Blood Feast (2016)

In Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) a middle-class mother hires an Egyptian cultist to cater her daughter’s party, not realising that the exotic ‘blood feast’ he is offering involves cannibalistic sacrifice to the goddess Ishtar. If this plot sounds ridiculous, even throwaway, Lewis knew it, and even ended the film with a policeman at a garbage dump clunkily explaining all the trash that we had just witnessed for ourselves – and in portraying bourgeois Americans who, in search of the exotic, bite off more than they can chew, Lewis was also taking real pleasure in throwing a reflection of his viewers right back at them. In any case, the plot was there merely as the flimsy framework into which Lewis could introduce a succession of gory set-pieces – like the regular money shots in a narrative porn flick. For Lewis’ Blood Feast has the honour of being, arguably, the first ever splatter film, and the oldest title to be included in the 39 ‘Video Nasties‘ successfully prosecuted under Britain’s Obscene Publications Act.

All of this makes Lewis’ film a hard act to follow, both because of the inherent disposability of its story (whose charm, if we are being honest, now rests largely in its passé quaintness), and because shock and gore have – in the intervening years of slashers, splattercore and torture porn – lost much of their impact. In fact Blood Feast had already been reimagined in 1987 as Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner (1987); and it received an official, if belated, sequel from Lewis himself, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002). Meanwhile, as the post-millennial period has proved also to be the age of revisionism and remakes, several of Lewis’ other films have been recreated – in Tim Sullivan’s 2001 Maniacs (2005), and Jeremy Kasten’s superlative The Wizard of Gore (2007).

German genre director Marcel Walz and his co-writer Philip Lielenschwarz have taken what might at first seem a different approach to Lewis’ material. After a teaser prologue in which a naked couple, bound and gagged, are brutally murdered – one offscreen – by a crazed Fuad Ramses (Robert Rusler, A Nightmare On Elm Street: Part 2), while a voiceover warns viewers directly of the extremity of the (named) film they are about to watch, this new Blood Feast does something Lewis’ film would never do: it devotes a full, violence-free half hour – that’s a third of its entire running time – to establishing Fuad’s character. Unlike the maniacal limping cypher in Lewis’ original, here Fuad is a family man, in love with his wife Louise (Caroline Williams, ‘Stretch’ from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and solicitous over their student daughter Penny (Sophie Monk, The Hills Run Red). Yet ever since they moved their American diner to the outskirts of Paris (a relocation of no thematic importance to this English-language film), business has been poor, money has been short, and, to make ends meet, Fuad has had to take additional night work as a watchman in an anthropological museum. Accidentally losing his pills down the sink is the last straw, and as his mind unravels, he has visions of the deity Ishtar (Sadie Katz), and takes it upon himself to prepare a ‘blood feast’ in her honour so that he can be united with the love goddess for eternity.

If all this psychological backstory, suggesting a man tragically haunted by his own impossible dissatisfactions, drives and desires, serves to put flesh on the bones of a character who, in the original, was no character at all, once the flaying, chopping, biting and carving starts, such subtleties are cast aside, and Blood Feast reverts to (graphically visceral, CGI-free) form. Similarly while Fuad’s victims (mostly from Penny’s set of friends) come with their own little relationship melodramas, those cease to matter much once the co-eds (and squatters and hookers) are in chains or on the slab. There is a lot of talk here of blow jobs, perhaps as oblique (or not so oblique) foreshadowing of different meat soon to go into mouths – or perhaps as continuing come-on for the (male) viewer in much the same way that Ishtar emptily seduces Fuad and feeds his errant fantasies.

Something needs to be said at this point about Ishtar, the deity inherited from Lewis’ original film (and since associated emblematically, through Elaine May’s notorious 1987 flop Ishtar, with cinematic folly). Researching the new woman in his life, Fuad turns to an online video from the “internationally acknowledged expert” on Ishtar, Professor Lou Hershell (played, in a cameo, by Lewis himself) and to a book which declares, “as recent excavations have shown, she was also worshiped in Ancient Egypt.” In fact, the only ‘recent excavations’ to reveal this would be archaeological trawls through Lewis’ own decades-old filmography – for nowhere, besides in the original Blood Feast, has it ever been suggested that this Babylonian goddess had a chapter cult in Egypt. It is an error that even Lewis’ 2002 sequel explicitly, if playfully, confirms and corrects (“everyone seems to think she’s Egyptian”). Here though, ‘Egyptian’ Ishtar is very much back, at least in Fuad’s muddled head. This is a sophisticatedly reflexive joke, in a film where sophistication is otherwise in relatively short supply.

Once the gore starts splattering, it is impressively icky. In particular, the reprise of a scene where a woman’s tongue is removed from her mouth proves particularly pleasing – or unpleasant – depending upon the audience’s range of expectations. Despite its title, Lewis’ original film never quite got to the actual meal promised by the title – and that is certainly something that Walz’s film remedies, laying out a family-sized feast that is like something from the most horrific Greek tragedies. Still, the truth remains that today’s viewers – especially the ones who choose to see a film called Blood Feast – have been desensitised by many years of onscreen depravity, and while Lewis’ original film had untold influence on the entire genre to follow, this remake is likely to prove little more than a blood-red footnote in the annals of horror.

© Anton Bitel