Dirty Pictures: Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth

One among very few genuinely terrible films that are also justly famous, Blood Feast is the oft-cited progenitor of a certain strain of American cinema: the slasher film — or, more specifically, the splatter movie. Conceived by the briefly prolific, ultra-low-budget director Herschell Gordon Lewis (who will be forever known as the Godfather of Gore) — along with producer David F. Friedman — as an alternative to the commercially competitive genre of cheap-and-easy nudie flicks, the splatter movie was at the time even more disreputable than the soft porn film, ramping up the T&A with a new women-in-peril component. Gory murder scenes combined fake human blood and real animal entrails to sickening effect. Blood Feast is venerated by gorehounds and has a “so bad it’s good” reputation among horror buffs, but what’s really breathtaking about it is its shameless demonstration that, in the grand cinematic scheme, artistic merit, cultural influence, and commercial success have precious little to do with each other.

Emboldened no doubt by the box-office success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho a few years earlier, Lewis and Friedman were determined to put the gore on screen, in vivid colour, rather than obscuring it through editing and tastefully desaturating it the way that Hitch’s quick cuts and monochrome photography did. They cobbled together a thin storyline about religious zealot Fuad Ramses, famously played by Mal Arnold, who struggles visibly to work up a Bela Lugosi accent. This generously-eyebrowed Miami caterer is preparing a dinner party for an unsuspecting customer who requests “something unusual.” Ramses promises an “Egyptian feast” honouring the goddess Ishtar–referred to here as “the mother of the veiled darkness”–but neglects to mention that said feast involves an array of cuts of meat harvested from young women. (In one fell swoop, the filmmakers cheerfully slander the goddess Ishtar, a symbol of fertility rather than cannibalism, and disparage ancient Egypt, which never worshipped Ishtar in the first place.) We see Ramses attack one woman in the bath, sawing off a leg; later, he interrupts two lovers on the beach and steals the woman’s brain. In the film’s most memorable showpiece, Ramses tears the tongue out of a half-dressed victim’s mouth and holds it aloft; we don’t see the action itself but only the aftermath, the camera lingering on the woman’s face as her mouth gapes, drooling blood.

Blood Feast tongue scene

If you’re a horror fan, you’ve probably gotten used to making apologies for on-screen misogyny. Sometimes you can point to the way the vulnerability of female characters generates suspense as the threat of death provides the kind of violent, masochistic frisson that draws both male and female viewers to horror films in the first place. Other times, you can argue that a film’s overall mission is corrective, commenting on or condemning sexism instead of endorsing it, or empowering a “final girl” to overcome the darkness and carry the day. Sometimes the sheer dreamlike theatricality of horror films is its own reward (call this “the Argento defense”), with Grand Guignol play-acting functioning as a distressing yet ultimately cathartic exercise for directors, actors, and audiences alike. After all, horror stories are where the monsters come out to play, and I’m generally on board with all but the most hideous provocations. Even so, the “tongue scene” in Blood Feast viciously suggests a Playboy centerfold wandering into a true-crime tabloid. The use of real butcher-shop cast-offs on screen to create a gory tableau worth dwelling on was a technical innovation, but otherwise Blood Feast‘s murder scenes were calculated as pure artless spectacle–unmediated expressions of instinctive showmanship, their commercial imperative carved into flesh. They are unsavory, and I would hate to be called on to defend them.

Blood Feast opening scene murder

Lewis, of course, would mock me with a friendly grin for finding anything even mildly disturbing in his bargain-basement gorefest. It’s true that most of Blood Feast‘s 67-minute running time is well-furnished with the cozier accoutrements of a Very Bad Movie, including a half-assed blood ritual in Ramses’ semi-furnished torture dungeon, a desultory police procedural, and a four-minute-long expository lecture on “the cults of Ancient Egypt,” delivered by a supposedly renowned Egyptologist who can barely pronounce “Ramses” and “Amenhotep.” In one scene, Playboy‘s actual Miss June 1963, Connie Mason, keeps looking off camera for her lines, like a guest star adrift in a bad SNL sketch. Random shots are simply out of focus. Then there’s the genuinely bizarre score, an arrangement for trombone, cello, timpani, organ, and piano composed by Lewis himself in a striking display of semi-competence that could almost be interpreted as an avant-garde impulse. I’m not convinced that all of this taken together makes Blood Feast an enjoyable experience, though it is a revealing one — a genuinely weird artifact born from American commerce and unself-conscious ingenuity.

