And so it begins – my first foray into the world of Herschel Gordon Lewis’s splatter films. Arrow Films just released an incredible box set of 14 of the “Godfather of Gore’s” best splatter movies, a genre which he is considered to have created with the release of Blood Feast. Arrow was kind enough to provide The Farsighted with said box set, called The HGL Feast, and I have the privilege of watching and reviewing each and every one of them over the next 6 months or so. As a disclaimer, this is a genre I’m almost wholly unfamiliar with, having only seen the modern product of what Lewis began – films like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive or Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. I’m a big fan of some of the modern splatter films that I have seen, and I expect this will result in some of Lewis’ films seeming slight by comparison. I also suspect that as I watch more of these films, I will circle back around on these first few and reconsider them with the context I will gain from watching so many back-to-back.
Which brings me to 1963’s Blood Feast, the first film in the set and the one considered to bring the splatter genre to the US. I know I previously referenced Lewis as the progenitor of the genre, but according to Wikipedia, its roots in cinema can be traced all the way back to 1916’s Intolerance, by D. W. Griffith. So in truth, Lewis is actually bringing something of a niche genre to mainstream American cinema – a decision that seems to be rooted in maximizing profits by shocking an audience into telling their friends “You gotta see this shit!” without spending much money in the first place. Sincerely – even by 1963’s standards, these effects look cheap. Cheap enough that they’re not all that effective by today’s standards, though I could see them being quite effective at the time – just the notion of making your brain think about some of these ideas, like the infamous tongue scene, likely would’ve been enough to stress out a 1963 audience, let alone depicting it in detail, regardless of how accurate or real it looks.
My main issue with this isn’t the cheap effects (I quite enjoy those, even in the most ineffectual of movies), it’s the story. Blood Feast is about a woman who wants to hold a party for her daughter with a lavish theme. She’s referred to an Egyptian caterer who assures her he can provide the finest, “traditional” Egyptian feast. Little does she know this means he will be providing a “Blood Feast” which requires the ritual sacrifice of young women for the purpose of bringing to life an ancient Egyptian goddess. Sound exciting? It would be, if we the audience knew as little as the woman who hires the caterer. Unfortunately for us, we know literally everything from the opening moments of the movie. The first scene show’s us the caterer murdering a young woman – we know the killer’s identity from minute one. I would suppose this is meant to add tension to every interaction he has with people throughout the movie, but given all poorly written dialogue and stilted performances, there is no such tension to be found here.
The movie is quite literally a series of cheap, grisly murders that occur leading up to the party, and a handful of completely uninteresting, and somewhat odd character interactions (a 40 year old cop courting a 20 year old college student) that are meant to build stakes but don’t because they never change – young women will be murdered by a man that is not a mystery to the audience until he is stopped – that’s how it starts, that’s how it ends. Perhaps I’m viewing it through the wrong lens, but it seems to me there’s little to appreciate here other than the film’s historical significance, which is admittedly great. There are, however, a few things worth noting, like a beach scene that has some great lighting and perhaps inspired Spielberg’s Jaws opening – though that’s just idle speculation on my part. During the finale, when the police finally discover the caterer’s lair, there’s some pretty gross practical effects, definitely the most effective of the movie – Trudy, one of his victims, is splayed out on a table, vivisected from head to toe, and another victim’s face is shown to be removed from its skull and just sitting on the table. Once the movie got to this scene, I realized it may be a light inspiration on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though it’s easily the slowest, tamest, most mild version of that story one might imagine.
The end of the film was bizarre in a way that I actually greatly enjoyed, despite being sort of bored by the movie otherwise. It ends in a completely unspectacular foot chase across a garbage dump, where the killer-caterer hops in the back of a garbage truck to escape, only to have the trash compactor part of the truck turned on, crushing him to pieces inside, making him his own victim. It’s a strange but somehow appropriate ending, especially with the totally inept, poorly acted cops that are on the case explaining the plot and lesson of the movie to each other, and thus the audience – “He died a fitting death for the garbage he was.” It’s like a splatter version of Scooby-Doo.
All in all, the best parts of this movie are the opening and closing title cards. It opens with the words “Blood Feast” written in chunky, meaty blood, as more chunky, meaty blood falls onto the splattery words. And it closes with the same effect on the words “The End”. It’s honestly one of the coolest title cards I can recall. I wish I had more positive things to say about the movie as a whole, but it’s ultimately a pretty slow, boring movie. We could talk about it as a progenitor of the slasher genre, the movie that brought grotesque violence to America, or the humble beginnings of what would evolve into the torture porn genre many decades later. In that way, there’s no arguing that this isn’t a classic of its genre. But that is likely the only way in which you could view this movie as such.
But take that all with a grain of salt, my dear readers. Heed my disclaimers at the beginning of this review – this is the beginning of a long journey through Lewis’s work for me, and I may find more to appreciate in these films the deeper I get. And you yourself may find enjoyment and thematic resonance in this movie where I did not – please shout at me in the comments section if that’s the case. I’d love to hear some other perspectives on this. Until next time, remember that as ignorant as I may be to the genre and its history – splatter matters.