The first “splatter” flick and a cheesecake-laced indictment of the porn industry make for a interesting look into the early days of exploitation cinema.
What They Say:
The filmography of late movie maverick Herschell Gordon Lewis brims with the mad, macabre, and just downright bizarre. But perhaps the most unhinged of all his directorial efforts, and certainly the most influential, must surely be his original gore-fest Blood Feast the first ever splatter movie.
Dorothy Fremont is looking to throw a party unlike any other, and she gets just that when she hires the decidedly sinister Fuad Ramses to cater the event. Promising to provide her guests with an authentic Egyptian feast, Ramses promptly sets about acquiring the necessary ingredients the body parts of nubile young women!
Featuring a host of stomach-churning gore gags including the infamous tongue sequence and much more nastiness besides, Herschell Gordon Lewis Blood Feast more than lives up to its name and remains essential viewing for any self-respecting splatter fan.
Both movies are presented in their original mono format. Neither movie is without flaws, with the background music sounding off at times. I’d wager this has more to do with the source material than any issues with the restoration.
Much like their soundtracks, each movie contains some flaws in the picture quality. Blood Feast has fewer issues, but Scum of the Earth has scratches and such in print. Again, this is likely due to the source materials available, as the picture is otherwise well presented.
Arrow’s typically clean, easy to read and navigate menus are present, and the new, original art for each movie is displayed on the menu screen. Nothing flashy or thematic, but perfectly functional.
A screener disc was provided, and thus the packaging was not available for this viewing.
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
To label a movie, or any piece of media for that matter, “important” almost feels like a backhanded compliment, since such a label comments more on the thing’s place in history than it does its actual quality. This is especially true when you lead off a discussion of a piece of media with that descriptor. Sometimes it’s appropriate. It feels right to call Birth of a Nation “important,” because all of its technical achievements come at the price of some rather nasty, racist politics. This signifier allows us to acknowledge the movie’s place in history without placing any kind of positive emotional value on it– it creates a sort of clinical distance where our opinion isn’t the same as history’s.
That said, Blood Feast may be an “important” movie in terms of the development of cinematic violence and gore, being an early example of a slasher movie, and helping the development of exploitation filmmaking in general, it’s also strange and quirky in its own right, and worthy of its reputation beyond its place in history.
A killer is murdering young women and cutting off various pieces of their bodies. There’s no mystery to the killer’s identity, as we almost immediately learn that a local Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses, is behind the terror spree. He’s attempting to reenact an ancient ritual in the name of the goddess Ishtar, where priestesses are sacrificed and their bodies made into a feast that will bring the goddess to the mortal plane. His plan is to take the various body parts and serve them as “Egyptian feast” for a gaggle of well to do Miami socialites, and the birthday girl, Suzette, will be the vessel from which Ishtar will be reborn.
The mangled mythology, where Ishtar is not only claimed as an Egyptian goddess rather than a Sumerian one, but is also deemed a servitor of darkness and evil who demands blood sacrifices, is a part of the movie’s charm. The movie takes on that era-appropriate aura of authority on the subject, where an expert on Egyptian history lectures the characters (and therefore the audience) on the truth behind Ishtar’s cult at a college– not unlike a scientist decked out in a lab coat and spectacles in a 50s monster movie talking about radiation and nuclear power. Couple that with the convenient notion that most of the main characters are avid fans of ancient Egyptian myths and regularly attend such lectures as a hobby, and the whole situation has a certain degree of absurdity that seems all too deliberate. It may be a product of the film’s hurried, low budget production, but the sheer coincidence of the plot elements falling together is far too surreal to brush off as being purely amateurish.
The movie’s gore– especially the much-touted “tongue scene,” is both a bit shocking and, retroactively, a bit quaint at the same time. This being 1963, it’s a bit surprising to see this level of violence and gore accompany people present in this era. Many of the characters, appearance-wise, are only one step removed from a sitcom from this era, and to see them have their legs carved off, or have their tongues literally ripped out of their mouths, feels a bit “off.” Even so far removed from the time period, and with decades of acclimation in between, there’s something transgressive about seeing who could be dating Eddie Haskell being slaughtered like cattle. At the same time, the flesh and gore is clearly butchered animal meat (the infamous tongue was from a sheep and obviously too big to fit in the victim’s mouth), and that disconnect lends the violence an almost campy quality. That said, these are reactions of someone watching the film 50+ years removed from its original release, but the whole production has a very “alien” feel to it you don’t get from a lot of other violent exploitation fare.
