Herschell Gordon Lewis, who died last year, was a genre film legend. Although he worked in most realms of exploitation films, from 'nudie-cuties' to juvenile delinquent films and even children's films, he is best known for creating the 'splatter' sub-genre of horror movies. The first title of his that bludgeoned open the horror mould, was Blood Feast, which Arrow Video have released on Blu-Ray alongside another of Lewis' 1963 features, Scum of the Earth.
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Screenplay: Allison Louise Downe
Starring: William Kerwin, Mal Arnold, Connie Mason
Running Time: 67min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Blood Feast sees an Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), butcher up attractive young women in order to extract the ingredients required to put on an authentic Egyptian feast as had been previously 'enjoyed' 5000 years ago. The feast is an offering for the Egyptian goddess Ishtar, who Ramses worships. The mother of Suzette Fremont (Connie Mason) foolishly thinks the feast sounds like a great way to put on a party for her daughter, so Ramses busies himself in preparation, hacking up a handful of women in the lead up to the 'big day'. Meanwhile, two inept cops, including Suzette's boyfriend Pete (William Kerwin), try to figure out who's responsible for the spate of murders around town.
Despite his reputation and my love of genre movies, I'd never actually seen a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie before now. He certainly lived up to his reputation as the “Godfather of Gore”, but his limitations as a filmmaker are also evident. Luckily I was prepared for this and I actually had a lot of fun with Blood Feast, even if I'd never call it a great film. It's generally a case of 'so bad it's good', where I enjoyed laughing at some of the daft dialogue and frequently shoddy deliveries. Writer Allison Louise Downe and Lewis know their limitations though, so never take things too seriously, with some lines knowingly ridiculous. “I was thinking about those murders. They just take the joy out of everything” was a standout for me.
When it comes to the gore, which was originally the film's selling point, it's aged somewhat. The bright red blood looks very fake and the guts clearly came from the local butchers. With limited resources, Lewis uses simple editing tricks to pull off his stabbings and severings and these aren't all that smoothly done as in better examples either. It's a long way from the masterclass of editing seen earlier in Hitchcock's Psycho, that's for sure. However, the sheer volume of gore on screen is bold for the time and you've got to give Lewis credit for having the gall to push the envelope so far. Plus, it's so over the top it adds to the enjoyably daft nature of the film. There are moments when the gore is fittingly 'icky' too, particularly the infamous tongue severing scene.
So, all in all, it's a bloody awful film, but often enjoyably so. It's vividly colourful, short and to the point, never taking itself seriously. So as trashy entertainment it works pretty well. Splatter movies have moved on since then, but you've got to give Lewis credit for taking that first messy step.
Scum of the Earth
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Screenplay: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Starring: William Kerwin, Allison Louise Downe, Lawrence J. Aberwood, Sandra Sinclair, Mal Arnold
Running Time: 75min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Listed as a special feature rather than on the front cover of this release, Scum of the Earth felt like it would be a bit throwaway so I almost didn't bother watching it, but I did give it a whirl in the end. Lewis, in his introduction to the film, states that this is the first “roughie”, a genre I wasn't aware of to be honest, but I think includes films where men are notably aggressive towards women and this fact is used as a selling point.
Scum of the Earth is about a group of unsavoury characters, led by boss Lang (Lawrence J. Aberwood), who run a pornography racket. Sandy (Sandra Sinclair), a model that has been forced into posing for tough pornographic poses with the violent Ajax (Craig Maudslay Jr.), wants to get out, and Lang says she can if she helps recruit some 'new blood' in the form of young, innocent Kim (Allison Louise Downe). Sandy leads Kim to photographer Harmon (William Kerwin), who (semi-unwillingly) grooms her from posing for tasteful catalogue shots to full on pornography. She needs the money to get to college, so is kept in this trap, although she tries her best to get out when things start to move too far. Harmon, meanwhile, is torn whether to do his job and keep her hooked, or do the decent thing.
This is an incredibly seedy and grubby little film, the sort that makes you feel uncomfortable watching. It's populated by horrible characters and centres around an innocent victim that is used and humiliated at every opportunity. However, in a way this makes the film feel less exploitative than I expected, particularly from a director best known for throwing what sells at the screen. Maybe those otherwise inclined would disagree, but I never found the nude scenes here in any way erotic, instead I was horrified at how the model was being treated by the despicable characters around her. As such, the film works surprisingly well as a dark and disturbing drama.
Unfortunately it's rather artlessly made though, with the blandly composed photography displayed in Blood Feast yet again evident and this doesn't have the lurid colour of that film to save the visuals, as this is shot in a dingy black and white. This fits the mood though. Performances are yet again rather shoddy too, although the men in the film are effectively unpleasant.
So it's a hard film to recommend although it's not quite what I expected and is surprisingly anti-smut-peddling, given the filmmakers' backgrounds in trashy exploitation films. It's cheap and roughly made, but as a dark, unpleasant cautionary tale, it just about works. You'll want a shower afterwards though as the title is pretty apt.
Blood Feast is out now on dual format DVD & Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Video. The picture quality on Blood Feast is fantastic – far better than I'd ever imagine for such a cheap film of its kind. The colours in particular really pop and there's an incredible amount of detail and no damage. Scum of the Earth looks more of its age though, with a lot of flecks and lines on the print. It still looks pretty good though and detail is strong on the picture.
There are plenty of special features included. Here's the list:
- Scum of the Earth - Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1963 feature
- Blood Perspectives - Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher on Blood Feast
- Herschell's History - Archival interview in which director Herschell Gordon Lewis discusses his entry into the film industry
- How Herschell Found his Niche - A new interview with Lewis discussing his early work
- Archival interview with Lewis and David F. Friedman
- Carving Magic - Vintage short film from 1959 featuring Blood Feast Actor Bill Kerwin
- Alternate "clean" scenes from Scum of the Earth
- Promo gallery featuring trailers and more
- Feature length commentary featuring Lewis and David F. Friedman moderated by Mike Grady
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil
It's a great selection of features. Lewis and Friedman are always more than happy to let us know how they cut corners in making their films and provide numerous fun anecdotes about their productions.