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Blood Feast (1963): Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood-Soaked Carnival Show

1963 was quite the year for horror cinema. In Italy, Mario Bava crafted two masterpieces with The Whip and The Body (La frusta e il corpo) and Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura). Alfred Hitchcock transformed animals into lethal terror with The Birds, and Robert Wise released The Haunting. Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, it remains the greatest ghost story ever filmed. Also emerging was Blood Feast, one of five films directed that year by Herschell Gordon Lewis. Sacrificing crucial storytelling in favor of depicting violence on an operatic scale, it would introduce the world to concept of the splatter film, and subsequently become one of the most influential in history. Years before Michael Myers stalked the streets of Haddonfield and Karl the Butcher hacked his way through Violent Shit (1989), Fuad Ramses preyed upon unsuspecting victims to resurrect “Egyptian” goddess Ishtar. For several moviegoers, the godfather of gore, a title that was later bestowed upon Lucio Fulci, was about to unleash something that’s still being talked about today.

From an objective and academic viewpoint, Blood Feast is not a well-made film. It lacks effective cinematography, contains the most hackneyed of dialogue, and its plot is about as thin as a piece of tissue paper. That’s one way to look at it, and thankfully not the method in which this essay will approach the subject matter. When one attends a circus, filet mignon and a captivating performance of Waiting for Godot are the last things to expect. Needless to say, Blood Feast is akin to the three-ring experience. Its sensational sights are what you’re here to see, and Lewis conducts them in a manner that has all of the camp and color of a carnival sideshow. Like any prototype of a new art form, it’s primitive, unrefined, and yet innovative in its own right. As someone who spent many Friday nights going to the video store and fawning over the many slasher titles that flooded the market throughout the 1980s, viewing Blood Feast for the first time was a defining moment. It’s where one realizes the origin of the many themes, tropes, and ideas that have been repeated several times over the years.

From the opening moments, Blood Feast makes its intention clear without any pretense whatsoever. As a young woman enters her apartment to disrobe for a bath, she’s hacked apart moments later by films antagonist, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold). With establishing the identity of the killer early on, speculation is completely thrown out the window, and the film becomes an expose of violent murder set pieces, each one becoming more graphic than the last. The methods in which Lewis depicted violence pushed boundaries and would help establish a new standard for many films that followed. While the beginning sets the tone, there’s one scene in particular that’s been found in almost every slasher film since. As a young couple sits together on a beach, they’re ambushed by Ramses who removes the girls’ brain from her skull. A few years later, Mario Bava would take this concept a step further in his proto-slasher film Ecologia del delitto (Bay of Blood, 1971), with two young lovers being brutally murdered while in the throes of passion. (Which would go on to inspire a similar scene in Friday the 13th Part II. (1981))

The character of Fuad Ramses, considered by many to be the very first knife-wielding maniac to appear on film, is the driving force of the narrative, as the audience wonders when and where he’ll strike next. Arnold’s performance is the very definition of over-the-top. Mugging for the camera with lines such as “Have you ever had an Egyptian FEAST?” and walking about with a limp. The entire premise of his killing spree, to resurrect the goddess Ishtar is itself unintentionally comedic. Ishtar, sometimes referred to as Astarte, was worshipped by both the Assyrians and Babylonians, but has absolutely no ties to Ancient Egypt.

When you look past Arnold’s ham-fisted performance, which can be difficult because it’s one of the most memorable aspects of the film, he represents something that becomes a fixation of American culture in the decade that followed—the modern serial killer. It was just six years earlier that the country was shocked by Ed Gein, the elderly Midwesterner whose crimes had sent repulsion and disbelief through Middle America. (Gein would go on the inspire both Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).) While Lewis had no intent in tapping into this, (for the director film wasn’t about artistic expression, it was a business to make money) it’s certainly something worth considering. The kindly old man who leads a secret double life, it’s something that can be found in the pages of any true crime publication.

At the time of the films release, the United States was beginning to see a considerable amount of change. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and the ongoing struggles of the cavil rights movement had affected the lives of many. In the years that followed, the escalating conflict in Viet Nam would bring images real violence into American homes and television sets all across the country. Real life would impact horror in ways never imagined. The devotees of Herschell Gordon Lewis, such John Carpenter and Wes Craven would bring new visions based on this real life violence with Halloween (1978) and Last House on the Left (1972). Lewis had started a chain reaction, and it’s very fitting that a one hour film about a knife wielding madman would turn the tide and shape what we know of horror forever.

About Jerome Reuter

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