Wednesday 18 August 2010

Blood Feast (1963)

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Stars: Thomas Wood, Mal Arnold and Connie Mason
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

The tagline on the poster cries, 'Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!' but unfortunately it was referencing to the quality of this 1963 shocker rather than its contents. The film's director, exploitation maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis, likened it to a Walt Whitman poem: 'It's no good,' he said, 'but it's the first,' and he's right. While Japanese films like 1960's Jigoku may technically predate it, this is the original gore movie, arguably the most influential horror film since the days of the classic Universal monster movies. Details vary depending on the reports but it was shot in around a week on a budget of less than $25,000 and became an instant hit at drive-ins across America, grossing over $4m for Lewis and his business partner, legendary exploitation producer David Friedman. Given that it's truly inept on every front, why was it so massively popular? The answer is simple: it delivered exactly what it promised, unlike anything that went before it.

In fact that's exactly why the film came about. In the early sixties, Lewis and Friedman were known for nudie cuties, movies like The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Nature's Playmates that mixed gratuitous scenes shot in naturist camps with a modicum of plot and a dash of humour. It was a winning combination but an inevitably short lived one, so even as they shot Bell, Bare and Beautiful in Miami in early 1963 they knew that they needed to find new subject matter. Both men were canny promoters, Lewis eventually retiring to make millions as a direct marketer, so they compiled lists of what the major studios either couldn't or wouldn't do, to ensure a niche audience. Lewis saw a movie in Miami that saw each of many instances of violence ending in peaceful death, all tiny bullet holes and closed eyes. On returning to the Suez Hotel, their HQ in southern Florida, he came face to face with a statue of the Sphinx and Blood Feast was born.

The story is a simple one, as befits something made from a fifteen page script, because this was never about the story. It was about the gore, oodles of it, that began at the very beginning of the film and continued through to the very end, literally shocking the audience into reaction. While it may be hard to imagine today, in a world where the major studios churn out endless sequels to torture porn films like Saw and Hostel, in 1963 nobody had seen this sort of blood and gore on a movie screen. It debuted on a Friday night at a drive-in theatre in Peoria, IL, and both Lewis and Friedman kept away, not having a clue if they'd be successful or not. They drove to the theatre on the Saturday night, unable to resist the temptation any longer, and found themselves in a ten mile traffic jam all the way to the screen. Blood Feast made half its budget back in one week at one drive-in theatre and there were 5,000 drive-in theatres in America in those days.

Today, we have to have that background to understand why this film was so successful, because it literally has nothing going for it but the sheer guts of two men to do something that had never been done before. Even during its theatrical run it started to be banned, though that was partly publicity, Friedman even getting an injunction against his own film in Sarasota to generate yet more interest in it. Generally, local authorities had to be creative as the film simply didn't break any rules: it wasn't obscene, according to the definitions then laid down, it didn't contain foul language and the bad guy gets his comeuppance. The rules said it was fine but by the time Two Thousand Maniacs!, the thematic follow up, was released, some towns had enacted new laws that actually applied. By Color Me Blood Red in 1965, it was harder to find places to show the film, so Lewis and Friedman parted company and moved on to new genres, at least for a while.

The story follows Fuad Ramses, an Egyptian who runs an exotic catering business out of what looks like a regular grocery store. We know he's the villain because the first scene shows him killing Pat Tracey in her bathtub even before we know who he is. She looks like a Hitchcockian heroine, fitting for a bathroom murder, though the slowly beating drum that accompanies her strip isn't anything like Bernard Herrmann's shrieking strings. She conveniently switches on the radio so we can hear about another murder in the park and the police ask women to stay inside. Pat just cosies up in her bubbles with a copy of Ancient Weird Religious Rites, required bathtime reading for all lovely young ladies in 1963. It looks like a bible with a fake cover and given that the film was shot mostly in the Suez Hotel, this suggests that the Gideons inadvertently provided a pivotal horror movie prop. Next thing, Fuad Ramses is outdoing Psycho with gleeful abandon.

