If we had a gathering of all the makers of crap films, and we addressed this gathering of luminaries, and asked that each and every one which had not yet been covered in some way in the BMR to stand, probably one of the more surprising personages rising to their feet would be Herschel Gordon Lewis. Surprising in that, with his partner, producer David Friedman (who was covered somewhat in our review of Love Camp 7), H.G. created the genre of the gore film with this movie. Having turned out a number of "nudie-cuties", humorous little films with preposterous excuses to see naked women, and some nudist colony features, Friedman and Lewis sought the Next Big Thing, as Hollywood was starting to nudge its way into their pulchritudinous territory - and thus was the gore film born, out of economic concerns. And boy, does it show.
Connoisseurs of the paranormal and watchers of late night TBS know of a phenomenon referred to popularly as the Bermuda Triangle, an area of the Atlantic known for sudden storms, mass disappearances, and, more recently, UFO activity and visitations by Satan. If you look at the statistics, an impressive number of boats and aircraft have met their fate in the Triangle. Skeptics will point out that yes, it is usual for planes and boats that run afoul of storms in the middle of nowhere to vanish. The ocean is a deep place. Then how do you explain the number of craft missing in this one part of the world? Coincidence is the usual answer.
I lean toward the coincidence side of the argument. The world can be an unspeakably weird place, but it is rarely weird on such a grand and consistent basis. A shower of frogs here, a deity on a flapjack there.... nothing so grandiose as Satan taking a Jacuzzi in a stretch of sea water for close to a century. Besides, one should never scoff at the power of coincidence.
After all, whose life has not been touched by the sardonic hand of coincidence? Who has not gone out to dinner and held forth, loudly and at great length, on the utter assholiness of one's boss, only to find the selfsame boss seated in the next booth? Who hasn't dumped a deadbeat lover, only to have him or her win the Lottery the next week? Who hasn't injected a troublesome patient with what he thought was distilled water, but was actually hyper-adrenalin? Wait - that was a bad example. Coincidence is a powerful force in film, too: note how often coincidence plays a major part in many scripts.
Our target this week is known for many things, but in large part it serves as proof that, for a period in the early 60s, the Triangle was centered on Miami, Florida, resulting in a storm of synchronicity unparalleled in human history. The first inkling of this phenomenon is that Miami had a very fine Plot Point Specific Radio Station®, as victim #1 (Sandra Sinclair) turns on her transistor radio (which gets a long, loving close-up - this would set some collectors I know to drooling) just in time to hear a newscast announcing that the killer is still loose! Women are advised to lock all their doors and windows! And we just know she hasn't locked at least one of those!
And one standard that Lewis and Friedman can have claimed to create if this: if there is a homicidal maniac abroad murdering and mutilating women, well, then, it must be time for a shower! Well, no, our producer and director used to make "nudie cuties", remember? So it is time for a bubble bath. So Number One settles back in her suds, reading that relaxing tome, Ancient Weird Religious Rites. Enter our Mad Killer, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), with a loooong knife. One stab later, Fuad is pulling some indeterminate strip of meat off the blade, which is a bit odd since the next shot reveals that he stabbed her in the eye, which is not known for its plenitude of meat. Ah well.
Next, his body artfully covering the process, Fuad begins hacking away at the body in the bathtub, finally turning so we can see him grasping a mannequin's leg with some meat stuffed in the end. We are then left with a close up of the stump sticking out of the bathwater, complete with jutting leg bone (damn! That was one sharp knife!)
It is hard, after a quarter of a century of Friday the 13ths and zombie pictures, to think that there was a time when this could be shocking on such a primal level. But to a country apparently satisfied with Petticoat Junction and Tammy movies, this must have been like a bolt of lightning straight to the spinal cord.
