The Blood Trilogy

BLOOD FEAST
Color, 1963, 66m.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Starring Mal Arnold, Connie Mason, William Kerwin, Lyn Bolton

TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!
Color, 1964, 87m.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Starring Connie Mason, William Kerwin, Jeffrey Allen, Shelby Livingston, Ben Moore, Jerome Eden

COLOR ME BLOOD RED
Color, 1965, 79m.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Starring Don Joseph, Candi Conder, Elyn Warner, Patricia Lee, Jerome Eden
Image (Blu-Ray and DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Tartan (UK R0 PAL)


Blood Feast

Commonly held in high esteem (or contempt) as the first genuine gore film, Blood Feast became a grassroots phenomenon and enshrined director H.G. Lewis and producer David F. Friedman in the drive-in hall of fame. Bereft of the qualities which characterize "good" movies, this twisted camp classic instead delivers an avalanche of gruesome dismemberment and howlingly bad acting, resulting in a strangely appealing and tawdry mixture which has yet to be duplicated. Sweet little Suzette (Playboy Playmate and non-actress Mason) is cheerfully obsessed with her upcoming birthday party. Her mother (Bolton), a dowdy matron with blood-chilling hats, consults a local caterer, Fuad Ramses (Arnold), about "an Egyptian feast." By sheer coincidence, Suzette and her not-terribly-bright cop boyfriend, Pete (Kerwin, billed as "Blood FeastThomas Wood"), attend a local class on Egyptian cults and learn about the savage blood rites of the Egyptian god Ishtar (or Eetar, or about ten other pronunciations). Could this have something to do with the vicious murders of young women being committed in this sleepy Florida town? Well, since Fuad is seen wielding his machete from the opening scene, it's clear he's planning Suzette's party as the climax of his "blood feast" to pay tribute to the spray-painted mannequin deity in his restaurant.

Impossible to take seriously on any level, Blood Feast compels the viewer simply by topping itself in the gore department. Unlike the Friday the 13th films which mostly tease the viewers with quick and timid flashes of grisly mayhem, Lewis and company trot out the whole dog and pony show under a spotlight. Legs are hacked off, skulls pulled open, tongues yanked out, and so on. Meanwhile the laughs build up faster than any slasher spoof ("Leg Cut Off!" yells one newspaper headline), while Arnold delivers a hand-wringing villainous performance that actually makes Tod Slaughter look subtle. A home video stalwart since the dawn of VHS, Blood Feast has changed hands so many times it seemed a definitive presentation would be impossible. Luckily the rights fell to Something Weird Video, who wisely chose to inaugurate their DVD line with this irresistible tribute to one of the key '60s horror films. They wisely went back to the original negative, and the gaudy reds and blues in most of the backgrounds have never looked as hypnotic as they do here. The continuity goofs in Arnold's gray-dyed hair become even more obvious, and the show-stopping tongue tearing looks even more... uh, vivid, than ever. The soundtrack is about as good as can be expected, given the basic microphone set ups and Lewis'" minimalist" tuba and percussion score. SW's Mike Vraney appears on a very entertaining commentary track in which he manages to coax out amazing tidbits of information from Lewis and Friedman. In fact, it's hard to resist any commentary that kicks off by pointing out Blood Feast was edited by Gary Sinese's father. Interestingly, the film's legacy continues on well past the drive-in crowd; even John Waters included affectionate clips from it in Serial Mom. Extras on the DVD include the familiar (and long) theatrical trailer, which includes many of the soppiest highlights, a gallery of H.G. Lewis and Friedman ad mats and poster art, and the bizarre "Carving Magic," a twenty minute educational short by Lewis which features Wood and Harvey Korman (also in Lewis' Living Venus) in the tender saga of a married man's quest to become the perfect carver. Given the context of its placement on this DVD, the short becomes far more macabre than intended as the camera lingers obsessively on each succulent slice of animal flesh. Best of all, the disc includes 49 minutes of Blood Feast outtakes, previously released on VHS from Something Weird along with unused snippets from its two companion pieces, Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red. Amazingly, these lost images include some nudity during the opening bathtub sequence and some gore in the climactic garbage truck finale -- all accompanied by judicious snippets of the film's score and dialogue. The Region 2 disc is missing both the commentary and nearly half a minute of splatter footage but does contain 11 tracks of the, uh, music score, to use the term loosely.

Repeating the pattern, Blood Feast and its two cinematic companion pieces discussed below became one of Something Weird's first Blu-Ray titles. As expected, it's also taken from the negative and receives a major boost in quality given the advances in transfer technology over the years. Colors are vibrant and almost psychedelic at times, perfectly capturing the tacky intensity of the Florida locales. The Blu-Ray also marks the first time the film has appeared correctly matted on home video; like most Lewis films, this was shot open aperture and presented at 1.33:1 in prior video editions with huge amounts of excessive headroom. Though it's hard to still call any Lewis film well composed in visual terms, the widescreen framing locks everything back into standard medium shots and close-ups that make everything much easier on the eyes without huge gaping areas of dead space. Element damage is extremely minimal here as well, and all of the extras from the DVD have been ported over. A beautiful job all around.

Blood FeastA quantum leap over Blood Feast in terms of filmmaking skill, the following year's Two Thousand Maniacs! trades in its predecessor's queasy laughs for a frightening, potent atmosphere of sunny dread. Instead of bombarding the viewer with splatter, Maniacs (whose title inspired the popular '80s alternative group, Ten Thousand Maniacs) allows the murders to grow out of the story, often delivering true shocks thanks to the agonizing build up and fiendish imagination of the executions. While wandering the backroads of Florida, three Northern couples wind up in the little town of Pleasant Valley. Populated entirely by stereotypical grinning Southern yokels, the town welcomes its visitors with open arms and offers them free room and board. The main couple, Tom and his hitchhiking acquaintance, Terry (Kerwin and Mason), begins to suspect something may be amiss, particularly when their fellow Yankees wind up disappearing-- often before a convenient town barbecue turns up. Sure enough, this town is actually filled with malevolent ghosts bent on revenge for their slaughter at Yankee hands during the Civil War, a tradition they intend to hold up every one hundred years when the town reappears.

