Starring Mai Arnold, William Kerwin, Connie Mason, Lyn Bolton
Directed by H.G. Lewis
Distributed by Arrow Video
Ashamed as I am to admit it, given his status in the horror community, the most footage I had seen of an H.G. Lewis film prior to watching Blood Feast (1963) was the little bit of that film shown in John Waters’ Serial Mom (1994). My only real knowledge of Lewis’ pictures was that they were done on the cheap, for business purposes more than artistic merit, and he enjoyed saturating the screen in crimson. Point being, I went into my inaugural experience expecting little…
…and instead, I wound up being shockingly surprised. Yes, Lewis clearly filmed this on a shoestring budget and most of the acting leaves plenty to be desired, but the vintage charm and visceral grue had me glued to the screen, bringing back VHS memories of renting old schlock cinema and having viewing parties with friends. It would be an easy parallel to say Lewis is to horror what Ed Wood is to sci-fi, since both maximized meager means to deliver something to sate fans of their respective genres. Even if Lewis wasn’t making his films for the love of the art, as Ed Wood did, he was a consummate showman and every ounce of possible production value was put on that screen in an effort to put asses in seats. As Lewis’ filmography and legacy has proven, the man clearly got it right.
There is a killer on the loose in Miami and police have no leads as to who is behind these gruesome murders. The victims, usually women, are left mutilated and dismembered. Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin) is desperate for leads but with no witnesses and few clues the department is stumped. What they don’t know is the killer, Fuad Ramses (Mai Arnold), is hacking up his victims for a reason: food. Fuad runs a popular catering business and his chief ingredient is human flesh. Local socialite Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) hires Fuad to cater a party for her daughter, Suzette (Connie Mason), to which Fuad happily agrees… as soon as he can obtain the last of the essential ingredients needed for an Egyptian feast not served in over 5000 years. What Dorothy doesn’t know is Fuad’s stew is an ancient “blood feast”, intended to bring about the resurrection of the Egyptian goddess Ishtar.
Fuad continues to check items of his “shopping list” while Det. Thornton explores every possible avenue, hoping to get a small crack in the case. That opportunity arises after police learn one of the latest victims was a member of a book club – just as prior victims were, too. Pete and his girlfriend, Suzette, attend a lecture on Egyptian culture where the lector happens to be discussing the cult of Ishtar and human sacrifice. How convenient! Later, after another woman is savagely cut to pieces, but lives, Pete is able to get a few words out of her that eventually put him on the path of Fuad, who is getting awfully close to finishing up his famous feast.
It can be easy to overlook Lewis’ accomplishments within the horror genre because so much of what is seen on screen is commonplace and has been for years. But seeing a machete-wielding maniac cut off a woman’s tongue and remove it via a hole in her throat was mind-blowing to audiences of the ‘60s. Don’t forget, this was a mere three years after Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) thrilled and chilled viewers, cementing its place as one of horror’s seminal pictures. Unlike Hitchcock, Lewis didn’t want to tease or suggest anything to his audiences; he wanted maximum impact, shooting in color so every bit of bright red blood looked like it was literally dripping from the screen. Fuad is even occasionally credited as one of horror’s first slashers, which is plenty fitting given the regularity of his murders and the horrible way in which his victims are killed.
Historical value and novelty aside, this is madcap mayhem from beginning to end. The few moments when Lewis isn’t saturating the screen with blood are still entertaining because campiness and schlock are in constant supply. The acting alone is enough to make the entire feature ironically enjoyable. My first trip into the universe of H.G. Lewis was definitely a blast, but I’m not naïve enough to assume this level of “quality” is consistent across the board. In fact, I had no look no further than the second feature included on this disc to find myself bored to tears.
That feature is Scum of the Earth! (1963), one of five (!) features Lewis released that same year. With that level of output they can’t all be winners – which this tawdry tame-by-today’s-standard clearly is not. The “plot” is banal as can be: naïve college student Kim (Allison Louise Downe) gets work as a clothing model, being shot by local sleaze photographer Harmon Johnson (William Kerwin), thanks to a connection through her friend, Sandy (Sandra Sinclair). Kim is modest and uncomfortable being put into the spotlight, but, hey, $20 is $20. Harmon manages to talk Kim into taking swimsuit photos, but the men he works for want more salacious material. After Kim is convinced to take some topless pics for quick cash, Harmon and his guys use that material to blackmail her into taking series after series of nude photographs, each one upping the ante of bad taste.
