Year: 1963 Company: Box Office Spectaculars Runtime: 67′
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis Writers: Allison Louise Downe Cinematography: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Music: Herschell Gordon Lewis Cast: William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Mal Arnold, Lyn Botton, Scott H. Hall
Disc company: Something Weird / Image Entertainment Video: 1080p 1.78:1 Audio: LPCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: None Disc: BD50 (Region A) Release Date: 09/27/2011 Released as part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy Blu-ray collection, and available for purchase through Amazon.com
This review is just part one of three for the Something Weird / Image Entertainment Blu-ray release of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy – coverage of Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red will follow shortly.
Here it is, folks, the film that single-handedly revolutionized the relationship between exploitation filmmaking and gooey, graphic violence and made a mint for production duo David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis in the process. Produced in Miami for the measly sum of $24,500, word of Blood Feast‘s carnal excesses spread like wildfire upon its release, drawing millions to the flicker of the drive-in screen for their first taste of hard gore.
That’s not to say that violence, occasionally of a graphic variety, had not been seen in film before, as it most certainly had. In the years leading up to Blood Feast‘s release directors like Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Caltiki the Immortal Monster) and Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face) had treated audiences to a variety of gruesome set-pieces in black and white, while Britain’s Hammer Films (themselves responsible for a choice selection of classic black and white shocks) had upped the gothic horror ante with splashes of blood in brilliant color. Blood Feast took things several steps further with its over-the-top gore flourishes, but where it really served as a revolutionary was in its intent. Where earlier films had used violence as a means to tell a story Blood Feast existed solely for the sake of its own violent excesses. Everything about Blood Feast, from its blood-drenched title card on, is subservient to the gore, and while critics were quick to deride the film as unadulterated trash audiences ate it up.
The sparse narrative for Blood Feast is pure hokum, and played with such delightful earnest that it’s tough not to love it. Well-to-do Mrs. Fremont is throwing a party for her daughter Suzette (Playmate Connie Mason in her first credited film appearance), but wants to forego the usual fare for something more unusual. Thusly she crosses paths with Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold, Scum of the Earth), a local caterer with a taste for the bizarre who sells Mrs. Fremont on the notion of holding an ‘Egyptian Feast’ for her daughter. All seems hunky-dory with the plan save for one minor hitch: Fuad Ramses is actually a modern-day cultist of the ancient Egyptian Goddess Ishtar, and his ‘Egyptian Feast’ is actually a blood offering crafted from mutilated human flesh! As the day of the feast draws near the bodies start piling up, and detective Pete Thornton (Will Kerwin, Impulse) is at a loss for catching the killer until he happens into a lecture on Egyptology at the local community college…
It’s difficult to impart in writing just how silly and contrived the plot for Blood Feast really is, but if the fact that Miami’s star detective just happens to be taking a community college course on Egyptology (which just happens to be focusing on the blood feast of Ishtar, and whose professor just happens to know a book written on the subject by none other than Fuad Ramses, caterer extraordinaire!) doesn’t give you some inkling of it then I don’t know what will. Credited to Allison Louise Downe (an actress in some of Lewis and Friedman’s ‘nudie-cuties’) but actually a collaborative effort between Downe, Lewis, Friedman and others, the screenplay here is positively ridiculous stuff from start to finish, and is a big part of what keeps Blood Feast from being so nasty and indigestible as the dreadfully serious or dully self-referential horrors of today. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is just how much intentional humor there is to it, much of it sourced from the broad caricatures (a detective, a matron, a maniac) that dominate it. Case in point is the upper-crust Mrs. Fremont who, after discovering the near-murder of her daughter and that the feast prepared for her gathering is comprised of human flesh, glibly remarks, “Oh dear – the guests will have to eat hamburgers for dinner tonight”!
Best. Title card. Ever.
Most memorable among the characters is easily Fuad Ramses himself, thanks to a combination of gross over-acting and the frequent idiocies of the scripting. Though often cited as the prototype for the blade-wielding cut-up artists who would become the face of the burgeoning slasher subgenre, Ramses has more in common with the mad doctors and maniacs of the ’30s and ’40s than anything modern, with only the graphic nature of his murders really separating him. Fuad slowly wanders the wastes of Miami with a hysterically overplayed limp and varying degrees of gray hair, toting a machete and his appropriated body parts with him in a sack and speaking with such wide eyes and pronounced Lugosi-ese that even the most magnanimous of Miamians would find it difficult to ignore his psychopath credentials.
Contrary to popular conception not all of the acting in Blood Feast is bad, though the vast majority of it certainly fits the bill (Friedman and Lewis’ associate Scott H. Hall, playing detective Thornton’s superior officer, can often be seen checking his left hand for hints to his dialogue, and he’s far from the worst). The one constant talent of the show is star William Kerwin, who plays his role believably even when the scripting frequently fails him. Though by no means a name star Kerwin certainly had experience, having kicked around television, shorts, and feature films since the early ’50s, and his varied acting career (from stuff like this to episodes of Land of the Lost) would continue on until his death in 1989. Kerwin’s co-star Connie Mason, best known for her appearances in Playboy, was essentially hired as a pretty face, and looks suitably Barbie Doll-esque in her bawdy ’60s fashions. Mason would go on to make numerous appearances in film and television, many of them uncredited, and would also star in Blood Feast‘s Southern style follow-up Two Thousand Maniacs.