One thing for which coincidence cannot be blamed is the fact that the Miami Police Department had only two homicide detectives, and they are both idiots. In the early 60s, the employment possibilities for idiots were quite limited, as the concept of the business executive was still in its infancy. These two winners are especially prime examples of the Stupid Movie Detective, as their noses are consistently rubbed in clues of every stripe, which would provide fruitful avenues of investigation; instead they blissfully ignore these, preferring to sit around the office and complain despairingly of how they have no clues, and how hopeless things are. Perhaps they are not idiots after all, but on loan from some depressing black and white Scandinavian film. Or perhaps I am too judgmental of these two - after all, at this point in the movie, they've only had one scene. Let's give them another murder to go on.
Oh, wait, no, first we need some exposition. We find our googly-eyed Fuad running a specialty food store. Enter Mrs. Fremont, a society matron who wishes to employ his Exotic Catering Service to provide something special for her daughter's upcoming party. "Have you ever had," Asks Fuad, pausing significantly, "an Egyptian feast (organ sting)?" Fuad also uses his hypnotic eyes on Mrs. Fremont to convince her to book the aforementioned Egyptian feast (organ sting); apparently he uses all the hypnosis he has in stock, because he never uses it again.
It has been a number of years since I'd last seen Blood Feast, and I remember that I used to consider Lyn Bolton, the woman who plays Mrs. Fremont, to be the worst actor in the movie. I no longer feel that way because I now realize exactly how stiff is the competition for that title. Suffice to say that she makes Arnold look good, and that should give you some idea. But really, the worst thing that can be said for Ms. Bolton is that she appears to have poached her costumes from Phyllis Diller's wardrobe.
In the back of his store, Fuad has a department store mannequin which has been spray-painted gold, and which he is worshipping as the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. His various murders and carrying off of body parts is part of the ritual of the Blood Feast of Ishtar. Luckily for him, this catering gig will provide him with the payoff he needs for the Blood Feast... exactly what this payoff is, we will (alas) never know. Hope I haven't ruined the ending for you.
Now may we have another murder? Yes! A couple is necking on the beach... a sure sign of trouble ahead for over a half a century... and who should pop up but that lovable Fuad, wielding a machete. Somehow he knocks out the boyfriend, and then proceeds to hack out the girl's brain. The machete is much duller than the earlier knife, because the brain comes out in gooey pieces... I guess Ishtar isn't one of those neat-freak goddesses. There is also, for some reason, a boa constrictor hanging out near the spilled brains. No reason is ever given why*.
Once more, our detectives are presented with a clue: Victim #2 belonged, we are told by her parents, to some sort of book club, much like Victim #1. "Hmmmm... book..... book... that sounds familiar." Naaaaahhh.....
Lest things get too boring with this investigation stuff, Fuad then busts into a motel room and rips out a woman's tongue with his bare hands. Well, okay, it is quite obviously the tongue of some beast (the noble sheep gets my vote), but the young lady (Astrid Olson, reportedly cast for the size of her mouth) does spend some time struggling around with Arnold's hand shoved in her mouth, which counts for something, surely. The tongue scene seems to get a lot of support for being the most disturbing of the murders, proving once again that you can't go wrong with the real thing, some stage blood, and a mouthful of gelatin.
Now, Suzette Fremont (Connie Mason, Playboy's Miss June 1963) is the daughter for whom Mrs. Fremont was contracting the Egyptian feast (organ sting!), so we are forced to have a scene that we may get to know her. Suzette talks with her mother about the upcoming party and the murders; this scene is a Battle of the Bad Actresses almost epic in its scope. As an actress, Mason is..... enthusiastic, shall we say. Bolton is unrelentingly perky, like Mrs. Howell on speed. The combination makes you earnestly hope for another murder. In that room. Right now.
Okay, so Suzette is dating Pete (William Kerwin), one of the idiots investigating the murders. He and Suzette are also attending the Synchronicity Series of lectures at a local university, and this week's lecture? Why, on the Blood Feast of Ishtar, of course! Complete with a fantasy reenactment to give us our chunk of gore for this segment (heart supposedly ripped out of nubile maiden, for those of you keeping score)- after all, that tongue scene was a loooong Connie Mason scene ago. And the lecturer, in a nod to realism, is also quite boring, so some poorly done special effects do break up the monotony nicely. (And I must have attended the wrong university - there was at least one lecture on The Iliad that could have used a fantasy sequence or two)
Suzette and Pete go out necking after the lecture, but they are safe, because their names appear on the movie poster (not that this helped Janet Leigh or anything). It is also broad daylight. No, wait, it's night. No, it's daytime. No, it's.... sigh. Is Ed Wood running the camera? Doesn't matter anyway, as the Plot Point Specific Radio® ("PPSR! Playing you all the bits that advance the plot, twenty-four hours a day! News you can use!") informs them that another victim of the killer has been found, this time still alive.