Lewis and Friedman happily took credit for making the first gore film, quite the centrepiece in any sleaze-monger’s portfolio. More remarkably, they also claimed another notable first just three months later with the release of Scum of the Earth. The same commercial instincts that begat the sanguinary theatrics of Blood Feast led to the motifs of sexual coercion and abuse that suffused this supposed exposé of the then-underground pornography industry. It’s framed as a cautionary tale about predatory publishers, complicit photographers, and even-less-wholesome industry hangers-on. With its release, Lewis and Friedman took credit for creating the first of what became known in sexploitation lingo as “roughies” — films that subverted the generally wholesome, good-timey airs of the so-called “nudie cuties” with the threat of assault and rape.

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Scum of the Earth is the story of two women who get caught in a trap laid by an unscrupulous photographer and his thuggish assistant. The photographer (William Kerwin, previously seen as a police detective in Blood Feast) is an alcoholic hack who ostensibly shoots cheesecake pictures but really earns his living by sucking the women into a cycle that has them shooting first nudes then, it’s suggested, pornography. One of his models longs to extricate herself from the life, but is told she needs to find a replacement in order to escape. The balance of the movie shows how the next sweet thing (Allison Louise Downe — the credited screenwriter of Blood Feast and Lewis’s wife at the time — acting under her usual pseudonym of Vickie Miles) is recruited, coerced, and eventually blackmailed by the photographer’s cagey boss.

Though it’s not a popular opinion, I actually prefer Scum of the Earth to Blood Feast. For one thing, it’s, uh, reasonably sexy as cheesecake photography goes — assuming you can take the (mostly implied) rough stuff in its vintage stride. Also, unlike its predecessor, Scum of the Earth sports some competent cinematography (in black-and-white this time), conflicted characters, and decent performances, especially by Kerwin as the emotionally-stunted photographer who finally witnesses one defilement too many in his studio and brings the degradation on display to a violent end. Plus, there’s the demented, over-the-top performance by Lawrence J. Aberwood as Lang, the boss of the operation, who absolutely loses it at the film’s 49-minute mark, with Lewis pushing the camera to an extreme close-up on his lips as he delivers a high-decibel monologue berating Downe as an irredeemably “dirty” girl: “You’re damaged merchandise, and this is a fire sale!” I don’t know how this played in 1963, but these days this degree of weapons-grade misogyny boils the blood. Anyway, it’s clear that Lang is the bad guy here and I’m happy to report that Lewis goes the extra mile: At the end of the film (spoiler!), Lang wades out into the Atlantic Ocean, puts a revolver in his mouth, and eats the bullet as the monochrome image goes pure blood red for two frames. It’s not quite as on-the-nose as the climax of Blood Feast, which sees Ramses crushed to death in a garbage truck, but it’ll do. And its central joke is at least self-aware: here’s sex movie as autocritique, an exploitation film purportedly warning viewers away from the exploitation industry. Showmanship!

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray double-feature fits both titles easily on a single BD-50, with room to spare. (The disc’s contents originated in Arrow’s mammoth box set, “The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast,” released last October.) Lewis and Friedman apparently knew the value of their original elements, because Blood Feast is utterly pristine in its slightly letterboxed 1.85:1 transfer (the opening titles are windowboxed to 1.42:1 for whatever reason), with vivid colours, impressive contrast, and a fine layer of organic film grain throughout. Detail is mostly impressive, even in difficult shots bathed in red light, and though some only partially-lit shots have broad areas of shadow behind the players, a hint of shading is still visible down in the toe of the image, meaning blacks have not been crushed digitally. (Elsewhere, flat lighting–and maybe a touch of filtration in spots–seems to muddy the sharpness a tad, and a few shots are simply out of focus.) Arrow has maintained ample dynamic range up towards the highlights, as well, and the carefully-balanced colours render the stage blood in gorgeous shades of crimson. The uncompressed monaural sound quality (LPCM 1.0) isn’t nearly as clean–despite whatever work Arrow did to sweeten it, there’s ample hiss, some harsh vocal sibilance, and a touch of crackle and distortion–but it’s certainly adequate.

While Scum of the Earth‘s b&w 1.85:1 transfer isn’t nearly as clean, it’s impressive considering the film’s lesser pedigree–and the obviously ratty condition of the source material. Arrow appears to have run some noise-reduction on the picture to minimize the most egregious dirt and damage, but the image here is still replete with old-fashioned analog artifacts, including a variety of vertical scratches, horizontal tears, and other blemishes that dance across the frame from time to time. Again, dynamics and contrast are excellent and very filmlike; despite the extensive flaws (such as more out-of-focus Lewis camerawork), it’s unlikely Scum of the Earth ever looked quite this good on the exploitation circuit. Sound quality (LPCM 1.0) is at least comparable to Blood Feast in general effect, if a little thinner and quite a bit noisier overall.

