AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 68 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A series of gruesome murders is going on in Miami and detective Pete Thornton so far doesn’t have any clues. The culprit is actually Fuad Ramses, owner of a catering store and acoloyte of the Egpytian goddess Ishtar. Fuad is preparing a “blood feast” – a huge vat containing the parts of various murdered woman – that will ensure the goddess’s resurrection. Two more killings occur and Pete discovers that they belonged to the same book club….
A woman who’s had her tongue ripped out being able to talk. An old man with a limp being chased by policemen who just can’t catch up with him and who actually seem further away whenever we are shown where they with are with regard to their quarry. The same old man whipping a woman and the whip missing her and hitting the wall half the time yet more and more blood appearing on the woman’s back. Yes, welcome to the weird but hardly wonderful world of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the man often nicknamed the ‘Godfather of Gore’ though the title ‘Ed Wood of Gore’ might be more appropriate. I’ll say it right now, Blood Feast is pretty bloody awful, and often just painful in its badness rather than being hugely entertaining because of it, and yet it’s also a film that I believe any true horror fan should check out. It’s an important movie in the history of the genre, essentially the world’s first splatter movie. While blood and gore have now been part and parcel of the genre for many decades now with many films featuring scenes that would have had trouble getting past the censors even 20 years ago, it certainly wasn’t always the case. Restrictions were once tight in a way it’s impossible to imagine now and it wasn’t until Hammer broke onto the scene in the late 1950’s that we were able to see some gruesome stuff in any great quantity but Lewis with Blood Feast took this to a whole new level – though many viewers watching the film today may very well find it rather tame, and as a whole the thing is so ineptly made that it’s hard to be shocked even if you don’t much enjoy seeing lots of the red stuff on screen.
The goal of Lewis and producer David. F. Friedman was to make commercially successful low budget movies by offering something that big mainstream offerings couldn’t or were unwilling to do. After making a series of ‘nudie’ pictures [no explanation needed for what they were], they decided to go for graphic bloodshed after a viewing of Psycho where Lewis said he was disappointed that not much was actually shown. Blood Feast was shot in Miami over just four days with a budget of $24,500. The guy intended to play Frank the police captain failed to show up so crew member Scott H. Hall filled in for the part. Much of the time and effort was spent on the special effects, though animal offal from local butchers was used for most of the gore. When the film opened in Peoria, Illinois, word of mouth about its shocking nature caused a five-mile backup of cars trying to get in to see Blood Feast the following night. More publicity was gained by Friedman intentionally taking out an injunction against the movie, and screenings where sick bags were given out on arrival and nurses were on hand during showings to assist those who might become overwhelmed by the horror presented on the screen. Blood Feast made a huge amount of money though went unreleased in the UK where it eventually turned up on the video nasty list and had most of the whipping scene removed from its first video release, which was the form in which I first saw it. It didn’t, I must say, make me eager to check out Lewis’s other stuff, though I had seen a mutilated version of his next work Two Thousand Maniacs a few years before on video and found it to be a significant improvement despite it missing most of the good stuff.
The opening scene, clearly attempting some titillation as well as suspense, has a woman alone in her apartment getting undressed and going for a bath, and later on you even have the killer “punish” two young lovers for getting up close and personal, though it would be giving Blood Feast too much credit to say it originated these cliches. Suddenly the killer appears to slice off part of the woman’s face and then her leg, though we don’t see much of this, the killer blocking much of the action. The tiny amount of money at the filmmaker’s disposal meant that some of the horrid detail just couldn’t be shown, and it’s quite often the aftermath of a killing that is dwelt on, and sights like a freshly scalped woman’s head, a ripped out heart being held, and a woman on a table covered in blood are certainly lingered upo0n, the camera panning down the latter as slowly as possible in a gloating way, though the childlike desire to shock and the lack of skill involved mean that it’s hard to get offended – at least these days. The notorious tongue ripping scene – the bit that really made people feel sick in 1963 – manages to be both uncomfortable and ridiculous. The killer doesn’t even knock her out or anything, he just jams his fingers into her mouth and yanks it out while she barely struggles, and when we see it it’s about a foot long [it actually belonged to a sheep].
