July 05, 2007
Blood Feast (1963)
A decade of many social changes and cultural revolutions, the 1960s also were an important period in the history of cinema. Thanks to the availability of new light-weight cameras that were easier to afford, the 60s saw the rise of independent cinema as an answer to what the Studio System was making at the time. This was a crucial period for horror, as this meant that by working outside the System, the filmmakers were no longer tied by the rules of the Production Code (which eventually would be abandoned in 1967), so they were able to take horror in new directions by pushing the envelope further in terms of violence and sexuality. American filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis realized this, and in 1963 moved from the erotic genre to horror (which was a more profitable genre), and directed the movie that many consider the first "splatter film" and the movie that introduced explicit gore to the genre: "Blood Feast".
In "Blood Feast", Mal Arnold plays Fuad Ramses, a psychotic Egyptian caterer who follows the ancient religion of the blood-lust goddess Ishtar. Fuad wants to perform the highest rite for Ishtar: the Blood Feast, which is a banquet that requires the body parts of several young virgin girls for its correct preparation. To prepare his rite, Fuad begins to hunt and mutilate young women, successfully evading the clueless detectives (William Kerwin and Scott H. Hall) who are after him. But when the wealthy Mrs. Fremont (Lyn Bolton) hires him to make the banquet of his daughter Suzette's (Connie Mason) party, Fuad decides that the party is the perfect occasion to finish his legendary Egyptian Blood Feast, so he begins to kill more women, hoping to finish the feast on time for the unsuspecting guests at Mrs. Fremont's party, who are unaware that Fuad is planning to honor his goddess at their party.
Based on a story by director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman, "Blood Feast" was written by Allison Louise Downe, an actress from Lewis and Friedman's previous erotic films who would become a frequent collaborator for the duo. The plot is essentially very simple as it focuses on how Fuad butchers girl after girl while the police ineptly tries to uncover his identity. While some would use this plot to create suspense and mystery, Downe knew that what Lewis wanted was to shock audiences, so she gives him as many chances to display gore as possible without caring too much for character development, believable dialogs or the creation of tension. Anyways, it is obvious that this wasn't meant to be taken seriously, as the movie is filled with enough wackiness to make clear that more than a horror, this is a delightfully grotesque black comedy.
In this his debut in the horror genre, director H. G. Lewis shows that when he decided to use gore in his films, he really meant it, as the movie is filled with a wide array of mutilations, whippings and other similarly gruesome activities in very graphic detail (for its time); although of course, always with that outrageous style located too far from realism to be taken for something more than good (albeit macabre) fun. Certainly, Lewis is not a director to look for when one wants moody and atmospheric horror, he goes for the visceral reactions the genre is able to pull off, and "Blood Feast", in all its gory glory, is a clear example of this. While made with the sole intention of making a profit, "Blood Feast" shows that there is an artist inside the businessman, as while the movie is poorly made, Lewis makes an outstanding use of colors (specially red) and music in the film.
While the work of Downe, Friedman and Lewis was certainly influential and "Blood Feast" is a classic splatter film, one has to be honest and say the truth: the acting is one of the worst in the genre. Well, not everyone is bad, Mal Arnold and William Kerwin manage to make their characters interesting, specially Kerwin, who really shows some talent in his work and is probably the only one in the cast who can portray any emotion. Former playmate Connie Mason plays Suzette Fremont, and hers is definitely the worst performance among the main cast. Lyn Bolton, who plays her mother, is nothing amazing, but compared to Mason, hers is a noteworthy performance. Finally, Scott H. Hall completes the group of awful performances with his acting as Frank, although at least Hall has the excuse of not being a professional actor.
Now, the terrible acting of the cast seriously damages the film, and the mixture of the low-budget, the silliness of the plot and Lewis inability to bring anything good out of his actors doesn't really help to improve this. One could say that this is the perfect recipe for a disaster, but Lewis wisely turns this problem to his favor by keeping an unpretentious attitude through the film, playing these flaws into the black humor of the film with an almost naive joy. It is often this attitude what saves the film from being a tedious bore on most of the times, at it's kind of slow due to Lewis' lack of expertise. I'm not saying that the film works perfectly (it definitely doesn't), as it is not exactly a good film; but at least Lewis manages to make it better than what one could expect.
To tell the truth, "Blood Feast" is far from being a masterpiece of horror, and it's not even a good movie in the classic sense of the word; but it has something special, a special charm that makes it fun, it has magic. Fortunately, Lewis went on to make better films than this (although also did worse), but as the original splatter film, "Blood Feast" is a must see for every horror fan with an interest in the gory side of cinema.
Buy "Blood Feast" (1963)