Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror.
No one had ever seen anything like it before. As drive-in patrons lined up for a Friday night showing of a new horror film, little did they know that they were about to witness a cinematic milestone. It would be the creation of an entire genre of film, and the beginning of the end to a profitable filmmaking partnership. Those Peoria, Illinois customers got more than they bargained for as they pulled into the dirt parking lot and attached a tinny speaker to their windows, for what poured forth from the screen was seventy minutes of unbridled brutality. They witnessed legs chopped off, eyes gouged out, tongues ripped from throats, and brains spilled from skulls. On that balmy night in 1963, the mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Film, David F. Friedman, along with King of the Nudies, director Herschel Gordon Lewis, redefined their careers (and their lives) with the release of Blood Feast. Over the course of the next two years, they would further refine this new form of cinema, creating a trilogy of gore-drenched classics. Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red cemented their legacy and eventually split their profitable affiliation. While dated and a little dippy, these films (released by Something Weird Video in special edition DVD packages) stand as a testament to these founding fathers of fear, the men who discovered that genuine terror—and a lot of cash—could be made by thoroughly grossing people out.
Facts of the Case
(On a side note, these films were not intended as a trilogy, nor were they ever released as one by the makers. "The Blood Trilogy" is a moniker foisted upon these films by generations of fans and fanatics. Thematically, each is different. In style and execution, each one has an individual flavor. Storylines do not intersect, nor do characters from previous outings reappear. In reality, they are viewed as a set since these are the only gore works of Friedman and Lewis as a team.)
Blood Feast: A string of brutal murders/mutilations hits Miami. Each young female victim has a part of her body violently removed, and the police are baffled by a lack of motive or clues. In the midst of all this turmoil, Mrs. Fremont decides to throw a surprise party for her daughter, Susan, and she hires Fuad Ramses, local expert on bizarre Egyptian customs and rituals, to cater the affair. Little does she know that Ramses is the killer and is preparing a body part blood feast for the Goddess Ishtar (and the surprise party), or that Susan is to be the human sacrifice to top off his cannibalistic buffet.
Two Thousand Maniacs: Every 100 years, the residents of Pleasant Valley, a Confederate town wiped out by the North in the Civil War, re-materialize and swear revenge on the "Yankees" who destroyed them and their community. A group of visiting Northerners stumbles upon the town's "celebration," not knowing that they will be enlisted to provide the blood, guts, and torture entertainment for this fiendish flesh fiesta.
Color Me Blood Red: Artist Adam Sorg has hit on hard times. His paintings no longer sell, and his inspiration is as dry as his paint box. That is, until he discovers human blood as a compelling substitute for red. Now his only problem is finding a ready enough supply of the claret coloring, as his gore soaked masterworks become a huge success. Luckily, he is on the outs with his girlfriend, and teenagers love to frequent the beach near his rented cabana.
The year was 1963. Producer David F. Friedman and director Herschel Gordon Lewis were well known, highly reputable players in exploitation filmmaking and distribution with such titles as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Daughters of the Sun to their credit. Taking a very basic premise, like an enchanted pair of glasses that allowed the wearer to see a person "au natural," they would shoot nudist camp footage and incorporate it into the basic narrative. While fun and highly profitable, by '63 the market was literally flooded with breasts and bare butts. The duo needed to find another unwholesome subject to exploit. It needed to have the same immediate visceral impact on the audience as live childbirth footage had when featured in the moralistic Mom and Dad films. It needed to stir the imagination (and senses) the way acres of unclothed nubile young bodies had in the nudie cutie movie.
Like most acts of desperation, their idea was sudden and inspired: Gore! Total carnage! Unmitigated and realistic scenes of torture and murder! Remove the subtle nuance and cinematic trickery from past movie killings and death and show everything in graphic, gruesome detail. Within weeks, Blood Feast was on its way into the cinematic history book. Its phenomenal success mandated a sequel of sorts. Two Thousand Maniacs saw lightning strike twice, but only one year later, there was so much dissension built up between Friedman and Lewis that Color Me Blood Red was abandoned (to be completed by others), signaling the end of their era in gore films.
