Blood Feast is everything that a low-budget breakthrough exploitation pic should and probably shouldn't be, all rolled into a single, attention-grabbing package. This was director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David Friedman's eureka moment, their cinematic epiphany, the point in their filmmaking careers when they realised that there was something they could give an audience that they couldn't get elsewhere. You'll only have to watch the opening couple of minutes to realise what that was, and if what you see somehow tickles your funny bone, then you need to remember just when Blood Feast was made, the flesh-chomping zombies of Night of the Living Dead were still five years away, and while Hammer were famous for splashing blood on the screen, they shied away from open wounds and graphic body dismemberment. Not so our Herschell. Indeed, the graphic nature of the horrible things done to the human body over the course of this film was precisely what Lewis and Friedman were trading on.
The storyline is sound exploitation horror stuff. A young woman is horribly murdered in her bathtub by a wide-eyed man, who then cuts off her left leg, stuffs it in a bin-liner and takes it away with him. It turns out this is the latest in a series of gruesome murders in which young female victims have had limbs or organs removed from the body. The killer is quickly identified (by the film, not the film's spectacularly slow-off-the-mark cops) as Fuad Ramses, the proprietor of an exotic catering shop, one visited the following day by wealthy socialite Mrs. Fremont – whose hat frankly deserves a film of its own – in search of something special for a dinner party she's throwing for her daughter Suzette. Ramses suggests he prepare an ancient Egyptian feast that has not been served for 5,000 years, an idea that really appeals to Mrs. Fremont, particularly as Suzette is a student of Egyptian culture. For reasons that escaped me, Ramses then hypnotises her into loving it even more. Come on man, you had her at 'Egyptian feast'!
So what will this extraordinary dinner consist of? We get an oblique hint when Ramses nips into the red lit back room of his shop to pray to a statue of the Egyptian Goddess Ishtar. Another horrible murder later he confirmed my suspicions by popping the stolen body parts and blood into a bubbling cauldron. I don't know about you, but my mouth immediately began watering at the thought.
Investigating the case is Detective Pete Thornton, who just happens to be dating the same Suzette whose mother has just ordered this murderous feast. I'm guessing that tracking down serial killers is not our Pete's speciality, but he seems to be a little more on the ball than his slow thinking captain, who turns up at crime scenes primarily to suck on his pipe and slowly shake his head in an "I just don't know" manner that suggests criminal investigation is something he read about in a magazine at the drug store. Pete's investigative doziness is confirmed when he accompanies Suzette to one of her lectures on Egyptian culture and almost everything he needs to unravel the case is spelt out for him by the fellow delivering the lecture, yet it takes an absolute age for the penny to drop, by when even more girls have been violently plundered for their body parts.
That Blood Feast is primarily a one-trick pony is something that even director Lewis probably wouldn't have denied. After all, the film only came to be when he and Friedman had the idea of throwing gore at the screen with an extremity that had never been seen before, and like the slasher movies that it later inspired, the film is more about those violent set-pieces and the stuff that sits between. Lewis worked quickly and cheaply with anything and anybody that he had to hand, and while he later paid more attention to story, character and even performance, here he seems too focussed on jolting his audience to bother too much with any of that nonsense. As a result, the film is often unintentionally comical, playing at times like an Ed Wood film shot in vibrant colour and liberally splashed with gore.
At their best, the performances are little stilted, at their worst hammed up to a preposterous level. The serial offender here is Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses, notably the sequence in which he offers to make an ancient Egyptian feast for the comically bonneted Mrs. Fremont. Widening his eyes and delivering his lines like a pantomime villain playing to a gallery far, far away, at one point he leans so far forward to (over-) emphasise his words that his head comes close to drifting out of frame, which prompts Lewis to nudge the camera a bit to the right to keep him in shot. Having said that, he's given a serious run for his money by Gene Courtier as Tony, a guy who is making out with his girl on the beach when Ramses shuffles up, knocks him cold and cuts out his girlfriend's brain. When Tony comes to, he takes his hysteria to infinity and beyond and just keeps going. If I hadn't been assured that Lewis never shot more than three takes of anything, I'd swear this was something like the fiftieth take and that the only instruction he was given before the camera rolled each time was "Make it bigger!"
