Sunday, July 09, 2006
Blood Feast (1963)
Anyone 40 years or older has probably been to a drive in movie sometimes know as an "open aired theater." You'd pay the admission(Some theaters charged by the carload. Others only charged adults, allowing children under twelve to enter for free.) at a small building which housed the box office. From there, you'd park your car in front of a giant outdoor screen,attach a small speaker to your window and watch a double feature right in the privacy of your own car. Between the features, they would run coming attraction trailers and amusing little animations advertising the treats sold at their concession stand. These were called Intermission reels.
The concession stand was an adventure of it's own. You could buy standard movie theater fare like popcorn, candy and soda, but they also served pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs and ice cream. Most of the food was pretty awful. The pizza was frozen, the burgers usually had more filler than beef, (A friend of mine once said that drive in burgers were so full of cornflakes that the package should read, "Best to you each morning.")and the popcorn was so greasy that you'd have slippery fingers for a week. The hotdogs were usually awesome. Yet, we didn't care. We loved it all.
The heyday of the drive in was probably from the late 1940s until about the early to mid 1970s. These were the years before cable, (Can you believe there was really a time when all we had was ABC, CBS and NBC?), VCRs and DVD. At the drive in, you didn't have to dress up (Some people even brought pajama clad kids.) and could see two recent films in your own car. In warmer climates, like my hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, drive ins were open year round. In colder climates, like my current home state of New Jersey they were only open in the warmer months.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Cable, home video, rising insurance costs and rising crime were all factors in the demise of the beloved drive in theater. There were once several thousand drive in movie theaters. Today there are only a few hundred left in the whole country.
The drive in was also a great outlet for independent filmmakers. The most popular of these was the exploitation film. These were ultra low budget quickies that were willing to go farther than mainstream Hollywood. They would tackle subjects like lesbianism, S&M, tranvestism, etc. The most well know of these films today would be Ed Wood's "Glen or Glenda."
The most successful of these filmmakers was Hershel Gordon Lewis. Lewis' movie career began with nudies, basically films of nudist camp activities. When he sensed that the public was beginning to tire of seeing out of shape naked people play volley ball, he and his business partner Dave Friedman began to search for something no one had done before. They took notice of the popularity of horror films. Up to this point, the most explicit horror film was Alfred Hitchcock's now classic "Psycho" (1960). The brutal shower scene was the most explicit murder scene recorded on film up to that point. Hersh and Dave decided to do Hitch one better by making a film with not one, but several murder scenes ten times more explicit than the shower scene in "Psycho". Hersh and Dave didn't realize that they were making movie history by creating a whole new genre known as the slasher film.
Lewis and Friedman then scurried down to Miami, Florida, where Hersh threw together a script, hired some local amateur actors and threw together a gory little epic in just nine days. The result was the cult camp classic Blood Feast.
Blood Feast opens in a small apartment, where a beautiful young girl has just returned home from work. (We know she's in danger because the drum roll in the background gets faster and louder.) She turns on her cheap transistor radio (The kind kids of my generation would get every Christmas. It would stop working by New Years.) and the program is interrupted by an announcement that another beautiful young girl has been found murdered. Since she is a beautiful young girl and she's in this movie, we know she's a goner.
The action moves to her bathroom. She's enjoying a bubble bath, when suddenly a mad man with a butcher knife stabs her to death. (Are we ripping off Psycho?) The creep then commences to lop off her leg. We are treated to a long shot of the dead girl, with her bloody leg stump sticking out from the bath water, a piece of raw liver on her eye and her boobies covered by bubbles. (It's ok to show all of this gore, but God forbid if we see a nipple.)
The local police team led by Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin, a professional actor credited as Thomas Wood to avoid paying a SAG fine.) is baffled. The only clues are her membership in a book club and a book found by her body titled "Ancient Weird Egyptian Rituals." (How's that for a witty title?)
The action now takes us to a small catering store run by elderly, handicapped Fuad Ramses, played by Mal Arnold, a thirtyish actor who does the worst Bela Lugosi imitation since Ed Wood's wife's chiropractor. Mrs. Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton, obviously a community theater actress and no relation to Michael Bolton.) comes into the store. She's looking for a someone to cater her daughter Suzette's (1963 Playboy Playmate Connie Mason) twenty-first birthday party. Ramaes agrees to cater Suzette's party, but not before he hypnotizing Mrs. Fremont.(Not only does he never hypnotize anyone else, but this serves no purpose to the rest of the film.) Since Mrs. Fremont asked for something unusual, Ramses suggests an Egyptian feast.
