And what would socialite Mrs Dorothy Fremont like for her daughter Suzette’s upcoming birthday party? “Something unusual. Something totally different.” And having made that request of Fuad Ramses at his speciality exotic catering firm, that is exactly what he delivers in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 full-colour shocker Blood Feast.
Now released as a standalone double disc set featuring both Blu-ray and DVD copies of the film by Arrow Films having previously been available as part of their fourteen film “HGL Feast” box set, Blood Feast has understandably since become known as “the world’s first splatter film.”
Whether this is true is debatable, as certainly earlier films contained elements of that genre, though as an end unto itself it cannot be denied that Lewis not only offers little other substance but that he was conscious of the commercial possibilities of pushing that particular boundary as exemplified by the promise of the poster strapline of the time: “NOTHING SO APPALLING IN THE ANNALS OF HORROR!”
Whether this was intended to describe the copious killings, depicted with rather more an eye for enthusiasm than realism, or the performance of the ensemble cast, many of whom were not professional actors, is almost as irrelevant as the wafer-thin plot as Fuad Ramses prepares the titular feast, Mrs Fremont unaware that he intends it to be a sacrifice to the “Egyptian goddess” (actually Mesopotamian) Ishtar, Mother of the Veil of Darkness.
With the first murder occurring before the credits have even rolled, the less-than-seventy minute running time is intended to satisfy the requirements of contemporary drive-in movie double bills rather than develop character or fit together an intricately constructed plot, and indeed this is the seventh young girl murdered in two weeks yet the police have no leads.
Perhaps this is understandable if not excusable as the chief of police rarely rises from behind his desk, but fortunately Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin) is on the case, an officer who has no inclination to ask for any kind of forensic examination of the latest bodies but is at least dating Suzette (Connie Mason, Playmate of the Month for June 1963, immediately before the release of Blood Feast) so she should be relatively safe.
To have such a violent film written by a woman is atypical of the era, perhaps why Lewis’ former wife and frequent collaborator Allison Louise Downe is listed only as “A Louise Downe,” nor is she credited for her brief role as an extra in the lecture on Egyptian rituals and Ishtar, Mother of the Black Sun, but then neither is Lewis himself for his cameo as the radio announcer warning women to stay indoors at night.
Downe’s dialogue does the cast no favours, but struggling with the basics of any kind of natural performance nor is it likely they would rise to anything above the merely functional, Lyn Bolton (Mrs Fremont) acting principally with her teeth and Mal Arnold (Fuad Ramses) with his eyebrows and Mason delivering her lines as though even spoken language is an intellectual challenge; “Being decorative can overcome lack of talent,” Lewis kindly says of her efforts.
Undeniably ahead of its time in terms of content if not presentation, played as a mystery Blood Feast might have aged better but with the killer revealed in the opening scene the police are forever playing catchup to where the audience already are, though in the accompanying special feature Blood Perspectives Rodney Ascher, director of Room 237, suggests that filmed with little budget for costumes in locations garnered for favours rather than financial incentive these works are of interest because they almost act as time capsules of when they were made.
Certainly the work of Lewis had an impact on Nicholas McCarthy, director of The Pact, who speaks with an affection surpassed only by the garrulous Lewis himself in several features, two from the archives and one recorded for the 2016 box set, as he discusses his long road to fulfil his dream of entertaining and selling lots of tickets along the way.
“If you appeal to the dregs of humanity at least you have a group,” he explains, discussing his switch from the “tasteful nudity” of the earlier features for which he had become known to horror genre; the black and white “roughie” Scum of the Earth which was released slightly later in October 1963 and is also included on the disc is in some ways a transitional phase between the two.
“We never took making films seriously,” producer David F Friedman says in his 1987 joint interview with Lewis, an attitude both evidently maintained in their lives as they discuss their many ventures and adventures together from filming in nudist colonies to breaking out to the mainstream circuit with their bloody delights now refreshed for a new audience: “Forbidden fruit is the sweetest,” after all.