Tell me, friends, have you ever had — AN EGYPTIAN FEAST?
It doesn’t matter how you answer that question, the important thing is in how you ask it. You’ve gotta get all bug-eyed, swerve your neck outwards like a crane, and pause dramatically between “hand” and “an” before raising your voice for the final three words. Then you, too, can look and sound just like Mal Arnold, the decidedly non-Egyptian “actor” (and I use that term loosely) who plays Egyptian serial-killer/caterer in director Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1963 classic Blood Feast, and know that you’ll be faithfully imitating a slice of movie history.
And no, I don’t take the phrase “movie history” lightly — but in this case it most certainly applies. Which is not to say that Blood Feast is in any way a good film — heck, in many respects it isn’t even really a competent one (wait, didn’t I just refer to it as a “classic?” — bear with me, all will be explained), but for what it did, and when it did it, well — like it or not, it really does represent a couple of important firsts.
And speaking of firsts — first, a bit of a plot rundown, not that such a thing is really all that necessary. A nubile young female strips down to take a bath while listening to a radio report about a series of brutal, unsolved killings in her area. She gets naked, opens up a book called “Weird Ancient Religious Rituals,” lays back in the tub —and is hacked to pieces by a freaky-looking intruder of vaguely foreign appearance, who leaves what’s left of her to slowly bleed to death while he makes of with her amputated leg.
Cut to the catering shop of one Fuad Ramses, the killer from the previous scene (no mystery here folks, sorry!), who is conversing with a customer, one Mrs. Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton), who is planning a birthday dinner for her daughter, Suzette (eventual 1963 Playboy Playmate of the Year Connie Mason). Ramses suggests an Egyptian feast (hence our opening quote), and Mrs. Fremont agrees that would be a lovely idea given that her daughter is taking a night class on Egyptian history and culture.
The cops, led by one Detective Pete Thornton ( Lewis regular William Kerwin, operating here under the pseudonym of “Thomas Wood”) are hot on the trail of the killer, of course. We’re informed that the “entire force” is working around the clock on tracking the psychopath down, and even though said “entire force” apparently consists of only two guys, they follow the leads they’ve got pretty well, and those leads —- uhhmmmm — lead them to the aforementioned Egyptian studies night class, where our good detective takes an instant liking to our Ms. Fremont The Younger. Of course, in between trying to make time with the wealthy young socialite, he’s still got a case to work, and a couple more bodies (of the female variety, naturally) pile up, one with its tongue removed, the other sans its brain (both shown in lovingly agonizing detail by Lewis, with the tongue scene especially being a standout for hardened gore-hounds to this day — and yes, the rumors are true, they used a sheep tongue procured from a local butcher shop), and of course both unfortunate ladies are connected with that apparently-cursed night-school class (which makes you wonder why everybody doesn’t just drop the course, but I digress).
Anyway, as events play out, clues finally lead the cops right to Ramses’ doorstep — or, more specifically, to the back room of his shop, where he’s got an impromptu shrine set up to the supposedly Egyptian goddess of death, Ishtar. The ever-enterprising Fuad is apparently attempting to serve up a bunch of body parts from different victims to people at the Fremont party as a cannibalistic sacrifice to his savage goddess in order to facilitate her reincarnation upon the Earth into human form. Or something. And he’s got Suzette in mind as his final victim. Or to be Ishtar’s new human hostess. Or something.
I suppose none of it really matters because Fuad walks with a comically over-pronounced limp and isn’t gonna get too far once the cops show up (he makes it into the back of a garbage truck in his feeble escape attempt and is compacted therein, with Thornton intoning that he ended up exactly where he belonged because he’s nothing but human garbage anyway — whoops, sorry to give away the ending), and it’s not for its gripping and dramatic story that anyone cared — or, for that matter, still cares — about this movie anyway.
Nor, frankly, is it due its performances, most of which fall below even community theater standards, that Blood Feast is still talked about to this day . Oh, sure, Arnold’s all kinds of fun if you can get past the blatant offensiveness inherent in the idea of a guy of course being a bloodthirsty maniac because he’s disabled, vaguely effeminate, and even — gasp! shudder! — an immigrant. He’s clearly playing the whole things for laughs (as is Lewis himself, for that matter), but the same charitable view really can’t be extended to the truly awful non-acting of Connie Mason, whose “talents” were best summarized by HGL when he famously said “I’ve often thought that if one took the key out of Connie’s back, that she’d simply stand still” — nor to Bolton, who, if anything, is even worse in her turns as Mason’s cinematic mother. Neither actress emotes in the slightest, nor are they aware enough of their own shortcomings to intentionally over-do things — they’re just basically reciting dialogue, and not even doing that very well.
So what does at leave us with? Why, surely the answer’s right in the title — blood, and lots of it (and specially-concocted blood at that — Lewis didn’t care for how any of the standard-at-the-time stage blood looked on camera, so he had a local Miami (like most of HGL’s flicks, this was lensed in the South Florida area) cosmetic company come up with a new blend just for this film that he would end up using on all his subsequent efforts — on the plus side it was entirely edible, on the minus side the base ingredient was Kaopectate) . And brains. And tongues. And entrails. And limbs. But mostly, just lots and lots — and lots! — of blood.
All of which is pretty much standard stuff these days, of course, but it certainly wasn’t back in 1963. This is well and truly the first “gore film,” and while that fact has been justly acknowledged by the horror community at large, what’s less talked about, but no less true, is the fact that Blood Feast is also the first modern slasher film. Oh, sure, Lewis and producer David F. Friedman make a big deal of pointing this out on numerous occasions on the occasionally-self-congratulatory-but-on-the-whole-pretty-lively-and-enthralling commentary track that accompanies this film’s DVD and Blu-Ray releases from Something Weird Video (it’s presented full frame with mono sound and also includes the standard “Gallery Of Herschell Gordon Lewis exploitation artwork” that all these come with), but for some reason the largely-self-appointed gatekeepers of horror-dom don’t seem to want to go there. It’s almost as if they’re willing to give Blood Feast some “props,” but not too many. You want us to admit you were the first gore flick? Fine. We can do that. But the first slasher? No way. We’ve gotta save that for a more “respectable” picture, thank you very much. It’s gotta be Halloween. Or Black Christmas. Or —
Well, folks, I’m here to call bullshit on that. Horror on the whole is already marginalized and ghetto-ized by the (again, largely self-appointed) arbiters of all that is right and good in “mainstream” cinema — to see the same thing done on a “micro” level within horror fandom itself as is done to the genre on a more “macro” level reeks of hypocrisy of the highest order. Let’s give Blood Feast its due. I’m not here to tell you it’s a great example of the slasher subgenre, or frankly even of the gore subgenre, but it did ‘em both first, and everyone who came along later owes a debt of gratitude to what Lewis and Friedman did here, even if they didn’t necessarily do it all particularly well. Besides, numerous and readily-apparent flaws aside, this is good, solid, brainless fun. If more horror flicks were to put their various pretenses aside and just embrace the sense of good-time movie-making that Blood Feast positively revels in, maybe — just maybe — the genre as a whole wouldn’t find itself in the mess it’s in today. Just a thought.