On its face, Adamson's decision to turn to family films in the early '80s might seem bizarre, though the demands of the commercial film industry had become largely unpredictable as studios began to gain a stronger hand over the nation's screens. Adamson's last film of the '70s, Nurse Sherri (1978), had proven to be something of a disappointment despite being prepared in both a clean PG-rated version and a naughtier R-rated, sexed-up variant for more demanding drive-ins. He took a two-year hiatus after which the non-studio theatrical titles still being shown tended to be either raunchy sex comedies, extreme unrated horror titles, or family fare trying to lure in audiences waiting for reissues of Disney films. Adamson's films were always milder than most of his competitors (he never made anything rougher than a very soft R rating and in fact received a PG for most of his horror titles), so the last option makes the most sense in retrospect. (Besides, many of his closest contemporaries like Ray Dennis Steckler and Ed Wood had turned to hardcore pornography, an area Adamson never seemed remotely inclined to explore.) Southern theaters in particular were very willing to four-wall independent family titles (as the Christian market had already been proving for years), and thus Adamson shot a G-rated film called Carnival Magic (1981) in North Carolina.
Don Stewart, a TV actor best known for multiple appearances on Dragnet 1967 and Guiding Light, stars as Markow, a mind-reading magician with real magical powers who works at a traveling carnival. Perhaps his greatest secret is the fact that his closest companion, a chimp named Alex, has the ability to speak...and to drive a car, leading the police on a crazy chase. The carnival owner's daughter persuades him to put Alex in the show, and the pair becomes an instant hit. However, the wild animal tamer takes time out from hitting the bottle when he realizes there's a more popular animal act around and decides to take matters into his own hands by spiriting Alex away to an animal research lab.
Apart from Stewart, the only recognizable face in Carnival Magic is Regina Carrol, Adamson's wife since 1972. A Vegas dancer and entertainer, she hosted her own local TV program (The Regina Carrol Show) and became a regular bit player in Hollywood, even popping up in Viva Las Vegas (1964) with then-boyfriend Elvis Presley. However, she found her most indelible roles with Adamson in 1969 when they teamed up for two films, The Female Bunch (1969) and Satan's Sadists. She continued to appear in significant roles in most of his films, and they remained married until her death from cancer in 1992 at the age of 49.
Though it seems unlikely, Carnival Magic represents the union of two familiar trends in exploitation filmmaking. Carnival films had been staples since the 1960s primarily thanks to the influence of David F. Friedman, a producer and occasional director involved in such "geek show" films as Blood Feast (1963) and The Defilers (1965). His love for carnivals (and occasional participation in them in Alabama) resulted in She Freak (1967), perhaps the ultimate drive-in carny movie, which updated Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) with an almost documentarian portrayal of the mechanics and personalities found in the carnival setting. Three years earlier, Steckler had also used a carnival as the colorful setting of his best-remembered film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), which he also used as a vehicle for his wife, Carolyn Brandt.
Attempts by directors of horror and sex films to dip their toes in the family market were rare but hardly unprecedented, and the results often produced the strangest titles of their careers. Steckler's Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965) and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966) are strictly G-rated kiddie fare but definitely not your average Disney films, while gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis stunned audiences with two glorified filmed kid's plays, Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (1966) and The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967).
Adamson's decision to merge carnival and kiddie filmmaking into one peculiar entity may have come very late in the game in 1981, but the result is just as astonishing as any of its predecessors. His almost fetishistic attention to carnival life detail gives the film a truly off-kilter flavor that sets it apart from its competitors. Coupled with the director's usual fragmented, strangely-paced directorial methods, Carnival Magic proved to be far too bizarre and anti-commercial for a general release, earning only a few fleeting, under-the-radar bookings in the South before appearing to vanish entirely. Adamson's career certainly had his share of these lost oddities (especially his notorious, quickly-pulled 1976 "version" of Uncle Tom's Cabin), but the rediscovery of this film restored an important, fascinating chapter in the latter portion of his filmmaking career.
In fact, Adamson only made one film after this, another family production in 1983 entitled Lost. Though considerably less bizarre than Carnival Magic, it also proved to be the last feature film for Sandra Dee, whose participation here will forever remain a puzzle. Adamson retired from filmmaking and began a successful career in real estate, though growing fan support of his films among younger viewers thanks to the VHS collector's market caused him to contemplate a returning gig behind the camera. He announced plans for a new family film, The Happy Hobo, but was tragically murdered on August 2, 1995 by a live-in construction contractor named Fred Fulford who hid Adamson's body beneath the house's remodeled bathroom. While the final installment in Adamson's G-rated trilogy never saw the light of day, at least we still have a mighty opening salvo with this confounding, fascinating oddity rescued from the jaws of oblivion.
Producer: Elvin Feltner
Director: Al Adamson
Screenplay: Bob Levine, Mark Weston
Cinematography: Darrell Cathcart
Cast: Don Stewart (Markow), Jennifer Houlton (Ellen), Howard Segal (David), Mark Weston (Stoney Martin), Joe Cirillo (Kirk).
by Nathaniel Thompson