Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Blood Feast (1963)

Some films, in spite of having very minor productions and equally minor merits, are nonetheless enormously important, for whatever reasons, to the history of cinema. Horror cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a particularly fertile field for outsider filmmakers trying to make a quick buck and prove their mettle, with a pantheon of varyingly talented swashbucklers defining that proto-indie scene, many of whose names still offer a certain cache of recognition: George Romero, Ray Dennis Steckler, Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham, Arch Hall Snr, Larry Buchanan, Andy Milligan, and Herschell Gordon Lewis and his producer David F. Friedman. Lewis and Friedman, moving sideways from the nudie flicks that had been their early stock-in-trade, entered the horror genre with Blood Feast, a trash epic shot in Miami for less than $70,000. Blood Feast’s claim to fame is pretty blunt: it was the first real gore flick, offering a welter of crude, unconvincing, yet punchy and gaudy flesh-mangling in full colour, inspiring bouts of nausea and delight from the teenaged drive-in audience that made it a covert smash hit. Just three years after the prim monochromatic blood and edit-concealed mutilation of Psycho (1960) had critics momentarily wondering if Hitchcock had gone too far, Lewis was offering up popped eyeballs, severed legs, scooped-out brains, torn-out tongues, and a plethora of other charnel-house wonders with the enthusiastic gall of a young boy sticking bugs in his sister’s hair.

Lewis became a folk-hero to transgressive artists like John Waters, whose first film, Multiple Maniacs (1969), was a Lewis tribute, and retained his infamy well into the Video Nasties era in Britain in the ‘80s, making Lewis a definer not just of the modern horror movie but also of aspects of the punk aesthetic. Lewis himself retained a droll level of observational sarcasm about his work and his audience, reflecting on how the response to his movies charted the evolution of that audience from easily delighted children to harsh critics when it came to on-screen bloodletting. Fittingly, Blood Feast displays a certain mischievous attitude towards itself, another source, surely, of Waters’ attraction to the filmmaker. In the first few moments there’s a glimpse of a book entitled “Ancient Weird Religious Rites”, a sure tip-off that the filmmakers are working with tongues practically sewn into their cheeks, and the way the gore is presented on screen has that kind of unaffected, unblinking delight displayed by many a student and amateur filmmaker since in trying to make their own gross-out epics. Lewis, with his bold use of colour and occasionally innovative jump-cuts, hints at potential talent behind the lens, as well as a sense of theatre and humour, which diffuses most (but not all) of the grotesquery.

Speaking about Blood Feast on the level of a pop cultural artefact and an icon of self-deprecating exploitation is actually rather more entertaining, however, than sitting through the film itself, which, even at 67 minutes long, is a bit of a slog. Yes, there are signs of humour and cartoonish creativity spotted throughout Blood Feast – it exhibits something very similar to the then-recently banned EC Comics aesthetic. But they’re so infrequent as to barely count amidst acting so stiff it can make you feel like suicide, a dull and obvious screenplay, and a multiplicity of bad sets and stultifying camera set-ups. One can’t even begin to compare Blood Feast to the genuinely vigorous cinema of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as an exemplar of indie imagination espoused in the genre. Blood Feast is amateurish claptrap, and this partly accounts for Lewis’ popularity as a model: he demands no sense of cinema as a plastic art, only a kind of blankly illustrative √©lan. Yet there’s something engaging about Blood Feast’s islets of self-conscious absurdity. The villain, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), is an Egyptian caterer and seller of exotic foodstuffs, who also happens to be an adherent to an ancient Egyptian cult of Ishtar (actually a Babylonian goddess, but that seems to be part of the joke) and wishes to recreate one of the ancient ritual feasts where worshippers indulged a cannibalistic plethora of slaughtered sacrificial victims. When clueless society matron Mrs. Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) asks Ramses to cater her daughter’s birthday party, he gains the perfect stage for his ambition, for which he’s already been harvesting body parts from hapless young women around town.

Before you can say, “ludicrous coincidence”, we learn that Fremont’s daughter Suzette (Connie Mason) is girlfriend to the police detective in charge of the case, Pete Thornton (William Kerwin), and they’re both aficionados of Egyptian history, so they attend a lecture by a professor explaining the Ishtar cult. It then takes an intolerably long time for Thornton to make the connection between one victim’s memory of her attacker speaking the word “I-tar” and “Ishtar”, the penny not dropping until he finally learns of the theme of Suzette’s party. Some amusingly incompetent set-pieces dot the film, particularly when Ramses stalks Suzette and some friends at a pool party, Ramses approaching close enough in broad daylight to cast a shadow over Suzette, and then somehow managing to run off within the space of a couple of seconds so that Suzette does not glimpse him when she turns her head. Equally funny is when, having captured Suzette’s friend Trudy (Christy Foushee), he whips her with abandon, smearing her back and clothes too with what is obviously fake blood. And yet there are other bits that retain a charge of savagery that can’t be so easily snorted at, as when Ramses attacks a woman in a motel room (Astrid Olson) and tears out her tongue and most of her throat with it, leaving her to expire with a gaping bloody maw. Perhaps the film’s most successful moment of casual black comedy comes when Ramses cheerfully roasts up limbs in a big Vulcan oven. There’s a whiff of the genuinely horrific, too, in the moment Thornton and his partner discover Trudy’s body lying on a table, daubed in gore, surrounded by chunks of bloody flesh, not entirely dispelled by the lashings of Godardian red on Foushee's outstretched form. Again, it’s easy to see Lewis’ appeal for rebellious filmmakers in the simplistic force with which he yields a mischievous delight in seeing his sleazy villain scheming to feed smug and bland bourgeoisie with the offal of their own children. This builds to a casually delivered punch-line when Mrs Fremont responds to news that her feast is a crime scene, “Oh dear, I guess the guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight!” Blood Feast desperately needed more such overt satire to lend the film's implicit anarchism coherence. As it is it merely predicts later, better filmmakers.


james1511 said...

I enjoy this film far more than I probably should. I thought the budget was only $25,000, though; surely if it had been 70 grand Lewis could've afforded to hire an actor with at least *some* actual talent who didn't need to write his lines on his hands to remind him what they were...

Roderick Heath said...

James, the figure "less than $70,000" comes from Hardy's Horror Movie Encyclopedia, but indeed, it does seem suspiciously high considering the almost complete absence of professional actors, unless the color film stock soaked up a lot of the money.