Sunday, 14 June 2020
The Tongue Ones
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone A/B/C
As part of the Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Blu Ray/DVD boxed edition.
Herschell Gordon Lewis is very well known to different groups of people for two very different, on the surface, specialties. His later, post-film career saw him as one of the most successful marketers in America. He was the 'go to guy' for consultation about direct-marketing and also wrote some books on the subject. He was as successful in this venture as he was in the latter part of his early film career, which is obviously what readers of this blog are going to be more interested in.
After a varied assortment of jobs and then following a stint in directing advertising films, he turned his hand to directing movies, specifically nudie cuties and films dealing with exploitational aspects of sexuality (I think I have a few of these to watch on an early Vinegar Syndrome release at some point). And then, for the drive-in market in America in the early to late 1960s (and just into the early 1970s), he came up with a then unique angle for his films which nobody had really done before.... ultra violence with the camera lingering on the goriness of the on screen deaths. Films like this one along with Two Thousand Maniacs, Colour Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, The Gore Gore Girls and a whole host of others were what earned him the name and reputation of being, The Godfather Of Gore. I doubt if they even showed in Great Britain at the time or, if they were, they would have surely have been heavily cut.
And it all started with this one, the now classic Blood Feast, in 1963. In the 1980s, when Britain had the huge 'video nasties' scare aka ‘low life government propaganda outrage’, this was the oldest of the films to be put on the list and banned in this country (for a while anyway). Even when the DVDs were issued at a certain stage in the UK, the films were censored... which is why, although I’ve been hearing about them for years from film fans over the world (Jonathan Ross even devoted an episode of his TV show documentary series The Incredibly Strange Film Show to these movies), I’d never actually seen any of them myself. I try to stay clear of censored art. Also, while I enjoy a bit of violence and gore thrown into my movies from time to time (there are very few movies made which don’t deal with aspects of violence and confrontation in some ways... even romantic comedies), I’m not particularly impressed with goriness just for the sake of it so, I wasn’t sure if he was my cup of tea.
On the other hand, fifty million French men can’t be wrong, as the saying goes so, when Arrow issued a restored and , more importantly, uncut box set collecting many of Mr. Lewis’ films in one place as a dual Blu Ray/DVD edition (and a truly handsome package it is too), I decided enough was enough and, after a year or two of humming and hawing at the price, I finally tracked down what, in the end, I’m convinced was the last copy in London for the normal retail price (thanks, ironically, to the British Film Institute shop)... and have now watched my first film by this director, the one that started it all in terms of any movie having any gory content in its DNA at all. Never mind all those arguments in the late 1960s about the 'shocking' display of violence in movies like Bonnie And Clyde in 1967 and whether they should be allowed in the public view... those detractors would have been aghast if they’d so much as glanced at the kind of product that Herschell Gordon Lewis (HGL) was churning out just four years before, which makes pale by comparison most depictions of on screen violence for a good while.
All that being said, I really wasn’t expecting to be that ‘bowled over’ by my first HGL movie, Blood Feast but, here I am, impressed and, yeah, consider me ‘bowled over’ by the film. It’s bad but it’s definitely in the ‘so bad its good’ camp and it has it’s own unique quality which, when you see just how gory it was on such a cheap budget (and, from what I can tell, it got millions back... a very successful movie, perhaps helped on by HGL’s marketing ploy of giving out Barf Bags to paying customers), makes for a really interesting juxtaposition of flavours.
The film starts off with an opening scene of a girl who goes home, listens to a radio broadcast warning her and the general public about the strange, mutilating killer being on the loose still (the camera stays fixed on the static shot of the radio for quite a while, for some reason), takes off her clothes and has a nice bath. Her bath is disturbed by actor Mal Arnold playing the film's notorious and, surprisingly, solo villain, the Egyptian Goddess worshipping Fuad Ramses. We knew something bad was going to happen because of the slow beating and truly sinister and creepy, drums on the soundtrack. A soundtrack composed, it would seem, by Herschell Gordon Lewis himself (who also gives himself a production and direction title on the credits too). The maniac stabs up the young lady good and, for what would be the first time in commercial cinema history, I believe, the camera lingers on the mutilated corpse of the girl... the empty eye socket juxtaposed with her naked breast rising from the bubble bath as our crazed antagonist plays with her internal organs and then cuts her leg off (we see him cooking this leg in his oven in a much later part of the film.
And it’s a really interesting film because, the acting from everybody, including the lead police inspector protagonist played by William Kerwin, is truly dire. The strange marks and stuff he writes in his police notebook half the time looks crazy and completely fake... a witness will say something and he’ll tick things off randomly on different part of the notebook. The make-up on certain characters, such as Ramses, is hilarious too. Over the top as his eyebrows are enhanced by thick greasepaint (presumably) and everyone looks like they stepped out of the 1950s. When I say the acting is bad, perhaps I mean just too stagy.
Stage and film acting are two very different beasts. I once saw Daryl Hannah play in The Seven Year Itch on stage and she was the least interesting one in it because she was acting for camera, expecting every little gesture to be picked up by the audience when, really, what you need to do is exaggerate things just a little for theatre. Similarly, the acting in Blood Feast looks like its being handled by people who were, at that point in their career, more used to acting for the stage, perhaps... every performance just seems a little bit ‘more’ of what you need rather than seeming in any way natural. Some of the line readings are, frankly, downright hilarious.
