The Plot Sickens: Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast

Originally posted June 28, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

Courtesy of wrongsideoftheart.com

As I sit here in my underground lair, listening to Barnaby’s evocative caw, caw and fortifying myself with strong drink, I find myself wondering where it all went wrong.  Not my life, you understand; that went off the rails the day those officious rapscallions invaded my laboratory and examined the contents of my freezer.  I speak, rather, about the moment when the horror film left the realm of dream and myth, and descended into the abbatoir.

Which brings me to Blood Feast (1963), about which I have a strange ambivalence.

It isn’t often that you can point to a cultural artifact and definitively claim it as the first of its kind, but here we have an exception.  Few would deny that Herschell Gordon Lewis’s sanguinary spectacle is the first gore film ever released, although as producer David Friedman declared in his memoir A Youth in Babylon, “Blood Feast wasn’t released—it just escaped.”

FIRST, I am depressed, because Blood Feast began the trend away from the suggestive, poetic horrors of the Val Lewtons and Tod Brownings, in favor of ugly, artless little pictures in which nubile cuties are creatively slaughtered by knife-wielding loons.  Its descendents are the dispiriting mad-slasher films of the ‘80s and abominations like the current Saw franchise.  I should also add that, as a once-practicing avant-garde surgeon, it pains me to see bodies torn apart with such pitiful lack of finesse.

NEXT, I am fascinated, because the film is such a prime example of early-‘60s grindhouse fare at its most disreputable, and the ensuing decades have given it a patina of what I’m tempted to call “period charm.”  And then there’s the sheer sense of wonder that engulfs one when viewing a picture that is so very, very bad in every conceivable way.  The mind reels, grasps for reference points, and finally gives way to a kind of awe, laced with perverse affection.  We are talking Edward D. Wood levels of ineptitude, but without the earnestness and berserk integrity which entitles Wood to a qualified respect.

No one who is not either delusional or French has ever made a serious artistic case for Lewis, and neither he nor Friedman—an ex-carny, as it happens—has ever denied that their motives were purely mercenary.

The two collaborators got their start in the once-popular “nudie cutie” genre, with such choice titles as Goldilocks and the Three Bares and BOIN-N-G! (both 1963) to their credit.  Sensing that the market for these innocuous romps had already peaked, Lewis and Friedman cast around for some other exploitable element—something Hollywood wouldn’t touch, and that other independent filmmakers hadn’t dared to try.  Gore, they decided, would be their ticket to notoriety.

It seems rather fitting that the plot of Blood Feast was inspired by a tacky motel statue.  When Lewis saw the seven-foot plaster Sphinx outside the Suez Motel in Miami Beach, the proverbial light bulb went off, and he concocted a story about a crazed Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who gets hired to prepare a birthday feast for a blandly blonde Egyptology student with the unimprovable name of Suzette Freemont (Connie Mason).

Regrettably for all concerned, Ramses is devoted to the bloodthirsty goddess Ishtar (a Babylonian deity, but never mind), and believes he can resurrect her by hacking up assorted young lovelies and harvesting their organs for use in an ancient ritual.  The cop whom Suzette happens to be dating (Thomas Wood) eventually tracks him down, but not before Ramses has subjected several maidens to such indignities as whipping, eye-stabbing, leg amputation, brain removal, face-hacking, and—in the film’s infamous coup de gross—tongue extraction.  (The tongue in question originally belonged to a sheep, and had begun to ripen on the day of the shoot; Lewis responded in true do-it-yourself fashion by dousing it in Lysol.  The hapless Astrid Olson, cast because of her cavernous mouth, managed to contain not only the tongue but a goodly portion of strawberry gelatin and Lewis’s patented blood solution.)

Part of the fascination of Blood Feast is trying to figure out how firmly Lewis’s own tongue was planted in his cheek.  After all, this was a supposedly charming and intelligent man who had a Master’s degree in journalism and once taught English literature at the college level. Did he really expect us to take the preposterous Fuad Ramses seriously?  And those periodic blasts of soap-opera organ—deliberately campy, or just plain tacky?

But even if we’re feeling generous, and assume that Blood Feast is largely a put-on, the film gives no indication that Lewis had the slightest flair for storytelling, or any sense of where to put his camera, or anything but the tinniest of tin ears for dialogue.  And make no mistake: this is Lewis’s project all the way, even though the script is credited to one A. Louise Downe.  (According to Lewis, she did nothing more than type the script, but he gave her the dubious honor in order to avoid the embarrassment of claiming every single screen credit for himself.)  Lewis even composed the abysmal, ear-defying score, and performed its maddeningly inane two-note timpani motif.

As for the acting, the clip above epitomizes the general level of emoting found throughout Blood Feast.  Mal Arnold, who had the good taste to vanish into obscurity after this film came out, delivers his lines in one of the most dreadful Lugosi-esque accents ever heard—though it should be noted that his overgrown, spray-painted eyebrows perform yeoman service.  The casting of Connie Mason can be attributed to her appearance in Playboy as the June 1963 Playmate of the Month—and her status as Friedman’s main squeeze—rather than any notable skill as a thespian.  Lewis couldn’t stand Mason (though she somehow wound up in his 1964 follow-up film, Two Thousand Maniacs!), and was prone to saying cutting things about her in interviews, even decades later.  Here he is speaking with trash auteur John Waters, in Waters’ memoir Shock Value:

JOHN WATERS: Where did you find your first star, Connie Mason?
LEWIS: Under a rock….She never knew a line.  Not ever.  Nor could she ever be on the set on time….I’ve often felt if one took the key out of Connie’s back, she’d simply stand in place.

Not knowing quite what they had on their hands, Lewis and Friedman bypassed the major markets and decided to see how it would play in Peoria.  Literally.

“We decided to open the picture in the Bel Air [Drive-In] Theatre in Peoria,” Lewis recalled, “feeling if we drop dead in Peoria, no one on earth will ever know—it’s a different planet.  We opened on a Friday and we went down there on a Saturday in a driving rain, and here was traffic backed up down the highway, and the state police directing traffic, and I knew we had something.”

You have to hand it to the old boy; he called the movie Blood Feast, and that’s exactly what it is.  “You’ll Recoil and Shudder as You Witness the Slaughter and Mutilation of Nubile Young Girls in a Weird and Horrendous Ancient Rite!” screamed the posters, and for once, the hyperventilating ad copy promised exactly what it delivered. Women fainted; husky men quaked and blanched; concession-stand cashiers stared at the screen in disbelief.  The censors threw their hands in the air; they were used to dealing with nudity and profanity, but there were no laws addressing this kind of stuff.

So, even though Blood Feast paved the way for a trend in horror that I detest, I can’t bring myself to hate the picture itself.  It’s too ridiculous, too much a quaint relic of the early ‘60s, and too unapologetically itself.  Despite the lovingly photographed mutilations that earned this film its sicko reputation, there’s no genuine malice in it.  It’s just the old carny hustle, with Lewis and Friedman beckoning you inside the tent to see the two-headed baby.