There's a reason Lewis is known as 'the Godfather of Gore' and this is it. One stab and Pat Tracey is missing an eye, gloriously red Eastmancolor blood pooling on her face and bloody body parts skewered on her killer's knife like a kebab. Some hacking and slashing later and her severed leg goes slowly into his sack, the bloody stump sticking out of the water to be lovingly lingered on by the voyeuristic camera. Only three years earlier the censors were getting upset at Hitchcock for what they believed were knife wounds and nudity in the shower scene of Psycho. Here Lewis was showing everything Hitch couldn't and wouldn't even before the credits that saw the words of the title dripped onto the screen with blood. No wonder Lewis and Friedman had nurses distributing vomit bags in theatre lobbies. No wonder Blood Feast became the oldest film on the list of so called video nasties compiled in the UK by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Pat Tracey's murder turns out to be the seventh in two weeks. 'I don't know what to make of it,' says the inept police captain. 'We're just working with a homicidal maniac,' says inept Det Pete Thornton, who seems somehow surprised that the media are interested in such a thing. They're not the sharpest tools in the shed but that's why we have a full hour of gore time to go. If they could actually detect, this story would have ended before it began. Ramses is no master criminal and clues are continually dangled in vain in front of Det Thornton's eyes, but he's busy falling for the lead female character, Suzette Fremont. This romantic subplot isn't remotely believable as he was a decade older and she was about to be a Playboy Playmate of the Month, but it was real as actors William Kerwin and Connie Mason were married a year later. She promptly retired to be a wife and mother, giving him two children and they remained married until his death in 1989.

Her character is a student of Egyptian culture, even though she's as dumb as a post, so when her mother wants 'something unusual', 'something totally different' to be served as a surprise at her birthday party, she goes to Fuad Ramses Exotic Catering. This scene is a real gem for Z grade movie nuts and I could just see Ed Wood mouthing the lines in awe. 'Have you ever had an Egyptian feast?' Ramses asks slowly as actor Mal Arnold leans for effect and Lewis struggles to keep him in frame. 'It has not been served in five thousand years!' He's trying to be Bela Lugosi, from the staring eyes to the exotic accent which Lewis plays up even more in interviews, but he sounds more like Adrian Paul. He walks with a shuffling limp and he hypnotises Mrs Fremont into submission even though she's sold from moment one anyway. For an exotic caterer he's a pretty good grocer, so maybe he just wants to guarantee a use for all the limbs he's been collecting.
The rest of the film is just as camp but not quite as fun, though I can't resist Ramses shuffling off downstairs to demean himself before the gilt store mannequin dressed up in jewels that he's set up in effigy. She's his 'divine and wondrous woman of the pale light', 'his lady of the dark moon'. She's the goddess Ishtar, who was really a Babylonian deity rather than an Egyptian one, thus rendering the entire script meaningless in a single touch. The story, thought up by Lewis and Friedman, was scripted by Lewis's second wife Allison, credited as A Louise Downe but better known as Bunny, the star of a number of his and other nudie cuties. As plot was hardly the most important factor in those nudie cuties, it's not surprising to find so many inconsistencies here, so many bad motivations and so much that seems destined for an exploitation trailer. Criticising on aesthetic grounds is insane but we can relish in how definitive this is as 'so bad it's good'.

It isn't just one plot hole, everything seems to be wrong, right down to the most remembered scene in the film. This is the tongue scene, where Ramses rips out the tongue of an unwitting victim with his bare hands. It's delightfully gross, but he holds the thing up for us to see and it's huge! In reality it was a lamb's tongue, far too big to even fit into a woman's mouth folded in half, let alone alongside all the strawberry jam that substituted for blood. My favourite insanity is Ancient Weird Religious Rites, the book that links all these Miami cuties together. Det Thornton knows it's a clue. The father of Marcy Franklin, scalped on the beach for her brain, tells him that she was on a book club list run by Fuad Ramses. The killer takes a different body part from each victim. Yet even after conveniently attending a lecture with Suzette all about the blood feast of Ishtar that explains absolutely everything, he just can't figure out the book's significance.

Nobody seems able to figure out anything, even reality, and that includes the scriptwriter. Every scene seems to contain another leap of logic, so that they stack up to unwieldy levels. The local police force is so overwhelmed by these murders that Det Thornton is a 24 hour cop, but he has time to attend this lecture on Egyptian cults. Oh, and he's the boyfriend of Suzette Fremont, the intended recipient of the blood feast, who wants him to be her date to the party. But she has to ring her mom to come get her afterwards because it's late. Except it's daytime outside and her boyfriend wants to take her home via a smooching spot overlooking the beach. That's where he hears the radio tell that the latest murder victim survived her attack, because the cops wouldn't call in the lead detective for something like that, right? He gets back to the station so the chief can begin an explanation with the words, 'Well, that's it, the whole story.'