After dropping Suzette off, Pete meets the Idiot In Charge (Scott H. Hall) at the hospital, where the victim lies with her head bound in bandages. We are told that this is because "her face was hacked off, and both eyes gouged out!" More likely it is so Lewis and Friedman did not have to pay another actor, and recycled one of the earlier victims. In any case, this anonymous woman dies after telling IIC that her killer kept saying the name "Eetar! Eeetar!" Hm. Ishtar... Eeetar. Ishtar.... Eeetar. Nope. Doesn't ring a bell. Idiots.
Fuad, meantime, gets yet another order for his book, Ancient Weird Religious Rites, which must be some kind of bestseller among young maidens, as it's how he's been targeting his victims - the "book club" the cops kept ignoring. As luck - and our old pal, Mr. Coincidence would have it - this new order is from Trudy (Toni Calvert) a friend of Suzette's, and at this very moment, she is frolicking in Suzette's pool. Yes, this is just an excuse to show Connie Mason in a bikini. Not that I'm complaining, mind you now. And Fuad, realizing that the cops can't catch him unless Shaggy and Scooby pitch in and help, knocks out Trudy and carries her away. In broad daylight. In Suzette's front yard.
If I told you the cops were stumped, I'd be wasting both our times, so let's just move on to Fuad's lair, where he is obtaining the last ingredient for his Blood Feast, which is, coincidentally enough, blood. He gets this by whipping Trudy with a gauzy whip made of some sort of string which has been soaked in stage blood, leaving red trail across her back. No, wait, I think he's supposed to be actually peeling the skin off her back with the whip, and catching her blood in a nearby urn. Then it's time to stick that leg that's been hanging around since the beginning of the picture into a pizza oven (Reportedly, the crew accidentally left one of the prop legs in the pizza oven, but that's a story that's just too good to be true).
Meanwhile, back at Idiot Headquarters, Pete and the IIC bemoan their lack of progress and generally suck all the oxygen out of the room. Pete calls Suzette with the bad news (hardly unexpected) that they have no idea where Trudy is; Suzette, however, has her mother's perky genes and cannot dwell on the fact that her friend is in the clutches of a homicidal maniac, oh no, she has to talk about the dinner party that evening. After all, she informs Pete, her mother has arranged for something called the Feast of Ishtar.
Pete finally listens to what the audience has been shouting for the past half hour and makes some phone calls. Most films of the tracking-the-killer sort have a scene of this type, where the hero finally puts all the information together in a dramatic fashion. This, however, is Blood Feast, so what we have is a scene of Pete endlessly dialing the phone and talking to people (and we never hear the person on the other end of the line - that might have cost money). He dials up Professor Boring of Synchronicity University, asks him a few questions about the Feast of Ishtar, and finds out that Fuad Ramses wrote Ancient Weird Religious Rites. Hey, isn't that the book they found at the leg murder? Yes, you idiot, yes!!!!
So Pete and the IIC converge on Fuad's catering business, but the evil Egyptian has already scurried off to the Fremont's, and all the cops find are the mannequin and what's left of Trudy. That's one of the more effective scenes in the movie: the only thing lit is the spray-painted idol, and Pete tells the IIC to find the lights. When they come on, the men find out that all this time they've been standing next to a bloody corpse. (We also find out why the IIC rose to his current position: he has a Magic Hat, which can appear and disappear at will! No wonder he's chief! Great dynasties have been founded with less of a basis!) Then Pete slowly comes to realize where Fuad has gone....
