He was the man behind such softcore sleazefests as Girls for Rent (1974), The Naughty Stewardesses (1975) and Cinderella 2000 (1977). He was also the schlockmeister responsible for exploitation classics such as Satan’s Sadists (1969), Five Bloody Graves (1970) and the seriously deranged Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). He would be the last person you’d expect to make a child-friendly movie but that’s exactly what he attempted with Carnival Magic, which was completed in 1981 but not released until 1983. The film is almost tame enough for a six year old kid but also a terrifically weird and strange experience for older audiences who have seen any of Adamson’s previous work. He’s marching to the beat of a different drummer here and that drummer just happens to be a talking chimpaneze named Alexander the Great.
Filmed on location in the EO Studios in Shelby, North Carolina and on the grounds of the Childrens Carnival in Gaffney, South Carolina, Carnival Magic has multiple storylines and a cast of colorful characters to match. There’s Stoney Martin (Mark Weston), the struggling circus owner, who has a possessive relationship with his daughter Ellen (Jennifer Houlton); she dresses like a tomboy in baseball caps and t-shirts and is nicknamed “Bud.” When the carnival’s publicist David (Howard Segal) begins to pursue her and Bud develops a romantic interest in him, even changing into a dress for a date. But her father has an abandonment crisis, telling her, “Take off that dress…You’re Bud and that’s that.”
Plot number two focuses on Markov the Magnificent (Don Stewart) whose magic act can’t compete with his chief rival, Kirk (Joe Cirillo), the lion tamer. The latter’s specialty act involves a caged ring of snarling tigers but his attempts to tame them are becoming increasingly difficult. He blames this on Markov who appears to communicate telepathically with the beasts and is able to calm them down when agitated. Markov also has a secret hidden in his trailer which turns out to be the aforementioned talking chimp who soon becomes the big hit of the circus (Alex is introduced early in the film so this isn’t a spoiler).
Another plot introduces a sinister doctor (Charles Reynolds) who tries to persuade Stoney and Markov to loan him Alex for a few weeks for primate research. When rebuffed, he bribes Kirk to kidnap Alex and bring him to his laboratories where he plans to dissect the hapless chimp as part of his tests. There are plenty of other eccentric detours too while Adamson works in the occasional big top act, scenes of the midway and gawking customers, plus several action sequences – the best one being a madcap chase in which Alex steals a car with a terrified blonde in the back seat and the police in hot pursuit.
Carnival Magic combines the cornpone humor of Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and the Clint Eastwood/Clyde the orangutan films (Every Which Way But Loose, Any Which Way You Can) with the soap opera melodramatics of a circus picture like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)….but on the production budget of a bake sale. With its uneven mix of non-professional and barely adequate actors, peculiar directorial touches, and that nutty talking chimp, it comes across like some kind of naïve cinema or bad folk art.
For the most part this Al Adamson anomaly presents a traveling carnival that is almost wholesome compared to the usual cinematic treatment. There are no freaks of nature on display (although there is a chase sequence where a dwarf is glimpsed amid the pursuers). No sordid sexual encounters or explicit gore either; the only scene with any blood is when Kirk is wounded in a tiger attack. But Carnival Magic is kinky around the edges if you pay attention from the unusually close relationship between Markov and Alex (they have their own branded t-shirts) to the post-I’m Okay, You’re Ok New Age dialogue (“We all have our cages – with or without bars”). Other questionable scenes include Kirk physically abusing his girlfriend in one frantic outburst and the exotic dancer wardrobe of buxom Regina Carrol who always seems to be on the verge of bursting out of her clothes (Regina was married to Adamson and appears in many of his films including memorable “star” turns in Brain of Blood and Angels’ Wild Women, both released in 1972).
Some people who have seen this are even convinced that Bud is giving Alex a hand job in one oddly framed shot. Even the atrocious theme song (“Love Speaks to the Heart”), which unfortunately, is used more than once, and such clumsily staged action sequences as Alex the chimp battling a room full of laboratory assistants make this orphaned indie worth seeking out for collectors of eccentric cinema and especially for anyone who has seen and loved/loathed Adamson’s other….eh…work.
