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Cult Movies: 'Blood Feast' (1963) Part Two

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“I keep reading about all these murders, and it takes the joy out of everything!”

Connie Mason worked in the cosmetics section of a department store in Miami until her parents suggested she apply for a job at the local Playboy Club. Aside from having the coolest parents ever, Mason also had the straight blonde hair, blue eyes, slim figure and winning smile to make her popular with the club’s clientele, and so ended up in the pages of Playboy itself, making the magazine’s Playmate of the Month for June 1963. With production of Blood Feast taking place at the same time in Miami, Friedman and Lewis snapped up the chance to star Mason in their film.  It’s safe to say no auditioning took place, and if Mason hoped to pick up some acting tips from her co-stars, she’d soon be disappointed.

Mason plays Suzette Fremont, daughter to Dorothy, who we met earlier in the film. The pair share concerns about the murders, but the way Connie Mason and Lyn Bolton deliver their lines make the killing spree sound like news of an escaped chimp from a circus across town. The scene resembles two bantering Barbie dolls, strings pulled from their backs to set them talking; almost every word is delivered incorrectly, and each sentence sounds only distantly related to whichever utterance came beforehand. Lewis admitted in later interviews that Mason could barely remember a word of the script, so pared back her dialogue, enabling Mason to at least say something while the camera rolled.

At one point, Mrs Fremont almost gives the game away about Suzette’s party: “There’s this clever little man across town – oh well,” she says, her leaden intonation indicating Ramses removed not a body part when she visited his store, but her living soul. One imagines director Lewis, whose direction throughout is static and flat, had to secure the two actors in place to stop them juddering around the set of their own accord, knocking over furniture and bumping into other cast members.

After this low point, we attend an Egyptology lecture with Suzette, Detective Thornton and the

An Egyptian Feast
few surviving townsfolk, who gather in what looks like a corner of a themed Las Vegas strip club to hear a Dr Flanders talk about the cult of, and my what a coincidence, the goddess Ishtar. Dr Flanders gives a learned account of the bloodthirsty cult; followers of the goddess of love and fertility showed their devotion to Ishtar by holding a feast with the main dish concocted from the choicest parts of various young female acolytes. Sadly, at no point does Flanders mention that Ishtar is a Babylonian goddess, rather than Egyptian, suggesting he bought his doctorate from the back of a newspaper with LEGS CUT OFF on the front page.

The lecture goes down well however with the Sphinx-crazed locals, but Thornton is already making eyes at Suzette and woos her by spilling presumably confidential details about the murder cases by way of sweet talk. On the drive home, Thornton pulls into a lakeside parking bay: “now that I’ve got you on your own, I don’t know what to do with you!” She looks like a Playboy model, and you don’t know what to do with her? This guy shouldn’t be left alone with matches, let alone take charge of a multiple murder investigation.

Thornton finally figures that pressing lips with the nice lady might be fun when a radio announcement interrupts both the smooching and the weirdly old-fashioned tinkly piano incidental music, last heard when Gloria Swanson puckered up for Valentino. Yes, it’s another victim, “found near to death,” and so Thornton heads for Death, realizes the announcer wasn’t talking literally, and drives to the bureau instead. The Chief explains the latest victim had most of her face hacked off, but “this could be the break we’re looking for,” a shameful lack of tact from a public official.

At the hospital, Thornton and the Chief interview Janet Blake (Louise Kamp) who, aptly enough for a town with a love for Egyptology, is swathed in bandages like a Mummy. The Chief talks to Janet, which is enough to make her give up on life and die, but not before giving our gallant cops a clue: during the frenzy, Janet’s attacker cried the word “I-tar! I-tar!” Those of you playing along at home might recognize ‘I-tar’ sounds a lot like ‘Ishtar,’ especially if you’ve just attended a lecture on the subject, just like Thornton, who still doesn’t pick up the connection! The score tries to help, with whichever octogenarian is at the keyboard of the community theater organ ramping up the decibels, but it’s to no avail. Sounds and colors mean nothing to the heroes of Blood Feast, let alone structured music.

Needless Bikini Scene Alert!

