The First Doesn't Mean The Best

A young woman (Astrid Olson) in a pale blue dress and Bea Arthur’s hair arrives at her motel room and turns on the radio. A newscaster announces details of the latest grisly murder to strike town, with a girl killed, her body mutilated and the police advising all women to stay indoors during the night for their own safety. Sounds like blaming the victim if you ask me, and our young woman looks suitably horrified. Nothing like a hot bath for shock however, and our nubile pretty soon disrobes to relax in the warm soapy bubbles, unaware of the horror to come. And if you don’t know what happens next, then you’ve never seen a horror film before, although if you saw Blood Feast during its opening run in 1963, in a way you had never seen a horror film, because Blood Feast is the first of its kind.  

At the time of Blood Feast’s release, blood, along with sex, was one of the taboos of cinema. A Adventures of Lucky PierreCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainpicture made by one of the major corporations could show violence, in the form of fight scenes and shoot-outs, as long as the effects of violence, in terms of physical damage, were not shown. Likewise love scenes could only be hinted at, with nudity restricted to the ‘educational’ nudist films of the time and even then, the small independent productions companies who made such films dared not risk censorship by presenting a nude in titillating fashion. One such production company, Friedman-Lewis productions, had a hit in 1961 with The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, one of the many ‘nudie cutie’ films of the time, showing plenty of bare flesh but in such a way as to avoid overt sexuality.  

Wanting to capitalise on their success, producers David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis looked at other possible subjects for a film the big studios could not approach and top of the list came gore. The horror films of the time relied on atmosphere more than outright shocks, often through the hoary old tropes handed down from the Universal horror films of the Thirties and Forties; the haunted castle, the mad scientist and his laboratory, the cemetery at full moon and so on. The messy physicality of butchered bodies and sadistic murders carried out in broad daylight were, like the bodily nature of sex, too much for Hollywood tastes. And so, Friedman and Lewis made Blood Feast, the film which launched the ‘splatter’ genre, tastes began to change, with the results still with us in cinemas to this day, such as the Saw and Hostel films, via the long-running Friday the Thirteenth and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. 

As you might guess, our pre-titles bathing beauty doesn’t last long, cut out of the film before the credits, and I mean literally cut out. A knife-wielding madman with eyebrows that could double as aircraft carriers enters the bathroom and gouges out her eye before lopping off a leg for good measure. Blood Feast is at least conventional in that we do not see the knife entering the eye, or the sawing of the limb, but it differs in that the result is lovingly presented before the viewer, in all its blood-dripping, visceral wonder. Lewis, who also directed as well as co-produced, later admitted he didn’t have the resources to show bodily mutilations ‘directly’ with special effects (rumors put Blood Feast's budget as low as $24,500), but fake blood came cheap, and so poured on the gore for the aftermath of the killings. Throw in a few select cuts from the local butchers’ and you have the ‘ground-breaking’ effects deployed in Blood Feast.

In case you’ve any doubts over what you’ve let yourself in for, the opening credits keep up the film’s uneasy, disjointed feel with a color-saturated shot of the Sphinx (actually a prop outside the Miami hotel where Lewis had the idea for the film’s Egyptian theme), the film’s title dripping onto the screen in ketchup to the discordant tune of drum and horn in one of cinema’s cheapest and most depressing soundtracks (also scored by Lewis). The credits enhance the film's lurid yet deathly fever dream quality. A dream which feels as if it lasts hours only takes a few seconds in real-time; likewise, Blood Feast feels like the few seconds' work of a frenzied subconscious blown out into 67 minutes of distended narrative.

Meanwhile, Back at the Film...

We start at the police bureau, where Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin, here acting under the name of Thomas Wood) and his chief (some poor soul who got left out of the credits) are discussing the murder cases blighting the city, leaving seven girls dead in two weeks. History’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, only managed five girls in three months, so little wonder our detectives are in a spin, exchanging expositions on details both must already know, and  making perfunctory remarks straight out of the Ed Wood phrasebook such as “we’re dealing with a homicidal killer, that’s all.”  