The plot? You mean there’s a plot amidst all this? Actually, yes there is, though it’s feebly put together and relies on things like a bookshop which seems to only sell one book [called Ancient Weird Religious Rites] and a villain who worships a goddess who’s supposed to be Egpytian but was, if you know about stuff like this, actually Babylonian. Caterer Fuad Ramses wants to bring her back to life using different body parts in a vat, so is killing off folk to obtain the parts he needs. He kills one girl called Marcy but doesn’t bother to polish off her boyfriend Tony so the latter can tell the police about seeing a man with “grey hair and strange glowing eyes”. The incredibly slow cops, who by the way like to carry their firearms in their back pockets, are stumped, but then detective Pete Thornton thinks he has a clue. It’s just as well, because his girlfriend Suzette Fremont could well be the next target. She’s attending a party held by her mother at which Fuad is doing the catering. There’s no mystery, we’re told that Fuad Ramses is the killer right away, but we’re hardly talking suspense over surprise here because the whole thing is very monotonous and seems to take place on one level, with Lewis not even rising to the challenge for the murder scenes. At times he does seem to be actually trying to be funny, like when one potential victim just won’t lie down, and the line: “I was thinking about those murders. They just take the joy out of everything”, but most of the dialogue is just plain bad, like this classic exchange: “The killer must have thought she was dead”. “It’s a miracle she wasn’t”. “Well, she’s need now”.
The acting is totally abysmal. I get that the film was shot in four days with mostly semi-professionals and amateurs so you shouldn’t expect anything too great, but it actually hurts to watch some of the scenes here and it’s obvious that Lewis didn’t give the performers much direction. Connie Mason, who amazingly had something of a career after this, is excruciatingly bad, but the worst moments are whenever Pete and his boss Frank sit down to chat, William Kerwin and Scott H. Hall giving lots of awkward pauses and even seeming to make up some lines up on the spot, probably because they forgot them. We’re certainly not talking about the kind of spontaniety that can be seem real here. We’re more talking the kind of performing that makes the furniture seem animated. There are even moments when they seem to be reading from their lines from a piece of paper! Then you have Tony who’s seduction of Marcy is laughable, and Marcy’s mother, both of whom totally overdo the crying making you just want them to shut up. Compared to all this, the guy who plays Fuad Mal Arnold may ham it up with his hilarious expressions but at least he’s fun to watch and actually seems to acting in a different film to everyone else, one which doesn’t seem to be acted by robots.
The filming is mostly very static with a bit of mild ‘shakycam’ for the murder sceness. There’s a nice dissolve from a bloody shot of a scalped girl to the red light of a police siren, but a potentially effective shot of Fuad’s shadow getting close to a girl is just funny because the victim obviously can’t see Fuad even though she’s facing the right way and he would only have been a few feet away. Lewis himself wrote the music score and it’s surprisingly diverse if he did indeed compose it all on his own – a piece played during a love scene certainly doesn’t sound like he did it, nor does a very dramatic, heavily orchestral track just before the climax. I would say that he was probably just responsible for the main theme with its incessant drum beat, some slightly irritating organ pieces, and some discordant violins. Considering what a cheap production it was, it’s possible that I’ve been too hard on Blood Feast overall, but there are loads of similarly low budget horrors that are infinitely better. I can’t think of any other films that are as important yet also so poor.
I haven’t seen any previous version on Blood Feast since the UK video, but this seems to basically be a single release of the Blu-ray and DVD version included in Arrow’s fourteen-film Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast box set which came out around this time last year. It looks about as good as you would have a right to expect it to look. The image is unsurprisingly a bit soft in places but the colours are quite vibrant especially all that unrealistic-looking blood.