While Friedman and Lewis would both explore the horror film separately, they never did recapture the magic of the trilogy, and with good reason. These were honest collaborations, the very essence of teamwork: Lewis on the camera, Friedman producing and operating the sound. After a dozen or more solo efforts, Lewis retired from film completely, and Friedman stumbled into a long stint with the soft-core sex farce. But it's the Blood Trilogy, with all its unrelenting bloodshed and gleeful butchery, that people remember. And it's the most passionate and playful of their work together (or maybe even separately). Historians and fans consistently return to these films to see where it all began—when horror finally grew balls and decided to show it all in unadulterated explicit detail.
Stylistically, Lewis and Friedman lifted a great deal from the horror comics of the time (like the ones created by EC). Their use of bold, vivid primary colors (as in Blood Feast) made the images feel like the dazzling panels of a cruel comic. Two Thousand Maniacs is a cornpone Vault of Horror story by way of Brigadoon with its bizarre twists and shockingly sick set pieces. Even in Color Me Blood Red there is a clear cartoon-like conceit, with every action exaggerated, acting over the top and outrageous, and shots that mimic the best in pen and ink. The Trilogy allowed Lewis to expand his director's language with unique angles, extreme close ups, and atmospheric lighting. The result was a set of cinematic sickies so drenched in dread and bloodstained bodies that audiences couldn't help but be disturbed. And entertained.
They also marked the true origins of the modern horror archetype. Blood Feast was (and is) the prototypical psycho killer on the loose film, a blueprint for every other slasher/maniac movie to come. Two Thousand Maniacs was the perfect meeting of formula with fantasy. You can see the future fun killings of Freddy Krueger or the over-the-top torture tactics of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Evil Dead in its rednecked roots. Unfortunately, Color Me Blood Red stands for the eventual downfall of the genre, illustrating that when bound by parameters and convention, or when over-hyped or underdeveloped, a gore film could be tedious and pedestrian.
Blood Feast is pure psychotic fun, a quirky assault on your senses and your tolerance for the disgusting. It makes its mutant merriment out of ingenuity, energy, and entrails. The film starts out strong and moves rapidly through its uncontrolled barrage of vivid thrill killings. However, at the end it sort of loses steam. The collection of body parts for an Egyptian blood feast/ritual is a novel and nutty premise and, in general, it works wonderfully. But once the killer is discovered and the pseudo mystery solved, the film degenerates into a laughably goofy foot chase that even the puffiest detective should have been able to win. First time viewers may find the initial half of the film shocking and grotesque, even by today's standards. From the opening scene where an unfortunate young lady's carved-open face is shown in full close up, the movie announces its intent to use graphic bloody images as a gigantic exclamation point to the proceedings. The acting, unfortunately, is not consistent. As Ramses, Mal Arnold is wonderfully perverse, but Connie Mason's Susan seems to be channeling Tor Johnson. Lewis is a tight, economical director, and not a shot or opportunity is wasted, and with classic set pieces like "beach brain bingo" and "the tongue tear" he creates, along with Friedman, a disturbed, demented (if occasionally imperfect) delight. Any fan of horror, then or now, should be required to watch Blood Feast, if only to witness first-hand where so much of what they now worship actually spawned.
The DVD picture presented here is almost too good. Never before in the history of Feast's video legacy has the image been this sharp, this bright, this phantasmagorically colorful. Presented in full frame, the deep red images fill the screen in a truly spectacular transfer. There are some defects from the original negative, but Something Weird is to be commended for the stellar job of preserving and presenting this classic. Along with a trailer for the film (which epitomizes the "tell all, show nothing" school of advertising), there is a gallery of exploitation art and material surrounding the film and other Lewis/Friedman works. However, gorehounds may be sad to discover that within the included outtakes and deleted scenes there is no "Holy Grail of the Grotesque," no missing scenes of mayhem or maiming. To call this footage anything other than cutting room floor sweepings would be to mislabel them. For over an hour, we are treated to clap boards, editing jumps, microsecond scenes, and some alternative footage of the special effects. Nothing new, nothing remarkable, and nothing to satisfy those who have a longing need to see things bleed. Blood Feast, as a DVD package, is exceptional. While not terribly insightful, even the leftovers, including a badly scratched short subject about meat carving (oh, those funny SWV people) that features a rather subdued Harvey Korman, provide an idiosyncratic delight.
