In celebration of the upcoming Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, FL, and the 1 March screening of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman's Blood Feast (complete with an appearance by the exploitation gods) SE&L will focus on the movies made by these two living legends. Today, a look a the gorefest that started it all.
No one had ever seen anything like it before. As drive-in patrons lined up for a Friday night showing of a new horror film, little did they know that they were about to witness a cinematic milestone. It would be the creation of an entire genre of film, and the beginning of the end to a profitable filmmaking partnership. Those Peoria, Illinois customers got more than they bargained for as they pulled into the dirt parking lot and attached a tinny speaker to their windows, for what poured forth from the screen was seventy minutes of unbridled brutality. They witnessed legs chopped off, eyes gouged out, tongues ripped from throats, and brains spilled from skulls.
On that balmy night in 1963, the mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Film, David F. Friedman, along with King of the Nudies, director Herschel Gordon Lewis, redefined their careers (and their lives) with the release of Blood Feast. Over the course of the next two years, they would further refine this new form of cinema, creating a trilogy of gore-drenched classics. Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red cemented their legacy and eventually split their profitable affiliation. While dated and a little dippy, these films stand as a testament to these founding fathers of fear, the men who discovered that genuine terror - and a lot of cash - could be made by thoroughly grossing people out.
The '60s had just started. Producer Friedman and director Lewis were well known, highly reputable players in grindhouse filmmaking and distribution with such titles as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Daughters of the Sun to their credit. Taking a very basic premise - like an enchanted pair of glasses that allowed the wearer to see a person "au natural" - they would shoot nudist camp footage and incorporate it into the basic narrative. While fun and highly profitable, by '63 the market was literally flooded with breasts and bare butts. The duo needed to find another unwholesome subject to exploit. It needed to have the same immediate visceral impact on the audience that live childbirth footage had when featured in the moralistic Mom and Dad films. It needed to stir the imagination (and senses) the way acres of unclothed nubile young bodies had in the nudie cutie movie.
Like most acts of desperation, their idea was sudden and inspired: Gore! Total carnage! Unmitigated and realistic scenes of torture and murder! Remove the subtle nuance and cinematic trickery from past movie killings and show everything in graphic, gruesome detail. Within weeks, Blood Feast was on its way into the cinematic history book. Its phenomenal success mandated a sequel of sorts. Two Thousand Maniacs saw lightning strike twice, but only one year later, there was so much dissension built up between Friedman and Lewis that Color Me Blood Red was abandoned (to be completed by others), signaling the end of their era in gore films.
While Friedman and Lewis would both explore the horror film separately, they never did recapture the magic of Blood Feast or the trilogy, and with good reason. These were honest collaborations, the very essence of teamwork: Lewis on the camera, Friedman producing and operating the sound. After a dozen or more solo efforts, Lewis retired from film completely, and Friedman stumbled into a long stint with the soft-core sex farce. But it's these films, with all their unrelenting bloodshed and gleeful butchery, that people remember. And it's also the most passionate and playful of their work together (or maybe even separately). Historians and fans consistently return to these films to see where it all began—when horror finally grew balls and decided to show it all in unadulterated explicit detail.
Stylistically, Lewis and Friedman lifted a great deal from the horror comics of the time (like the ones created by EC). Their use of bold, vivid primary colors (as in Blood Feast) made the images feel like the dazzling panels of a cruel comic. Two Thousand Maniacs is a cornpone Vault of Horror by way of Brigadoon with its bizarre twists and shockingly sick set pieces. Even in Color Me Blood Red there is a clear cartoon-like conceit, with every action exaggerated, acting over the top and outrageous, and shots that mimic the best in pen and ink. The Trilogy allowed Lewis to expand his director's language with unique angles, extreme close ups, and atmospheric lighting. The result was a set of cinematic sickies so drenched in dread and bloodstained bodies that audiences couldn't help but be disturbed. And entertained.
They also marked the true origins of the modern horror archetype. Blood Feast was (and is) the prototypical psycho killer on the loose film, a blueprint for every other slasher/maniac movie to come. Two Thousand Maniacs was the perfect meeting of formula with fantasy. You can see the future fun killings of Freddy Krueger or the over-the-top torture tactics of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Evil Dead in its rednecked roots. Unfortunately, Color Me Blood Red stands for the eventual downfall of the genre, illustrating that when bound by parameters and convention, or when over-hyped or underdeveloped, a gore film could be tedious and pedestrian.
On its own, Blood Feast is the keeper. It is pure psychotic fun, a quirky assault on your senses and your tolerance for the disgusting. It makes its mutant merriment out of ingenuity, energy, and entrails. The film starts out strong and moves rapidly through its uncontrolled barrage of vivid thrill killings. However, at the end it sort of loses steam. The collection of body parts for an Egyptian blood feast/ritual is a novel and nutty premise and, in general, it works wonderfully. But once the killer is discovered and the pseudo mystery solved, the film degenerates into a laughably goofy foot chase that even the puffiest detective should have been able to win. First time viewers may find the initial half of the film shocking and grotesque, even by today's standards. From the opening scene where an unfortunate young lady's carved-open face is shown in full close up, the movie announces its intent to use graphic bloody images as a gigantic exclamation point to the proceedings.
The acting, unfortunately, is not consistent. As Ramses, Mal Arnold is wonderfully perverse, but Connie Mason's Susan seems to be channeling Tor Johnson. Lewis is a tight, economical director, and not a shot or opportunity is wasted, and with classic set pieces like "beach brain bingo" and "the tongue tear" he creates, along with Friedman, a disturbed, demented (if occasionally imperfect) delight. Any fan of horror, then or now, should be required to watch Blood Feast, if only to witness first-hand where so much of what they now worship actually spawned. While they're at it, a trip to Two Thousand Maniacs should be mandatory as well.
In the summer of 2001, in the sweltering heat of New Orleans, a pair of old men laughed and joked. They reminisced about old times. They imagined about what could have been. They buried their differences and embraced the experience of renewal. As 75-year-old Herschel Gordon Lewis called action, a brutal killing occurred. Blood flowed like an evil, if familiar, river. Still, surrounded by the fresh paint and modern technology, some things were the same; the stage gore was still the patented brew, and 78-year-old David F. Friedman was standing by his side. It had been over 40 years since they had conceived the genre they were now diving back into, and the two elderly entrepreneurs of exploitation were putting the finishing touches on Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat.
Dozens of films, hundreds of bad reviews, and thousands of imitators later, Lewis and Friedman truly have nothing left to prove. Their legacy is cemented in a strange concoction of Karo syrup, red dye, and makeup base. They will always be known as the Godfathers of Gore, and people looking for the first true "video nasty" and its unhinged progeny can buy The Blood Trilogy and relish in the work of two true originals. Just like those first time customers in Peoria on that fateful day in 1963, they can bear witness to the graphic, squeamish birth of the gore genre…and the lasting influence of David F. Friedman and Herschel Gordon Lewis.