Monday, August 11, 2008

Blood Freak (1972): or, Let's Talk Turkey

You know, the more I watch these wonderful old movies that are our bread and butter here at the Vicarage, the more I realize that the old stories really are the best. Since the days of Homer and Ovid, the tales that have resonated most have been those in which man is pitted against not just mythological beasts, but against the faults and weaknesses of his own better nature--the dark red spots of sin that besmirch his eternal soul. Who was Oedipus's most fearsome adversary--the Sphinx, or the cruel destiny of incest and patricide that was written in the fabric of his being before he was even born? Bellerophon fell not to the Chimera, but to the pride that led him to spur Pegasus up to the very acme of Olympus, tempting Zeus's thunderbolts in his blasphemous quest for godhood. Yes, storytellers throughout the ages have understood that for every hero--indeed, in every human being--the greatest enemy is not without, but within.

And perhaps this is why 1972's Blood Freak affects your ever-lovin' Vicar so: because while it's not a perfect movie--not even close--in many important ways, it presents an almost Hellenic legend, that of a muscular, larger-than-life hero locked in mortal combat with his own peculiarly human weaknesses. In this case these foibles take the form of a susceptibility to beautiful women, an insatiable hunger for weed, and an unfortunate taste for tainted, experimental turkey meat. Who's to say that, were he alive in the 70s, Sophocles would not have tackled the same story?

If you had any doubts that writer, co-director, and muscle-bound man-beast Steve Hawkes had Sophocles in mind when he first penned Blood Freak, the opening of the picture should put those doubts to rest. After some nice blood-dripping credits we are introduced to our Greek Chorus in the form of the film's Totally Awesome Narrator. His shirt open to mid-sternum, his wavy gray-and-black hair slicked back to greasy perfection, the dark wood panelling behind him reflecting but dully the stage lights that bring an oily sheen of sweat to his low-rent Vincent Price features, the Narrator chain-smokes while demolishing the fourth wall with his ominous lines (all read from a stack of 3x5 script cards held--usually--just out of camera view). After some stirring observations about the nature of reality and other Weighty Matters, our Narrator poses the central question of the film: "A pretty girl with a problem--who could resist? Certainly not...HERSCHELL!"

Nothing but Class

Immediately we're whisked away to the open road, where the groovy music and the sound of thrumming motors lets us know that soon our hero will appear. And appear he does--Herschell (Steve Hawkes), a mountain of a man with Steve Reeves' muscles and Johnny Cash's haircut, riding a chopper so badass that the jittery truck-mounted dolly shot can scarcely track him. As more credits roll so does Herschell, through a toll booth, around the cars of squares, and all alone on the road, striking a riderly pose of such square-jawed beauty it almost brings a tear to the eye.

Once the co-directors' credit is out of the way, Herschell spies the damsel in distress so portentiously alluded to by our nicotine-stained Narrator: her name is Angel, and she's got car trouble. Being the chivalrous type Herschell invites her to straddle his hog and hold on tight, and soon enough they're arriving at the house Angel shares with her younger sister, Anne. Unfortunately, Angel informs us, Anne has fallen in with a bad crowd and has turned their home into a den of druggy iniquity. In fact, there's a party going on when they arrive, with "Pot! And WORSE than pot!" being passed around willy-nilly. Angel--who it turns out has found Jesus (He was right behind the couch the whole time!)--is angered and ashamed, but world-wise Herschell betrays no surprise.

The party pit itself is everything you'd want a Shanghai opium den to be, updated to 1970s Middle America: orange shag carpet, dark-painted panelling bearing both a velvet painting of a tiger AND a print of a Rembrandt self-portrait, and the requisite mish-mash of Goodwill furniture and beanbag chairs for the druggies to recline upon. The partygoers themselves seem to range from Motörhead cover-band members to go-go girls to a particularly raucous table full of middle-aged folks who look like they got lost on their way to the bowling alley. But despite the plethora of drugs being bandied about, Herschell is uninterested. When a skanky blonde partygoer dances by and tries to turn him on to the happening, he rebuffs her most harshly, leading the scorned woman to spit, "You're nothing but a dumb bastard who doesn't know where it's at, anyway!" Even for a muscleman, that's gotta hurt.

These are the Thrill-Seekers--Corrupt, and Immoral!