Just as the characters seem confused by the entire film being a vaguely linked collection of plot conveniences, none of which make any sense whatsoever, so the actors follow suit. I use the term 'actors' loosely here because some of them are truly stunning in their ineptitude. Worst is Gene Courtier in his only film appearance as Tony, the frustrated boyfriend of the beach victim, Marcy Franklin, who won't put out even though they've been going steady for a year. Just when she might be willing, she gets scalped to death and he falls to pieces. 'She wanted to leave,' he sobs to the cops. 'It's all my fault.' He's so emotional he makes Tommy Wiseau seem like Marlon Brando as he hysterically repeats, 'I can't remember!' Yet the rest of the cast aren't much better, perhaps as many of them were nudie cutie regulars who simply didn't go home when Bell, Bare and Beautiful wrapped so they could begin shooting Blood Feast a single day later.

William Kerwin was the most experienced, with credits dating back to River Goddesses in 1951, but that was just a nature excursion for five models, hardly high art. He racked up bit parts until Lewis gave him a lead role in 1961's Living Venus and they became regular collaborators, Kerwin appearing in everything he made, and even issuing all the warnings on the trailers. He's more like a cheap car salesman but he's by far the best actor in the film. Connie Mason, his future wife, is as great an actress as you might expect a Playmate of the Month to be. She was better in Two Thousand Maniacs! but even there Lewis had to remove about two thirds of her dialogue as she was never able to remember her lines. 'I often felt if one took the key out of Connie's back,' he told John Waters in an interview, 'she'd simply stand in place.' She's like a living Barbie doll but she's only there to look like a victim and at that she's capable because her limbs move.

Mal Arnold is a memorable Fuad Ramses, with artificially greyed hair and thick eyebrows. He's no worse a ham than any of the many horror icons who he channelled for the part and his loping run was paid tribute by Peter Jackson, who channelled it himself as the alien Robert in Bad Taste. In fact Arnold is surprisingly good, given that this was only his second picture, bookended by simple roles as a nudist in nudie cuties. After five films in four years for Lewis or Kerwin, he only came back for one more, 1990's Vampire Cop. Al Golden plays Dr Flanders, the expert on Ishtar and the blood feast, as sensationally as the headlines of the Daily Chronicle we see early in the film that read, 'Teenage Girl Found Slaughtered! Legs Cut Off!' He never acted again. Scott Hall, the police captain, would only return to the screen for Color Me Blood Red; Lyn Bolton, a daffy Mrs Fremont, only for a late nudie cutie from the Kerwins, 1970's Sweet Bird of Aquarius.

But nobody watched Blood Feast for the acting, they watched it for the gore, which is as graphic as you could imagine without ever being realistic. Even the victim who doesn't die at the scene lies in her hospital bed with blood seeping through the bandages that cover her head. Suzette's friend Trudy Sanders is whipped raw so Ramses can collect the blood dripping from her back in a cup. This takes place in his basement, which by this time looks like an abattoir, with corpses and bits of corpses left everywhere. Most of them aren't even recognisable as anything except slabs of meat because Ramses is apparently rather wasteful of his ingredients and rather sloppy at cleaning anything up. We get an illustrative flashback sequence during Dr Flanders's lecture, where a toga clad girl has her heart carved out to be held glistening above her bloody flesh by a high priest, even though the wound is just a mass of gore without a single cut to the skin.

The gore travels well down the years, not in the sense that it's well done because it isn't, but in the sense that it's gloriously exploitative and has precisely the same effect today as it did when the film was first released. Viewers nowadays will surely hate this movie, make no mistake about that, but if you can keep them in front of the screen they'll cringe and shudder and bury their faces in their arms just like they were teenagers at a drive-in in 1963. Unlike most drive-in films, this was one that people watched. Sure, it was mostly in disbelief at what they were seeing but they watched anyway, because it was new and groundbreaking and they couldn't get enough, however ineptly it was all done. Their kids grew up with the extremes of the 1970s and today's audiences can find worse things on the internet without even trying, so today it's hard to see past the ineptitude. Those who can are probably filmmakers who owe Blood Feast big time.

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