Friday, 29 December 2017

Blood Freak (1972)


Directors: Brad F. Grinter and Steve Hawkes
Screenplay: Brad F. Grinter and Steve Hawkes
Cast: Steve Hawkes as Herschell; Dana Cullivan as Ann; Heather Hughes as Angel
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #151

[Spoilers Throughout]

Synopsis: Herschell (Steve Hawkes) is a God fearing, everyday Joe and former Vietnam vet who just happens to be tempted by Ann (Dana Cullivan), the beautiful pot smoker who is less interested in the Bible than he or her sister Angel (Heather Hughes) is.  Her attempt to bring Herschell closer to her, with a special extra addictive narcotic, backfires as it mixes with an experimental chemical used at his new turkey factory job, asked to eat a sample turkey. The result leads to him become a half-man, half-turkey who has to feed on the blood of freshly lit up drug addicts.

"We live in a world subject to constant change. Every second, of every minute, of every hour, changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to us, because our level of awareness is limited..." If there was a statement appropriate to borrow as the blog's mantra, co-director/co-writer Brad F. Grinter in his constant Greek chorus narration within the film has material like this to work with. Even scrapping the bottom of the barrel as I do here, it's either coincidence or a universal thread that connects everything in art, where even z-grade material like Blood Freak speaks the same language of debating one's rational perception of reality. Especially when F. Grinter himself, eventually on an anti-drug and anti-chemical rant, having smoked throughout the filming of these scenes, starts to cough his lungs out to such a violent extent he cannot continue, the sort of legitimately uncomfortable moments most films would not include in the final print but he must've been stuck with, his black tar lunged retching adding to the strange circumstances of his conspiracy/environmental monologues.

The real weirdness to Blood Freak is not its reputation as a bizarre Christian anti-drug splatter movie but really its whole existence and what the director-screenwriters were trying to create here. These monologues, honestly, are the only truly weird moments of Blood Freak because they feel like they're directly from its co-creator's mind. The rest is far from the bizarre film I have read it to be.  You have to wait almost an hour for any gore, and baring one gristly leg removal involving an amputee actor and a prop table saw, most of it is generic neck slitting with the screaming looped for so long one of my relatives asked what I was watching from the other room. The anti-drug message is like any older (weirder) anti-drug films. And there's barely any truly Christian message to the material. Yes, there's a half-turkey man on his knees praying for salvation, there's not even scripture quotes and only the outline of redemption through Christianity. In fact I have to consider Blood Freak's reputation as a weird film really only comes from sceptics and atheists mocking its contrived take on faith.

That does need a tangent. Regardless of my own faith, spiritually inclined Agnostic who has never had resentment to Christianity as a belief system, I find especially reading some of the reviews of Blood Freak online really problematic for how snarky they are, an elitism that is compounded by the fact I seriously doubt anyone watched Blood Freak until Something Weird Video released it. Even a more infamous example of this type of seventies self produced Christian cinema - those produced by Baptist minister Estus Pirkle like If Footmen Tire, What Will Horses Do? (1971) - feel like the odd sideshows you cannot argue a whole nation's or whole world's Christian views on, like evaluating an entire zoo based on just the howler monkeys. The kind of films which are frankly used to depict American Christians like a sideshow freak show when its significantly more diverse than this, from The Passion of the Christ (2004) to Pacific International Entertainment releases, make some of these reviews a glib view in dire need of more focused one or just accepting the bizarre existence of a pro-Christian turkey-man premise that doesn't live up to that sentence's promise. Holy Ghost People (1967), a document of real American Christianity, this is not and its suspect what made a monster splatter movie the right idea to convince people off drugs. It's likely an excuse just to cash-in on the Christian productions of the time. but for every Church that might've booked this to screen, there's countless ones back in the seventies who'd looked at the distributor like they were insane.