But as a gore fest, Blood Feast really does deliver, although to get the most out of it you'll have to put aside all the bigger budgeted, effects-driven horror films you may have grown up on and try to imagine the impact this film's showpiece scenes would have had on an unprepared audience back in 1962. The fake limbs and wounds are impressively enough done, and the use of animal entrails and body parts give some scenes a disgust value way beyond their budgetary limitations. The most notorious sequence, where Ramses rips out girl's tongue, may not fool anyone now (it's all done in an edit), but the use of a real calf's tongue and the implication of what has taken place still give it an appropriately nasty feel. The lingering highlight comes when Pete and his clueless Captain finally pay a visit to the back room of Ramses' shop, and the camera pans lovingly over a table on which a blood-soaked corpse and various body parts have been deposited. It's here that Detective Pete finally puts the pieces together, while his Captain just stands there shaking his head in dazed disbelief.
For all its semi-professional qualities – and in a curious way because of them – Blood Feast was and remains a landmark horror film, one that charged headlong through a barrier it had not even occurred to censorious legislators to erect in the first place. For us hard-core genre fans it's still a big, blood-spattered bucket of guilty pleasures. Lewis's own colour camerawork is generally solid, though the shaky zooms and stuttering pans do sometimes give it the look of a filmmaking novice's first stab at professional camera operation. But this and the sometimes comical artificiality of the performances add a layer of comic fun to the taboo-busting visuals on which the film has always traded. Even its one attempt at actual black comedy – "Mrs. Fremont, I'm afraid this feast is evidence of murder," Detective Pete tells Suzette's mother, to which she responds, almost to camera, "Oh, dear – the guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight" – manages to be funny for all the wrong reasons. See it with like-minded friends and a couple of slabs of beer and you'll have an absolute ball, then check out Lewis and Friedman's belated 2002 sequel, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, a partial remake that is technically slicker, has even better effects and is actually funny when it intends to be. But for many the original will always be the greatest and the film that defines the horror cinema of Herschell Gordon Lewis, primarily because, for all its quirks and faults, it really did change everything overnight.
Given that Scum of the Earth is not a horror movie and is completely devoid of Lewis's trademark gore, you might find yourself asking what it's doing in the Shock and Gore and Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast box sets. But Scum of the Earth is an important film in Lewis's oeuvre, and a transitional one. This was the last film he made in black and white, one he made shortly before stepping out with Blood Feast (although it was actually released after), and marks a midway point between his earlier 'nudie cuties' and the gore fests for which he would soon become famous. It also gave birth to a new sub-genre known as 'roughies', a suspect development of the sexploitation film that added male violence against women into soft core mix. Lovely. But there are another couple of good reasons for the film's inclusion here. The first is down to the lead actor casting (more on him in a minute). The second is that – and I'm actually surprised to find myself saying this – it's actually rather good.
Scum of the Earth is set in the seedy would of nude photography, and yes, you're going to have to so some serious contextualising here. Now that teenagers post pictures of their goodies online for a giggle, it must be hard to imagine a time when to even get a look a picture of a naked woman you had to buy them under the counter at dodgy corner shops, or from men in long raincoats who stood on street corners quietly peddling their wares. Actually, I may have made that last one up. I'm not old enough to remember any of this this.
Anyway, in America in the early 60s, the taking and selling of what were deemed pornographic photos was illegal, and thus tended to be the work of small criminal enterprises. One such band of outlaws is run by the bullish Lang, and working for him is skilled photographer Harmon, product shifter Larry and cock-for-hire Ajax, a loathsome macho scumbag with an ape-like demeanour who delivers his particular brand of goods whether the female models want it or not, and precious few do. Fronting as a studio that produces photos for magazines and advertising, the company's modus operandi appears to be to find a girl who is in need of a little cash, persuade her to do an 'innocent' photo shoot, lean on her to go just that little bit further, and then use these pictures to blackmail her into doing the stronger material. By then she's effectively the agency's property and can only leave when they allow her to do so.
