including a stint at Jim Warner’s publishing house (Famous Monsters of Filmland, Vampirella, etc) where he recalls a young Terry Gilliam making everyone miserable with his snotty attitude. This varied background was good training for a movie producer. Back then, independent filmmakers moved in what seemed like wide-open spaces, with new markets opening up constantly.
“Now they make films that have no market, just hoping to sell them later,” Sherman said in a recent interview with Keyframe. “Of course, now anyone can buy a camera for $600.00 that is no bigger than a chocolate bar, and shoot an entire movie. Whether they know what they’re doing is another thing altogether.”
Today’s low budget moviemakers also tend to use unknowns, or form a rep company out of their friends and neighbors. A certain charm comes with that method, but Sherman’s plan was to raid Hollywood’s past, stocking his movies with a gallery of old but familiar faces, including J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr., and one of Sherman’s personal favorites, western star Bob Livingstone.
Adamson tends to receive the bulk of notoriety as far as IIP’s history, partly because of his mysterious death in 1995 – a strange incident touched on in Sam’s book – but also because directors always get more credit than producers, a notion understood by Sherman.
“I’m guilty of it myself, “ he said. “The film culture is centered on directors, and there is a tendency to forget all about the producers.
“Yet producers do a lot of work, from putting projects together, to writing, to advertising. Al and I worked well together and we had a tremendous friendship. We had only one minor disagreement in all of our years together, and we resolved it in just a few minutes. How many business partners can say that?”
There were other characters in the IIP circle, including Terry Levene, the “King of 42nd Street,” a distributor whose job was to book Sherman’s films in New York. A tough ex-boxer from London, Levene was as ruthless as a fighter when it came to marketing movies, often changing titles and campaign strategies in order to get a film booked in New York’s sleaziest neighborhood. Levene’s not so slight of hand usually resulted in big bucks for IIP.
Marketing and last minute changes were all-important in the 1970s as audience interest was constantly shifting. An IIP feature called Screaming Angels, for instance, started out as a movie about a biker gang battling a satanic cult. However, the biker fad had been played out. What to do?
Sherman and Adamson went to work. More footage was shot to focus on the female characters, and the movie was retitled Angels’ Wild Women. The new ad campaign featured a quartet of young ladies wielding knives, whips and guns, one of them grinding her high-heeled boot into a man’s throat. There wasn’t a motorcycle in view. It went on to be one of IIP’s biggest successes.
IIP’s formula was simple: Sherman traveled the country talking to theater owners, asking what sort of movies they wanted. Then, armed with the knowledge that audiences were craving more karate, more nudity, or more blood, Sherman or Adamson would write a script in a week or two, and the next project was on. Though he might’ve enjoyed making more sophisticated features, Sherman was simply happy to be making movies.
He remains a serious film historian, with a backlog of memories and memorabilia to shame any fanboy. He also has the dubious distinction of having worked with both film legend John Carradine, and 1970s porn queen Georgina Spelvin. “She wanted to move out of pornography and into mainstream movies,” Sherman says. “We cast her in a film called Girls For Rent and she was great in it. Actually, I knew her before she did the porn. She started as a film editor. She was a free spirit. ”
Sherman lives in New Jersey and keeps busy with his various hobbies. He has hopes of completing one of Adamson’s unfinished projects, but moviemaking is in his past.
“I’m not interested in making more movies,” he says. “But I’m interested in still photography. I like to move with the technology.”
Sherman is drawn to entertainment utterly unlike the movies he produced. “People probably think, ‘Oh, Sherman, he watches nothing but bloody violence and porn.’ That’s so unlike me. I watch reruns of Frasier.”
He cites The King’s Speech as the sort of movie he enjoys these days. “I’ve always liked good actors, and I’ve always loved what I call ‘the two character play.’ I wish I could’ve made movies of that type. People might say, ‘What makes you think you could make that kind of film?’ But I had the background; I certainly could’ve done it.”
There is a sense that the career he had wasn’t exactly the one he wanted, but Sherman had a great time, anyway. The new book was an opportunity to look back and tell his story.
“It wasn’t written from some emotional need,” he said. “It wasn’t my ego, with me saying, ‘Look at all these movies I made!’ It’s just that my life has been so crazy and fantastic, I thought, ‘I’ve got to tell people these things.’ It was also a chance to give Al some credit. A lot has been written about him that isn’t true. I wanted to set the record straight.”
Sherman also believes the films he made with Adamson maintain a special allure.
“They were exploitation movies. They exploited a topic, whether it was motorcycles, violence, or the myth that stewardesses were sexy. Regular movies just tell a story. The lurid topics of our movies will always be interesting for people.
“Al and I always tried to give the audience what they expected. That was the key. If you advertise a movie called The Beast With A Million Eyes, the beast had better have a million eyes.”