Of course, the real wild card and main attraction is Alex the talking chimp who is actually played by a female simian named Trudi. The animal looks well past middle age and is quite lethargic. Alex’s language skills turn out to be underwhelming to say the least and his dialogue is usually limited to brief comments, dictated by the dubber’s attempts to match his occasionally lip flap. For example, as he is poking around in Miss Carrol’s circus wardrobe, he mutters, “Preeeetty. Hot Stuff!,” or when he wraps a bra around the top of his head, he blurts out “Stealing coconuts.” To top it off, they have dubbed Alex with a gruff, slightly Brooklynese accent which is all the more surprising when you read the final credits that reveal the dubber for Alex was a woman named Linda Sherwood. Huh?
Adamson’s strange dubbing practices don’t stop there. You’ll notice that the character with the strangest voice in the film is the seedy looking Dr. Poole. Not only does he fail to impress one as a research scientist or professional doctor (he would even be suspect as a used car salesman) but his voice has a slight speech impediment and is delivered in a rather fussy, high pitched manner. When the final credits reveal that actor Charles Reynolds was dubbed by someone named David Pendleton, you have to ask yourself, was Charles Reynolds’ voice so bad that they had to dub him and the best they could do was this? It all contributes to the film’s warped sense of reality.
Of all the actors and crew people who worked on Carnival Magic, there are no familiar names except to those who are familiar with Psychotronic cinema. Director Al Adamson and Regina Carrol are, of course, well known in those circles but the only one who appears to have had a legitimate acting career is Don Stewart, aka Markov the Magnificent, who appeared in countless TV series (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Virginian, Adam-12, Knots Landing, The X-Files) and made-for-television movies such as The Doomsday Flight (1966), Valley of Mystery (1967) and The Betty Ford Story (1987). Carnival Magic was Adamson’s next to last feature; his final film was Lost (1983), another family-oriented picture about a little girl gone missing in the Utah wilderness. The cast includes Sandra Dee, Jack Elam and Ken Curtis. It is quite possible Adamson was trying to move into the mainstream and away from exploitation cinema in the early eighties but with a rapidly changing film distribution system Al and his partner, producer Sam Sherman, soon found it difficult to find exhibitors for their product and their filmmaking days together came to an end. While Adamson continued to try and launch projects – his last attempt was an unrealized sci-fi movie called Beyond This Earth – his life came to a violent end on June 21, 1995. He was murdered by Fred Fulford, a contractor who was living in his house at the time, and buried in his Jacuzzi which was filled with cement and tiled over. According to David Konow in Schlock-O-Rama: The Films of Al Adamson, “Al died of “blunt force trauma” – three blows to the head with a weapon. It is rumored that Al was alive when he was buried under the cement. He had been missing for five weeks before he was found on August 2, 1995.” Fulford was soon connected with the crime and arrested in Florida where he had fled with his girlfriend and her daughter. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in jail.
According to Chip Butty of Cinemachine, it wasn’t until after these events that anyone had any awareness of Carnival Magic, the print was found in the home of “Adamson after he was murdered… and the completed independent production never reached the drive-ins. There were no prints struck except the master.” Enter the organizers of Cinemapocalypse, Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, who featured a beautiful print of it during their West Coast festival tour during April 16-26, 2010 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Their web site program notes on the film stated “….unless you’ve guzzled embalming fluid on the moon with Bigfoot you’ve never seen anything as awe-inspiringly jacked-up as this “inspirational” kids’ movie from the director of Satan’s Sadists and Black Samurai. Why anyone thought this was appropriate for children we’ll never understand…we don’t know if we’d be prepared to field Junior’s many questions about the unsavory goings-on in the cheapest, most depraved carnival this side of Tod Browning’s Freaks.” While the latter copy is wildly over-hyped, Carnival Magic is not really that subversive as kiddie far but there is something unique and original about this formerly lost film and one has to wonder if the makers behind HBO’S failed series Carnivale (2003) had ever taken a gander at this oddity.
Carnival Magic never had an official video release and has remained an obscurity until recent years when Turner Classic Movies aired the movie on their TCM Underground franchise in 2010. This was followed by a Blu-ray release in 2011 from Film Chest and HD Cinema Classics which included some supplementary material such as interviews with producer Elvin Feltner and cult film historian Joe Rubin. The film gained more visibility when it was roasted by the hosts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) in 2017. Finally in April 2020 Severin Films released an upgraded Blu-ray of Carnival Magic and the disc comes with numerous extra features such as outtakes, audio commentary, rushes from The Happy Hobo (an unproduced children’s film by Adamson), and best of all, the bonus feature Lost, which is mentioned above. Other links of interest: