Movie Discussion: Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963)

  • Monthly Theme: Video Nastiesblood-feast1-my-nasty-journey-a-review-of-blood-feast-1963
  • The Film: Blood Feast
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: July 6, 1963
  • Studio: Friedman-Lewis Productions
  • Distributer: Box Office Spectaculars
  • Domestic Gross: $4 million
  • Budget: $24,500 (estimated)
  • Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
  • Producers: David F. Friedman, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Allison Louise Downe
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematography: Herschell Gordon Lewis
  • Make-Up/FX: Allison Louise Downe
  • Music: Herschell Gordon Lewis
  • Part of a series? Yes. This is the first film in Lewis’ Blood Trilogy, followed by Two Thousand Maniacs! in 1964 and Color Me Blood Red in 1965. There was also a belated sequel released in 2002 called Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis.
  • Remakes? Sort of. The 1987 film Blood Diner is considered an homage/spiritual sequel to Blood Feast.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: No.
  • Tagline: “A weird and grisly ancient rite horrendously brought to life in blood color!”
  • The Lowdown: Mrs. Dorothy Fremont, a Miami-area socialite, wants to host an exotic and unusual birthday celebration for her daughter Suzette, so she seeks out the services of caterer Mr. Fuad Ramses, who promises her an authentic Egyptian feast. But Mrs. Fremont doesn’t know that Ramses is actually the disciple of the bloodthirsty ancient goddess Ishtar and a serial murderer who has been killing young women and harvesting body parts for an elaborate cannibal blood feast. Will the Fremonts and their hoity-toity friends fall victim to the sinister Ramses and his strange cult practices? Or will the police stop him in time?

If you haven’t seen Blood Feast our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: Had you ever heard of H.G. Lewis before we watched this?

Kristine: Nope.

Sean: Did knowing that John Waters co-signs Lewis’ movies inform your reaction? (It did for me on this rewatch – I liked the movie a lot more as a result of thinking about how and why Waters considers him important).

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Nothing a high-quality lacefront can’t fix.

Kristine: No, I don’t think so. I forgot about that tidbit until I referred back to my notes after I watched Blood Feast. It doesn’t change the fact that this movie, while entertaining, is fairly terrible.

Sean: Oh, for sure. Here’s a good quote from Lewis himself: “I’ve often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It’s no good, but it was the first of its type.”

Kristine: I will never forgive Lewis for sparing the loathsome Suzette and her rat face. After all those big gore setpieces, I was really looking forward to watching her get disemboweled or something.

Sean: She’s terrible. But the fate of her character really reminded me that, underneath all the subversive gore, this is an incredibly conventional movie. The heroine and hero win, the villain dies. There’s nothing unconventional or radical about the movie at all beyond the gore itself. Of course the gore’s the point, but it’s still a movie about the status quo being maintained.

Kristine: True, but don’t you think Lewis had to make it conventional in all those ways in order to get away with the gore? I don’t think it would have been distributed if, in addition to all the shocking scenes of mutilation, it also fucked around with the audience’s narrative expectations. The flipside of this is Night of the Living Dead, another groundbreaking horror movie from the 1960s. Romero gets to eschew all genre conventions because there really isn’t that much gore or violence onscreen.

Sean: Absolutely. Though I’m pretty sure audiences in ’68 thought they’d seen a lot more gore and violence in Night of the Living Dead than they actually had, just like people thought the shower scene in Psycho was incredibly graphic but, upon closer examination, you realize that Hitchcock shows us very, very little. When you contrast those movies with the violence in Blood Feast, you realize how tame they are.

Kristine: I have to say, the gore was beyond my expectations. I actually had to cover my eyes and ask “Is it over? Is it over?” during the scene where the girl’s tongue gets ripped out. I haven’t done that in a while.

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Anna Nicole Smith’s grandmother

Sean: Well then, the movie works, right?

Kristine: It might be one the grossest we have ever watched.