However, even Thornton would appreciate the innocent idiocy of Suzette and a couple of bikini-clad pals larking around in a swimming pool with a beach ball; one doesn’t like to dwell on why the camerawork is so jittery during this sequence, but everyone seems as if they’re enjoying themselves an awful lot. One friend, Trudy (Toni Calvert, actually the most attractive screen presence in the film) has made the mistake of ordering the town’s only book, Ancient Weird Funeral Rites, from Ramses, who shows up as soon as Trudy leaves the Fremonts’ to abduct the poor girl.   

Trudy is declared missing by the bureau. “We’re doing everything we can to find her,” says the Chief, as if to someone off set. With Thornton already having promised Suzette her precious party will have “every man on the force on double time,” Frank and those two cops we saw earlier had better learn transcendental fourth dimension travelling techniques to provide adequate protection for the town.

Thornton rings Suzette to make sure the party is going ahead, but is as good to mention that Trudy is still missing, but hey, she’d understand how important this party is to everyone. Suzette brings up the subject of Ishtar, but it’s no good, Thornton has his mind too full of balloons, jello and ice-cream to notice.

As for the catering, Ramses is still adding to his grisly main course, which after several days on the boil is in danger of becoming a touch dry. Trudy is on hand to help, albeit with hands tied, to lend a little blood to the cause. In a scene shocking for its frank depiction of sadism, Ramses whips the screaming Trudy, working himself into a frenzy until Trudy dies of her wounds. Ramses collects the blood dripping from Trudy’s back into a silver bowl, and so keeps this potboiler’s pot boiling a little longer.

Piramidia Cheopsa
Meanwhile, Detective Einstein finally realizes ‘I-tar’ sounds like ‘Ishtar,’ and sends for all one of the force’s cars to converge on Ramses’ store. Thornton and Frank discover the statue of Ishtar, turn on the light for a better look and so discover what’s left of Trudy laid out on a table, with a bowl of salad placed between her feet for those anxious for one of their five-a-day. The camera plays lovingly along Trudy’s brutalised body, enough for the cheap thrill of the audience, but also for us to notice Trudy’s blood is not so much pouring from wounds as poured on her body like so much steak sauce. Knowing there’s nothing the teenage girls in town like more than authentic Egyptian party food, Thornton calls ahead to the Fremonts: “Tell them not to eat anything, and don’t make Ramses suspicious.” Once Thornton got an idea in his head, he really goes for it; let’s just hope the idea doesn’t mean he forgets how to walk or breathe or circulate blood.

“I bet there never was a party like this,” declares Mrs Fremont, and she’s right. A few of the most drab and middle-aged of the town assemble in her lounge for the society event for the year; one young woman desperately tries to phone her boyfriend for reasons unexplained, as Ramses attempts to lure Suzette into the kitchen to carry out the final sacrifice required to bring Ishtar to life. Once in the kitchen, Suzette fails to notice a distinct lack of any feast, but humors Ramses when asked to lay flat upon the breakfast bar (“I have prepared it for you,” he says of the featureless surface) to carry out certain ‘ceremonial rites’ for the sake of realism. How many women in ancient Egypt were sacrificed on a breakfast bar in a ceremony so hilariously low-key that lighting a candle would look like the fourth of July, is a detail Dr Flanders failed to mention in his lecture.

Fortunately for Suzette, she’s just too plain dumb to follow Ramses’ instructions, interrupting the solemn occasion by giggling “hey, you wouldn’t sacrifice me, would you?” By this stage of the pantomime, the audience are firmly on the side of Ramses, but just with the knife raised for the fatal plunge, Mrs Fremont walks in and spoils everything. Ramses flees and the police arrive at the Fremonts’ soon afterwards. Well, we hear sound effects of a police siren, and a car pulls up, but that’s just this town for you. I mean, just look at the guy in the background of the shot where Ramses runs away from the Fremonts’ street, doing nothing but watch this knife-wielding lunatic make his escape. What a jerk.

Thornton and Frank explain the plot so far to the Fremonts and the reason behind Ramses’ diabolical scheme. Mrs Fremont makes a late bid to turn Blood Feast into a black comedy with her immortal line “the guests will just have to eat hamburgers tonight!” but I think all that Mrs Fremont eats most evenings is Quaaludes washed down with Martinis. Thornton advises Suzette get some rest, maybe give the breakfast bar a polish, and then sets off in pursuit of Ramses.