Our crack(ed) detectives can’t make any headway into solving the murders, as the killer leaves behind no clues, aside from the terrible mess he leaves behind and despite the fact the film's setting is a large town populated by around twelve people. That said, the police force consists of Thornton, the nameless chief, some guy called Frank (Scott H Hall), a couple of uniformed cops and a single police car, so I guess seven murders in a fortnight is going to leave them pretty stretched.

As an aside, one thing you learn in watching a film like Blood Feast is how difficult acting is as a skill. The chief’s simple line of “Oh, Pete,” intended to show the character remembering an important detail to tell Thornton, is so dismal it can serve as a reminder to all drama class students that acting isn’t just about reciting lines in front of a camera. Future set designers can also learn from this scene, with the viewer’s attention diverted to a hideous green ashtray in the shape of a slice of melon, as incongruous on the Chief’s desk as a skull or a stuffed raccoon.

We cut to a shop sign that reads ‘Fuad Ramses Exotic Catering’ but might as well say ‘The Murderer Lives Here.’ Entering this well-stocked store, of the sort which now goes down a bomb with the hipsters of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, is Mrs Fremont (Lyn Bolton) wearing a polar bear wrap and a hat which threatens to self-combust at any moment. We could be charitable to Ms Bolton and say she intended to play Mrs Fremont as a Stepford Wives version of Margaret Dumont, but I fear otherwise. In any case, Bolton’s performance is the last note of understatement compared to that of Mal Arnold, who plays shop-keeper Fuad Ramses, our madman from the pre-credits, with such forced leering and overstated creepiness he threatens to tumble out of the picture and run across town to appear in some other production. Just as well Ramses is a caterer, as Arnold is already eating the script, the scenery and the film stock itself, such is the breath-taking lack of subtlety in his performance.

Royal CoupleCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Pierre DalberaDuring the most stilted store scene in a film until the florists’ segment in The Room (2002), Mrs Fremont explains she is planning a party for her daughter Suzy (for what occasion we never learn, unless it's celebrating the town’s new found fame as murder capital USA) and would like Mr Ramses’ ideas for a theme. Ramses suggests an Egyptian feast, because if one learn one thing about this town’s residents, it’s that everyone is crazy about Egyptology. Mrs Fremont’s daughter studies Egyptology, as do all of her friends; everyone reads the same book on the subject, Weird Religious Funeral Rites by one Fuad Ramses; the town’s nightlife consists of attending lectures on Egyptian cults. This town couldn’t be more Egyptian if it was on top of a pyramid and planted into the center of Cairo with a fez on top.

Of course, Mrs Fremont welcomes the idea and hopes it will be a success. “Yes, Mrs Fremont, it will be a success,” states Ramses, in an I’m-going-to-kill-your-daughter voice. Mrs Fremont misses the hint and leaves the store to go and wander in the traffic or claw at the ground for seed. Ramses limps to a hidden room at the back of the shop where he praises a golden statue of Ishtar, who Ramses promises to help return to life with a feast in her honor, with the main dish a stew of specially selected human flesh. You have to wonder why, if Ishtar is powerful enough to influence humans into showing up in a store and ordering an Egyptian feast on just the right day to return her form to Earth, why she needs to bother with a hopeless creep like Ramses at all, but gods move in mysterious ways, I guess.

News breaks of the motel murder and we see aghast members of the public (and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were just that) reading a newspaper with the front page headline LEGS CUT OFF. I’m not kidding, that’s the headline the paper leads with, LEGS CUT OFF. If nothing else, Ramses removed only one leg, so the plural is a classic case of newspapers making up facts, though the characters in Blood Feast are so dumb, LEGS CUT OFF is as much verbiage as they can deal with in one sentence.

