Filmed in 1976 under the title Sardu: Master of the Screaming Virgins but initially released under the very apt name of The Incredible Torture Show, Bloodsucking Freaks was something of a rite of passage for most young horror fans who were lucky enough to grow-up during those early days of home video in Australia, that great period of the early-to-mid-1980s, when there was a proliferation of local independent video companies springing up, who were eagerly raiding film vaults for anything they could snap up cheaply, market it with a lurid sleeve design, and put it on the shelves of the local Video Shacks and suburban mum & dad stores that were popping up everywhere and were hungry for product. Anyone who was around and hiring videos at this time, or who have done a bit of research on early Australian home video labels, will know the names I am talking about: Star Base, K&C, King of Video, etc. For horror and exploitation buffs trawling the shelves looking for new weird and wonderful fare to discover and enjoy (usually over a few beers or bongs), seeing the logo for any of these labels on the spine of a VHS instantly made them a must-rent.
One of the more famous and successful video labels from this period was Palace Home Video, who via their Palace Explosive sub-division, released some of the more controversial and fondly-remembered horror films to hit VHS at that time, including Herschell Gordon Lewis’ seminal early gore classic Blood Feast (1963), the sleazy Italian gut-churner Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), Meir Zarchi’s much-reviled rape and revenge thriller I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981), and Leonard Schrader’s amazing (and still powerfully effective) mondo documentary The Killing of America (1982). So Bloodsucking Freaks was certainly in good company when it appeared on the Palace Explosive label in 1984, accompanied by a plastic promotional drinking straw that came with a header card advertising it as a ‘Bloodsucking Freaks Beginner’s Kit’. If you hadn’t yet seen the film, the significance of the straw soon become apparent. I kept this straw taped to the wardrobe door in my bedroom for a few years, right next to the Friday the 13th survival certificate which my older sister had given to me after she saw the movie upon its first release in 1980, and a Roadshow Video promo poster for Basket Case (1982) that I had wrangled from the staff at St. Kilda Video, where I wound up working on weekends some years later. I wish I still had that ‘Bloodsucking Freaks Beginner’s Kit’, but alas I finally tore it from it cellophane wrapping when my college friend Andrew and I scored a gram of speed and stupidly thought it would be cool to use the straw to snort it.
In many ways, it is hard to defend Bloodsucking Freaks on any level, nor is it a film that’s easy to recommend to anyone, since even the staunchest horror and splatter fan can be both offended and outraged, even sickened by it. The film is essentially an extension of the Grand Guignol, the small Parisian theatre that stood from 1897 until 1962, and specialized in presenting horror-themed productions where the emphasis, and the selling point, was on the extreme gore effects that were performed live on stage in front of an audience. Translated in English as ‘Big Puppet’, the influence of the Grand Guignol was evident in early splatter classics like Blood Feast, which appeared in 1963, the year after the theatre closed its doors, and it’s particularly evident in Bloodsucking Freaks, which is essentially a filmed version of a Grand Guignol production, with the addition of lots of vintage 42nd Street sleaze and nudity.
In Bloodsucking Freaks, Seamus O’Brien, looking resplendent and comic book diabolical in his goatee, turtle neck sweater and chunky cheap gold medallions, plays Sardu, who runs the Theatre of the Macabre, a tiny and way-off Broadway venue in which his diminutive assistant Ralphus tortures naked women and cuts off various body parts in front of a rather bored looking audience, while Sardu offers bargain-basement musings on the depravity taking place on stage: “If you find that what you see turns your stomach, just pretend that it is all an illusion. But if you find yourself sceptical or bored, then just pretend that what you see is real.”
Of course, what is happening on stage is not faked, but real carnage inflicted on the poor unfortunate victims of Sardu, who uses his theatre as a front for kidnapping teenaged girls and young women and shipping them via the United Postal Service to various unscrupulous Third World magnates. The only real thread of a plot involves a famous ballerina and a dismissive theatrical critic who both go missing after being kidnapped by Sardu, and are subsequently subjugated into submission by torture – both physical and psychological – and used as the lead performers in his next demented production.
Though most locals wound up first discovering the dubious delights of Bloodsucking Freaks on home video, the film did actually receive a local theatrical release, something which boggles the mind in retrospect. The movie first opened in Melbourne at the Capitol 2 and selected drive-ins on September 15, 1983 with Dracula Erotica (1980) as a support. It played at the Capitol 2 for a fortnight, then made a return to the drive-in circuit about a month later, where it was paired with I Spit on Your Grave, a double-bill that surely would have shocked a few carloads of unsuspecting suburban families as they caught a glimpse of the depravities on display on the big screen as they drove home from their dinner at Sizzler or a visit to Nan in the hospital.
Filmed over six weeks between midnight and 6am in New York’s seedy Soho district, Bloodsucking Freaks was inspired not only by the Grand Guignol but also an S&M ballet which Joel Reed had seen at a small theatre, and in fact he actually hired the director of that play, Gyles Fontaine, to choreograph the dance sequences in Bloodsucking Freaks. The strange thing about the gore effects in Bloodsucking Freaks is that – as in Blood Feast – they are so primitive and obvious, yet so extreme and visceral and lingering, that they somehow become more distressing than they would be if they were state of the art.
Barely a minute goes by in Bloodsucking Freaks without something happening that is bound to offend or outrage someone. The humour on display may be sick but it is occasionally creative in its ghoulish invention, such as the moment when one of Sardu’s captives has her head placed in a guillotine and a rope holding the blade clenched between her teeth, while Ralphus whips her bare backside, testing how much pain she can endure before she has to scream, causing the rope the slip from her mouth, effectively decapitating herself. This is a prime example of the twisted but very cartoonish, almost Looney-Toons level of violence on display throughout the film. Complementing the visual humour is the music score by Michael Saul, which often consists of comical, jazz-tinged piano based passages, along with the basic synthesizer and keyboard sounds that were often present in low-budget horror cinema of this type.