Sean: I think that, of all the movies we’ve watched for the blog, Blood Feast is the direct antecedent to Zombie (which also appears on the Video Nasties list) and The Toxic Avenger, in terms of its approach to gore and the general tenor of the production. You found Zombie to be extremely gross also, remember?

Kristine: True. The eyeball gouging can never be forgotten.

Sean: Right. Blood Feast and Zombie (and movies of their ilk) revolve around the mutilation of very specific body parts. And remember the zombie feeding scene? That had a very post-Lewis vibe, with the zombies scooping up big, heaping handfuls of gore and shoveling them into their mouths.

Kristine: Absolutely.

Sean: And that Troma Studios attitude – evidenced in The Toxic Avenger and the rest of their filmography – of ‘We’re trying to make bad movies’ and the badness being the charm, comes right from Lewis and, before him, people like Ed Wood. Though Ed Wood was trying to make good movies, he just was inept. Lewis might be one of the first genre filmmakers to embrace the idea of making bad movies as the point and the goal.

Kristine: Well, he succeeded. The story is ridiculous and the acting is abysmal, especially the horrible and hideous Suzette.

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“Sexy little girl” in danger

Sean: Lewis famously hated that actress, Connie Mason. She was a minor Playboy centerfold.

Kristine: Oh, you are making me very happy. She is the worst.

Sean: Yeah, he found her insufferable.

Kristine: I liked her socialite twit mother, though. Actually, Suzette and her mother are very John Waters. I see the connection now.

Sean: Agreed. I found Blood Feast be much funnier than I remembered.  I was cracking up a lot during my rewatch.

Kristine: Yeah?

Sean: Oh god, yes. It was cracking me up how, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the movie is a satire of bourgeois pigs and middle class morons acting like cultural tourists. Especially the scene where Ramses addresses the partygoers about the feast he’s preparing and they’re all twittering and being like, “Oh my, Charles did you hear that? 5,000 years!”

Kristine: Agreed. And when Mrs. Fremont is all, “I found the most adorable caterer.”

Sean: Exactly. How she’s all about it being “the talk of the town – every dish must be authentic.”  And all these bored white middle-class types who keep insisting that they’re just the hugest fans of ‘Egyptian culture,’ which for them just means weird food and lurid stories of human sacrifice.

Kristine: And the inept police. See, but you’re just convincing me that there’s more subversive content than just the gore.

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The new “wound” of the new porn

Sean: I suppose so. Suburbia is full of colonialist and racist idiots. Academia is just a façade for the fetishization of savagery and violence. The police – and other systems of cultural control, like the media – are mostly inept and bumbling. But the movie never really overturns those things. Suburbia is protected and un-critiqued at the end, and the cops get their man. However ineptly, they got the job done.

Kristine: Yes, the movie engages in a lot of (perhaps accidental) satire but doesn’t go in for the kill.

Sean: Regardless, as a pop artifact I find Blood Feast fascinating. Can I tell you my favorite pop moments from the movie?

Kristine: Yes, please do.

Sean: First and foremost, the following newspaper headline: “LEGS CUT OFF!” It’s just a perfectly lurid moment of exploitation. I want a t-shirt of that front page immediately. I am going to be annoying and say that this is also a meta or postmodern moment, because that headline encapsulates exactly why real-world audiences flocked to this movie.

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Media satire?

Kristine: Yeah?

Sean: John Waters – in the documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore – tells some pretty great stories about seeing Lewis pictures at the drive-in and everyone would lay on their horns during the gore setpieces. He’s like, “People were gettin’ blowjobs during those movies and then would take a break to lay on the horn.”

Kristine: People – they never change. I read that they handed out barf bags in the theaters as a publicity stunt.

Sean: Yes totally.

Kristine: Hilarious and also… practical. John Waters has talked about some other filmmaker who installed shock devices under theatre chairs for some movie named “The Shocker” or something similar.

Sean: Yeah, that’s this famous horror producer named William Castle who is known for marketing his movies with those kinds of gimmicks. You’re talking about his marketing gimmick for The Tingler. Castle would also do things like hire college girls to sit in the back of theatres and just scream really, really loudly at pre-selected moments to incite panic in the audience or he would have audience members sign insurance/life policies on their way into the movie in case they ‘died of fright.’