Much like the performances, the other aspects of this poverty-row production are hit or miss. Blood Feast was filmed both on 35mm and in color, but very economically. Most dialogue scenes are carry on as uninterrupted master shots, and Lewis and Friedman evidently limited themselves to a 3-take maximum due to the limited amount of film stock available to them. Much of the cast and crew played multiple roles throughout the production, with no one being more indicative of the trend than director Herschell Gordon Lewis himself. In addition to serving as director and photographer, Lewis also co-produced, composed and, in part, performed the film’s musical score, devised the numerous special effects, and can even be heard, briefly, as a radio announcer at the beginning of the film! That most of the footage is in focus and intelligibly framed and that the dialogue and sound effects are all clear is likely as much as Lewis, Friedman and their associates ever asked of Blood Feast, and the dedication to just getting the film finished on-budget and by whatever means necessary overrides the paucity of the production value in my mind, particularly when the end results are such a riot.
The gore effects here are part and parcel with the rest and aren’t likely to shock anyone in a day and age when the average cop drama offers more in the way of realistic carnage, but to hold them up to today’s standards is to completely miss the point. No, the Kaopectate-laced fake blood syrup doesn’t look real and yes, the bits of mannequin masquerading as dismembered body parts are obvious, but Blood Feast was never about realism to begin with. It was about filling that drive-in screen with as much goopy, flowing red as could be managed and entertaining an audience in the process. Sure it’s silly and stupid and about as scary as a pair of wool socks, but it’s also a blast to watch – grand guignol has rarely been such good clean fun.
Who couldn’t trust a face like that?
Something Weird, through distributor Image Entertainment, present Blood Feast for the first time on Blu-ray by way of The Blood Trilogy collection (along with Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red, all housed on a single dual layer BD50). Though the end results aren’t perfect they are overall positive. Blood Feast is transferred from a well worn but serviceable positive 35mm source, as evidenced by the considerable print damage on display (including reel change markers and the repaired film tear shown below). While it’s clear that little to no restorative work was put into the transfer after the telecine process the transfer certainly stays true to the source, and I’m hard pressed to argue with the end results.
Presented in 1080p, the chosen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 may court controversy with fans expecting another open matte 1.33:1 edition a la earlier videos and DVDs. I can’t say that the choice bothered me in the least. Lewis obviously photographed Blood Feast with the possibility of widescreen matting in mind, with plenty of headroom all around. Only a brief shot of a letter stood out for me as being improperly framed (see the 9th capture below), and I suspect it’s appeared much the same way to the film’s theatrical audiences over the past 48 years. The new transfer also adds a bit to the left and right of the frame, at times substantially. Another potential sticking point is the fact that Something Weird have packaged Blood Feast with its two HD co-features and a host of extras on a single dual layer disc, limiting the available bitrate and wreaking all manner of theoretical havoc in the process. The simple fact of the matter, as should be supported by the captures below, is that the technically meager AVC video encode (just 17.6 Mbps on average) appears to support the visuals just fine. After checking the technical specs I was expecting something akin to The Big Doll House‘s presentation in the recent Women in Cages Blu-ray collection, or worse the unbridled mess of The Beyond, but such disasters thankfully failed to materialize and Blood Feast maintains a respectable film-like appearance throughout.
Depending on the original photography, which varies quite a lot in terms of focus, Blood Feast‘s visual detail can range from the lowly and modest to reasonably impressive (there’s some excellent skin texture to be found in the final close-up below), but always appears accurate to the source print. Color saturation is at healthy levels, with reds (from the multitude of stage blood to the monotone lighting of Fuad Ramses’ secret shrine) that really pop, and skin tones looked natural to these eyes. Black levels are the only sore spot, appearing flat and gray, but are hardly a deal breaker. Overall I’m very pleased with Blood Feast‘s appearance on Blu-ray, and imperfect as it is it more than gets the job done.
For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command-line tool. After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x. The first image below is a sample of some of the worst print damage this transfer has to offer, and is followed by ten more typical samples.
Whatever you think of the image, I think it’s safe to say that there’s nothing controversial about Blood Feast‘s audio presentation. Something Weird grant the film an uncompressed 16-bit Linear PCM monophonic track in the original English, and it sounds just as everyone should expect – rough. Like the photography, Blood Feast‘s audio recording can vary quite a bit from scene to scene. Dialogue is largely intelligible, even if the final mixing of some segments is suspect, but there’s nothing wrong with the track that can’t be blamed squarely on the original recording and Lewis’ original score is even more delightfully rotten than ever. My only complaint is that there are no accompanying subtitles whatsoever.
Blood Feast comes packaged with a healthy array of film-specific supplements, all of which appear sourced from earlier releases. The best of the bunch is an excellent feature commentary track with director Herschell Gordon Lewis and the late producer David Friedman, with Something Weird’s Mike Vraney serving as moderator. Lewis and Friedman are under absolutely no illusions about the quality of their product, but clearly had a blast creating it and are obviously proud of the influence it has since had on exploitation filmmaking as a whole. Next up is a lengthy run of unedited silent alternate and outtake footage in 4:3 SD, totaling 50 minutes in all! The only other film-specific supplements are a gallery of ad art (including images from other Friedman / Lewis productions) and the theatrical trailer presented in 1080p. (Each of the other films in the collection is also accompanied by a feature audio commentary, outtake footage, and an original trailer, with short subjects Carving Magic and Follow That Skirt and a trailer for the Something Weird documentary Godfather of Gore rounding out the disc)
And that’s it, I think. Something Weird have done better by Blood Feast than I really ever expected of them, and the presentation’s few imperfections do nothing to thwart my overall enthusiasm for it. I can’t imagine most fans being disappointed (though online chatter has proven that some of you are anyway), and with The Blood Trilogy collection available for less than $12 as of this writing the disc gets an easy recommendation from me.
Film: Excellent (Yes, I mean it!) Video: Very Good Audio: Very Good Supplements: Very Good
Harrumphs: Limited video bitrate, with all three films plus extras cohabiting one dual layer BD50, and no subtitles.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case.