Blood FeastWhile the story takes a while to get going, with the first murder withheld until almost thirty minutes into the film, Two Thousand Maniacs! makes for engrossing and often chilling, sadistic viewing. The gore effects are uncomfortably accomplished, particularly a thumb slicing that still leaves audiences howling in shock. More outlandish feats include a man being drawn and quartered (though not as graphically as one might fear) and one poor soul tossed down a hill in a barrel spiked with nails. Mason's acting is still a major liability, but her involvement and screen time have been wisely axed in favor of painting a broader, more effective canvas of countryfied terror which predates such efforts as Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Due to its mostly outdoor locales, Two Thousand Maniacs! lacks the same punchy color schemes of Blood Feast but looks extremely impressive for a zero budget drive-in film. Because of the DVD's conversion from a PAL source, the film runs slightly shorter here than its previous NTSC incarnations and looks substantially duller in standard def. Something Weird has lavished the same loving care on this title found on Blood Feast though; Vraney, Lewis, and Friedman appear once again for a commentary track in which they recount the film's more ambitious production and numerous weird little anecdotes along the way. Also included is the original trailer (which once again focuses on the gore highlights), a surreal alternate French language track (which alas doesn't feature redubbing for the unforgettable theme song, "The South's Gonna Rise Again"), and sixteen minutes of outtakes, mostly consisting of alternate versions of scenes already in the film. The Tartan disc includes a different set of extras (mainly trailers) and an option to play the complete isolated musical soundtrack, jukebox-style. On the other hand, the Blu-Ray ports over all the extras except the French track and is taken from a fresh transfer (finally!). The negative for this one is AWOL, so a very good 35mm print was apparently used. Colors are significantly improved over the SD versions, and the film now plays at the correct speed; on the downside, this one features much more damage than the other two, particularly in the first two reels. Green lines and splices mar a few dialogue scenes, but it's not major enough to really disrupt the film; in fact, it might actually enhance it if you're in the right spirit.

Blood FeastThe finale to the Lewis/Friedman trilogy proved to be a more troubled affair, resulting in the end of a successful run of films on the US grindhouse circuit. A cockeyed entry in the crazy artist subgenre of '60s horror (including A Bucket of Blood, Portrait of Terror, and, by extension, Little Shop of Horrors), this odd film only features a few intermittent flourishes of the outrageous gore which characterized the duo's previous two hit films. On the other hand, the filmmakers' skills and the acting (no doubt due to Connie Mason's absence) had markedly improved, resulting in an odd curio which will appeal primarily to diehard Lewis and Friedman fans. Perpetually aggravated artist Adam Sorg (Joseph) can't seem to find the personal satisfaction and public recognition he craves for his paintings. However, a little mishap with his fiancee's cut hand puts a bright idea in his head --namely, human blood makes for a really great shade of red. When his own precious fluids begin to run dry, Sorg turns to his beloved, who dies during a domestic squabble thanks to a stab wound to the head. Now stark raving mad, Sorg sacrifices everything for the sake of his art, though at great expense to nearby neighbors and tourists.Blood Feast

Filmed along a series of attractive seaside Florida locales, Color Me Blood Red benefits greatly from its unusual setting and the deliberately-paced depiction of growing dementia which anticipates such nihilistic works as Driller Killer. However, newcomers would do best to try the other two films in the trilogy first, as they offer a more accessible and quickly paced example of the Lewis style. The fact that the film was eventually forced through post-production without its creators' involvement may account for its inconsistencies, which is largely borne out on the DVD commentary track by Lewis, Friedman, and Mike Vraney. Obviously coming down from the giddy high of Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!, the two grand gentlemen of exploitation take the opportunity to expand upon their working relationship at the time and the factors which were involved in their close union and ultimate separation. The most claustrophobic and visually subdued of Lewis' gore films, this title looks quite good under the circumstances. The brown interior scenes and bright ocean shots look clear, though some problems with the film stock result in a loss of detail during certain darker portions of the film. The opening scene in particular looks the worse for wear, but this has always been the case. The DVD also includes the original trailer ("a study in the macarrb!" growls the announcer during one unintentionally goofy moment), which predates Last House on the Left by several years in its "only a movie" campaign. A ten minute reel of outtakes from the Something Weird vaults is also included, mostly consisting of alternate footage from the outboard motor disembowelment scene (later duplicated in I Spit on Your Grave). An uncut version is also available in a trimmed down package (no commentary, for one) in the UK from Tartan.

The extras are also carried over to the Blu-Ray (along with a hilariously misogynistic vintage Lewis-style short, "Follow That Skirt"), and as with the previous two films, the HD transfer more closely approximates the widescreen theatrical ratio (1.78:1 here, close enough to the probable 1.85:1 in which most theaters ran it like the other two). It's almost as impresive as Blood Feast in visual appearance here, with eye-popping colors and only some minor scuffs here and there along with the occasional cigarette burn. The opening scene also looks much better here than on the DVD, and it's now much easier than ever to spot the film's odd technical shortcomings, such as the fact that several medium shots are slightly out of focus for minutes at a time or that one of the cameras had a small light leak on the left side during part of filming. All in all, it looks really terrific, and fans of vintage gore will find this upgrade to be a no-brainer in every respect.

Buy from Diabolik DVD.

Reviewed on 10/2/11.