Friday, October 7, 2016

Brunch with H.G. Lewis – BLOOD FEAST

Last week the world lost a true visionary, Herschell Gordon Lewis.  He wasn’t the most well-known, or prolific, directors.  He wasn’t the most talented director.  In truth, he was pretty terrible at directing.  He was a brilliant marketer, though.  More than Roger Corman or Russ Meyer, H.G. Lewis was the embodiment of exploitation cinema.  He knew what the audience wanted, sometimes before the audience itself knew, and he delivered in full.  Known as The Godfather of Gore, Lewis was the first director to drench the screen with blood and usher in a new era of horror with 1963’s aptly named BLOOD FEAST.

The Capsule:
There is a killer on the loose in Miami who is leaving a trail of hacked up women in his wake.  The police are baffled because they are complete idiots.  Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), a local caterer of indeterminate age and accent, is responsible for the carnage.  He plans to resurrect the ancient goddess Ishtar by creating an Egyptian Feast; a cannibalistic spread of random body parts and organs.  Victims are easy to find, but Fuad needs a special sacrifice to finish the ritual.  He gets a lucky break when oblivious socialite Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) hires him to cater her daughter Suzette’s (Connie Mason) birthday party.  Can Suzette’s 40 year-old cop boyfriend, Pete (William Kerwin), put together the incredibly obvious clues before his young honey is offered up to Ishtar?   

Even compared to other regional, low budget indie horror movies, BLOOD FEAST is a bit of a mess.  For instance,  there is the old-standard cost cutting trick of shooting day for night, but this is the only film I’ve ever seen that shot night for day.   When one character says “we’ll leave when it gets dark”, it’s clearly the middle of the night.  Other characters talk about—and gesture to—things that are not there.  They were just as loosey goosey with the sound effects.  There is a pool party overlaid with the sound of the surf.  Close enough.  At least the actors don’t flub their lines, though the dialogue is so bizarre it would be hard to tell.

You have to hand it to Lewis for coming up with a more ambitious plot for his shoe-string budget splatter film than “psycho killer likes to chop up women.”  Fuad Ramses is on a lofty mission to resurrect a goddess, by way of chopping up women.   Mal Arnold has the honor of playing one of the greatest terrible villains ever.  With every weird line delivery and wild eyed stare, Fuad practically shouts “I want to play with your organs.”  I’m surprised he doesn’t end each sentence with maniacal laughter.  How he is perceived by the townsfolk as charming and exotic rather than “escaped mental patient,” is a testament to the peculiarity of Florida.  It is never explained why he is so fanatically devoted to Ishtar, or the golden spray painted mannequin that is supposed to represent Ishtar.  He might be an immortal acolyte, or he might just be a blithering nutbag.  Since he [SPOILER] never finishes the ritual of the Egyptian Feast, we will never know.

Side note:  Ishtar is a Babylonian goddess, not Egyptian.

Additional side note: Wouldn’t it be funny if this was a prequel to the Kim Cattrall movie MANNEQUIN?  

Suzette’s mother, Dorothy, is one of the peculiar Floridians Fuad charms – and hypnotizes.  You would think hypnotism would be an incredibly handy skill to have when you are stalking ladies for ingredients, but this is the only time he uses it.  He didn’t even need to use it in this case.  Dorothy is already enthusiastically on board with Fuad’s idea to serve an Egyptian Feast for her daughter’s birthday party, even though he practically admits it’s made of people. She is so lost in her own world of genteel Southern manners that in the end [SPOILER] she is only mildly disappointed to learn her daughter was almost sacrificed and her party guests nearly became cannibals.  She’ll just have to serve hamburgers, instead.  

Luckily for Fuad and his ham fisted killing spree, the entire Miami police department (consisting of two people) is stunningly incompetent.  Frank, the police chief, talks about the killer like he is a mastermind who leaves no trace of evidence at the murder scenes.  It seems like an inappropriate description of Fuad, whose M.O. is usually just to tackle women and chop them up where they fall.  Perhaps Frank’s idea of evidence is the killer’s driver’s license and selfies of him committing the murders.  Det. Pete Thornton is also having a hard time sorting out the case, even though he just went to a lecture on ancient Egyptian rituals that basically spells out exactly what is happening.  

In addition to being half the police force, Pete is also Suzette’s boyfriend.  The attraction is obvious.  What young woman can resist a puffy, oily middle-aged guy?  He’s a like a dreamy sebaceous cyst in a sports coat.   

