Impulse Buy Theater Doubleheader: Blood Feast & Two Thousand Maniacs
Herschell Gordon Lewis.
It’s likely a name you have never heard of…I myself only peripherally aware of it…but if you’re a fan of horror movies at all, you should be flying your flag at half-mast this week because we just lost one of the founding fathers.
A product more of academia and advertising (only really getting out of teaching because he wanted to “start making money”), it’s almost kind of a shock to learn that this man is almost singlehandedly responsible for one of the cornerstones of Grindhouse cinema: the horror movie with little in the way of a real plot, instead existing and getting by on its gore effects alone. Sure, he’d made films that dabbled in other staples of Grindhouse, but it was in 1963 that, as Joe Bob Briggs would say, “red meat entered the American diet”…or, in this instance, at least the drive-in concession stand. This was the release of Blood Feast.
The film opens up in some ways telling us what this film is going to be…and what it is definitely not going to be. We start the film watching an attractive young blonde woman returning home and preparing for a bath. With her, she carries a book that she intends to read: Weird Ancient Religious Rituals (or something of the like). [Ah yes, that devotion to research that’s one of the core values here at the Cat. – Ed.] As the water runs into the tub, she undresses and, yes, in grindhouse fashion, we see boobs. Nothing left to the imagination here. And THAT’S when she’s violently attacked by a man wielding a machete. [So THAT’S where it started!!! – Ed.] He kills her, hacks off one of her legs and then makes his escape. Now, again, it’s 1963. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had come out 3 years earlier and Herschell is telling us right up front that we as the audience aren’t getting anything close to that. We’re going to see everything, from boobs to blood, bodies to body parts. There will be no artful dodging…we’re going to get an eyeful. Sure, there are other obvious parallels to point out: bath vs shower, color vs black and white, clearly visible killer vs silhouetted mystery killer, visible gore and dismemberment vs film cuts around the knife and the stabbing motion. I have to admit, I was impressed that the film, right off the bat, made it very clear that this wasn’t highbrow stuff…it was the other kind. It’s kind of like running into a panhandler that tells you straight up that whatever you give him is going straight to booze: ordinarily, you wouldn’t approve, but in this case, hey, you gotta reward him for his honesty…right?
Now, let’s get the plot out of the way…much in the same way the movie does. It turns out our killer, Faud Ramses, runs an exotic catering shop within, oh hell, let’s just call it Suburbia, USA. A woman enters the shop hoping to recruit the man to cater a party she’s giving in honor of her daughter Suzette, played by former Playboy bunny Connie Mason. Rest assured, we’ll be talking about her plenty. Anyway, mom here wants something unique and, as it so happens, she reveals that her daughter has taken a shine to studying ancient Egypt these days. Well…Ramses promises an Egyptian Feast that hasn’t been prepared in over 5000 years, because, to borrow wording from Mel Brooks, knownst to him, but unbeknownst to mom, ol’ Ramses here has been working on the Blood Feast for the Goddess Ishtar. [Not to be confused with the other Goddess Ishtar…goddess of bad 80s travel comedies starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Hey, look it up. Ancient gods and goddesses were rather specific way back when. – Ed.] So, there we go. Ramses plans to use Suzette’s whatever-day party as Ishtar’s big coming out. And with all the reason and motivation he needs, it’s time to grab that trusty machete and get on with the dismembering killing spree…all the while talking to a gold painted mannequin…ahem, I mean, golden statue/avatar of the Goddess Ishtar.
Look, it’s the first real slasher/splatter film. It made leaps and bounds in bringing gore to the drive in and grindhouse and, as such, it deserves a nod for spawning at least 37% of the internet. That said…ho boy. It’s VERY MST3K worthy. Not so much for the gore effects, no, those, while dated, are still fairly good. No, we’re talking the acting here…or distinct lack thereof. No, even that statement isn’t right. You see, the thing about Blood Feast is that there really isn’t much of a middle ground, either actors in the film shoot for the stars in the level of overacting…or just don’t act at all. Mal Arnold, the actor playing Ramses, definitely shot for the former while ‘star’ Connie Mason, so very much the latter. Honestly, there’s only one guy that even looked like he was trying, Suzette’s way-too-old-for-her police detective boyfriend Pete Thornton played by William Kerwin. But honestly, for me that was part of the entertainment. It was like that classic math problem: one train leaves the station at such and such time traveling at a certain speed while another train leaves at another time at a different speed…when will the trains collide? Take a movie with a paper thin plot rife with conveniences, fill it with gore effects and then populate it with 49.5% actors that can’t act, 49.5% actors that make Al Pacino seem calm and restrained and 1 actor that can kinda-sorta act…you know, to lend credibility to the proceedings…and BAM, perfect train wreck.