Kristine: That would be the best college job. I am a good screamer.

Sean: The barf bags for Blood Feast, which was thought up by producer David F. Friedman, are a very lurid take on the William Castle technique. Friedman and Lewis are an even lower-rent version of Castle’s carnival barker showmanship. Can you imagine how shocking those gore scenes would have been to a 1963 audience, when they are still repulsive and upsetting in 2014?

Kristine:  I can’t imagine, I truly can’t. Were you grossed out by the gore?

Sean: Oh god yes .And this isn’t even the worst of his movies.

Kristine: Is that true?

Sean: I can’t even watch some of the scenes in The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls, which are from Lewis’ later 1970s period. They’re just beyond fucking disgusting.

blood-feast-3
Sushi was never a thing in Egypt, Fuad

Kristine: I love this.

Sean: Why?

Kristine: I don’t know. I like it when you are upset.

Sean: Ignoring. Can we talk about how Blood Feast presents the gore literally like pornography?

Kristine: What do you mean?

Sean: This is something that’s been talked about a lot in regards to Lewis, by John Waters and many others. He presents these very, very long takes of the gore, like that absurdly long pan down the length of Trudy’s blood-covered and mutilated body after the police find her, or the super-close-up of the wound where the woman’s heart was torn out in the flashback to ancient Egypt. The movie is explicitly fetishizing the mutilation and gore without any pretense. It’s like the money shot in porn becomes the gore shot. That’s the moment of titillation and frisson, like Ramses squashing and squishing that tongue into the camera lens for like, 45 seconds straight. The stump of the girl’s severed leg becomes the phallic object, the object of excitement. The wound becomes the vaginal cavity. It’s all very Freudian.

severed-leg
The new “penis” of the new porn

Kristine: I thought it was interesting how the emphasis was on the violated body after the moment of violence, not the moment of violation. We never see the machete entering the body, just the carnage afterwards. And of course, they’re all young ladies (virgin sacrifice blah blah).

Sean: Yeah, like the globs of flesh on the knife…

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Ok, the next pop moment I wanted to talk about is the teenage couple making out on the beach.  When the boy goes “Now prove your love for me!” Therein was born…. a Violent Femmes song.

Kristine: Oh my god, the boy’s hysterical weeping afterwards? When the police are trying to interview him? I wanted to slap him so badly.

Sean: Plus, I don’t know if you remember, but Maniac opens with basically an homage to/restaging of that scene. Teens on the beach, the killer comes along and kills them very gorily.

Kristine: No, I don’t remember that. But I did notice how the attitude of this movie towards the place of women in culture was very Maniac. Blood Feast opens with the voice of a male radio announcer saying, “Because of the these murders police request that all women stay inside their homes after dark. If you must go out, please have someone accompany you. Keep your door locked.” That’s almost verbatim how Maniac talks about women’s relationship to the world around them – be afraid, you have no freedom, you must be chaperoned, everyone’s out to get you.

Sean: What about the random shot of the rattlesnake on the beach recoiling from the pile of brains?

Kristine: So random. Does Ramses carry that snake with him? Where did it come from? Wait, why am I trying to logically figure this out? There is no answer.

Sean: Correct. Á la Ed Wood, the lack of logic and continuity cannot be rationalized.  The ungrammatical and graceless dialogue, in particular, was a source of delight for me. Like Ramses, in a vaguely New England accent, yelling “Stop ya screamin’! Give yaself up to da goddess Ishatah!” while whipping Trudy.

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In case you weren’t aware that this is an S&M thing…

Kristine: Yes! I was cracking up.

Sean:  “Fa Pete’s sakes tell ‘em not ta eat anythin’!” says the cop.

Kristine: Also, that was the worst whipping ever. Aren’t the tails of the cat-‘o’-nine-tails suppose to hit the person you’re flogging, not the curtain behind them? He is basically thrashing her with a mop, otherwise. I was worried he was going to give himself a heart attack with all that exertion.