To be sure, Fuad has managed to get Suzette into the kitchen and convinced her to lie down on a makeshift altar and say the proper words to offer herself to Ishtar (yep, she and Pete are a perfect match - idiots), as the Middle-eastern maniac prepares to lop off her head with the machete. But Dame Coincidence decides that she has been playing favorites with Mr. Ramses too long, and thus causes Mrs. Fremont to walk into the kitchen at that point, screaming and ruining everything. Fuad takes off - curiously, as he's been doing his nasty deeds in a pretty bold manner.... just now he's frightened off by a couple of screaming women? What will Ishtar think?
The police arrive and Pete sends two uniforms chasing after Fuad, who is trying to be nondescript by running down the street with a machete in his hand (what? he didn't drive there?). Pete then wastes several minutes telling the distraught Suzette about the horror show back at Fuad's, until the IIC reminds him that they really should try to catch the murderer. You know, being cops and all.
And it's a good thing that Pete and the IIC join in, because although Fuad is an old man with a gimp leg, he is still perfectly capable of outrunning two young and fit-looking uniformed officers. Yes, Fuad is an early practitioner of Off Camera Teleportation®, where every time the camera cuts back to the pursuing policemen, the villain manages to add another hundred feet to the gap between them. Well, to be fair, at one point, Fuad throws the machete at them, and I imagine all four of the cops fell back about fifty feet. You know, just to be safe.
The chase leads to the City Dump, where Fuad catches a ride in the back of a city dump truck. Coincidence once more deals from the bottom of the deck, though, as the crushing mechanism in the back begins to operate, and the Egyptian exsanguinator goes to meet Ishtar in a more flattened and mangled state than he had originally planned.
Pete recounts his line of deduction that lead him to his culprit; nothing we hadn't sussed inside of twenty minutes into the flick, but the filmmakers are trying desperately to pad the picture out to the magical feature-length of 70 minutes (they failed; it's still only 67 minutes long). With everything finally said, everybody lights up and goes home (that's why Fuad could outrun them! He was a non-smoker!) The end.
I know I've slammed the actors rather mercilessly this time out; fairness demands that I mention that Scott H. Hall, whom I have picked for the sterling distinction of Worst Actor, has a good excuse: he is, literally, not an actor. He was a grip. The actor cast in the role of Idiot In Charge did not show up, and he stepped into the part. And in even more fairness, I should mention that William Kerwin - here still using his stage name of Thomas Wood - is actually a good actor, and it's not just the rest of the cast making him look that way. Kerwin had a fairly good run as an actor in exploitation flicks, and had his face been just a little more in line with what Hollywood considers good male looks, he might have gone farther.
The other thing holding Blood Feast back is the economic necessity of Lewis being his own camera operator, and either he's not very good (sorry, guy) or the camera head on the tripod needed oiling severely. There are any number of tortured pans composed of many starts and stops, and actors leaning out of frame with the camera madly adjusting a couple of inches to get them back in the picture. Lewis claims he never made more than three takes of any scene. I believe him.
The acting in Blood Feast is what makes the goings-on laughable and somewhat tolerable, but there is no denying that even today, the gore has a certain impact; there is a raw, primitive quality to the makeup that is affecting in a way that the super-slick gore effects of today are not. It is interesting to think what it must have been like in that first drive-in in Peoria, opening night - expecting, perhaps, another rubber monster or Psycho rip-off, and instead getting raw meat waved in your face - and in color!
That Blood Feast most reminds one of is a particularly over-the-top EC horror comic made flesh - they have in common the stilted dialogue and satisfyingly ironic end for their malefactors; the kindest thing that Lewis and Friedman ever did for their critics was ending their movie in a landfill and putting paid to the villain in a garbage truck - it allowed the critics to wax eloquent about the appropriateness of the venue and make any number of the clever comments which we find so satisfying.
But Lewis himself has been frequently quoted as saying that Blood Feast was "...like Walt Whitman poetry - no damn good, but it was the first of its kind." Too true - it should be watched for its historical value, but be sure to warm up your hooting and jeering equipment beforehand - you will need it.
No damn good, but the first of its kind.
- May 21, 2000