Just as well Ramses walks with a pronounced limp, making him an easy capture for the four able-bodied policemen. So you’d think, but Ramses doesn’t let a silly thing like not being able to run stop him from outpacing the entire police force as they race across one of Miami’s least fetching rubbish dumps. Ramses then hits on the hugely bad idea of making his getaway by hiding in the back of a garbage truck. One squished exotic caterer later, Frank congratulates the driver for his public service while Thornton decides the audience hasn’t suffered enough and so goes through the join-the-dots plot for around the tenth time before deciding to make for home. The garbage truck driver looks at the mess Ramses made of his truck and shakes his head, unable to decide whether the filmmakers intended this as a self-aware comment on the nature of their work, or just couldn’t think of a better way to end the movie.

Blood Feast is a remarkable film by anyone’s definition, and almost defies rational criticism. One could wax lyrical about the blank, suburban locations, and the constant conflict between reality, artificiality and the customary Hollywood presentation of artifice as reality, a theme more in keeping with a Thomas Pynchon novel than a cheap slasher flick, but to do so would miss the point more wildly than Detective Thornton. For producers Lewis and Friedman, what happened around Blood Feast counted more than the events depicted within the film. They wanted a sensation, something to make audiences react and tell their friends, to generate word of mouth, to set tongues wagging about the tongue removal scene. Queues and receipts mattered more than acclaim and applause, and Blood Feast delivered just as they’d hoped, making an incredible four million dollars at drive-ins and grindhouses across the US. The Hollywood blockbuster opening at your local multiplex this week will have better acting, effects, sound, direction and generally better everything than Blood Feast, but it won’t have you talking with excitement to everyone you meet, and it sure as heck won’t make over 160 times its production budget in profit.

Feast and Famine

Most of the cast of Blood Feast soon disappeared into well-earned obscurity. William Kerwin,

Autokino
after spending a few years as Lewis’ go-to lead actor, continued to have a long and respectable career in films and TV, appearing in shows like Highway to Heaven, Miami Vice and Falcon Crest, and films such as Absence of Malice (1981) and Porky’s 2: The Next Day (1983). Connie Mason also appeared in Lewis and Freidman’s follow-up horror film, Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and a scattering of bit-parts over the next decade. Both Kerwin and Mason had good reason to fondly recall Blood Feast; they started dating soon after, and married the following year, a marriage only ending with Kerwin’s death in 1989. The London-born Ashlyn Martin, who played Marcy, the brains of the beach, became the second cast member awarded with Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in April 1964, and appeared in two of AIP’s famous ‘Beach Party’ movies. Most of the remaining cast appeared in one or two other Lewis or Friedman productions and nothing else.

Those who rediscovered Blood Feast in the 1980s age of home video and tracked down Herschell Gordon Lewis for an interview had a shock of their own in store if they’d imagined the director of cinema’s first gore film as a seedy and suspicious character hiding out in some dingy apartment; instead, they found Lewis a personable, urbane and well-read former college professor (Lewis taught English Literature as Mississippi State in the early 1950s), fond of tennis and plate-collecting, content with life at his spacious home in Fort Launderdale. Lewis continued making films into the early 1970s, parting company with David Friedman after 1965’s Color Me Blood Red, the film which rounded out the ‘blood trilogy’ after Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs. Lewis stuck to the exploitation and drive-in market, retiring from film-making after The Gore Gore Girls (1972) to concentrate on a lucrative and successful career in advertising.

Of course, every hit movie demands a sequel and Lewis returned in 2002 to direct Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, in which Ramses’ grandson’s endeavours to continue Fuad’s plot to reincarnate the goddess Ishtar. (2002 also saw the first release in any format for Blood Feast in the United Kingdom, which proves both a film can scare through strength of reputation alone, and that UK censors had obviously never seen Blood Feast but were still happy to ban others from watching). Now aged 85 and retired from advertising, Lewis is working on a new horror film scheduled for release in 2015 entitled BloodMania. Cinema may not have forgiven Lewis and company for Blood Feast, let alone any other works, but no-one could deny his success or role as pioneer in the field of horror films.

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