About a year ago, Arrow’s monumental, long-gestated “Feast” box set was released in the immediate aftermath of the death of the cinema maverick whose work it celebrated so lavishly – Herschell Gordon Lewis. Earlier this year, the announcement of an Arrow collection of George Romero’s non-zombie films coincided with that iconic director’s demise. John Carpenter could be forgiven for anticipating the label’s upcoming Blu-ray release of The Thing with a certain amount of trepidation and David Cronenberg might well be anxiously checking their re-release plans for a whole raft of his titles…
Now that Arrow have started dismembering that Feast box for discrete releases of selected HGL epics that will better suit the pockets of more penurious punters, where better to start than with Blood Feast (1963), the oldest film to make it onto the dreaded “video nasties” listings and widely acclaimed as “the first splatter movie”? Widely, but not universally acknowledged… other contenders have been put forward for this laurel, notably Mario Bava’s Black Sunday but while Bava’s film has plenty of other things going for it (cinematography, atmosphere, Barbara Steele, for example) Blood Feast remains an unrepentently one trick, plasma-drenched pony… it’s all about the Gore.
It’s certainly not about the plot…
The film opens (to the accompaniment of “tragic kettle drums”!) with a blonde lady (Sandra Sinclair) being attacked in her bath tub by crazed Egyptian exotic caterer Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold)… don’t you just hate it when that happens? The Daily Chronicle’s infamous headline acknowledges one small step for Fuad in his quest to invoke the Goddess Ishtar but a giant leap for screen gore (not to mention a faltering hop for Ms Sinclair). Striking again while the iron is hot, Ramses goes beach-combing and beats out the brains of some cutie out spooning under the stars with her boyfriend. When questioned by the police, this guy really starts chewing the scenery, pulling faces and wailing “She wanted to go home! She wanted to go home!” over and over again as he meditates on the wages of sin.
Ramses’ third victim has her tongue (actually that of a sheep) pulled right out of her head. Lewis says of Playmate Astrid Olsen: “She was quite adequate for the role – her mouth was big enough to hold this sheep’s tongue and several others!” Connie Mason (another ex-Playmate, who was cast because of producer Friedman’s infatuation with her toothy smile) is a member of the same book-club as the amputee in the bath and also attends lectures on Ancient Egyptian cults. “You know I’ve always been interested in Egyptology”, this obviously empty-headed girl tells her boyfriend Pete Thornton (Bill Kerwin), who just happens to be a detective, in fact one of the extremely slow-witted cops on the case of the demolished girls.
Another (un)fortuitous “plot”-twist has Connie’s status-seeking mother (Lyn Bolton) hire Fuad Ramses to provide something really exotic for Connie’s birthday party. Little does she know that this is to be the “Blood Feast’ of the title. With a tongue, a brain and a leg, Fuad obviously has the makings of a serviceable Goddess already, though precisely which bits of Connie’s anatomy he plans to filch are left to our imagination. Although an ace Egyptology student, Connie just doesn’t realise what peril she’s in as the machete-wielding exotic caterer persuades her to lie on the kitchen table with her eyes closed. Just as he is about to deliver the coup-de-grace, the cops, for whom the penny has finally dropped, burst in and save Connie. Ramses is pursued across the city dump and expires in a garbage crusher. “He died a fitting death for the garbage he was” intones Detective Thornton, neglecting to add that his fate also provides a perfectly appropriate ending to cinematic garbage such as this.
Lewis himself always conceded that Blood Feast wasn’t very good. “We don’t want it good, we want it Thursday” was the philosophy of producer Dave Friedman (above), but HGL did insist on its historical importance as the first of its kind… like Walt Whitman’s poetry, argued the former English lecturer at the University of Mississippi. Although this claim to primacy is, as we have seen, debatable, Blood Feast’s massive influence over subsequent graphic horror product (just think of how many films have reprised the tongue-yanking gag) and indeed the monied cinematic mainstream is undeniable.
