Sunday, January 31, 2016

Anatomy of A Murder Scene: Blood Feast (1963)

Blood Feast opens in what is either an homage to Psycho or a complete rebellion against it. The setting is virtually identical, taking place in a bathroom where a familiarly beautiful blond woman (Sandra Sinclair) is taking a bath. As the woman settles in for a nice long soak, a knife-wielding madman attacks the woman as she screams in agony and fear as her life quickly escapes her body. Immediately after his victim’s final breath, the man takes a brief moment to take in what he has just done, at which point a sadistic grin forms on his face in a fashion that could either come from pride for a job well done, or the happiness knowing what bloodshed was still to come.

The camera then takes a few moments to pan across the carnage, revealing the woman’s lifeless body, strategically covered in soap suds in a way that allows just enough of her breasts to peak through and possibly titillate certain viewers. More importantly, though, this is where it is revealed that the killer, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), has removed the woman’s left eyeball, showing what would have only been imagined by the audience up until this point in genre cinema.

With so much grotesquery and carnage, this might have been a perfectly suitable way to end an opening murder scene, especially in 1963. However, this is only the start of what Ramses has planned for his victim, as he then goes on to hack away at her left leg until it is completely dismembered. Ramses then places his new possession into a black duffle bag, carefully cleans off his weapon and leaves the viewer to linger on the woman’s bloodied hand, no longer having the life force necessary to resist gravity, as it slowly slides down the side of the bathtub, leaving behind a streak of viscera.

Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast did what no other film had done before, in that it showed on-screen violence and the gore that came with it, albeit in the crudest of ways in comparison to today’s standards of filmmaking. I find it utterly fascinating how Lewis opens Blood Feast with a scene that is, in essence, a dirtier reflection of Psycho, which had come only 3 years earlier. Hitchcock made us believe we were seeing Janet Leigh as Marion Crane be murdered on screen with expert editing, brutal sound design and an ear piercing soundtrack, though never was there any penetration shown, let alone much actual bloodshed.

Psycho’s shower scene is one of the greatest and most respected on screen deaths in cinema history, and that is due to the audience's’ imagination being allowed to work overtime, filling in the gaps of of what Hitch showed them. By the time we would get to 1963, and Herschell Gordon Lewis was looking to get people’s butts in theater seats, he had to do something that no one had done before. And that’s exactly what he did with Blood Feast, and never is it more apparent than in the film’s opening ‘bloodbath sequence’.

This opening death makes a statement by taking the familiar setting of Psycho and pushing the envelope much further, almost mocking what audiences had seen in that famous shower scene. It was an opportunity for a ballsy filmmaker to say to the audience: you think what you saw in Psycho was horrific? Wait until you see what WE have in store for you! As Blood Feast’s antagonist murdered, hacked and mutilated his victim - all things that were certainly not present in Hitchcock’s film, let alone any before it - this opening threw down the gauntlet.

Blood Feast is an otherwise forgettable and completely inept horror flick that became the jumping off point for a different type of horror picture. It changed the landscape of horror cinema, birthing an audience that now had an insatiable hunger for gore and violence, and for films that pushed the envelope of good taste. The opening bloodbath sequence sets the tone for the movie, but more importantly, it set the tone for horror to come. Blood Feast, and its opening scene alike, is a statement; it’s two fists slamming down on a desk with the declaration that horror will never be the same. And quite frankly, it wasn’t, regardless of whether or not that was Lewis’ intentions.

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