One such girl who's had her fill of the whole enterprise is Sandy, but while Lang is willing to free her from future modelling assignments, he wants her instead to start recruiting others to pose in her place. The first girl she targets is the innocent Kim, who needs money for college and agrees to do some leg shots for what Harmon assures her is a shoe commercial. A likely story. Harmon even persuades her to do some bathing suit pictures down at the beach, which she only agrees to because he's such a good photographer and so nice to work with. And Harmon's not pulling a fast one here. He likes Kim a lot, and while he'll keep in taking pictures even when one of the models is being abused by Ajax, he's clearly not happy with what he's now obligated to continue doing. But as pressure is applied to Kim to force her to reveal more for the camera, Harmon's discomfort increases to the point where he may have to choose between his own future and that of a girl that he has reluctantly helped to entrap.
The first thing to note about Scum of the Earth is that, despite its deliberately sensational title, it takes its story seriously. It's an exploitation movie, sure, and there is certainly more female nudity here than you'll find in a regular American film drama of the period. Yet surprising though it may seem, this proves not to be the film's raison d'être. Indeed, so crucial is the nudity to the story (when Kim is finally shown posing nude, we are encouraged to feel for her embarrassment rather than leer at her curves) that I'm even willing to suggest that it's not gratuitous. Yes, I'm aware of what I just said. And there's more. Lewis's direction here is confident and thoughtful in a manner you'll be pushed to find in Blood Feast: the opening focus on money and photographs as they change hands until the pictures reach their final destination; the increasingly large close-ups of Lang's slobbering mouth as he reads the riot act to a terrified Kim; the decision to stay framed on Harmon's weary discomfort as he takes pictures of Ajax forcing himself on a screaming Sandy; the flash-frame of red in an otherwise monochrome film used to emphasise the impact of a gunshot to the head. And from an early stage we're left in no doubt that in this film's eyes the majority of men are absolute bastards and women are the victims of their cold-hearted greed and lust. Did I mention that this is a Herschell Gordon Lewis film? Had to check myself there for a second.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least if you watch these two films in the order I've reviewed them, is that there are no madly over-the-top performances here and a couple are even pretty damned good. The one that really caught me out is the sensitive turn as Harmon by William Kerwin, almost unrecognisable in his designer beard and dyed hair, at least if you know him only for his role as Detective Pete Thornton in Blood Feast. He displays a range and subtlety here that made me wonder if he was ordered to be less expressive in the later film to better blend in with his less experienced fellow cast members. Also holding her own is Sandy Sinclair as Sandy (having performers play characters with their own first name was once a low budget expediency favourite), and while Vickie Miles' inexperience as Kim is clearly evident (though the guy who plays her dad is as wooden as a plank), it does add to her air of suffering innocence. Even Mal Arnold, who tears up the scenery as Fud Ramses in Blood Feast, is commendably retrained here as the unpleasant Larry.
Scum of the Earth really caught me by surprise. It doesn't have the game-changing innovation and impact of Blood Feast, but it's a better directed, better acted and more thoughtful film, an exploitation movie run through with a line of social commentary. Of course, a cynical viewer might have something to say about a filmmaker who previously specialised in 'nudie cuties' having the gall to paint those who make their money taking still photographs of naked women as the scum of the earth, but such is the nature of exploitation cinema. Whatever brings in the dollars...