There are also some quirky moments of character development in the film, like Sardu showing disgust at the sadistic doctor who visits his theatre to perform his infamous tooth removal and brain sucking operation. Because this is a personal character kink rather than part of a performance of art, Sardu shows contempt at the doctor’s depravities and decides he doesn’t want to associate with such undesirable perverts, although contradictory both he and Ralphus enjoy their own forms of equally demented off-stage entertainment, such as games of checkers using severed fingers and darts thrown at naked bums with scoreboards painted on them (no prize for guessing where the bullseye is located).
When it first opened in America, Bloodsucking Freaks attracted almost universal condemnation from not only the few mainstream critics that bothered to review it, but also groups like Women Against Pornography, who staged a number of protests outside several of the theatres screening the film, particularly in the New York area. Of course, as is usually the case, all these protests really did was attract more curiosity seekers and perverts to the screenings to see what all the fuss was about, and in fact many of the protests were organized only after Troma picked-up the rights to the film and alerted these various women’s groups as a way to attract publicity.
Perhaps the most memorable character and performance in Bloodsucking Freaks is that of Louis de Jesus as Ralphus, whom prior to this film had found notoriety by appearing in the 1971 8mm hardcore porn film loop The Anal Dwarf, where he appeared alongside a lady named Veri Knotty, a former Playboy Club bunny, go-go dancer and porn star, so dubbed because she had the remarkable ability to tie her very long labia together in a knot. I managed to obtain an 8mm copy of this infamous loop back in 2001, after I had received contact from a gentleman who coached a local country football team in the late-1970s/early-80s, and held stag film nights to raise funds for the club. The Anal Dwarf was one of about 50 adult reels he had sitting in a wardrobe for 20 years, which he offered me for a sum of $100 for the lot, a deal I immediately agreed on. One can only wonder what went through the minds of this local football club as the sight of Louis de Jesus and the statuesque Veri Knotty going at it unspooled in front of their booze-soaked eyes.
De Jesus would follow-up Bloodsucking Freaks with appearances in several other sex films, and also appeared as an Ewok in Return of the Jedi in 1983, as well as the 1985 kids’ television show The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, where he was cast alongside Marilyn Burns from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). According to some interviews with Joel Reed, the part of Ralphus was originally meant to be played by Herve Villechaize, famous for playing Tattoo in the Fantasy Island series, and the villainous Half-Pint in the 1974 Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. But when Villechaize took off for Paris and demanded the airfare to return home to film the role of Ralphus, Reed baulked and hired De Jesus instead.
Helping to create the strange mystique surrounding Bloodsucking Freaks is the fact that several of the people involved with the production went on to meet unfortunate and violent or early deaths. The London-born Seamus O’Brien was stabbed to death at the age of 41 when trying to fight off a burglar at his apartment on May 14th, 1977, just a year after the film was released (one wonders if the culprit had seen the film), while Viju Krem, who plays Natasha the kidnapped ballerina, died after being accidentally shot on a hunting trip in Paynesville, Minnesota on November 17, 1983. Luis De Jesus passed away in 1988 at the age of only 36. Now in his early-eighties, Joel Reed himself has also had his own legal woes in recent times, having been arrested on New Year’s Day in 2015 for groping a woman in a New York Apartment. Reed’s filmmaking career has been intriguing, if not very prolific. He helmed the 1967 sexploitation roughie Career Bed after the original director, legendary adult filmmaker Joe Sarno, took off for Sweden. That same year he also made Sex by Advertisement, which was a faux examination of swingers and lonely-hearts newspaper ads, presented by the familiar fake psychiatrist who tries to explain the abnormal behaviour on display in the vignettes (this, of course, was a regular ploy by sexploitation filmmakers at the time, used to get racy material passed the censors by trying to pass it off as educational). Wit’s End was a seedy action adventure filmed in Singapore in 1969 that was later renamed G.I. Executioner when issued by Troma on home video in the 1980s. Post- Bloodsucking Freaks, the only feature Reed has his name to as director is Night of the Zombies, a 1981 horror film starring veteran porn actor Jamie Gillis, and not to be confused with Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead aka Virus, a notorious 1980 Italian gut-muncher that was also issued in some countries as Night of the Zombies (including Australia, another gift to horror fans by the good folks at Palace Explosive). In the mid-nineties, Reed was plugging a sequel to Bloodsucking Freaks, tentatively titled Bloodsucking Freaks 2: The School for Discipline, but was never able to get the funding together, and all that remains of that project is a mock-up promotional poster, in which Reed himself poses as the sadistic headmaster of the titular school. These days, Reed continues to be interviewed and asked about his work on Bloodsucking Freaks, as well as appear in cameos in low-budget horror flicks. He is also apparently busy taking legal action against Troma, over ownership rights and sales of his most infamous film, and can often be found hawking signed photos on eBay in an effort to raise payment for his legal fees. A book on Reed’s life and work, appropriately titled Bloodsucking Freak: The Life and Films of the Incredible Joel M. Reed, has been written by John Walter Szpunar and is due for publication by Headpress in the UK at some point in the near future.
While not a film for everyone, or hardly anyone, Bloodsucking Freaks is certainly required viewing for anyone with a strong stomach and an interest in the history of deviant cinema.
(Note: the above article is a slightly edited transcript of my live introduction to the Cinemaniacs’ screening of Bloodsucking Freaks, which took place in Melbourne on June 18th, 2016).