The great thing is that the film doesn’t overstay its welcome…clocking in at just a little over an hour. And I gotta admit, yes, that does factor in to my liking the film. To sum up, it’s short and it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is…and wouldn’t you know it, it’s historic too. So, if you’re interested to see the roots of some of the more popular horror franchises came from, it’s definitely worth a look-see. Just keep your expectations low and your BAC high…and you’ll come away from Blood Feast just fine.
Moving on to our next entry in the works of Mr. Herschell Gordon Lewis, we take a look at Two Thousand Maniacs, a movie responsible for that 90s band that got the name wrong. Right off the bat, you’ll notice a slight improvement in the acting…and by that I mean that pretty much everyone buys into the overacting school…well, except for the 6 intended victims…they range from no acting to somewhat acting. Right…so…plot. Here, we find a little town called Pleasant Valley in Georgia celebrating its centennial: 1865-1965. The movie opens with two of the locals using some very official looking detour signs (translation: not really) to lure in motorists with northern license plates. For whatever reason, the magic number is 6…so once they get what they need, the ‘detouring’ stops. As each of the two cars enters town (one with 4 occupants, one with 2), they’re rushed by the townsfolk waving Confederate flags and nooses…so, you know, this is going to go well…and informed of their ‘guest of honor’ status.
What follows is about what you’d expect, our intended victims are lured into various divide and conquer type scenarios, there’s no contact with the outside world and ordinary activities that would normally sound fun get the gruesome horror movie makeover. Speaking of such, akin to Blood Feast, the gore effects here are still reasonably well done, given their pioneering status and age, but will certainly not pass the muster of someone only raised on current make-up effects. As for what we get in this film, we get a dismemberment with implied cannibalism, a guy getting drawn and quartered, a guy rolled down a hill in a barrel lined with nails and his wife getting a honking large rock getting dropped on her. Kinda seems like at the end they quit trying and just went with the Wile E. Coyote approach, huh?
As our lucky pair manages to escape, we find out that the town of Pleasant Valley no longer exists. It had been burned to the ground by rogue Union soldiers and all the townspeople were slaughtered. So…turns out they were all ghosts. And the film isn’t subtle about it at all…you know, especially when you’ve got the detour squad at the very end looking forward to the next centennial and wondering what it’ll be like to lure in people in rocket ships or flying cars. Well, that’d be, what, 2065? Given that it’s already 2016, I gotta admit that I suspect their methods of luring people in will work just fine as we’ve made absolutely ZERO progress on the whole flying cars thing.
Like with Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs proves to be a watchable film…but falling more into the MST3K sort of ‘watchable’…given the abundance of overacting performances. The biggest downside to the film manages to be technical…many of the interior scenes suffer from really bad sound engineering…so much so that sometimes the dialog is completely inaudible (the first dismemberment scene comes immediately to mind). While I’ll be quick to admit that it might well have been the version of the film I was watching (free on Roku’s Grindhouse Theater), an equally plausible reason is…again…low budget grindhouse at its best.
All in all, watching these two movies…with the necessary imbibement of alcohol, of course…proved to be an interesting look back at the humble beginnings of gore/slasher/splatter cinema, and if you’re a fan of the genre, I’d certainly encourage you to check these films out. Did I mention you’ll need some booze to help these films go down? Yeah…just a bit…but still, remember to pour a little out because, sadly, Herschell’s not with us anymore.
For further disturbance, I'd highly recommend Joe Bob Brigg's book Profoundly Disturbing, which takes a deeper look at Blood Feast or his recent obituary for the dear departed over at TakiMag.