Let's face it. Blood Feast was a micro-budget horror film made by a skeleton crew with no thought given to any possible longevity. Just how good can it really be expected to look? Well hang on to your hats, horror fans, because it looks superb here. It's worth remembering that Blood Feast was not shot on grainy 16mm, but on 35mm Eastmancolor stock on professional Mitchell and Arriflex cameras, which on a technical level puts it up there with the majors. This really is a terrific transfer – the level of detail is impressive, the contrast punchy, the black levels beefy, and the colour deliciously rich, from the lively palette in Ramses' shop to the vivid red of the blood and the light that soaks his altar room. A small number of dust spots remain, but you'll have to be looking for them to really notice, and while there is some occasional small movement of the image in frame, again it hardly shows. The one down side of a transfer this good is that those rare occasions when Lewis's camera isn't quite in focus are lot more evident than they would be on tape or DVD. The framing is the (presumably) projected 1.85:1, but the title sequence is 1.33:1.
The linear PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is in decent enough shape, albeit with an unsurprisingly narrow dynamic range and a few small pops, plus one large blast that knocks out the dialogue for half a second at 43:38.
There's a lot more dust and damage on the 1.85:1 transfer of Scum of the Earth, but this comes and goes, possibly increasing around the reel changes (in cinemas, at least back when they still projected film, these were always the worst offenders), though intermittently there are also a few scratches to contend with. In other respects, it's a decent job, with a solid degree of detail, a largely pleasing monochrome tonal range and crisp black levels. There is some slight flickering on brightness in places, but it's not distracting, and intermittently the image is free of all blemishes. The sequence in which Ajax takes a model who has threatened to shop the operation to the police to a motel to beat and (we presume) rape her is plastered with what looks like chemical damage, but it doesn't last long. There are also a small number of shots where the focus is noticeably off – Lewis never did retakes and if a shot wasn't quite right then he just lived with it.
Again the soundtrack is linear PCM 1.0 mono and has a similarly narrow dynamic range, plus some intermittent low level background hum and/or hiss and a few pops of damage here and there. The dialogue is always clear, though both it and the music have a crispy treble bias.
Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are available for both films.
Both films can be played with or without a brief introduction from director Lewis. These are definitely worth watching before your first viewing of each.
Blood Perspectives (10:54)
Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) and Rodney Ascher (Room 237) look back on how they first discovered the cinema of Herschell Gordon Lewis through Blood Feast and ponder on the impact and lasting importance of his body of work. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the tongue ripping scene gets a special mention, though the suggestion that the lack of production design and having non-actors play parts wearing their own clothing transforms Lewis's films into "accidental documentaries" might raise a few eyebrows.
Herschell's History (5:18)
The menu tells us this is an archival interview from 2007, the end credits have a 2010 copyright notice. Either way, it's a useful grab, as in it Lewis outlines how he went from being a schoolteacher to a film director, a journey that involved several rather suddenly upward career changes. He provides a rather neat definition of what an exploitation film is, discusses the use of the single red frame in Scum of the Earth, and strongly suggests that the only real reason for making films is to make money.
How Herschell Found His Niche (7:15)
A newer (and visually darker) interview with Lewis in which he outlines how he and his filmmaking partner David Friedman took inspiration from the taboo-busting nudity in Walter Bibo's 1954 Garden of Eden to start cranking out what became known as 'nudie cuties', with particular focus onthe 1961 The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. That they never used a single professional actor in this entire series of films didn't exactly surprise me, but I was amused to learn that when word got out how cheaply they were made, theatre owners wanted to pay less for their rental.
Archive Interview with Lewis and Friedman (18:28)
A shot-on-SD-video piece from 1987 in which Lewis and Friedman look back at their film careers and how and why they graduated from nudie cuties to gory horror pictures. The two are very upbeat about their work and up-front about their motivations and working methods, and their dedication to low-budget filmmaking is neatly summed up when they are asked what they would have done with more money and reply in an instant, "More pictures!" Friedman also sums up their attitude to the outrage their films prompted when he says, "There should be room for Disney and there should be room for Deep Throat – you pays your money and you takes your choice."