Defective Detectives

Speaking of dumbness, it’s back to the police bureau. Thornton and the Chief continue to bemoan the lack of clues, but do advance from “homicidal maniac” to pronounce of the murderer “this man’s uncanny!” Maybe metaphysics are all you’ve got left when you’ve no recourse to science and have only the cursory glance of a murder scene to go by, where the killer failed to leave his name and address carved into a torso.

On a beach, Marcy (Ashlyn Martin) and boyfriend Tony (Gene Courtier) make out on the sand. “I feel funny,” says Marcy. “Don’t worry baby, I’m here,” replies Tony in a voice that makes you want to scrub seabirds. Marcy wants to leave the beach before it gets dark. Want to know what the dark is Marcy? It’s the black stuff over your shoulder surrounding you and lover boy, it couldn’t be any darker. Tony isn’t put off by the thought of a serial killer on the loose and tells Marcy “now prove you love me.” A tip to the ladies – if any guy uses that as a romantic line, you might be better off corresponding with a guy on Death Row. Mercifully, Ramses shows up before these two dimwits can reproduce and knocks out Tony. Setting to work on Marcy, Ramses kills the girl before scooping part of her brain out, perhaps the small section that considered Tony a real romantic catch, and leaving the rest on the beach. A snake writhes beside the gloopy mess and the score parps ominously in the background.

The police arrive, and finally have a clue. Unfortunately, the clue is Tony, whose intact brains aren’t functioning much better than the gunk oozing out of Marcy’s head. In what might be the worst over-acting in cinema history, Tony relates what he can of the murder to the detectives while blubbing and retching like a four-year-old who’s had a lollipop snatched away from him. Instead of a much-needed slap, Frank comforts Tony, with Scott H Hall’s performance not so much one-note as missing any notes altogether.

Before dragging Tony away from the scene of his murdered acting career, Frank notes the manIshtarCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain who killed Marcy is “a pathological killer – a sick, sick mind.” Even a sick mind might guess a murder investigation isn’t best served with the body immediately scooted away to the morgue before taking any photographs of the crime scene. If only, Thornton muses, they could guess why the killer removes one piece of the victim’s body after each murder. If only we had some procedural method to deal with such cases. If only we were detectives, or real police, we might know what we’re supposed to do, other than smoke, drink coffee and say stuff. And, more importantly to the viewer, if only Lewis hadn't asked his then wife, Allison Louise Downe to knock out a script over breakfast instead of hiring a more qualified screenwriter.

A few of Thornton’s synapses connect long enough for him to drag in Marcy Franklin’s mother and brother for questioning before the Chief. Given what a bad job Mrs Franklin makes of feigning grief, I’d suspect her as the killer straight away, but Marcy’s brother explains that the only group, or interest, or organization or notable interest present in Marcy’s life was the book club she belonged to, the same book club membership as all those other murdered girls. It’s almost as if there’s a connection between them all, like an interest in Egyptology and a shared pleasure in becoming casserole ingredients.

Adding more goo to his stew, Ramses takes a break from cannibalism to spy on a couple from a rooftop. The couple play out a drunken mime on the door of the girl’s apartment indicating the guy isn’t about to get lucky, so he leaves with only his sea captain’s hat for company. The lucky woman does get some tongue action however, when Ramses appears, and to the accompaniment of a violin played with a hacksaw, pins down the woman on her bed and hoiks out her tongue with his bare hands (this marks a rare instance in horror films where agreeing to sex would have kept a female character alive and not ensuring her death). I don’t know what the lady drank with her sea-faring friend, but it enlarges the tongue to grotesque proportions, as we seen when Ramses dangles the bloody appendage before the camera; later interviews with the cast and crew revealed the tongue was that of a lamb, with raspberry preserve used as the blood that drips out of the understandably shocked looking extra’s mouth.  

Surely now our detectives will solve the case and capture Ramses through deduction and reasoned analysis of the bountiful evidence. Well, of course not, but we do meet Blood Feast’s star turn and leading lady, former Playboy Playmate of the Month, Connie Mason, who unleashes the true horror of Blood Feast...