Two Thousand Maniacs
There is an inspired lunacy in Two Thousand Maniacs, a frantic madness that infiltrates nearly every aspect of this film. It had the largest budget of the three Trilogy movies, and it shows. From the backwater Florida locations to the elaborate gore stunts, Maniacs makes up for its retreat away from the extremes of Blood Feast with production value, wit, and acting. Even though Connie Mason is back for another blank-out in front of the camera, the rest of the cast is filled with folk who understand and overplay their roles with gusto and guts. Maniacs is also very careful not to show its gore hand too rapidly (unlike Feast). While we know that there is something not quite right with the people of Pleasant Valley, we do not witness our first killing or mutilation until almost a half-hour in. The remainder of the murders are set pieces, built on elaborate contraptions and ridiculously fun set-ups. There is a good narrative drive to the plot, and a real concern for who lives and dies amongst the characters. It is more accomplished and cinematic than Feast or Color, and does not skimp on the "gruesome" details.
This is also the best looking film in the Trilogy. The town of St. Cloud, Florida gave Friedman and Lewis run of its streets and main hotel, and the attention to Deep South detail really pays off. This was the first film, because of money, that allowed them to focus on things like composition, color, and lighting. The extra effort, time, and cash are right up there on the screen in sharp, full-screen glory. The film is actually more fun than frightening, a rootin' tootin' hee hawin' good time that, like Mountain Dew, will tickle your innards (as it slowly removes them…). When you have ghastly set pieces with names like "Old Teetering Rock" and "The Barrel Roll," you can tell that someone has their tongue firmly planted somewhere. Sure, they are still bloody and detailed, but they also smack of the gleefully extremist tone in place from the beginning. There is also another reel of so-called "outtakes" that, again, consist of nothing more than trimmings and clapboards. There is no great lost killing or unused effect. It's hard to imagine that there could be. These films were made on a shoestring, and there was not much time for coverage or filmed rehearsals. Everything and anything was used. Re-shoots were almost unheard of. Still, along with a gallery of exploitation art, and a very bloody trailer, the DVD presentation of Two Thousand Maniacs comes highly recommended, as it represents the pinnacle of the collaboration between Friedman and Lewis and the conceptualization of a true all-out gore epic.
Color Me Blood Red
Unfortunately, here is where the good times come to a screeching halt. By the time Color went into production, affairs between Friedman and Lewis were strained. Financial sides had been taken and partner loyalties tested. Color reflects this ongoing personal and professional loggerhead in its barely basic set up. The weak story doesn't help matters much, since the notion of a twisted artist using blood as a paint source just doesn't seem to lend itself to outlandish killings or stylized effects. The film is incredibly underdeveloped. For the first time Lewis and Friedman failed to meet the challenge of topping themselves, and you sense they were no longer interested in the format. Any fun or freshness that existed in their previous effort just shrivels up and dies on the screen. There is a new focus on the acting and performances of the cast, but this cannot save a horror film where the scares and gore elements are lost. Gordon Oas-Heim as Adam Sorg may seem a right powerful psychopath, but method acting does not always guarantee something shocking. Color is restrained, keeping its bloodshed to a minimum, and never attempting the wild tone of Maniacs or the wacky-weird suspense of Feast. In essence, Color plays like the half-finished final act of two very similar, but now distant filmmakers.
Visually, this is a very claustrophobic film with only one or two sets and locations. Even the outdoor driving and beach scenes look closed off from the rest of the world. It contains many location shots, and this results in an occasionally washed out and dull image. The indoor scenes are as sharp and vibrant as the previous discs (and again, the image is presented here in full screen), but still this definitely plays like it was not the most expensive or well thought out production. The paintings used to represent the artist's craft are, frankly, juvenile and pretty unimpressive, and with a minimal amount of the red stuff, the plot holes and excessively talky aspect of the film are magnified. As for extras, a wonderful trailer actually makes the film look more sensational and violent than it really is. Also present is another gallery of exploitation artwork and another dose of those notoriously ill-monikered outtakes. Again, nothing interesting about grips standing around and three-second shots pruned from existing takes. Overall, Color is a depressing film, one that's noteworthy more for what it represents historically rather than as horror. There is an unshakeable feeling of defeat and indirect animosity that permeates the film like the organic "paint" that oozes from the victim's wounds.