The most sizable extra feature here is the long collection (46 mins.) of cutting-room-floor footage comprising extended and alternate takes, some of which deliver glimpses of additional gore and nudity. This will all be familiar to Blood Feast superfans from previous DVD editions, and the picture seems to have been merely upconverted to 1080p from SD. Likewise carried over from previous editions is the short film “Carving Magic,” appearing in its entirety (21 mins.). Although this industrial film, all about proper meat-carving technique, was not directed by Lewis, it’s notable for starring Lewis regular Kerwin alongside a pre-fame Harvey Korman, cashing a paycheck. It looks like a real HD transfer, not just an SD upscale, but the source is obviously a battered 16mm print and the quality is adequate at best.

New to the Arrow disc is “Blood Perspectives with Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher,” a short documentary (11 mins.) featuring talking-head time with The Pact director McCarthy and Room 237 director Ascher, who describe the odd appeal of Blood Feast and put it in some historical context. In a classic back-handed compliment, McCarthy summarizes Blood Feast as containing “just those things you wanted to see as an 8-year-old.” Ascher, meanwhile, sees it through the lens of Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards, where he first learned of its existence, and posits (correctly!) that “bad movies” function as “accidental documentaries” that are reflective and revealing of their time. More poignantly, McCarthy discusses Lewis’s intention to make ephemeral films that would play the circuit and then vanish from memory, and wonders at Blood Feast‘s ability to have endured over the decades.

“How Herschell Found His Niche” (7 mins.) is a recent Arrow Video interview in which Lewis, who died in September of last year, identifies the inspiration for his run of super-cheaply made “nudie-cuties” — writer-director Max Nosseck’s 1954 nudist-colony-set feature Garden of Eden, which debuted in New York in 1957–and tells the story of the botched 35mm answer print for 1961’s The Adventures of Lucky Pierre that played a nine-week engagement in Chicago. For this Arrow release, Lewis also provides new one-minute introductions for both Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth.

Archival material includes a discussion between Lewis and Friedman (18 mins.) that’s billed as a “long lost interview” from 1987. It’s SD-originated with slightly weird color balance, and there’s a persistent buzz on the soundtrack, but otherwise it looks and sounds quite good. Friedman’s early metaphor–“let’s talk about the carny kid and the professor who just happened to hit it off”–sets the tone for a collegial discussion involving both men. Reflecting on protests against his films, Lewis insists that the box office benefited from any controversy his adversaries could stir up, although he denies he was looking for trouble from culture’s moral guardians. “We positioned our pictures very carefully,” he says. “We made it quite clear at whom they were aimed, regardless of the type of picture. We didn’t want to make a mass appeal picture. That isn’t what we did. So for anyone to express outrage over our dealing direct with our targeted audience struck me, at least, as being kind of silly.”

“Herschell’s History” (5 mins.) is a standard-def interview dating to 2010 in which Lewis discusses his evolution from Starkville, Mississippi Lit and Humanities instructor to sexploitation maestro. In narrating his own origin story, he emphasizes his commercial impulses and downplays any pretensions to craftsmanship. “I know too many people in this business who don’t make movies,” he notes. “They give birth.”

The Blood Feast audio commentary has been ported over from the original Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment DVD release and sees Lewis and Friedman as their usual chatty selves, guided by occasional questions from the late Mike Vraney of Something Weird, who asks about the composition of fake blood (mainly Kaopectate, as it turns out), clarifies elements of the distribution strategy, and even gently pushes back when Lewis claims there’s “no nudity” in the film. (It’s certainly “racy,” Vraney notes.)

Also pulled from the archives are a little more than four minutes’ worth of alternate footage, windowboxed to a full-frame 1.33:1 transfer, that removes most of the nudity from Scum of the Earth. (Remarkably, Lewis and Friedman must have been confident there were certain markets that would pay for Scum of the Earth but would reject the titillation.) Finally, an assortment of promotional material fills out the disc–a “warning” radio spot for Blood Feast (1 min.) that sounds like it was narrated by Lewis himself, an audio-only teaser for the film that seems to have been designed to play over a movie theatre’s speaker system, and an assortment of HD trailers for Blood Feast, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Bell Bare and Beautiful, and Goldilocks and the Three Bares. T&A are abundant, natch, but there is nary a schlong to be seen.

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