Thieves fall out during a diamond heist of a private dealer. One of them is killed, and the loot ends up in the back of a pick-up truck of an innocent businessman. The criminals set out to recover the gems, but one of them is dangerously unhinged and has an unhealthy obsession with young women and murder…
Low-budget crime flick that was the first full directorial credit for the legendary Al Adamson, who is better known for notorious cinematic trainwrecks such as ‘Horror of the Blood Monsters’ (1970) and ‘Dracula vs Frankenstein’ (1971). Here, he examines the Underbelly of the LA underworld, focusing on a group of independent professionals, looking to pull that ill-fated ‘one last job’ that should make for a comfortable retirement from the business but always goes tragically wrong.
Criminal mastermind and all-round bad egg Vito (Lyle Felice) has come up with the perfect crime: knock over a private diamond merchant in a tower block opposite Jerry Lewis’ restaurant. He picks a crew of three to pull the caper: handsome Nicky (John Armond), the psychotic Joe (Roy Morton) and an unnamed associate apparently played by director Adamson himself. Waiting in the street in the getaway car is Felice’s moll, Vicky (Tanya Maree). The heist goes fine until the merchant’s secretary gets a hand free and manages to hit the alarm just before they can leave the building. Retreating upstairs, Adamson pitches the ice off the roof before Morton shoots him dead (because…why the hell not?) The jewels land in the back of a truck belonging to small businessman, Dave Clark (Kirk Duncan) who drives away oblivious before Maree can get across the street.
Felice is seriously pissed about the way things have gone down when the remaining crooks turn up at his pad afterwards to give him the lowdown. Maree has got Duncan’s licence plate but, in the meantime, the innocent man’s young child (K K Riddle) has found the bag in the back of his truck and swiped a diamond necklace. Curiously enough, although the thieves help themselves to plenty of sparklers when they pull the job, from here on in everybody is only interested in that piece of ice, nothing else even gets a passing mention. Meanwhile, Duncan and pretty wife Linda (Tacey Robbins) give Riddle a little black doll as a present, and the girl loves it so much that she hides her booty inside. The doll also sings versions of old minstrel songs like ‘Camptown Races’ and ‘Old Folks at Home’ (more commonly known as ‘Swanee River’) in a strange high-pitched voice. It’s creepy enough to give Chucky from the ‘Child’s Play’ series a few sleepless nights.
From there, things develop in a way as painfully predictable as the dialogue. Felice sends Morton to locate Duncan and the loot, Duncan is kidnapped, but he can’t say anything because he doesn’t know anything, Morton kidnaps Robbins and Riddle, having no idea that the girl has the gems and Clark gets free thanks to the intervention of his brother (Joey Benson). Everything ends with a chase and a confrontation on the snowy slopes of the mountains in the Mammoth Lakes area of the Yosemite National Park. On the way, there’s an underdeveloped subplot about Maree and Armond planning to run away together, Morton kills a girl he picks up in a bar, and Robbins belts out a couple of songs in a club backed by a hot young combo The Vendells. This is all padding really (despite Robbins having an impressive set of pipes) because there isn’t enough of the main story to go around.
But, despite the film’s obvious shortcomings, it does have some positive points. Adamson’s ace in the hole is Morton who gives quite a scary performance as the psychotic hoodlum. Ok, it’s hardly subtle, but it is convincing and goes a long way to make up for the lacklustre performances of the rest of the cast. There’s also some evidence of solid filmmaking technique, particularly in the climactic chase in the mountains (which was undoubtedly quite a challenge for a very low-budgeted production like this). The scene where Morton strangles the girl in the motel room is also surprisingly effective. Unfortunately, most of this good work is undone by the snail’s pace, the endless talk and the lack of any depth to the characters.
The most interesting aspect of the production, however, is what happened afterwards. Information is a little contradictory (to say the least), but it seems that Adamson was unable to secure a release for the original film as presented here under the title of ‘Echo of Terror’. So he shot new sequences with mad doctor John Carradine, revising the plot so that Morton’s character became a Vietnam vet whose murderous rampage is the result of an experimental, electronic implant. Some sources suggest that it still remained unreleased after this revision, others that it came out in 1967 under the title ‘The Fiend with the Electronic Brain’. I have even read that it this version that came out as ‘Psycho A Go-Go’ but Carradine is completely absent from this print.
Later on, Allied Artists approached producer Sam Sherman with a request for a horror movie to add to a TV package, so Adamson shot yet more new footage. This iteration put a zombie spin on the plot, and new scenes included ex-Disney juvenile Tommy Kirk as an investigating cop, Adamson’s wife Regina Carroll as a woman who believes in voodoo and Kent Taylor as her zombie investigating father. This cut was called ‘The Man with the Synthetic Brain.’ Probably. Then Adamson spiced it up some more by adding a little gore and sent it out to theatres as ‘Blood of Ghastly Horror’ (1972). Or that may have been the tile of the 1967 version. Who knows for sure? Told you the available information is contradictory!
Although performing both sides of her ‘My LA’ single here, Robbins never went on to make a serious dent in the pop world. However, she did sing with Pérez Prado, who was the orchestra leader responsible for the Mambo craze in the 1950s. His big hits included ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ and ‘Mambo #5’ which became an international smash all over again for Lou Bega in 1999. Of the rest of the cast, only Duncan went on to any kind of acting career, his limited credits including an appearance in TV movie ‘The Clone Master’ (1978). Adamson went onto carve out a niche in the fringes of low-budget cinema, his threadbare productions earning him a place in the ‘Worst Director of All Time’ debate, which seems a little a little unfair when you view this film, but not if you watch some of his others!
There is a surprising success story behind the camera, though, one that comes with an Academy Award! Yes, director of photography William Zsigmond certainly paid his dues early on in his career, working with Adamson on multiple occasions and on vehicles for Arch Hall Jr such as ‘The Sadist’ (1963) and ‘The Nasty Rabbit’ (1964). A change of name to Vilmos and work on ‘Red Sky at Morning’ (1971) sent him flying into the big leagues and Robert Altman’s acclaimed ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ (1971). From there, it was a short step to John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’ (1972), and working with a young Steven Spielberg; first on ‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974) and then ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) for which he took home the Oscar. Many other prestigious films followed such as ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978), ‘Blow Out’ (1981) for Brian de Palma, ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ (1987), ‘Maverick’ (1994) and several later projects with Woody Allen.
Inevitably, later versions of this film are more than a little confused, but the original exhibits an adequate competence, even if it’s firmly mired in its low-budget roots.