DirectorHerschell Gordon Lewis
Release Date(s)1963-65 (September 27, 2011)
Studio(s)Something Weird Video (Image Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: C-
- Extras Grade: B+
It’s virtually impossible to watch an older movie without some awareness of its reputation and place in history. More often than not, the more you know about it, the less likely you are to be impressed. Citizen Kane frequently tops critics’ lists of the best films ever made but I don’t know anyone who completely agrees with that sentiment.
But sometimes, having your expectations built up can color your appreciation of a movie in strange, enjoyable ways. Take Herschell Gordon Lewis’ notorious Blood Feast. This is the movie that introduced gore to the motion picture industry. Sure, there had been violence and blood on screen since movies began. But not like this. This was unflinching, hardcore carnage for the sake of carnage, filmed in livid color.
That’s what most people have in the back of their minds when sitting down to watch Blood Feast for the first time. And within about ten minutes, most people are probably thinking, “THIS is one of the most influential horror movies of all time?” Well, yes it is. Nobody said anything about it being any good.
For the uninitiated, Blood Feast tells the tale of mad Egyptian caterer Fuad Ramses (played by Mal Arnold and about half a dozen cans of spray-on white hair dye). He’s slaughtering local girls in an attempt to bring to life an ancient goddess. Bill Kerwin, acting under the pseudonym Thomas Wood, is the detective trying none-too-successfully to crack the case. He falls for Playboy Playmate Connie Mason and guess who Ramses has targeted for the grand finale?
It’s all too easy to poke fun at Blood Feast’s lapses in logic, dreadful performances, hilariously stilted dialogue, and point-shoot-and-pray camerawork. But give Lewis credit for one thing: he was breaking new ground in gore effects and did it all with less money and less crew than most productions would even dare. Most of the gore effects remain crudely effective, particularly the notorious ripping-out-the-tongue scene. A lot of this is due to the fact that it’s often blatantly obvious that most of the makeup effects budget was spent at the butcher shop. Sure, the whipping scene is pretty funny (I didn’t know a woman’s dress could bleed like that) and even if none of it is all that scary, it’s still sort of shocking.
For his encore, Lewis upped the ante with Two Thousand Maniacs! Kerwin/Wood and Mason are back, along with four more ill-fated travelers who get detoured to the small Southern town of Pleasant Valley. The town is celebrating its centennial and the mayor (Jeffrey Allen) is pleased to welcome these six Yankees as their guests of honor. It takes the city slickers awhile to figure out that this mob of slack-jawed yokels waving Confederate flags might not have their best interests at heart. But eventually, their intentions become all too clear.
It would be a stretch to say that Two Thousand Maniacs! represents a quantum leap forward for Lewis’ filmmaking technique, although it is a better movie than Blood Feast. Mason still can’t act her way into a fourth grade President’s Day recital and the rest of the cast seems like they’ve been promised a bonus to whoever can overact the hardest. But at least there’s more of an attempt at a story. Plus, the infernally catchy bluegrass music, weird atmosphere, and oversized performances all combine to create something truly unique and unforgettable, for better or worse.
The final film in the loosely defined trilogy, Color Me Blood Red, could almost be interpreted as a meta-commentary on Lewis’ career up to that point, providing you were willing to be extremely generous on the topic of how much thought was actually put into these things. Gordon Oas-Heim (a.k.a. “Don Joseph”) stars as artist Adam Sorg. Stung by a critic’s dismissive appraisal of his use of color, Adam accidentally discovers that human blood provides the exact shade of crimson he’s been searching for. Unfortunately, he can only use so much of his own before passing out, so it isn’t long before he needs a fresh supply.
The whole mad-artist-who-achieves-fame-after-becoming-a-serial-killer thing has been done many times. Roger Corman probably did it best in 1959’s A Bucket Of Blood with Dick Miller. Color Me Blood Red doesn’t add much new, apart from some weird supporting characters including a couple of androgynous beatnik hipsters given to observations like, “Holy bananas! It’s a girl’s leg!” The gore effects aren’t as plentiful, although some are still pretty memorable. Personally, I got most of my entertainment value from the fact that the actor playing Adam looks quite a bit like Ricky Gervais and imagining him starring in a remake.
When I heard that Something Weird would be releasing The Blood Trilogy on Blu-ray, my first reaction was, “What? Why?” Having seen the disc, I’m still not sure I know the answer to that question. The digital transfers are fine with all three movies on one disc without any noticeable compression flaws. But the prints themselves haven’t been restored, so every film scratch, bad splice, audio pop and hiss is captured in perfect HD clarity. The colors are generally solid and vivid, especially on Blood Feast, but don’t always pop the way you might be expecting. The movies look better than they did on DVD but not by much. Don’t expect miracles here.
All of the extras from SW’s previous DVD release have been ported over to the Blu-ray. Each film has an engaging and informative audio commentary by Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman, moderated by Something Weird’s Mike Vraney. You also get extensive outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from the movies, trailers, a gallery of exploitation art, and Carving Magic, an industrial film on how to carve meats correctly starring Bill Kerwin and Harvey Korman. New to this set is the obscure short gore film Follow That Skirt. Rarely if ever screened outside of San Francisco in the 60s, this is one of the few gore movies to appear almost immediately after Blood Feast. It’s an odd piece of work and a genuine curiosity. There’s also a new trailer for the documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather Of Gore.
There’s little doubt that Herschell Gordon Lewis was an extremely influential filmmaker. The massive success of Blood Feast (and make no mistake, it was a huge hit) eventually led to horror movies waist-deep in gore. Sure, you could argue that if Lewis hadn’t done it, someone else eventually would have and maybe even made better movies in the bargain. But the fact remains that they didn’t. Lewis might not have done it best, but he did it first. The Blood Trilogy defies letter grading. You’ll either want to give each movie an “A” or an “F” depending on your tolerance level. In the spirit of compromise, let’s put them smack dab in the middle...
- Dr. Adam Jahnke