Blood Feast (1963)

Blood Feast first published by VODzilla.co

“Well, Frank,” says Detective Pete Thornton, in Blood Feast, of their latest, impossible case, “this looks like one of those long hard ones.”

“I know what you mean,” replies Pete’s captain (Scott H. Hall), as though registering, with a nod and a wink, the same sexual innuendo as the hepper members of the audience.

Pete is played by William Kerwin, although the rôle is credited to one ‘Thomas Wood’, whose pseudonymous surname not only suggests a long, hard one of a different kind, but also encapsulates Kerwin’s – and near everyone else’s – hammy, straight-faced method of acting. Yet while it might be tempting to dismiss Herschell Gordon Lewis’ low-budget, utterly tawdry smorgasbord of sensationalism as dumb-assed trash, it is too self-aware to merit such dismissal. Hell, it even ends in a literal trash yard, its villain dying “a fitting death, like the garbage he was.” Just like the film – for Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), a wide-eyed cultist who staggers with a pronounced limp, kills without compunction, and oozes non-specific otherness from every pore, is like the living (and then dying) embodiment of Blood Feast itself.

When Mrs Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton), with her prim diction, respectable dress and bourgeois manners, comes to Fuad’s shop hoping that he will cater a very special society dinner planned for her daughter Suzette (Connie Mason), she – perhaps like the audience – does not quite realise what will be set in motion by her little walk on the wild side in search of exotic entertainment. Fuad himself promises an “Egyptian Feast” of a kind that “has not been served for 5000 years”. This is only a minor variation of what the film’s title also promises the viewer – a title splashed on the screen in blood over an image of the Sphinx and a pyramid.

Like Fuad, Lewis was making history here, and serving up something the likes of which had not been tasted within anyone’s living memory. Even if the prologue, showing a young woman (Sandra Sinclair) attacked while taking a bath, at first seems safely ensconced in territories pioneered three years earlier by Psycho (1960), it soon becomes apparent exactly why Lewis has abandoned Hitchcock’s monochrome aesthetic for full colour. Blood Feast was to earn itself the title of the world’s first splatter film, liberally filling the screen with bright red blood and cheap gore effects as Fuad strips women’s bodies of parts for the feast that he concocts not only for the Fremonts’ soirée, but also for the goddess Ishtar (here surreally syncretised with Egyptian religion, even though she is a Mesopotamian deity). All the innards on display here, as well as the general sadism, would secure Blood Feast its privileged place as easily the oldest film to be banned in the Eighties by the Director of Public Prosecutions as a video nasty.

Fuad is a wonderfully daft villain, whose devotional obsessions and ritual observances make Blood Feast a ‘cult film’ avant la lettre – and Suzette is a hilariously anodyne damsel in distress (“I was reading about all those murders,” she says blankly, “and it takes all the joy out of everything”). Yet the real standouts in Blood Feast are the dead-panning duo of Pete and Frank. Infuriatingly slow on the uptake, but ridiculously self-congratulatory once he has put all the pieces together, Pete gets to utter the film’s last words: “Well Frank, who knows if the spell of this monstrous goddess has possessed anyone else. Lust, murder, food for an ancient goddess who received life through the perverted death of others. Let’s go home, Frank.”

Who knows, indeed – but Blood Feast introduced Sixties audiences to a special stew of female flesh (barely concealed by bras and bikinis) and graphic violence that would gradually build a legion of gore-happy converts, and change the genre forever. It has since been reimagined as Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner (1987), belatedly sequelised (by Lewis himself) as Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002), and remade as Marcel Walz’s Blood Feast (2016) – but its visceral influence has been felt on all of horror cinema ever since its first release.

Summary: ‘Godfather of Gore’ Herschell Gordon Lewis’s first horror film is a mirthful menu of bad taste, beyond good and evil

© Anton Bitel