Herschell Gordon Lewis was a trash filmmaker. None of his films was ever an attempt at producing art, or even quality. A Chicago ad man by trade, Lewis got into filmmaking as a way to make a quick buck. His films exploited gaps in the market to bring in high returns on a small investment. When enforcement of the Hays Code began to slacken at the start of the 1960s, Lewis filmed cheap nudie-cuties that only had the barest threads of competent filmmaking. When returns on those flicks were hurt by nudity moving into mainstream films, Lewis turned to horror. Like the good marketer he was, he found an opening in horror flicks he could exploit. That opening was gore.
Blood Feast, directed by Lewis from a screenplay credited to his wife (he wrote it), is a no good, very bad, awful film. The plot is garbage, the dialogue is laughable, and there wasn’t anyone in the movie who could act worth a lick. Main characters alternately stumbled through their lines or said them like robots. At least one cast member, June 1963 Playmate of the Month Connie Mason, didn’t bother to learn her lines. Not that it really mattered.
The plot follows Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses. He’s a local caterer who has a dark secret. He’s attempting to resurrect an Egyptian goddess named Ishtar. In order to do this, he has to prepare a blood sacrifice. Ramses needs body parts, and he gathers them from whatever young ladies Lewis could convince to be in his flick. He didn’t have much time to find them, either. Lewis and company filmed this flick in Miami Beach over the course of four days. It shows.
The sets are no more elaborate than something a 12-year-old James Rolfe would put together for his home movies. The idol of the goddess Ishtar is a store mannequin that was spray-painted gold and had some Egyptian-like highlights applied. There’s a flashback scene to a sacrifice from ancient Egypt, and an establishing shot shows the Sphinx with a pyramid in the background. In a film like this, one wouldn’t expect Lewis to fly all the way to Egypt to get this footage. One would expect it to be stock footage. Well, one would be wrong. It’s not stock footage. It’s also not a shot of the real Sphinx. There used to be a motel in Miami Beach called the Suez that had a feeble recreation of the Sphinx out front, and this is what Lewis shot and included in his film. That’s an extraordinary moment of shitty filmmaking, in a film that is full of those moments.
For some true mirth, the scenes featuring Detective Pete Thornton (William Kerwin) and his captain, Frank (Scott H. Hall), are the best. Picture a pair of two-by-fours suddenly coming to life and talking about grisly murders, and one gets an idea of how wooden this pair were. Hall was especially precious. If one of his lines called for some inflection or a little bit of gesturing, it appeared to overtax his ability to do more than one thing at a time.
But the acting and the plot were never the point of this movie. The point was to make a return on investment, and use a singular gimmick to do so. That singular gimmick was gore. Lewis broke new ground with the amount of blood and gore in this flick. Some say that makes this an influential film. Another school of thought has it that this flick is so bad and so obscure that it couldn’t have influenced anything. Either way, there is a lot of nastiness.
None of the action leading up to the gore is realistic or impressive. And when a viewer does see blood, Lewis made sure the camera lingered on it so the viewer could take it all in. It plays out like something new in film. The gore isn’t a peripheral effect to enhance the action on the screen. It is the focus, culminating in a scene that used a severed sheep’s tongue.
Lewis had ambition, and that ambition was to make a profit. In that, he was more shameless and cheap than Roger Corman. He knew what he was making, and his surprise later in life when his movies began finding new audiences is testament to how much he valued his movies. They come from a time when there was a shadow film industry outside of the Hollywood mainstream that was making disposable films with no more than immediate value. That value has changed over the decades. Blood Feast is no less trashy than it was in 1963, but the patina of age has turned it into a curiosity, and, yes, a piece of film history. Serious horror fans will probably find themselves watching this flick someday. That’s fine. Just be aware going in that it is not good. It is a putrid mess of a movie — but it made money, showing that its creator had a pretty good read on what audiences wanted to see. That being said, this is objectively one of the worst movies I have ever seen. As a film, it pales in comparison to Alien: Resurrection. But, the worse the car wreck, the more it draws one’s attention when driving by.