Blood Feast (USA, 1962)
Despite being a lifelong horror fan, and spending far too much of my time seeking out strange films, I am ashamed to admit that I had never seen a Herschell Gordon Lewis film until today. I’ve read enough about his work to know that I had to watch at least a few films, but somehow I had never got around to it. As I’ve grown older I’ve found it harder to enjoy films with reputations as campy cult classics, partly due to overexposure to Troma and their ilk. I’m not convinced you can set out to make a cult movie, and a bad film filled with knowing winks to the audience will do nothing but alienate me. My abortive attempts to watch some of the current crop of SyFy monster movies have just cemented this view. I am old and grumpy and very much not the target audience.
With all this baggage in mind, I was surprised at how enjoyable Blood Feast proved. Oh, don’t get me wrong: it’s a terrible film by almost every possible metric, but it is immense fun to watch. It is cynical in its own way, with the obvious commercial aspirations of its pioneering mix of gore and prurience, but there is a po-faced seriousness to it that makes it far funnier than any comic approach would have allowed. When you are faced with deadly serious lines like “That’s Ishtar, Frank — the goddess of blood” or “Hey! You wouldn’t sacrifice me on this altar, would you?” then laughter is the only reasonable response.
The fairly minimal plot follows a limping, leering Miami-based Egyptian grocery store-owner and caterer by the name of Fuad Ramses, as he takes a commission to cater a young woman’s birthday party as an opportunity to perform a ritual — the blood feast of the title — to invoke Ishtar (for a religious fanatic, Fuad’s knowledge of Egyptian deities seems muddled). When the woman’s mother visits Fuad to arrange the meal, he asks her, “Have you ever had an… EGYPTIAN FEAST?” in a tone that conveys all-caps; the mother is not alarmed, even when the question is capped by a leer and a sinister organ chord.
The preparations for the feast require Fuad to kill lots of young women for various body parts, but only after tricking them into becoming unwitting priestesses of Ishtar through sinister manipulation of a book club. As his spree continues, Fuad is stalked by two police detectives, one of whom is the young woman’s boyfriend (Miami must be a small town). Despite the mounting body count, the detectives spend most of their time spouting exposition in an office that could double as an echo chamber. They also take the time to recap and explain just what has happened in the climactic moments of the film, stopping just short of turning to the audience and drawing diagrams.
Famously made for a pittance and recouping millions, Blood Feast almost single-handedly spawned the splatter movie, showing that audiences share the same unholy appetite for blood with Ishtar and her wild-eyed priest. And, considering that this was made in the days when Hammer films were considered somewhat extreme, it is a surprisingly gory film. No one could ever mistake the onscreen blood and guts for real slaughter (although it looks like Lewis used animal innards to make his scenes more, um, visceral), but they remain mildly shocking, especially in the long flogging scene late in the film.
There is an almost fetishistic aspect to the gore in Blood Feast. Every death is that of an attractive young woman, and in almost every death scene the camera lingers on the victim’s mutilated remains for an uncomfortable length of time. Between the bargain-basement production values, stilted delivery of amateurishly scripted lines and plot that is a bare-bones pretext for the killings, it is difficult to shake the feeling that this is a kind of pornography, with sex swapped out for bloodletting.
I’ve probably made Blood Feast sound more sadistic than it really is. For all the blood and lechery, there is an almost childlike simplicity and earnestness to the production that makes it endearing. The appalling dialogue renders Blood Feast too funny to be nasty, and even the more gore-soaked scenes tend to evoke wry amusement. The organ soundtrack, which Lewis must have assumed would bring a sinister edge to the proceedings, is so overblown that it only adds to the camp. The rich colours turn what is already a strange film psychedelic in places, making the whole film into a clumsy but loveable fever dream.
Blood Feast has made me want to seek out more of Lewis’s films to see if they are as dementedly enjoyable. Along with this month’s viewing of Equinox, it has also helped convince me that I can still enjoy terrible films for their unintentional delights, as long as they are terrible in a naïve way. No one should set out to make a bad film, but if the result is well-meaning and heartfelt then being bad shouldn’t stop your film from being fun.