First up amongst the extensive special features is the black and white Scum Of The Earth, the film Lewis made just before Blood Feast and with some of the same cast members. In his optional introduction, Lewis calls it the first “roughie”, a kind of sexploitation film which emphasised bad treatment of women, though being this is 1963 we don’t see anything nasty, and it’s hard not to laugh when the heroine is whipped offscreen and then seen with loads of scars on her back, but then in her next scene her back is untouched. But despite lots of the expected shoddy acting [though lead Kim Sherwood isn’t too bad] and rudimentary technique [though there is a huge close-up of someone’s mouth when he’s having a rant], I found this to be overall a better watch than Blood Feast. The story is reasonably well constructed, there’s some dramatic tension, and I was genuinely intrigued to see how it would all pan out. Sherwood plays a girl who becomes a model for a photographer who’s in league with a gang whose boss illegally sells photos of teenage girls being abused. She’s not allowed to leave and is blackmailed into modelling in the nude. Not being experienced in this type of film I found it unusual to see topless nudity in a film of the type. Overall not too bad.
There aren’t any new features, but that’s hardly surprising since Lewis died not that long ago and there was quite a lot on here on the previous Blu-ray. The several featurettes are quite short but who would ever thought that this film would receive such good treatment? After Lewis’s two optional introductions for each film, we get Blood Perspectives where filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher discuss Blood Feast for around ten minutes. McCarthy says that you have to adjust your mind to what you’re watching – no kidding. They unashamedly appreciate the film and tell of their first encounters with it. Herschell’s History was on the DVD and has Lewis briefly talking about his early career, particularly the release of his first ‘nudie’ which quickly became a notorious hit despite the ‘answer print – the old equivalent of a rough cut – being the one that ended up in cinemas. How Herschell Found His Niche sees Lewis discuss his early stuff with not much repetition from the previous featurette, but much better is the interview with Lewis and Friedman done eleven years ago where they answer various questions with good humour. “If there’s room for Disney, there’s room for Deep Throat“ says Friedman at the end. I can’t argue with that. Carving Magic is a little longer than the previous four pieces, running around 20 minutes. It’s a lesson on how to carve meat with Kerwin. Useful to some I’d imagine. Then you have some 45 minutes worth of outtakes, basically alternate versions of various scenes with slightly more gore on show in one bit and a bit of topless nudity in another, and then some different, tamer versions of a few moments in Scum Of The Earth.
Listed last is the audio commentary, and it’s a cracker. Lewis [I’ve suddenly realised who he sounds like – Roger Corman!], and Friedman just can’t stop talking and moderator Mike Grady almost wasn’t needed. After a few minutes of the two saying stuff they say elsewhere on this disc, they fill us with information [most of the shooting was done on the sly] as to how things were done [it’s almost a primer in how to save money whilst shooting a film] and are loaded with stories. There’s an amusing ending to the Peoria showing tale I mentioned much earlier, the fake leg on fire accidently doused with paraffin, an actor who couldn’t pronounce a certain word – loads of great stuff. They’re clearly aware of the limitations of their film and are happy to point out some gaffs, yet also seem proud of it. Lewis seems pleasantly surprised that the outtakes were found and says that it took twelve times longer to score the picture than it did to film it. Wonderful. In fact Blood Feast is so much better watched this way.
I can’t say I found to impress about Blood Feast, but the extras did interest and the added movie was a really nice touch and actually superior. It does have many fans so if you’re one of those and weren’t able to fork out for the Lewis boxset, then you probably need no persuasion to buy this release. If you’ve never seen it – well as I said earlier, you’ve probably got to watch it if you’re a serious horror fan even if the film is basically trash.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD presentations
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Scum of the Earth – Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 feature
*Blood Perspectives – Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher on Blood Feast
*Herschell’s History – Archival interview in which director Herschell Gordon Lewis discusses his entry into the film industry
*How Herschell Found his Niche – A new interview with Lewis discussing his early work
*Archival interview with Lewis and David F. Friedman
*Carving Magic – Vintage short film from 1959 featuring Blood Feast Actor Bill Kerwin
*Alternate “clean” scenes from Scum of the Earth
*Promo gallery featuring trailers and more
*Feature length commentary featuring Lewis and David F. Friedman moderated by Mike Grady
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil