I’ve been a fan of Al Adamson for a long, long time. So long that I’m not sure how my minor obsession began all those years ago. It might have been when I first saw Satan’s Sadists (1969). I was considering writing a biker musical as a follow up to Bad GIrls Jailhouse, so I was watching every biker movie that I could put my hands on. Satan’s Sadists blew me away and became one my favourites. At some point I started buying any and every bargain bin VHS tape that had Al Adamson’s name on it. Some of them were horrendously bad, some of them were surprisingly good – but they were always entertaining. The Female Bunch (1971) was not one of the movies I bought, or rented on VHS. I think I had read of its existence in some book or magazine, but it seemed to be a fairly elusive movie (at least to me).
I had visions of The Female Bunch being a companion piece to Satan’s Sadists (1969). After all, The Female Bunch was made two years after Satan’s Sadists and it had Russ Tamblyn in it again. It was about a group of female outlaws, and I imagined that they might be bikers, like the guys in Satan’s Sadists. Unfortunately, that was all wishful thinking on my part.
The Female Bunch is more of a weird, modern day Western. The outlaw women ride horses, not motorcycles, and hang out on a ranch somewhere in the desert. They are all women who hate men. They’ve all been screwed over by men in some way (this actually makes it closer to Bad GIrls Jailhouse than any biker musical I might have written), and they have formed a secret, outlaw society as a response to their bad times with bad dudes. There are no men allowed on the ranch – except for an old and decrepit alcoholic stuntman played by Lon Chaney Jr.. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like Chaney is having to stretch very far to play this character. According to some of the other actors who were in the film, he had to be supplied with one bottle of vodka per day to keep him going. And anytime that the production ran low, they had to send someone out to buy more booze. This was a task made more complicated by the fact that they were shooting in Utah, which was a dry state (or at least their part of it was). Thankfully, they had a plane which figured into their story about drug smuggling, and when not being filmed it could be re-purposed to smuggle booze.
Behind-the-scenes stories like that one could be more interesting than the film itself. Roger Ebert, who had been an early champion of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), was somewhat less enthusiastic about Al Adamson’s The Female Bunch. Ebert wrote: “There’s no level at which “The Female Bunch” is any good…” I suspect that most of the critics – and audience members – felt that way back in 1971. As a connoisseur of Al Adamson’s oeuvre, I can say that I don’t entirely agree.
Honestly, The Female Bunch is no Satan’s Sadists. It’s closer to some of Al’s lesser films, although it does have some standout moments. Russ Tamblyn, as a man who makes the mistake of thinking he can sneak onto the ranch to have sex with one of the outlaw women, is excellent. The beginning of the film works well enough, as we follow a new recruit into this wild and crazy world. The final act also more or less works. The film really starts to sprawl in the middle, as there is very little forward movement in the story and not quite enough sleazy goodness (or should I say, sleazy badness?) to make up for it. Still, there is some sleazy goodness, and some inadvertent humour, so it’s not a total loss, either.
Al Adamson is true master of #NotQuiteClassicCinema, and perhaps one of the genre’s greatest auteurs. Ed Wood gets a lot of credit for his efforts to further the art form – and deservedly so – but a guy like Al Adamson deserves just as much recognition for his accomplishments. The Female Bunch (1971) is not one of his greatest works, but that’s okay. I’m glad that I finally have a copy in my Al Adamson collection, and it certainly is essential viewing for anyone who has a taste for Al’s particular brand of cinematic madness. Perhaps, like some of his other films, The Female Bunch will only get better the next time it’s screened on some future #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.