Rather than detract from the film, however, this gives it an element of 1950s/60s wholesomeness to it which, may have been lacking to contemporary audiences but, looking back through rose tinted glasses today, injects the film with just the right thing because, when you see some really gory scenes and it’s supported by this kind of ‘Golly, gee’ acting, not to mention some lovely bright coloured sets and costumes, it really makes those cheaply and obviously produced but still very strong graphic sequences (even by today’s standards... I don’t think many film makers would try to get away with this stuff today, even), then it really makes them stand out. And, as the years have gone by it’s quite obvious that these films have had a lasting effect on cinema.
There’s also a smidgeon of me that thinks, looking at the way it was written and performed, that the material really wasn’t being taken that seriously by the actors or the writer/director and... I don’t think Lewis would have minded that. It is funny too and, every now and again, you’ll find the odd joke slipped in. For example, the main headline to a newspaper which says something along the lines of GIRL’S LEGS CUT OFF are joined on the page by a number of smaller articles including such gems as the column title, BEER SIPPING HORSE.
All of these factors... the humour, the comical wringing of Ramses hands, the wholesomeness of the cops, the traumatised male partner of a girl who just had her head caved in and her brains stolen... together with the vivid colours and the stylised, clean looking, budget conscious sets give the hole thing the feel of having jumped right out of a 1950s EC horror comic. Similarly, if you take away the gore, the whole atmosphere is very similar, in my opinion, to what you get in Herk Hervey’s monochrome masterpiece, Carnival Of Souls, made just one year before on a similarly cheap budget. Especially when the beating of those drums on the soundtrack is replaced by a church organ (the whole score of Carnival Of Souls is done on this instrument).
This is the film which features, of course, the infamous ‘tongue ripping’ scene... in which a young lady is, somehow, overpowered by Ramses who then proceeds to rip her tongue from her mouth. Oddly, I found this the least interesting piece of goriness in the movie but the aftermath shot, where something like red jelly is dribbling out of the still living woman’s mouth, is oddly much more disconcerting... or at least a little more effective. It’s like the scene in Tenebrae which, up until not so long ago, was sliced out by the censors in this country. The scene involved a woman’s arm being cut off but it was not so much that as the bloody aftermath of her painting her clinically white walls with the arterial spray which was the interesting part of the shot. In typical, bungling BBFC fashion, they cut the arm chop but left in the much more ostentatious and disturbing aftermath. The tongue ripping scene reminded me of this more than anything else in that it’s the post violent act which is the more unsettling aspect of this kind of physical horror.
Another thing I love about this movie is the cobbled together, simplicity of the plot. The police can’t find a motive for the killer but Mr. Ramses, the owner and sole proprietor of a local delicatessen, has promised one of his ladies a special recreation of an Egyptian feast. Unknown to her is that this feast is made of different body parts collected from various female victims (most of whom are on his address list for ordering a copy of his book, Ancient Weird Religious Rites) and also the head of, in this case, the daughter of the lady who has asked for something unusual for her daughter’s party. However, coincidentally, the young lady in question goes to a lecture on Ancient Egyptian Cults which pretty much spells out what Mr. Ramses is doing in this film. Also in attendance is the main police inspector character from earlier, who also has an interest in Egyptology and, by a further strange coincidence, is invited to the party because he also happens to be dating the young lady in question.
There’s are some good and inventive things in the movie. Such as a close up of the gore soaked head of the girl on the beach transitioning into a shot of a red police siren/light on top of a cop car. Mostly though, it’s the charming nature of the sheer and overt cheapness of the production which I’m sure lots of people find appealing in this movie. For instance, look the wrong way and you might see the shadows of the film crew lurking in the corners of a frame. Or lets talk about the climactic foot chase where Ramses ends up accidentally being crushed to death in a trash compactor in a lorry... a police car, which presumably Lewis only had for a day maybe, pulls in and soon the two police inspectors plus two uniformed cops start chasing Ramses. That’s the last we see of the police car and, halfway through the chase, the cops in uniform completely disappear too. It’s no good the other actors pretending they’re there and talking to them off of shot because, you know, they were completely absent in the finale of the chase.
However, even moments like this cannot detract from the awesome potpourri of ingredients which come together to make what was to me, a unique viewing experience. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the other notorious classics in this set at some point. Arrow have done their usual amazing job with the transfers and the packaging... boxed in a giant slipcase as two books filled with the discs and a silly but much appreciated Herschell Gordon Lewis annual, just like the ones kids would get of their favourite TV shows at Christmas and with similarly silly games and activities based on these gory, sleazy movies within the set. There’s even, if you really want to indulge in your own act of stupid vandalism (which seems to be all the rage in the streets of Britain and America at the moment), a cut-out cardboard mask of the director on the back of the gorgeous looking slipcase.
As for Blood Feast, what can I say? I didn’t expect to be taking this stance but it’s highly recommended by me if you like the idea of a film with the same kind of atmosphere as Carnival Of Souls or Night Of The Living Dead but with the goriness levels ratcheted up to 11. Definitely a slice of cinematic cake that I’ve been missing out on over the years, partly due to the formerly tyrannical censorship imposed on this man’s movies in my home country. Thankfully this Arrow set is uncut and, well, it really is quite special. Grab a copy if you can.