05 June 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HAVE YOU EVER HAD AN EGYPTIAN FEAST?!

It's long been a private suspicion of mine that nearly all of the truly important, influential films in cinema history are also bad. There are exceptions; there always are. But in the main, if a film is extraordinarily significant for this camera technique, or that type of editing trick, or this sort of heroine et cetera, five'll get you ten that the only reason to watch it is is scholarly interest. Take Citizen Kane, for instance: for all its reputation as a groundbreaking technical work, it invented not one damn thing. It just perfected things that were invented in movies that nobody wants to watch anymore, because unlike Citizen Kane, they're boring.

I bring this up because the time has come to take a peek at what is, incontestably, the most Important-with-a-capital-"I" film on the Video Nasties list: Blood Feast, from 1963, which is nor more nor less than the first gore movie ever made. Every one of the 73 other Nasties must claim Blood Feast as one of its key ancestors, as must decade after decade of Friday the 13th movies, and endless Saw sequels. And just as incontestably as it is Important, so too is Blood Feast outstandingly, deliriously bad.

"The first gore movie" is not an altogether objective claim, though there are few people who disagree strongly with this point. Three years earlier, for example, you have Psycho, which was absolutely sold on the basis of its shocking violence; but it was also sold on its unbelievable twist ending and the bulletproof name of Alfred Hitchcock. The many European art-horror films of the '50s and early '60s were notorious for their bloodletting, but just as notorious for their poetic, abstract aesthetic. What makes Blood Feast special is that it was the first movie ever marketed solely on the basis of its violence. Not its plot, not its stars: people went to see it because it was bloody. Really damn bloody. So bloody that it probably would have justifiably won a place on a 1963 edition of a Nasties list, though by the time it was banned in Britain, its effects - along with every single other element of its production - had become hopelessly dated. This is the film about which the most famous story is almost certainly Frank Henenlotter's recollection of how badly it messed up his young self when he saw it as a teen; and if Blood Feast had enough primal power to drive a boy to grow up and direct Basket Case, I think we can agree that it had some real potency back in the day, before decades of bigger, bloodier movies dulled it to the point where I wouldn't blink to see it playing on television on a weekend afternoon.

So, anyway, Blood Feast, the ur-gore picture, was born of one of the great minds in pre-'70s exploitation cinema, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Herschell Gordon Lewis! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. He is probably best remembered today for 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs! and this is well, for Two Thousand Maniacs! is several hundred times better than Blood Feast. But that's skipping ahead: let us tarry around the turn of the 1960s, when Lewis was just a micro-budget filmmaker kicking around Florida, making some ultra-cheap proto-pornographic films of the sort called "nudie cuties". This short-lived subgenre followed an age when the only way to see naked people in cinema was under the guise of "educational" films or naturist documentaries; for the first time, exploitation filmmakers finally decided to just film naked women (and the occasional man) in barely-there plots, without any hint of respectability. These were extremely silly, harmless bits of fluff, romping little comedies with titles like The Immoral Mr. Teas, Nude on the Moon, and Summer with Monika. Nowadays, they're almost as banal as Blood Feast is: it's hard to imagine anyone finding them tremendously erotic, unless they are a 12-year-old boy and the internet is down. In which case it's kind of hard to imagine how he would stumble across a nudie cutie in the first place, but I am drifting from my topic.

Lewis made a few cuties, but as the porn industry started to develop, and Hollywood started toying with the idea of increasingly frank depictions of sexuality, there ceased to be any real money in it. Unfazed, Lewis simply grabbed the next best taboo he could come up with, graphic violence, and made a film that went farther in its depiction of severed limbs and gouged-out eyes than anything ever had. Plus, of course, a quick nipple flash in the first scene, because why the hell not?

Blood Feast was made cheap, for no reason other than to be controversial enough to make money. The rumor is that the price tag for the film was just south of $25,000; even in 1963, that's not much. I do not know whether to say that it shows or not: certainly, the gore is depicted lovingly and unstintingly, but it doesn't seem like a dime was spent on a crew (Lewis shot the film himself), on script re-writes, and definitely not on the cast.

