Blood Feast (1963) Blood Feast (1963) -***

     No trend can persist forever, not even one rooted in something as basic and immutable as the pleasure that heterosexual men take in looking at naked women. And although Herschell Gordon Lewis’s partnership with David Friedman was less than two years old at the beginning of 1963, both men were concerned that the meal ticket they’d been exploiting throughout that time (which was to say, the mildest imaginable form of pornography) was about to expire. The trouble, as Lewis and Friedman saw it, lay in the inherent limitations of the nudie and nudie-cutie genres of sexploitation film. There just wasn’t much to them— indeed, there wasn’t allowed to be, for reasons we’ll discuss whenever I finally get around to reviewing something like As Nature Intended or The Immoral Mr. Teas. Sooner or later, people were bound to get sick of the stupid things, and no operator as canny as Lewis or Friedman would dare take a chance on it being sooner. To be sure, three of the five movies the pair would make together in 1963— Boin-n-g!, Goldilocks and the Three Bares, and Bell, Bare and Beautiful— were more of the same, but the other two were daring experiments in what to do next. In both cases, they took something that was already visible on this or that margin of the exploitation movie business, and exaggerated it to extremes never seen before. With Scum of the Earth, Lewis and Friedman resurrected the old Traffic in Souls trope of naïve girls hoodwinked into the sex trade to create a harbinger of the roughies to come. And with Blood Feast, they invented the gore film as we know it.

     Mind you, “as we know it” is doing a lot of work there, so let’s clarify our terms a little. The explicit depiction of bodily ruination had been growing in importance as a tool for horror filmmakers ever since the revelation of Henry Jarod’s true face at the climax to House of Wax in 1953. It’s even possible to pin subsequent turns of the ratchet on certain specific films, especially The Curse of Frankenstein and The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. But Blood Feast offers nothing else but the opportunity to revel in, to be sickened by, and to revel in being sickened by the violent unmaking of the human body. It has no mystery to solve, no moral to contemplate, no drama to follow through its ups and downs. There are no characters sufficiently developed to attract audience identification at any level above sheer sympathy for their nerve endings, and no plot worthy of the name. What Blood Feast has instead are limbs hacked off, organs extracted, a woman scourged until her flesh supposedly hangs in ribbons (that injury exceeded the filmmakers’ ability to render it at all convincingly), and above all, buckets and buckets and buckets of vividly red blood. Made for just $24,500, Blood Feast was an almost impossibly cheap film, but Lewis and Friedman understood the importance of splurging on color film stock to make their picture more crudely shocking than anything that came before.

     One last thing before we get into synopsizing what passes here for a story: a quick word about Blood Feast’s setting. Although the movie was shot in Miami, and eventually admits to being set there via the mailing address that enables the villain to track down a key victim, all the place-names mentioned in the spoken dialogue belong to locations I recognize from Chicago. The latter city, significantly, was where Lewis and Friedman had their business headquarters, although they generally preferred to shoot in the Deep South, where prices were low and unions were non-existent. It may be that the Chicagoland toponyms reflect a change of plans made at some point in between the completion of the script and the start of principal photography.

     In any case, somebody is running amok in this strange Miami-Chicago hybrid, killing and butchering young women. But although the killer’s identity may be a mystery to police detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin, hiding behind the same “Thomas Wood” pseudonym that he used later in both Two Thousand Maniacs! and A Taste of Blood) and his chief (Color Me Blood Red’s Scott H. Hall— a professional carnival barker, if you can believe that!), we know practically from the outset who’s behind the rampage of atrocious slaughter: exotic caterer and loony Ishtar-worshipper Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold, subsequently of Adam Lost His Apple and Vampire Cop). That’s because the very first scene shows him stabbing a bosomy blonde (Sandra Sinclair, from The Beast that Killed Women and The Defilers) through the eyeball in her own bathtub, and making off with one of her legs. The camera looks Ramses square in the face (and what a face it is!) during the attack, so the only thing initially missing is his name— and we’ll learn that, too, just a couple scenes on, when oblivious socialite Dorothy Freemont (Lyn Bolton, who went on to play one of the aging nudists in Barry Mahon’s Sweet Bird of Aquarius) hires him to cater the dinner party she’s planning for her daughter in two weeks.