Sean: What about the statue of Ishtar? A cheap gold statue with one arm flung up to her forehead as if she’s about to faint, wearing a midnight blue prom dress with one leg exposed and – of course – breasts out, in a bejewelled headdress.

Kristine: That statue was the cheapest and trashiest religious icon of all time. And why does Ramses have a gimp leg? Because differently abled people are “scary” and freaks?

Sean: “Differently abled.” Haha! You’re killing me!

Kristine: I am evolved, Sean. In case you weren’t aware.

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Spraypainted Macy’s mannequin has her coming out party

Sean: In contrast to things like Ramses’ accent and that cheap statue, there were moments of intentional comedy, like the transition from that girl’s scalped head to the red police siren. To me, that’s a signal that Lewis is in on the joke.

Kristine: The shot of the siren went on forever.

Sean: Okay, next pop moment.

“Dear Sir,

Please send me a copy of your book Ancient Weird Religious Rites that you advertised in the paper.

Send it C.O.D. in a plain wrapper to: Miss Trudy Sanders

Whatever Street

Miami, FL

Sincerely,

Trudy”

Kristine: That letter definitely shows that Lewis is in on the joke. He knows the “plot” does not matter a whit to the audience.

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Human = meat = aftermath = cumshot = ?

Sean: Also, I would totally order that book.

Kristine: Oh, you so would.

Sean: But it was cracking me up that Ramses chooses his victims by luring them to their deaths via their eccentric literary interests. It’s like, the Craigslist Killer crossed with an evil Barnes & Noble information counter person.

Kristine: One of the movie’s most unrealistic aspects was that so many airheaded Miami denizens belong to a book club.

Sean: Right? But that’s part of the satire of the bourgeoisie. It’s like, weird religion and strange food is so our thing. We’re the ladies of the Miami social club. We love “something unusual, something totally different.” And again, the relationship between the women and Ramses’ book in the movie mirrors the relationship between the real-world audience and Blood Feast. They’re there for something strange and different and shocking. Something lurid and perverse. I swear, this movie is very meta.

Kristine: Yes, they’re all thrill seekers. And thrill seekers who might not be ready for what they have ordered up. (I sure wasn’t).

Sean: Exactly. Also remember how Ancient Weird Religious Rites is the bathtime reading of the girl in the very first murder?

Kristine: Yeah. It’s like because the girls were curious about ‘forbidden’ and taboo subjects, they had to die. Very Pandora’s box, very Eve and the apple.

Sean: Agreed. Did you take note of the fucking hot garbageman at the end?

Kristine: No!

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“We know this is trash,” the movie says

Sean: Really? The garbageman is like, a slice of beefcake and a sex model. Did you catch the meta-ness of poor Ramses’ death scene?

Kristine: He is caught up in the garbage?

Sean: Yeah, the movie confirms that he is trash. And the cop/representative of the moral majority is like, “He died a fitting death, like the garbage he was.” Which is how Lewis’ movies were talked about at the time, called ‘garbage’ and ‘trash,’ etc.

Kristine: That stupid cop.

Sean: That ten-minute speech at the end where he tells us everything we all ready know? See I’m starting to be convinced that, through its inherent trashiness and ineptitude, the movie might be genuinely subversive. We end the movie on the note of, ‘We are admitting that this movie is going to be called garbage, but look at the idiots who will be saying it.’

Kristine: I love that.

Sean: It’s Video Nasties Month, so I have to ask: which movie is nastier? This or I Spit on Your Grave?

Kristine: I Spit on Your Grave. Hands down. This movie is not going to warp any minds. Just gross people out.

Sean: And maybe make you interested in “Egyptian culture”?

Kristine: Poor Egypt.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Totally disgusting AND This film is dumb but I had fun watching (and I don’t know why) AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative

The Freak’s Rating:  Camp classic AND Deserves props for being groundbreaking and innovative AND Postmodern as hell AND Totally disgusting