[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favorite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
When Blood Feast hit the grindhouses in 1963, the world was shocked. Local censorship at the time were ready to pounce on nudity and sex, but they had no expectations of the kind of extreme violence found in H. G. Lewis’s newest film. Even Psycho didn’t clue them in on what was about to come. The film came out and audiences lined up literally for miles in order to see it. Although it was shot in only four days on a pitifully small budget, Blood Feast truly changed the world of cinema forever. The film was so successful that Lewis and his partner David Friedman created two follow-ups: 1964’s Two Thousand Maniacs! and 1965’s Color Me Blood Red. Though none of the films are directly related, their excessive use of the red stuff has them forever bonded as The Blood Trilogy.
NOTHING SO APPALLING IN THE ANNALS OF HORROR
It is impossible to think back to a time before Blood Feast. Gore is so ubiquitous in modern cinema that imagining a time without it is ridiculous. But it had to start somewhere, and it started right here. With that trailer. It’s a truly amazing trailer, because it perfectly demonstrates the way exploitation films were marketed. It features nearly every act of violence in the entire film condensed into about two minutes. In fact, the trailer actually adds a few shots of organ removal not found in the theatrical version.
The film tells the story of Fuad Ramses, an aging caterer/author with a severe limp who is in the middle of a major killing spree. He is called upon to cater a party, and intends to use it as a way to bring the evil Egyptian goddess Ishtar back to life. This requires him to murder and sacrifice young women for their organs and limbs so he can create a Blood Feast, the likes of which has not been seen in 5,000 years (a point he makes a number of times). In order to prepare this sacrificial “Blood Feast,” he must mutilate a number of young women for organs and limbs that will be feasted upon.
Don’t think about all of the technical problems in that image. Just think about what it contains. Three years earlier, rapid shots of a maybe-naked woman being kind of stabbed in black and white shocked and appalled audiences. Now look at it again. The knives, the severed head, the cuts and lashes, the dripping blood, all in vibrant color. The quality, frankly, is irrelevant. It’s the mere presence of the horrors that matters.
The film features tongue removal, brain removal, eye removal, leg removal, and heart removal, among other things. My personal favorite is the scene where the woman above is whipped to death. Whereas more modern films would cut from the whip to the bloody back and give the impression of violence, everything in Blood Feast takes place in one shot. The whip hits the actress in the back, and creates a relatively authentic-looking cut. What gives away the trick is where the top of the whip lands. Rather than hitting the actress directly in the back, the whip ends up against the red curtains found in his chamber. Looking closely, you realize that, despite the curtain’s coloring, it’s getting a little bit redder and a little bit wetter with each hit. It’s really kind of ingenious (especially since you don’t see any paint on the whip ends themselves), and seeing the way these old effects were utilized is kind of charming.
Also charming is the general lack of any kind of production values. The score is mostly a simple, slow drum beat (heard in the trailer) which signals someone’s death. Occasionally there is other music, but that’s a rare, mildly exciting occasion. The violence itself makes no noise, however, and is instead played over by something which sounds kind of like an organ. The film was shot silently and dubbed afterwards, and this happens with differing levels of success. Some scenes you can’t tell that it was done after the fact… but there are just as many where it is oh so clear. The acting, both visual and vocal, is horrifyingly bad. The police captain (whose line “This man is uncanny!” is among my favorites in the film) alone drops Blood Feast to the level of movies like Troll 2.
Rather than having a proper screenplay, the production ran off of a 14-page “script,” which served as the barest of outlines for the film. The point of the film was violence first, story later, and it shows. The most notable failure is a flaw so incredibly simple that it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that no effort whatsoever went into its writing. I will not tell you, however, because its reveal in 2002’s Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (which is required viewing if you want to be my friend) is a truly beautiful moment in cinema history.
Regardless of the film’s quality, it drew in incredible crowds and started a revolution. It also made booking later films far more difficult. Whereas Blood Feast was played all over the country (receiving the widest distribution of any of Lewis’s films), the rest of his work (and of the other exploitation directors ready to emulate him) was put under much harsher scrutiny.
TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!
AN ENTIRE TOWN BATHED IN PULSING HUMAN BLOOD! MADMEN CRAZED FOR CARNAGE!
Instead of making a direct sequel to Blood Feast, Lewis and Friedman decided to make something far more disturbing. With Lewis now writing the screenplay, the two created Two Thousand Maniacs!, a film that is far more interesting on pretty much every level. It actually cuts down on the body count (only four people are killed), but the murders themselves are far more memorable. Seeing the change in marketing from one film to the next is also very interesting. “It still features that opening which dares the viewer to see the film, but whereas Blood Feast‘s trailer was mostly music, this one features a narrator who won’t stop talking. As expected, there are still extra shots of violence not found in the actual movie, but this trailer is far more sensationalized. It also flat out lies about how many people are set to die (as I mentioned, it’s only four) in order to get people to come see it, and that’s exactly what an exploitation marketing campaign should do.
Two Thousand Maniacs! is about six northerner tourists who are tricked into coming into the southern town of Pleasant Valley during their centennial celebration. The year is 1965, which means they are celebrating something that happened in 1865. Any American history buffs know the significance of that year? Why, it’s the end of the Civil War! It’s also the year that the inhabitants of Pleasant Valley were slaughtered by Union soldiers. Now they’re out for Yankee blood, and the unsuspecting tourists have plenty to give.