     Another thing that’s clear from pretty much the outset is that there’s a connection between the “Egyptian feast” that Ramses proposes as the theme for Mrs. Freemont’s party and the gruesome murders he spends most of his evenings committing. Otherwise why would he keep cooking up the body parts that he steals each time, babbling all the while to his statue of Ishtar (obviously a well-used department store mannequin, spray-painted gold in the forlorn hope of making it look like an ancient idol) about the festival that he will soon celebrate in her honor for the first time in 5000 years? Later on, a helpful lecturer (Al Golden) will clarify that the Feast of Ishtar, which was abolished circa 3000 BC by the Pharaoh Amenhotep II, involved the ritual sacrifice of 20 virgin priestesses, their bodies subsequently barbecued and served to the masses outside the goddess’s temple at Antioch. (Note that Antioch wasn’t founded until 300 BC. Note further that it isn’t in Egypt. Also, Amenhotep II was pharaoh during the last quarter of the 15th century BC, seventeen dynasties after the period claimed here for the suppression of the Feast of Ishtar. And poor Al Golden has no idea in hell how to pronounce “Amenhotep.”) Now the fact that it was supposed to be the priestesses killed, cooked, and eaten would seem to imply that Fuad Ramses shouldn’t be carving up just any 20 girls, and in fact he is not. Rather, he has been selecting his victims from among the mail-order purchasers of his book, Ancient Weird Religious Rites, which is apparently the biggest thing in beach reading for the bikini babes of Miami this summer.

     Perhaps we can chalk that up to the influence of Suzette Freemont (Playboy Playmate Connie Mason, from Chronicles of a Madman and My Third Wife, George), the aforementioned daughter of Beverly Freemont. It’s her attendance at Dr. Exposition’s lecture that provides the excuse for including it in the film, and she never lets slip an opportunity to mention her interest in Egyptian culture (generally by baldly stating, “I’m interested in Egyptian culture!”). She’s even drawn her boyfriend into her hobby— a boyfriend whom we’ve already met in his professional capacity as Detective Pete Thornton. So although Suzette might make a passable substitute for a high priestess according to the killer’s book club methodology of victim selection, Ramses is running a serious risk in setting his sights on her.

     The bulk of the movie’s 65-minute running time is devoted not to Pete’s hapless efforts at crime-solving, however, nor to the doom inching ever closer to Suzette, but rather to the murders Ramses commits in order to stock the pantry for the Feast of Ishtar, even if Blood Feast stops considerably short of the 20 slain girls suggested by a strict adherence to the ritual’s old rules. Pushing-30 high school student Marcy Franklin (Ashlyn Martin, who played bit parts in a couple of the AIP beach party movies under a different name) gets her brain chopped out of her skull while necking on the beach with her loser boyfriend (Gene Courtier, who deservedly never acted again under any name). Suzette’s best friend, Trudy Sanders (Christy Foushee, from Honeymoon of Horror and Passion Holiday), gets abducted and scourged to death in the mad caterer’s lair, so that her blood may be harvested in quantity for Ishtar’s sacrificial barbecue sauce. I’ve already mentioned the eye-gouging, leg-chopping murder that opens the picture. And in Blood Feast’s most notorious scene, a prostitute (Astrid Olson, another Sweet Bird of Aquarius nudist) has her tongue torn out by the roots following a motel assignation with a drunken sailor. Even Dr. Exposition’s lecture gives way to butchery, triggering a flashback in which a priest of Ishtar who looks just like Fuad Ramses cuts out the heart of a pretty, redheaded priestess (Louise Kamp). Most of these scenes have a surprising amount of clumsy power even today— the tongue-ripping especially. That’s a real sheep’s tongue standing in for the hooker’s, and Astrid Olson reportedly got the job because she was the first aspiring actress Lewis and Friedman found with a mouth big enough to accommodate half a pound of meat byproduct and half a pint of fake blood.