Clocking in at a desperately short 67 minutes, Blood Feast consists of virtually nothing but attempts to stretch out the space between killings as much as possible. The plot, such as it is, consists of an evil caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who's killing girls and removing a single organ or body part from each one of them; he is chased by the only cops in suburban Miami, both of whom are so incompetent that you almost suspect they'd be capable of directing this movie: Pete Thornton (William Kerwin, using the pseudonym Thomas Wood - you'd do the same) and Frank the captain (Scott H. Hall). Ramses doesn't have the slightest problem staying ahead of them as he prepares something nefarious involving a dinner party being thrown by Debbie Crazyhats - I'm terribly sorry, apparently it's actually "Mrs. Fremont" (Lyn Bolton) - for her daughter Suzette (Connie Mason, a former Playmate), who happens to be flirting with Pete, since they met at a local college's weekly Egyptology class, I think. The dialogue is unclear on this and every other point.

Above: Debbie Crazyhats on the town

Slightly before the 30-minute mark, Pete and Suzette attend a lecture that goes something like this: "Once upon a time, the Egyptians praised their goddess Ishtar by holding a festival at which they sacrificed 20 virgins and cooked their organs to be eaten by the population at large. Some people say that this is still going on. Boy, that would be terrible! Heh heh." And isn't it cool that in one sentences I was able to repeat no fewer than three of the flat-out lies the film tells about the ancient Egyptians? Right, so we in the audience know what's going on for more than one-half of the movie. But since the only reason anybody has ever watched Blood Feast is to see the gore effects, we shouldn't really hold jaw-dropping structural fuck-ups against it.

By this point, three girls have died onscreen, and there were more before them; the cops have no leads as yet. But finally, one victim manages to stay alive just long enough to interrupt Pete and Suzette while they're necking, and when he goes to the hospital to interview her, she can just barely squeak out, "He said it was for Eetar" before dying. Here's what we know that Pete knows at this point, just to recap:

-Someone is killing girls and removing one part of their body.
-He's doing it for "Eetar".
-The ancient Egyptians used to kill girls and remove one organ from each girl.
-They did it for Ishtar.
-One of the victims was found with a book titled Ancient Weird Religious Rites.

Pete heard the Ishtar lecture at best hours before going to the hospital, and when Captain Frank asks what he makes of this "Eetar" business, he furrows his brow and responds, in one of the stupidest moments of human behavior ever depicted on celluloid:

"Strange... it almost sounds familiar."

I'm not going to bother with the rest, you get the point: Blood Feast is amazingly, amazingly stupid, it can't even flop-sweat its way up to 70 minutes, and I haven't even started on its technical incompetence. This includes, at a minimum, Lewis's amateur-hour cinematography, involving obvious re-framings right in the middle of dialogue, and panning shots where the camera visibly jerks as it moves, as the operator forgot to unlock the tripod pan head first. Or what of the ludicrous musical score, which consists of organ music intercut with a plodding "dum--DUM--dum--DUM" percussion piece?

But surely, the best example of the film's bargain basement ineptitude can be found in the performances. I'll give Kerwin a pass: he was a legitimate actor in later years, and he wasn't even half-bad at it. He's the one person in Blood Feast who has any idea what he's doing, and most of the time you barely notice he's there, so unremarkable is his character.

Because, surrounded by the horrific clown show around him, mere competence isn't enough to stand out from the crowd.

It's hard to know where to begin. With Mal Arnold, who plays Fuad Ramses with a not-quite-accent and a pronounced limp, and communicates his evilness by opening his eyes really wide? He's terrible, and would be the worst member of many a cast, but he barely flickers here. Not when we have Gene Courtier as Tony, a bereaved boyfriend, who gets to have a real swell breakdown with line deliveries like "SHE-HE WHA-HANTED T-HOO LUH-HEAVE! SHE WUH-HUS SCUH-HARED!" (as exact a transcription as I could manage). Nor Connie Mason, who acts exactly the way you'd expect a Playboy Playmate to act: when she delivers her lines, it's like every word is the most exciting thing anyone has ever said, and when she is not speaking, she appears to be asleep. Scott H. Hall probably doesn't deserve anyone's contempt: he was a crewmember, shanghaied into acting when somebody didn't arrive on set; but that doesn't excuse. The stilted rhythm of. His line recitals. Like he was reading cue. Cards, or dialogue. That he wrote on his hand.