In the supplementary featurette Blood Perspectives, filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher argue that with Blood Feast, Lewis and Friedman broke down the walls between mainstream cinema and exploitation (“Off the byways and onto the highways of America”, as Friedman has it) and (rather convincingly) for its status as a bona fide slice of crypto social history. HGL himself is brusquely dismissive of any such auteurist theorising in a couple of other featurettes herein, insisting that the aim all along was purely to entertain, gob-smack and sell tickets. Friedman backs him up on this in an archival interview from 1987 and on the main feature’s commentary track.
The gruesome twosome reiterate the oft-aired account of how they embarked on the splatter trail in an attempt to fashion a new USP and keep themselves ahead of the pack after competitors felt emboldened to emulate their exploits in the “nudie-cutie” field. 1963 turned out to be the annus mirabilis in this regard, the year in which Lewis shot Bell, Bare And Beautiful virtually simultaneously with Blood Feast, also finding time to contribute Goldilocks And The Three Bares and Boin-n-g. “I felt the nudie cycle was going in the wrong direction…” he recalled: “There are only a certain number of ways you can show girls playing basketball!” (indeed, Boin-n-g probably remains the definitive statement on this aspect of the human condition). In the very same hyperactive year, Lewis and Friedman inaugurated the “roughie” with Scum Of The Earth, which is (you lucky people!) crammed onto this disc as yet another extra.
Lewis’s final monochrome film (with the exception of one hand painted frame at its suicidal climax), Scum Of The Earth tells the tawdry tale of innocent young ladies being drawn into a world of pornography and blackmail by the lure of easy money. Sinister porno king-pin Lang (Lawrence Wood), sadistic Ajax (Craig Maudslay, the guy who trash compacted Fuad Ramses) and sleazy snapper Larry (played by Mal Arnold, though described as “a minor”… in what possible parallel universe?) are out-and-out misogynistic bastards, whereas photographer Harmon (Bill Kerwin) and model / procuress Sandy (Sandra Sinclair, whose bath time routine was so rudely interrupted in Blood Feast) wring their hands about the racket they’re in but carry on regardless, getting – much like the viewer – to have their cheesecake and eat it. After the correct moralistic ending to this perversely enjoyable melodrama, a stern voiceover warns us that: “For every girl who escapes the trap, another falls into it. Only an alert society can save us from those who prey on human weakness… the scum of the Earth!” What kind of low-life, indeed, could draw a sweet lil’ thing like Allison Louise Downe into a net of fleshy depravity? Ask her then husband… Herschell Gordon Lewis (he describes her on the Blood Feast commentary track as “a crew member” so draw your own conclusions as to how the marriage worked out).
Additional extras include outtakes, trailers (also for Lucky Pierre, Goldilocks & The Three Bares and Bell, Bare And Beautiful) plus a hysterically sincere theatre announcement / warning to the faint hearted. Bill Kerwin fans are also treated to the promotional short Carving Magic (1959), in which Martha Logan (the Nigella Lawson of her day) coaches Kerwin in how to tackle the Sunday joint. You might learn something about meat carving here but don’t expect too many laughs from this allegedly humorous effort…. Sgt Bilko it ain’t!
I’ve often babbled on in these and other pages about the swings-and-roundabouts aspect of Blu-ray upgrades. If you’re the kind that habitually regards his or her tumbler of J&B half full, you’ll appreciate the hitherto unguessed at cinematographic subtleties that are revealed to you thereby. If you’re of the “half empty” persuasion, then you’re gonna rue the consequent increase in grain. It hardly matters, anyway… if you keep on drinking J&B, at some point you’re going to be stabbed to death by a loony in a leather trench coat, right? So what’s the diff? As it happens – and against all my expectations – Blood Feast, for all its 54 years, looks just fab on Blu-ray, a medium that could have been conceived specifically to showcase its lurid comic strip aesthetic. If you still harbour memories of discovering Lewis’s magnum opus on some nth generation video dub, you’ll certainly appreciate the job Arrow have done here. Splendid stuff.