I recently bought a fantastic book, Regional Horror Films, 1958 – 1990. The truth is that I’ve been fairly stuck in California. Even when you talk about the films of Ed Wood, they were still made in Los Angeles. They look like Los Angeles. And this is at a time when different parts of the country really did look different. But my interest is more about how these films got made. And as the author, Brian Albright, notes: much of what makes these films shocking is that the filmmakers are making the best of their limited resources.
I’ve noticed this very often in literature. I don’t consider William S Burroughs a great writer. Junkie and Queer show him to be a competent pulp writer — on par with Ed Wood but certainly not as good as Jim Thompson. (I should admit that I’m something of a Thompson fanatic. And I believe that Pop 1280 is one of the great novels of the 20th century.)
William S Burroughs Accidentally Produces Greatness
Then Burroughs comes out with Naked Lunch — one of the great novels of the 20th century. Burroughs was so high on alcohol and opioids that he has no memory writing it. Many of the pages were spattered with blood. And it was a mess. If it weren’t for Jack Kerouac‘s exquisite editing of the manuscript, it would have been nothing more than the ravings of a madman. I personally think that Kerouac’s greatest literary contribution to the 20th century was this editing and not his books, which I find rather dull. (His poetry is better.)
It was Burroughs’ lack of traditional literary skill that made Naked Lunch a masterpiece. I remember my mother (who was only happy when reading) trying to read the book and finding it impenetrable. So I sat down with her and went sentence by sentence explaining exactly what this madman was saying. She eventually grokked it, and was able to read the rest. It’s one of my favorite memories of my mother.
Filmmaking Is Harder Than Writing
The situation is so much worse with film. I am not a great writer. But I can write a competent novel. If you want, I can write in the style of Fitzgerald or Stein. But to make a film — a short one, not even a feature length — is beyond me. I’ve tried. For one thing, making a film is something that is almost impossible for one person to do. And I don’t have a lot of friends.
Blood Feast is, in many ways, an amateurish film. It looks much like the first couple of films of John Waters. Yet it is one of the most important films ever made. It invented the splatter picture. Yet most viewers couldn’t tell that. No violence is ever done on screen. For example, the villain rips the tongue out of a woman. But all we see is (in reality) a sheep’s tongue in the hand of the villain.
Shocking Then, Tame Now
It’s tame stuff by today’s standards, but it was shocking for 1963. And it was the result of a lack of resources. All the filmmakers had that would attract an audience was young women in their underwear and blood. And they used those to the best of their ability. And they scored. According to Wikipedia (no reference), the film cost $24,500 to make ($200,000 today) and made $4 million ($33 million today) without the aid of any home rentals.
The producers also used William Castle style promotion. For example, they took out a lawsuit against it in Florida claiming it was obscene. The point was to get publicity, which worked very well.
Professionalism Can Be Limiting
But after Blood Feast, many imitators came along. In fact, after their third splatter picture, the producers decided not to make any more because the genre was getting too crowded (and thus unlucrative). But the point is that no Hollywood production would have made such a film. They didn’t have to. They had good writers and actors and lots of money. The producers of Blood Feast (basically Herschell Gordon Lewis — a psychotronic icon — and David F Friedman) didn’t have these things. They didn’t even have much talent. But they managed to make a film and create a genre.
This is one of main reasons I love psychotronic film. Professionalism is often the death of creativity. How many romantic comedies have you seen? Is any one of them much different than any others? No. That’s not to say I don’t like them. I’m very fond of It Happened One Night and French Kiss, although those two films are so similar (separated by over 60 years) it’s almost embarrassing.
Even with all the copies of Blood Feast, I’ve never seen a film quite like it. And I’m glad. Because I find it more disturbing than the technically better films that came later. It’s easy for me to laugh along with Dead Snow. Blood Feast seems almost like a documentary compared to it. And that’s why (as much as I like it) Dead Snow will be forgotten, and Blood Feast will be studied by film students fifty years from now.
You can find this film on Daily Motion with lots of commercials. I’ve just ordered the special edition DVD and will create a page for it. At this point, I haven’t watched it enough and don’t know enough about it to write a page for it. I’m using it here only as an example of how a lack of resources can produce brilliance.