The one truly notable thing about the movie is the gore.  Looking at it now, it is laughably amateurish and obvious.  It is composed almost entirely of animal organs, cuts of meat, and gallons of dime store fake blood.  When Fuad pulls a woman’s tongue out of her mouth, it is clearly two times the size of a human tongue.  They are not exactly concerned with anatomical accuracy, either.  Eye sockets are filled with raw steak rather than eyeballs, and I think Fuad pulls a heart out of a woman’s head at one point.  It’s all so ridiculous.  At the time however, it was astonishing. No one had ever done anything like it before.  There were moments of shocking violence on the screen before BLOOD FEAST, but they were quick and mostly suggested.  There is absolutely nothing suggestive about BLOOD FEAST.  It is awash in bright red splatter.  Lewis’ gimmick worked.  BLOOD FEAST made four million dollars (an unheard of amount for a cheap, independent feature) and single-handedly ushered in America’s bloodlust for gore.  

The effect wasn’t immediate.  The only films to follow soon after with comparable splatter were Lewis’ own (2000 MANIACS in 1964 and COLOR ME BLOOD RED in 1965).  Once NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD came along in 1968, however, combining gore with a compelling script, marvelous performances, and talented cinematography, graphic violence was a recognized draw in cinema.  Plenty of people did it better, but H.G. Lewis was the first director with the guts to throw guts in the audience’s face.

BLOOD FEAST also ramped up horror’s uncomfortable relation with the mingling of sex and violence, especially as directed against women.  Again, it wasn’t the first movie to introduce this concept.  Movies had put women in danger since the silent era, tying them to the railroad tracks, making them helpless and prone below a menacing, moustachioed bad guy.  The titillation became more overt over time.  It was common to see women tear their blouses and have their bras revealed at strategic moments while being attacked by killers or monsters.  Even world renowned classics like PSYCHO used this tactic.  No one can watch the infamous shower scene without acknowledging the not too subtle sexualized violence.

Lewis was no Hitchcock.  His approach to the shower scene (or bath, in this case), was as hilariously clumsy as it was blunt and (at the time) disturbing.  His secret weapon was excess.  Routine scenes of murder where turned into grizzly blood drenched spectacles, almost always involving women.  I doubt he had any malicious intent.  Listening to his commentaries, it seems like he was a genuinely friendly guy with no animosity towards women.  I don’t think he meant to ratchet up the misogyny in horror movies, he was just looking for (and found) the next big thing.  BLOOD FEAST was as evolutionary for Lewis as it was revolutionary for cinema.  He came from directing Nudie Cuties; silly, innocent little “adult” films that were really just an excuse to see bouncing boobs.    In transitioning to horror, Lewis simply tried to replace the boobs with gore.  Even though there is very little nudity in the film (very slightly concealed nipples in the bathtub scene), Lewis’ salacious focus on women’s bodies is still up front.  This is most evident in the scene where he does a slow pan down the length of a dead woman’s body.  All the butcher shop gory bits are around the torso, her legs are just haphazardly smeared with red, but the camera continues down.  It’s neither shocking nor erotic, it’s just habit for Lewis.  Linger on the skin.  In this context, though, it’s creepy.  Whether it was the intent or not, BLOOD FEAST set grisly new standards on how women were treated in horror, and those standards were quickly topped.

On a positive note, I think the trend is on the decline.  In the early days of horror, sex and violence were two societal no-nos.  Mixing them together could create a giddy, transgressive thrill, especially on a subconscious level.  I don’t think very many (sane) people ever thought dead girls were sexy, but sex and violence have similar elements.  Both have a buildup and a release.  Since this is the very nature of suspense (and excitement), it’s easy to see how all the elements could get twisted together.  As sex became more acceptable and the status of women in society rose, the depiction of women in horror, especially as victims, has become more complex.  Women in horror today are often the (much abused) heroes, or at least one woman out of the batch will be.  The male to female victim ratio is still skewed female, especially sexy female, but the bloody playing field is starting to level off. It’s this progress that allows me to stomach the less positive depictions of women in horror.

H.G. Lewis ground out dozens of movies after BLOOD FEAST, ranging from horror, drama, crime, sexploitation, and kids films (seriously).  Pretty much all of them were terrible in different ways, and in many of the same ways.  All of his movies (the ones I’ve seen, at least) were filmed with a sense of humor that made the gruesome pill easier to swallow.  He was mostly out of the movie game after 1972, but returned in 2002 with BLOOD FEAST 2, and he remained active until his death at 90.  His films may have been goofy, crude, and disreputable, but horror would not have been as much bloody fun without him.

C Chaka 

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