Monday, September 15, 2014

Blood Feast: Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control

Watching Suspiria for the first time got me thinking about the value of films that by all rights should have lost some of their power with age. I mean, the effects weren't very good, everything was laughably dated, and there wasn't much story there, but ultimately it didn't matter. In fact, things that might typically be seen as deficiencies actually sort of came together into their own sort of aesthetic, and the film’s utter conviction and unwillingness to wink at the audience really helped what should have been a really cheesy relic of another era get over even today. It might not have been the scariest thing I've seen lately, but it had a certain delirious power to it, and I respect that.

It also got me thinking about another movie from roughly the same time period, one that treads similar ground in terms of its blatant artificiality and explicit violence, but hasn't gotten the critical acclaim or respect afforded to many of the early giallo films. Namely, Blood Feast. It’s cheaply made and incredibly dated, but somehow this makes it more unsettling than I suspect it even was in its day.

The film doesn't waste a lot of time. It’s suburban Florida, land of sunshine and palm trees and really brightly colored clothes. A woman enters her house and turns on the radio. The news reports that another horrible mutilation murder has taken place, and women should avoid going out at night unaccompanied. The woman looks concerned at the things the radio is saying as she undressed to get in the bath.

Needless to say, moments later she is stabbed to death by a man who has somehow appeared in her house (so much for staying safe in your home). The man removes one of her eyes and one of her legs, and leaves as unceremoniously as he arrived, leaving only the woman’s bloodstained corpse, her unread copy of “Weird Religious Rituals” lying unread next to her on the edge of the bathtub.

This film isn't subtle. In fact, I’m not sure this film was made in a world where the word “subtle” actually exists. The story is simple: There’s a man named Fuad Ramses. He runs an exotic catering company, and sells copies of his book “Weird Religious Rituals,” and oh yeah, murders women, removing various and sundry body parts, and assembling them on an altar in the back room of his shop in honor of the ancient Egyptian goddess Ishtar. He’s apparently trying to resurrect her and lots of bloody human sacrifice is necessary. It might seem like I’m spoiling the film here, but really, you piece all of this together in, like, the first ten minutes. After that, it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting the weirdness wash over you.

See, by any conventional metric, this is not a good movie. The camerawork is terrible (simple pans and zooms are visibly jerky), the shot composition is static and the blocking awkward (people walk into room, and then stand there, or the shot begins with them already sitting and standing there, and then there is talking), the acting is atrocious to the point of comic in places (visible, noticeable pauses between lines), the writing is amateurish (oh god the dialogue), and the story is basic almost to the point of minimalism. I mean, I already told you the story: Ramses kills people, cops try to find Ramses before he kills more people. There’s a young woman who might get killed when Ramses caters a party her mother is throwing for her. Does she? Well, there needs to be some mystery here. What’s with the book he’s written? Who knows! It’s never really explained! It doesn’t have Suspiria’s riotous set design, or the overheated-to-the-point-of-surrealism dialogue of an Ed Wood movie, it is in all ways that are important a downright primitive movie.

But in this instance, that’s all okay. It actually works somehow, because all of this put together, along with being made in a time and place (mid-1960s Florida) so disassociated from modern expectations for horror, lends it a bizarre fever-dream quality that pushes well into nightmare territory when you add in the startlingly graphic murder scenes. For anyone whose entire experience of mid-60s cinema is more conventional fare (or even some of the oddities features on Mystery Science Theater 3000), this is going to come as a shock, as it must have when it was first released to jaded audiences who thought they knew what they were in for. This was a singular movie back then for being essentially a proto-slasher film, violent beyond what audiences expected, and it's a singular one today for being so utterly divorced from the cinematic language that has built up around slasher films in the intervening years. It doesn’t look anything like what we expect slasher films to look like, and this is a large part of why it has such a nightmarish quality to it.

First off, the sets look cheap and dowdy - it’s not so much the blatant stage-set feeling of Suspiria as a shoestring-budget minimalism. The idol of Ishtar that Ramses worships is a mannequin painted gold, Ramses has a very obvious dye job intended to make him look older than he really is, the entire police station is pretty much a single room that looks suspiciously like somebody’s waiting room. This is combined with what must have been opportunistic location shooting - offices and motels and people's living rooms, the everyday suburbia of the mid-1960s. There’s no atmosphere or mood, just the places in which people actually lived and worked. The only art direction is "where can we shoot?" and it makes the whole film feel cheap, and maybe a little sleazy, It helps create the feeling that this is some strange relic unearthed from a cardboard box at a garage sale or flea market in the part of town that you don't typically visit - a garage sale or flea market that might vanish as soon as you turn around, as if it were never there. It looks like somebody’s home movies, until the moment that everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. The music is a strange mixture of tympani, organ, cello, horn, and piano, but rarely with more than any two playing at one time, so it's as sparse and off-center as everything else. The stilted dialogue and wooden acting add to the overall feeling of unreality as well - the cops discuss a spate of hideous mutilation murders in the same tone of voice that you might discuss your favorite baseball team’s most recent loss. Ramses is a mass of bug-eyed stares and oddly metered dialogue full of long pauses and inappropriate emphasis. His every action screams “I AM AN UNSTABLE LUNATIC” and absolutely nobody notices. It feels very much like something David Lynch might do, all mannered and stylized in the middle of Middle American banality.

And on top of all of that, we have the gore. It's an odd mix of artificiality and verisimilitude, with blood as bright and thin as in Suspiria, but in the service of long, lingering shots of viscera, entrails and the wide-open unseeing eyes of Ramses' victims. Again, due to budget concerns, the killings are oddly inert - there will be a shot of Ramses, a reaction from the victim, and then back to Ramses stiffly pantomiming stabbing. Normally this would just be comical, but then they cut to fake blood and entrails splashed everywhere. It's as much pantomime as anything else, but it's so graphic as to be jarring. Ramses pulls out a woman’s tongue, and holds it in his hand while she lolls and gurgles, and the woodenness of all of it somehow makes it worse. I suspect for most modern moviegoers, Blood Feast will be an utterly alien experience - you can’t take it seriously because it’s so inept, but it’s too bloody and violent to be cute. To me, it evokes the feeling of falling asleep while watching an old movie and waking up to something terrifying, and not being sure if what you’re watching is what’s really going on or if you’re still somehow asleep, watching this strange mixture of the mundane and the horrific play across your eyelids.

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