Lewis’ producer, David F. Friedman, has said this feature was shot in just six days and was produced solely to come across as a cheap stag picture. Congrats? Because that’s exactly how it looks and plays. This is the sort of softcore sexuality that might’ve raised a pant leg or two back in 1963, but in 2018? It plays like it is: boring. There are no subplots or twists or acting or even decent writing; this is 73 minutes of a college girl being put through the scumbag wringer and somehow managing to come out relatively unscathed. It has no real production value and even less value as an actual film anyone would care to watch. You could edit it down into a three-minute clip and the entirety of the story could be contained within. The most praise I can offer is it has a cool title, one that should have gone to a cooler movie.
Arrow has given Blood Feast a new 2K restoration that, while still exhibiting heavy grain and minor scratches/damage, is quite eye catching. The nearly-pristine 1.85:1 1080p picture allows for minute details in cloth texture and skin to be revealed on a level likely never before seen. Colors are reproduced accurately and with bold saturation; red is practically dripping off the screen. There are a handful of soft shots but for the most part this is a strong HD image that looks leagues better than anyone might expect.
Scum of the Earth!, on the other hand, sports a rough 1.85:1 1080p black-and-white image (the last film Lewis would shoot without color) filled with scratches and debris. To be fair, Lewis and Friedman wanted the film to look old and scratchy, so mission accomplished there. Even though the duo wanted it to look like shoddy 16mm, the 35mm film used has allowed for some true HD moments to shine through the muck.
Both pictures feature an English LPCM 1.0 mono track, each of which is clean, direct, and simple in terms of both scoring and sound design. There is some minor hissing on both – more noticeably on Scum, where it permeates the background chatter. The organ score on Blood Feast, composed by Lewis, adds a slightly spooky, ethereal quality to the action on screen. The constant use of a foreboding drum is a simple but effective way for Lewis to convey impending doom. English SDH subtitles are available on both films.
The supplements, just like the films, are relegated to a single disc and housed under one menu option, so I will simply list them all here.
H.G. Lewis offers up an introduction on each film, packing a plethora of information into the scant minute-and-change given for him to speak.
Blood Feast features an audio commentary with H.G. Lewis, David F. Friedman, and Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney.
“Blood Perspectives” is an interview with filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher, both discussing Blood Feast and how it has influenced their own work.
“Herschell’s History” is a 2007 interview with Lewis about his career.
“How Herschell Found His Niche” is a recent interview with Lewis regarding his early nudie pictures.
“Archive Interview with Lewis and Friedman” is a 1987 sit-down with the filmmaking duo.
“Carving Magic” is a hilariously dated 1959 short about carving meat, directed by Lewis and starring Harvey Korman (!) and Lewis regular Bill Kerwin.
“Blood Feast Outtakes” features over 45 minutes of footage, underscored with music and dialogue from the finished film.
“Scum ‘Clean’ Scenes” is a brief collection of more “tasteful” footage, sourced from SD.
A “Promo Gallery” features a trailer, radio spot, and theater announcement for Blood Feast, along with three trailers for early Lewis films.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD presentations
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Scum of the Earth – Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 feature
- Blood Perspectives – Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher on Blood Feast
- Herschell’s History – Archival interview in which director Herschell Gordon Lewis discusses his entry into the film industry
- How Herschell Found his Niche – A new interview with Lewis discussing his early work
- Archival interview with Lewis and David F. Friedman
- Carving Magic – Vintage short film from 1959 featuring Blood Feast Actor Bill Kerwin
- Alternate “clean” scenes from Scum of the Earth
- Promo gallery featuring trailers and more
- Feature length commentary featuring Lewis and David F. Friedman moderated by Mike Grady
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil
Blood Feast is not only important to the history of horror, but it’s a damn wild ride through ’60s camp territory. Don’t let the lo-fi production values fool – this is highly entertaining schlock.
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