Wednesday 31 July 2013

Blood Feast [1963]

BLOOD FEAST is an American horror film that was directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis and originally released in July 1963.  It stars, if that's the right word, William Kerwin (appearing pseudonymously as Thomas Wood), Mal Arnold, Connie Mason (also known as Mrs William Kerwin), Lyn Bolton and Scott H. Hall.  The story concerns a series of gruesome murders that has the citizens of Miami living in fear and the police department searching fruitlessly for a lead.

BLOOD FEAST would almost certainly not be remembered at all were it not for its ground breaking graphic depictions of murder and dismemberment.  You have to remember that it was released several years before Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE [1967], George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD [1968] and Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH [1969], all of which are routinely cited (not least by me) as films that pushed back the boundaries of what could be shown on screen.  So Lewis, in his own ham-fisted, incompetent way, really was doing something no-one was doing.  Moreover, so extreme was his work that - in an unusual example of the movie business not jumping on to a bandwagon - pretty much nobody followed his lead, at least not for some years.  So when watching BLOOD FEAST one has to always keep in mind that one is witnessing a small but important piece of cinema history in the making.

See what I mean?  You can almost imagine the voice over: "Had a long day at the office Janet?  Want to slip into something more comfortable?  Well what could be more comfortable than your birthday suit?"
  Enough of the context already, I hear you cry, what of the film itself?  Well, frankly, it's shite.  More than anything it resembles a porno movie, more specifically a nudist / naturist movie.  You know the thing I mean: brightly lit, garishly coloured, badly acted pieces of trash in which all the girls look identical until they take their clothes off.  Which they do with great regularity, generally just before they get hacked to pieces. Indeed, one could probably ditch all the gore sequences, insert in their place some nooky and call the whole thing SEX FEAST instead.  And Lewis may well have done exactly that had he not spotted a gap in the horror market because several of the films he made before this one were indeed nudie cuties.

Connie Mason (R) as Suzette Fremont relaxes with her girlfriends by the pool
However, in one sense, Lewis's film prefigures a paradox evident in countless other poor quality horror films that have been released over the past fifty years: it comes alive only when depicting death.  Lewis guessed correctly that the average drive-in punter was less interested in credible characters and interesting dialogue than he was in, to put it bluntly, the money shot.  So whereas  in PSYCHO [1960] Sir Alfred Hitchcock took two or three shock sequences and painstakingly constructed a suspense film around them, in BLOOD FEAST Lewis ups the ante by including half a dozen shock sequences and adds the most perfunctory of narratives to a) link them together, and b) pad out the running time to a barely feature length 67 minutes. This truly is a film with the sole raison d'etre of giving throwing buckets of blood at you.

In probably the film's most effective scene, Detective Thornton and his boss discover Ramses' shrine to Ishtar
That being the case it's somewhat redundant to point out deficiencies in the script, acting, photography, editing, score and so on because it's clear that Lewis had very little interest in those aspects.  In fact, such was his lack of interest, he did the cinematography and music himself and apparently worked on the script too, although he isn't credited.  It would be tempting to consider Lewis an auteur, given his high degree of control over his projects and their, ahem, thematic unity.  However, I think it's more useful to regard Lewis as a businessman who happened to choose films as his vehicle for making money, not unlike Roger Corman. Seen in that way, Lewis's control is less a case of artistic vision and more a case of keeping costs down.

Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses
Peddling images of naked ladies, dead ladies and dead naked ladies, Herschell Gordon Lewis would not be someone you would readily associate with promoting female equality but it's an undeniable fact that the script for BLOOD FEAST was written by Allison Louise Downe.  There were precious few women working in film production in Hollywood at that time, even fewer as scriptwriters and fewer still in exploitation movies, so Lewis and his co-producer David F. Friedman deserves some credit for that at least.

Ramses prepares the titular blood feast
Downe also had a hand in the make up and special effects which are actually pretty good and, despite the bad taste, are preferable to the absurd 'clutching at the chest and falling over' depiction of death that dominated cinema until Lewis came along.

William Kerwin (L) as Detective Thornton and Scott H. Hall (R) as Frank, looking suitably bemused

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