Carving Magic (20:31)
A 1959 short instructional video starring actor William Kerwin, who plays Detective Pete Thornton in Blood Feast and Harmon in Scum of the Earth. Here he plays a wholesome family man who reveals to his dinner guests how he learned to carve just about every meat joint he's likely to serve by watching the rehearsals for an instructional video on – wait for it – how to carve meat. He then screens the finished film for the others, which handily covers the meats not shown in the extended flashback that precedes it. This may well have vegetarians hiding behind the sofa (Americans clearly like their meat joints BIG), but will probably have meat eaters drooling onto their napkins. Lots of scratches and dust, but as someone who carves meat like he's strimming a hedge, I actually learned something.
Blood Feast Outtakes (45:55)
What may be every unused take shot for Blood Feast, thrown together in a completely random order (multiple takes of the same scene pop up all over the place). The sound didn't survive, so the material is accompanied by (sometimes amusingly inappropriate) music from some of Lewis's films.
Scum "Clean" Scenes (4:36)
Alternative versions of two scenes prepared for a "cleaner" version of Scum of the Earth that could be more comfortably screened to sensitive prudes. The first sees the removal of the bulk of the sequence in which Ajax forces himself on Sandy for Harmon's camera, while the second completely dispenses with the nudity in the three-girl climactic photoshoot.
The Promo Gallery has a number of brief but entertaining inclusions. First up is the Blood Feast Trailer (2:23), which opens with a to-camera warning of what's to come and is followed by some of the most violent images from the film, while the narrator assures us that there is "nothing so appalling in the annals of horror." A dangerous choice of words. The Blood Feast Radio Spot (1:02) resurrects the old trick of scaring people away to make them want to see the film, and reassures us that there will be nurses on duty, "not as an advertising gimmick, they will be needed!" This is followed by a Blood Feast Theatre Announcement (0:59), a savvy little piece that informs us that there will be no preview of this particular film because it's content is too strong, and offers the advice, "See the picture if you must, but remember, we warned you." Next up we have trailers for three of Lewis's 'nudie cutie' films. The nudity and "Way-hey-hey!" comical narration of The Adventures of Lucky Pierre Trailer (1:46) should get you started, but it's the next two that had me coughing in my beer. First up is the Three Bares Trailer (2:15) – actually Goldilocks and the Three Bares – which is hilariously sold as "the masterpiece of epidermis extravaganzas" and "the first nudist musical spectacular, filmed entirely in buffo-colour and see-more-scope." Finally, we have the Bell, Bare and Beautiful Trailer (1:32), which is peppered with close-ups of naked female breasts and whose "ooo, look at that!" narrator offers the suspect advice, "Gentlemen, bring the ladies, make them take notes." He's probably working for Donald Trump now.
Recorded for an earlier DVD release, back before Blood Feast 2 was even on the radar, this commentary features Lewis and Friedman and is hosted by Mike Vraney, the respected founder of Something Weird Video who passed away in 2014. It's a lively and typically forthright chat that alternates between screen-specific comments and more general anecdotes about the film's production and Lewis and Friedman's no frills approach to exploitation filmmaking. We learn that interior scenes were shot with just two lights ("That's all we had!"), where they got their stage blood and how hard it was to wash off, how much the film cost to make ($24,000 including the answer print), details of Lewis's composition of the score (he claims the film took him 12 times longer to score than shoot) and tons more. Lewis complains that the girl playing the sacrifice victim in the flashback scene couldn't hold her breath when she was supposed to look dead, forcing him to use a freeze frame ("it cost me money!"), we hear what sounds like the full story of what happened on the film's opening night, and we learn the reason that Lewis had characters drive convertibles in his films was down to simple pragmatics – without a roof, the driver and passengers were easier to light. Great stuff.
The decision to break this box set down into individual disc reviews may seem a bit odd, but when you've got two feature-length movies to cover and this many quality special features, it struck us that this was the only way to go. There's lots more to come, but hopefully this first disc will give you an idea of what you're in for if you're planning to splash out for the full set. The films are fascinating, the transfers are as good as you could hope for, and the extras are terrific. Roll on the next disc.