Blood Feast (Review)

Gotta love that tagline: "Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!"

Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 film Blood Feast is often cited as being the first true splatter film – a genre of filmmaking that is characterized by an excessive and glorified focus on blood and gore (often at the expense of plot and character).  And while its influence on the genre appears to be quite significant and far reaching, the film itself is so unbelievably bad that even at a mere 67 minutes it still manages to overstay its welcome.  This is the kind of film that Ed Wood could have made if he had decided to go a different route with his filmmaking.  The editing is sloppy, the framing is poor, every shot seems to linger more than it needs to, the acting is atrocious, and the whole thing lacks any sense of plausibility or even attempted believability.  But despite these numerous problems, Blood Feast succeeds as a piece of pure and unapologetic low-budget shock entertainment, laying the basic foundation for numerous (better) splatter films that would follow in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

The razor-thin plot revolves around a creepy gray-haired man named Ramses who roams around town killing and dismembering women with the intention of using their body parts in an ancient Egyptian feast meant to revive an evil goddess (played by a gold-spraypainted department store manequin).  As the body count begins to rise, two inept police detectives struggle to find a clue to the identity of the killer before it’s too late.

The opening titles did some cool things with red paint

I think I can honestly say that Blood Feast wins the prize for having the stupidest pair of police officer characters I have ever seen in a film.  William Kerwin’s character (who I suppose is the closest thing we get to a hero) fails miserably at putting clues together when they’re right in front of his face; yet he still doesn’t compare to the police chief played by Scott H. Hall, who proves unable to say a single line of dialogue without sounding like a complete tool.

But don’t let this dissuade you, since it is these sorts of epic fails that I enjoyed most about Blood Feast.  Like a train-wreck that you can’t look away from, it is glorious in its awfulness; and the numerous missteps and technical deficiencies produce a bizarre sort of unintentional comedy that works to balance out the scenes of gruesome (if still a bit ridiculous) bloodletting.  It’s no surprise that the film spawned a devoted cult following, as well as two semi-sequels by Lewis entitled Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965), which together are referred to as “The Blood Trilogy”.  Lewis also returned to directing in 2002 to make Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, but I have yet to see that…

This priceless shot is very telling of the film's B-movie tone

I will say this though, if there’s one thing Blood Feast actually manages to get right, it’s the music.  A minimalistic two-beat drum theme does a fine job of creating suspense out of nothing, gradually building in urgency whenever something sinister is about to happen.  Mal Arnold is also a great choice to play the villain Fraud Ramses, with a distinct and creepy look that stems largely from his cheaply dyed hair, wild eyebrows and crazy-eyes.  He is also considered by many to be the first machete-wielding killer, and also sports a limp when walking, paving the way for some of cinema’s later icons like Jason Voorhees.  I must also point out that the film’s final act contains a hilariously anti-climactic moment which works well in accordance with the idiotic nature of the rest of the film, although thankfully there is still a satisfying demise for the villain before the credits roll.

I’m not going to lie, watching Blood Feast was something of a chore (even at its brief run-time), but it’s definitely one that I’m glad I have put behind me.  Unfortunately in cinema, there is often a difference between doing something first and doing it the best; yet this film still remains something of a gem for cult enthusiasts like myself who can find the joy in its bleak and one-dimensional attempt to breathe new life into a genre.  I can hardly imagine watching it in 1963, when nothing like this had ever been done before on such an gruesome scale.  Back when they thought Psycho was gory, instead of just genius…

Rating: 2/5 Stars

Blood Feast (1963, USA, Unrated: 67min)  Directed by: Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Starring: William Kerwin, Mal Arnold, Connie Mason, Scott H. Hall, and Christy Foushee.

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~ by Mark D'Amico on July 5, 2011.

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