It's far more interesting for me as an extreme example of American independent cinema of the period, one of the least defendable but still strangely sympathetic. It certainly was the case lead star/co-writer/co-director Steve Hawkes only contributed to the film for the money, paying off medical bills for a severe burn incident on a Spanish Tarzan film. F. Grinter I have no idea on in terms of his idea behind the film baring the fact he had Veronica Lake in her last role trying to preserve Hitler's body. Its real claim to fame is the failed decision to create a premise from three different areas of independent cinema from before and around its time. Anti-drug films were around at least from the thirties. Splatter films, which started in the sixties from Herschell Gordon Lewis, ironic considering main character is also called Herschell. And then the Christian film, which have been around in American cinema since the medium's beginning. This mix comes to us thanks to prolificacy of regional productions, still with us in the modern day, but with an advantage that you could still have celluloid film rather than cheap digital to film these oddities on back in the day. I've hesitated from speaking of the film in more detail yet as, to now use a cooking analogy, this is what happens when one uses stale ingredients and there's not even enough to reach the required weights needed for the final product. As a drug warning, it saddled against its turkey monster plot, adding absurdity before you get to the horrible image of Brad F. Grinter nearly dying from his coughing fit. The gore only comes into the last act, which is a long wait with the film's wooden acting and slow pace. The religious aspect is not that impactful unless just to be seen as a joke, which is not enough in itself and problematic as mentioned above.

With that last sentence in mind, with all the failure that is Blood Freak, left out in the Florida sun for too long, its compelling for me for the reason I'm watching these American exploitation films now. Feeling more like a dated exploitation movie dragged kicking and screaming into the seventies with bolted on gore and flares, I've never been interested in gore or sleaze but how with these films they're creators are clearly replicating the old Hollywood films of yesteryear but with budgets smaller than even the poverty row features. Most of them are the most threadbare of melodrama or old pulp genre if you examine them closely, this one definitely the melodramatic here. There's  humour in the papier-mâché turkey head Herschell eventually ends up wearing but what's more compelling is how, even before he starts grabbing people just after they've taken drugs (from weed to heroine) to bleed out, Herschell is treated as a victim of a horrible accident. Ann completely pushes Angel off to the side as she becomes his love interest, trying to rehabilitate him, even having a dialogue sequence where she wonders whether she would ever marry with him looking like this or how the children will look.

Whilst it follows a template of redemption that's stereotypical, it also means compared to other anti-drug films from before like Reefer Madness (1936) and Alice in Acidland (1969) this is so much more sympathetic, imagining Herschell as an already damaged war vet whose medical prescription turned to illegal drugs, and Ann after her severe mistakes redeeming herself, the pair becoming a happy couple. People will scoff with how contrived it is, but consider how absurd and cruel Reefer Madness was for its characters just smoking pot, Blood Freak is surprisingly humane for a contrived message movie. The fact Herschell's turkey man transformation is revelled just to be a dream caused by the mixing of the wrong chemicals is actually to the film's favour. Not only does it led to the only technically well made and inspired moment - which unfortunately means an actual turkey's head being lopped off off-camera, but with the surreal suggestion of Herschell being killed and eaten for Thanksgiving - but it emphasises a sense of redemption. When even this z-grade mess can have a heart it inexplicably brings out some sincerity even to something as hopeless as this, as the creators could've easily had a hellfire and brimstone ending. It begs the idea that such a folly like Blood Freak probably is a better snapshot of its creators' minds than anything remotely so-bad-it's-good, too sluggish and unrewarding expect for this.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

Personal Opinion:
If it sounds absurd to find slivers of sincerity in pure exploitation, that's because Blood Freak is the type of American indie cinema where it's strange creation forces one to think where it came from. Too normal to be truly strange, next to other oddities dug up by the likes of Something Weird Video, but too weird in premise to have sanely been show at churches. Instead - for a Christian splatter film not dogmatic enough, nor gory enough - I found more reward in the film for being a bizarre hodgepodge. For others who don't normally watch these films, just avoid.


No comments:

Post a Comment