After Mrs. Fremont leaves, Ramses takes us to his back room and we see his statue of the ancient goddess Ishtar. (A department store mannequin spray painted gold and wearing costume jewelry. I kid you not.)
Soon we find out that Suzette and Detective Pete are an item. At a lecture on Egyptian rituals, they learn of an ancient cult of Ishtar worshipers who celebrated by eating the flesh of young girls. (AH! Fuad Ramses worships Ishtar, murders young girls and owns a catering service. I get it.) Hersh shows us a flashback scene of ancient Egypt where a young starlet with 1963 hair and make up is sacrificed on an alter.
Even with all of this overwhelming evidence staring them right in the face, Pete and the rest of his Keystone Kops remain baffled and the murders continue. One young girl is butchered to death on the beach while she makes out with her boyfriend. (Wouldn't any serial killer worth his salt have killed the boyfriend, too? Where's the Son of Sam when we need him?)Another has her tongue ripped from her mouth while the soundtrack plays a dreadful violin rendition of "How Dry I Am." (The most famous scene in the film. Fuad simply knocks on her door and she opens it. The elderly, cripple Fuad overpowers this big, strong, young woman and she doesn't even bite him when he yanks out her tongue.) Still another young girl has her face hacked away, but lives long enough to all but identify Fuad. Pete still doesn't get it.
Since all of this murder and butchery has taken place in the first forty-five minutes, Hersh must have felt he had to offer us some filler. That can be the only explanation for the scene that follows. Suzette and several other bikini clad babes play beach ball in a swimming pool to an amateur piano piece. Alas, the murder and gore are far from over. Suzette's best friend Trudy (Toni Calvert, who costared with Mal Arnold in another H. G. Lewis classic Scum of the Earth.) is abducted by Fuad in broad daylight, in the middle of the suburbs. (If you slow down the DVD, you can see a neighbor mowing his lawn.)
On the night of Suzette's party, (There's a mad serial killer on the loose and her best friend is missing. Why is she still having a party?) Fuad arrives and insists that he can't serve the food until it's blessed. He asks Suzette to lie on the kitchen counter top and pretend to be sacrificed. Any woman with half a brain would have bolted from the room, screaming for her life, but since Suzette only has on quarter of a brain, she agrees. Just as Fuad is about to hack Suzette to pieces, Mrs. Fremont walks in. Fuad manages to escape out of the kitchen door.
Meanwhile, Pete finally figures out that Fuad is a suspect. His suspicions are confirmed when he breaks into Fuad's shop and finds poor Trudy's bloody body. He then gives his fellow detectives a long winded explanation of Ishtar and the Blood Feast. (Did Hersh think the audience was a s dumb as the characters in this film?)
The police arrive at the Fremont residence just as Fuad is darting from the house. They chase him (The limping Fuad keeps a respectable distance from the cops.) until he takes refuge in the back of a garbage truck. The driver unwittingly turns on the garbage crusher, killing Fuad. He died like the garbage he was. The end.
I normally try not to review low budget or independent films because I have a great respect for independent filmmakers. The fact that they even get their films made and released is quite a feat. Yet, this film has such historical significance I couldn't ignore it. Let's face it, without Blood Feast we may never have had The Exorcist, Halloween, Friday the !13th or even Night of the Living Dead.
Also, Blood Feast boasts more campy scenes than any other movie, with the possible exception of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Connie Mason's eyes always seem to stray right into the camera, (I could never figure out whether she was reading cue cards or she just wanted to make sure her face was on camera.) grief stricken characters cry loudly, but quiet down when other characters have to deliver dialogue, and the red police light in the beach scene is obviously someone off camera with a red flash light.
Lewis made several more of these types of films before retiring from filmmaking in the 1970s. In 2002, he made a sequel called Blood Feast2: All You Can Eat. The sequel was a tongue in cheek film meant to be campy. Yet,it wasn't the same.
What makes this movie bad? Ridiculous premise, high school acting, dumb characters.
What makes it a favorite? It's a trail blazer and any film that can bring back my beloved drive in memories can't be all bad.
Watch the film from Grindhouse Theater:
NEXT: MOMMIE DEAREST