Unfortunately, the gore and the surreal disconnect of it all is pretty much all the movie is bringing to the plate. Some of the acting has its charms, but most of that comes from Mal Arnold’ ridiculously huge, fake eyebrows. His Fuad Ramses is a slimy creep, and he’s clearly having fun with the role. Everyone else is either a bit awkward in that amateurish way, or doesn’t get enough time to really show what they can do.
So, yes, Blood Feast is an “important” movie, but it’s also a strange little beast in and of itself, and worth checking out regardless of its place in history.
A bit more interesting, and an all-around better movie, is the movie paired with Blood Feast: Scum of the Earth. These two movies are pretty dissimilar, with the former being a proto-slasher and the latter being a one part pin up girl cheese and one part social commentary on the way women are treated in the porn industry. What they do share are many of the same locales (both movies were filmed in Miami) and many of the same cast members.
Kim, played by Allison Louise Downe, a background actress in the Egyptian lecture scene in Blood Feast, is a young woman about ready to start college in the fall. Unfortunately, her father can’t quite afford to pay for her tuition, so Kim’s looking for some summer work to help pay her bills. She soon finds herself roped into doing “modeling work” by Sandy, someone she considers her friend.
The catch is that Sandy is a veteran of pin-up and pornographic photography. She’s looking to get out of the business, but in order to move on she has to find a replacement, and knowing her friend needs the money, Sandy lures Kim into this unsavory world.
The movie follows Kim as she’s coerced into taking increasingly more embarrassing and lewd photographs. At first it’s all fun, as she’s taking tasteful swimsuit and calendar pictures, but it’s all a ruse to get her comfortable in front of the camera, comfortable earning money, and aware that her employers have dirt on her that will ruin her social relationships and her relationship with her father.
Most of this temptation comes from Harmon, played by Blood Feast’s lead detective, William Kerwin. He’s the primary photographer, and he’s also the primary force who convinces Kim and other women to continue taking these photos well beyond their comfort level. His tactics change as the movie progresses, starting with playing hard to get and progressing to more harsh arguments. All of his manipulation is emotional– pretending to be a friend and gaining trust where trust shouldn’t be acquired– but his manipulations are starting to have an effect on his psyche as well. Much like Sandy, Harmon wants out of this business, and he’s just as much a victim of blackmail as the women he coerces to strip in front of the camera.
That’s what makes Scum of the Earth a fairly fascinating movie. It shows how so many people involved in this sort of sex work can be victims of circumstance, and rather than passing judgment on them, it empathizes with their plight. And Harmon is all too aware of his role in all of this. He knows he’s the titular “scum of the earth,” and is wholly ashamed of his actions. It doesn’t stop him from nearly pushing Kim to the brink of being broken, but we do see the process that leads him to ultimately turn on his employers and assist these women in getting out of their abusive situation. And when that usurpation happens, the movie breaks out into a glorious downward spiral of violence and betrayal that may not be as gory as Blood Feast’s rampage, but is wholly satisfying in its own regard.
Much like Blood Feast, it’s a bit of a slog to get to that point. There are a few choice moments, such as Lawrence J. Aberwood’s disgusting, victim-shaming rant against Kim, where the camera focuses closer and closer to his mouth, closing in as his rant becomes more and more vile, but the vast majority of its running time is devoted to the same sort of repetitive scenes as Blood Feast. Given that both movies clock in at just a hair over an hour, said slogs aren’t too painful, but that short run span also makes you wonder why they couldn’t come up with more interesting moments to fill up 60+ minutes of airtime.
Despite being a bit of a chore to sit through, Scum of the Earth’s highs are worth the effort, and I’d argue that it’s a bit more enjoyable as a whole than Blood Feast.
Filed back to back over the course of a few weeks in Miami, Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth make for a fascinating exploitation double feature. Neither film is without its charms or interesting moments, and if you’re into this sort of drive-in/late night cable/MST3K sort of movie, they’re well worth your time.
Content Grade: Blood Feast: C+, Scum of the Earth: B-
Audio Grade: Blood Feast: B-, Scum of the Earth: B-
Video Grade: Blood Feast: B-, Scum of the Earth: C
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B
Released By: Arrow Video
Release Date: 24 October 2017
Running Time: 67 minutes, 73 minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Toshiba 55L711U18 55” 4K UHD TV, Playstation 4