     Don’t bother looking for any other form of power from Blood Feast, however, except maybe power to induce the giggles. Considering its influence on the subsequent development of the horror genre, it’s amazing what a trifling, negligible movie this really is. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume it was a bottom-feeding ripoff of Two Thousand Maniacs! or The Wizard of Gore, rather than the prototype for them. And fatally for its appreciation even by horror buffs of the ordinary sort, Blood Feast’s most memorable aspects have little or nothing to do with its efforts to shock and appall, so that the film’s true natural audience is instead those teratologists of cinema dedicated to seeking out its most preposterous mutants.

     I mean, just look at this mess! The cruelties that Fuad Ramses inflicts upon his victims constantly find themselves upstaged by the garishly seedy ugliness that humanity as a whole inflicted on the Florida landscape during the middle decades of the 20th century. The grisliness of his crimes is further undercut by a cloddish lack of affect on the part of the women on the receiving end. Seriously, it never occurred to me until I saw Blood Feast that it was possible to scream without feeling, but these gals so consistently manage it that I’ve always thought it was a little unfair of Herschell Gordon Lewis to single out Connie Mason for special opprobrium when discussing his gore movie period with interviewers in the decades since. Not that Mason doesn’t suck all the ass here, but she isn’t discernibly worse than Christy Fouchee, Ashlyn Martin, or Lyn Bolton. A similarly paradoxical combination of way too much and not nearly enough is served up by the harried cops as well, who act as if they’ve seen people frustrated to the point of hollering, but have not actually experienced such intensity of emotion themselves.

     But even if everything else about Blood Feast were working the way it was supposed to, Mal Arnold could still have torpedoed the film all by himself. He’s astonishing. While his costars stumble stiffly along like a bunch of broken robots, Arnold cuts loose with a brand of histrionics that is seldom seen even in this just-barely-professional stratum of the movie industry. One gets the impression that he took one look at the misshapen bootblack eyebrows and spray-on gray dye job applied to him in the makeup trailer, and thought, “Got it. You want me to act like you’ve made me look.” It’s hard to believe, but Arnold turns the innocuous question, “Have you ever had an Egyptian feast?” into the laugh-out-loud funniest line I’ve heard in a movie so far this year, even without the benefit of surprise. (I’d already seen Blood Feast a time or two, so I knew the line was coming.) And he does that, I hasten to emphasize, in an attempt to sound ominous instead. My God, the man even makes a florid overproduction of limping! If ever there were a less fearsome psycho-killer in the annals of horror cinema, I’m hard pressed to say who it might be.

     And yet all of those defects loop back somehow, and contribute to the aforementioned crude power of the gore scenes through a sort of hidden back door. Although the murders work mostly by being just the grossest things anyone had ever seen in 1963, and by remaining impressively gross in concept to this day despite what we can now recognize as their technical inadequacies, they also become unsettling due to their tonal mismatch with the rest of the film. Everything else about Blood Feast is so inept as to become goofy almost beyond description, so it’s jarring when the filmmakers put every bit of what little they’ve got into the killings. The changeover generally happens in mid-scene, too, because there was no money (or ability, either, to judge from the scourging scene) for the kind of “blade meets flesh” effect that Tom Savini would perfect a decade later. One second we see Mal Arnold mugging like a giant goon while waving a machete over his head, and then the shot cuts a second later to the genuinely horrendous mess supposedly resulting from the swing. Lewis himself had the right of it when he said of Blood Feast, “It’s no good, but it’s the first of its type, and therefore it deserves a certain position.”



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