Above: an actual scene from a movie that cost real American money to make

And last but definitely not least, is Lyn Bolton, whose extremely... eager performance as Mrs. Fremont translates into a bizarre and wildly inconsistent New England accent and- well, you saw that photo I posted earlier. You saw her saucer eyes.

It doesn't help that these actors have to deliver dialogue (by nudie cutie expert Allison Louise Downe) that includes such choice bons mots as:

"Call the Fremonts, fast! And for Pete's sake, don't let them eat anything!"

"Mrs. Fremont, I'm afraid this feast is evidence of murder!
"Oh dear! The guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight."

"Fuad Ramses? Nope, never heard of him... oh, just like Dr Flanders’ speech, huh?... Ishtar! Heh. Well, I hope it isn’t exactly like Dr Flanders described it!"

"Well Frank, it look like one of those long, hard ones."

Finally the gore: the theoretical reason that I've dragged you here in the first place. What can I say? $25,000 buys you plenty of red paint, but not the talent to apply it in ways that look halfway decent, nor the knowledge of how to light and frame it. Since I've been peppering this review with screencaps, here's one more: the first gore effect in the first gore movie of all time.

Above: this movie has a tendency to deprave and corrupt

There's one moment that most people agree almost works, when Fuad Ramses rips a woman's tongue out, leaving a messy pool of blood running out of her dead mouth; the effect is pretty damn gross (and it looks like a real animal tongue that Arnold is holding), but it's all ruined when you notice the actress steadily wobbling her jaw to force more of the red goo out. Frankly, that anyone could respond to this movie with anger, fear, or disgust, rather than constant peals of laughter dumbfounds me.

For by all means, Blood Feast is hilarious: one of the funniest "so bad it's good" movies I've seen in a long, long time, and at 67 minutes, it couldn't be easier to fit into your schedule. So watch it, is what I'm saying: watch it yesterday. Lovers of crap horror (and if you're not a lover of crap horror, I doubt you got anywhere near this far into the review) owe it to themselves, for this is one of the masterpieces of truly feckless cinema, an epic fail of such grandeur that Ed Wood himself would be hard-pressed to do better. Worse. You know what I mean.

Body Count: 7, one of them a priestess to Ishtar killed in a 5000-year flashback.

Nastiness Rating: 1/5, not at all Nasty. I categorically refuse to believe that violence presented with such utter incompetence as we find in this film could possibly contribute to the downfall of any society that isn't dominated by three-year-olds.

4 comments:

The.Watcher said...

I thought your Marmaduke review was hilarious, but you out-did yourself with this one! Bravo, I say.

Bryce Wilson said...

It was a real tongue. A sheep's to be exact.

Oh the things you learn reading Joe Bob Brigg's books. In all seriousness, if anyone is interested Brigg's wrote a damn good essay on the film and his making in his "Profoundly Shocking".

Troy Olson said...

I remember hearing about Lewis' films on a PBS show when I was in high school (The Incredibly Strange Film Show, or something like that?) and getting all excited about seeing his films, since critics and fans and fellow directors were raving over how great the guy was.

Our local video shop had COLOR ME BLOOD RED, so I rented it...and was simply shocked at how awful it was. Pretty much sounds on par with BLOOD FEAST, except drawn out to 80 minutes (i.e. even more boring).

Summer of Blood reviews are my favorite thing you do -- nice to have a great film reviewer who also has an appreciation/affection for horror films (yet isn't just a mindless fanboy).

Daniel Silberberg said...

It is a credit to your writing skill that I read this entire review. I read the first paragraph and thought, "I don't give a shit about this movie, it's 2 in the morning, I'm just not gonna read it." Then I went on to the next paragraph. Thusly am I sleep deprived. Curse you and your entertaining prose!