The centennial is celebrated with a series of events featuring the Guests of Honor (the northerners). And what events might these be? Barbecue, Horse Race, Barrel Roll, and Rock Drop. By tricking the various characters into situations where they are alone, the maniacal townsfolk are able to easily murder their victims (in inventive ways, mind you) without raising much suspicion from the others. Tom, a teacher, realizes what’s going on around the time the Barbeque is set to happen, and is already looking for a way to escape by the time the Barrel Roll is set to happen. Those who don’t make it are subjected to some pretty messed up endings. Since I have to choose a favorite, I will go with the Barrel Roll. Of the deaths in the film, that is the one that horrified me the most.
In stark contrast to Blood Feast,Two Thousand Maniacs! is actually not a bad film in its own right. There are plenty of moments to laugh at, but the poor acting actually helps the film’s surreal quality rather than hinders it. Everything about the town and its inhabitants is off in some way or another, and the film’s technical failings make the whole thing even creepier. This changes a bit near the end due to some truly horrendous acting. A young boy named Billy, who is first seen wrapping a noose around a cat’s throat and pulling, is played so incompetently (and his dialogue is so obviously dubbed) that it becomes truly laughable. When he becomes a significant part of the plot, the creepiness just falls apart. It does lead to a truly funny moment later on though, during a pseudo-chase sequence.
It may not have the significance of Blood Feast, but it’s got a different intent. With the actual centennial of the Civil War’s end happening the following year, the market was flooded with stories about it, and it was very much in the public consciousness. It was a time when some northerners were scared that exactly this sort of thing could happen, and Lewis wanted to capitalize on that. Unfortunately, the film didn’t get nearly the kind of showings that Blood Feast would get because of the increased pressure put on extreme violence by censorship boards. It primarily played at Southern drive-ins, where it did very well. By making his films specifically for the people who were more likely to see them, he did exactly what an exploitation film director should do.
COLOR ME BLOOD RED
A BLOOD-SPATTERED STUDY IN THE MACABRE. IT WILL LEAVE YOU AGHAST!
I think that the above trailer is probably the closest to what people generally think of when they hear the term “grindhouse” or “exploitation” trailer. First up, it opens with the narrator telling you, “You must keep reminding yourself: ‘It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie…'” This phrase would later be stolen for the marketing of other exploitation films such as Wes Craven’s 1972 film Last House on the Left. Even more than that, though, is the fact that the film’s name is said six times in less than two minutes. Once again, it features extra gore not found in the actual film, and it completely misleads the viewer.
Color Me Blood Red tells the story of Adam Sorg, a failing painter in search of the perfect color for his newest creation. When his incredibly unpleasant girlfriend accidentally bleeds on his canvas, he decides to use her (and then his own) blood to color it. After his girlfriend takes it one step too far, he stabs her in the face and uses her to finish the coloring. The painting is a huge success, and he is asked to make one just like it. After spearing and running over a man with his motorboat, he captures and eviscerates a young woman and uses her blood to color the second painting, which is received even more highly.
Then, after spending weeks without painting anything or even leaving his house, a group of four young adults come to the beach nearby. He lures one of them (coincidentally the daughter of Sorg’s most enthusiastic customer) into a modeling job, where he ties her up. Just as he’s about to kill her with an axe, her friends show up and his reign of terror ends.
The majority of the film is not about those things, however. There are several scenes features those four young adults (two of whom say obnoxious things like “Holy Bananas!”) and many take place at the art gallery where Sorg’s work is shown. The killing is a relatively insignificant part of the film. Would you know that having watched the trailer? Absolutely not, and that’s the beauty of marketing. Color Me Blood Red is the least violent of the films, but the violence it does have is better than ever. My favorite moment? When he milks blood from some exposed intestines.
If you have seen Roger Corman’s 1959 film Bucket of Blood, the premise should be familiar. That film centers around a failed sculptor who finds that murdering people and then plastering over them brings him huge success. In fact, Corman even took from a little bit from himself with the 1960 classic The Little Shop of Horrors, using blood to keep the plant alive because of all of the attention and success it’s bringing him. Color Me Blood Red exists as a sort of combination of those two premises, but there’s little doubt of the film’s inspiration.
Although still common today, this kind of idea thievery was everywhere in the heydays of exploitation. The very point of exploitation was to capitalize on a market, and when a film was successful, dozens if not hundreds of copy-cats would come out of the woodwork to make films just like it and attempt to sell it as the next big thing. The vast majority of these films disappeared without a trace, but Color Me Blood Red did just enough with Corman’s premise to still make a film worth watching.
Near the end of Color Me Blood Red‘s production, Lewis and Friedman had a fight which ended their partnership. Despite this, The Blood Trilogy lives on as a cinematic landmark. They may not be directly related to each other, but each film capitalizes on the success of the last and epitomizes exploitation filmmaking in a different way. Without these films, cinema today would be a very different beast. Some people might say it would be better, but that doesn’t matter. Blood Feast showed the world something it had never seen before, Two Thousand Maniacs! took it and capitalized on the thoughts and fears of the era, and Color Me Blood Red kept it going.
They may not be masterpieces, but these films are incredibly important, and you owe it to yourself to see them. They are available on Blu-ray and DVD. Although the DVD is quite a bit more expensive, it preserves the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. If that matters to you, definitely go with that version. If not, I’m sure the Blu-ray is fine too. Whatever your medium of choice, the collection is absolutely worth your time and money.
Just for fun, here is the trailer for H.G. Lewis’s 2002 film Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. It’s available on Netflix Instant Play, and it is one of my favorite movies ever.
NEXT MONTH… Flixist’s Editor-in-Chief Matthew Razak will be bringing the Christmas cheer with Jingle all the Way.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING AT THE CULT CLUB
October: Dougal & The Blue Cat (1970)
September: Top Secret! (1984)
August: Battle Royale (2000)