Undoubtedly the best aspect of all three films (and an incredibly convincing argument to break down and buy all three DVDs) is the humorous, insightful, instructive, and compelling commentaries. Over the course of these discs, Friedman and Lewis present an exploitation history lesson—part memoir, part Hollywood, mostly ballyhoo. From the reasons why Blood Feast succeeded to the divisiveness and tension that dissolved their partnership, over the course of three and one half hours, we get all the details, told in a very entertaining, self-deprecating style. Lewis and Friedman know that they didn't create great art, but they are very proud of the response to the films and are humbled and somewhat mystified over the fanatical reaction they get today. Each disc commentary track is a chapter in the chronicle of two bona fide cinematic characters. Blood Feast introduces us to the creation of their films and partnership; Two Thousand Maniacs heralds the fun and profit of making it big; and Color Me Blood Red illustrates how quickly money and mistrust can doom even the most solid and professional relationship. It is a fascinating oral account, with Lewis and Friedman being two of the most intelligent, smart, and business sensible filmmakers to ever disgrace a movie screen. You may not learn a great deal about technical issues—shot setups, effects creation, or independent distribution—but what you will discover is an entire world buried in the heritage of these motion pictures. A world where men made product, not just out of a desire to earn a buck, but to entertain.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fake…Phony…Silly…Sad…these words could all be used to describe the so-called Blood Trilogy. A better name might be The Bland Trilogy. Oh sure, Two Thousand Maniacs is entertaining in its Southern-fried rube mentality and overblown death devices, but it is not scary. Trendsetter or not, Blood Feast is an amateurish, anti-climatic mess. And the less said about Color Me Blood Dull the better. The filmmakers will argue that these films were never created or meant to stand the test of time…and they would be right. They were commodities, mass-marketed and demographically precise pieces of product targeted at those with the disposal entertainment dollar to give them what they wanted to see onscreen. To label them as anything else is to give them an importance and influence in the history of film that they simply do not deserve. No matter how inspirational these films were or are, they are still badly acting, poorly filmed exercises in tedium that offer little in the way shock, scares, or terror. Over the top gore extravaganzas, like John Carpenter's The Thing or Lucio Fulci's The Beyond, are as removed from these middling, meandering motion pictures as Lewis and Friedman are from mainstream acceptance. While that may be the point, it doesn't make these films easier to watch or more entertaining. The Blood Trilogy is an artifact from cinema's past that belongs in a museum, in a back room, under a box of leftover mummies.
In the summer of 2001, in the sweltering heat of New Orleans, a pair of old men laughed and joked. They reminisced about old times. They imagined about what could have been. They buried their differences and embraced the experience of renewal. As 75-year-old Herschel Gordon Lewis called action, a brutal killing occurred. Blood flowed like an evil, if familiar, river. Still, surrounded by the fresh paint and modern technology, some things were the same; the stage gore was still the patented brew, and 78-year-old David F. Friedman was standing by his side. It had been over 40 years since they had conceived the genre they were now diving back into, and the two elderly entrepreneurs of exploitation were putting the finishing touches on Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat. Dozens of films, hundreds of bad reviews, and thousands of imitators later, Lewis and Friedman have nothing left to prove. Their legacy is cemented in a strange concoction of Karo syrup, red dye, and makeup base. They will always be known as the Godfathers of Gore, and as their new nightmare unscrolls across screens (during the later part of 2002), people looking for the first true "video nasty" and its unhinged progeny can buy The Blood Trilogy and relish in the work of two true originals. Just like those first time customers in Peoria on that fateful day in 1963, they can bear witness to the graphic, squeamish birth of the gore genre…and the lasting influence of David F. Friedman and Herschel Gordon Lewis.
Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs are acquitted of all charges. Color Me Blood Red is placed on probation as being a lesser entry in the overall Blood Trilogy. Herschel Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman are free to spread their merry mayhem for generations to come.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
• Audio Commentaries by David F. Friedman and Herschel Gordon Lewis
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