Meanwhile in another corner of the room Angel and a few of her friends are having an impromptu Bible study. (According to Internet sources--THE BEST SOURCES--at least part of the money for the flick was put up by a religious group, in a wonderful parallel to Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space; though here the shoe-horning of the religious message into an otherwise exploitastic horror flick is even more egregious). Nubile raven-haired beauty Anne--the dark Yin to Angel's bland churchy Yang--mocks them as they attempt to witness to Herschell, belittling Angel's preacher. "He says we commit adultery with sticks and stones!" she giggles--hey, what kind of party IS this? Attracted by Herschell's brute manliness, she hatches a plan with the requisite slimy drug-dealer guy--named, appropriately, Guy--to get Herschell hooked on the drugs before he finds God. It's like a live-action Chick Tract, but groovier.

After another interlude with The Smoking Man, we see Angel taking Herschell to see one of her church brethren about a job. The deacon owns a poultry ranch, as it turns out, and is more than willing to give a strong, silent, muscular straight-arrow a gig in the experimental turkey development lab they run on the premises. Alas, in the few days between his interview and start date, Herschell finds himself lounging by the pool with Anne, who turns her eeeevil seductress skills up to eleven and offers him weed with a special if-you-act-now bonus, IYKWIMAITYD. Disgusted, Herschell asks, "How is it possible that a girl like you, so young and beautiful, can be so far out?" Anne retorts archly, "How can such a big hunk of a man [like you] be such a damn COWARD?" THAT DOES IT! His manhood impugned, Herschell takes a manly puff of the Maui Wowee, egged on admirably by Anne. Before you can say REEFER MADNESS!, he's hooked! Oh, wicked weed!

Of course then it's a short trip from poolside to fuckpad, with the totally baked muscleman asking weakly why Anne can't be more like her sister. "By the time I get through with you," she replies, "you're NEVER gonna wish I was like my sister!" Game, set, and match to Anne! As the Narrator returns to tell us--"A man who could refuse such temptation, from such a girl as this--he would have to be MUCH LESS a man than Herschell!" The Love Theme for Guitar that follows, along with gratuitous druggie-babe butt shot, put an exclamation point on that unassailable argument. The H-man's no pussy, yo!

"And then I told the Churchy Dude that the movie would be about bringing people to JESUS! And he TOTALLY BOUGHT IT!"

The drugs quickly have their nefarious effect, as Herschell shows up late for his first day of work at the Turkey Lab. We get some nice shots of Herschel in Elvis shades and tons and tons of turkey farm stock footage before Herschell meets his new co-workers, two of the un-scientistest-looking scientists that ever genetically altered a gobbler. (The two actors playing the mad doctors are HILARIOUS, and always seem to be reading the script from somewhere just out of frame.) Herschell learns that they're doing illicit experiments on the meat, and need a human subject to taste-test the results for possible side-effects. But hey, they'll throw in drugs for free! It's not clear whether the deacon is in on all this, but Herschell doesn't ask--in his drug-mad frenzy, he readily agrees to be the guinea pig so long as the sweet, sweet weed keeps comin'.

Once Herschell samples the forbidden meat, however, thinks go from bad to OMFG WTF in record time. The bodybuilder goes into some wonderfully choreographed convulsions and, thought dead by his co-workers, has his body dumped somewhere no one will ever find him...which is apparently in the big open field behind the ranch! When the moon comes up he rises again, horribly altered! The director builds the suspense as we get glimpses of the monstrosity Herschell has become, and several nameless extras scream in horror at his disfigurement. It's not until he returns to Anne's pad that we are hit over the head with the wages of sin--like the blasphemous offspring of Pasiphaë and the Cretan bull, Herschel has become half-man, half-beast! But this time it's no bull--he's a full-fledged TURKEYTAUR!

Oh No! Wattle we do?

The rest of the film follows Herschell's exploits as he tries to come to grips with his newfound poultry kinship, all the while still wrestling with his crippling addiction to drugs. Unable to smoke spliffs anymore--cuz of the beak--he's reduced to finding stoned, nubile young women, hanging them upside down from the nearest available hanging spot (a ladder in one case, a half-open door in another), slitting their throats and drinking their drug-laced blood! What a freak! Welcome to the glamorous world of drugs, kids!

From here, unfortunately, things start to drag a bit, as we get a subplot with Guy the Dealer trading Anne to his supplier for another crate of weed, an unpleasant little tangent that is only slightly redeemed by its denouement of WHITE HOT TURKEY VENGEANCE! We get some hilarious stoner extras hunting down the turkey man, the Narrator narrating over a cut scene for which the filmmakers obviously lost the dialog track, a gratuitous eye-poke, a glaring example of panty-discontinuity, and the classic line from Guy, "Herschel? I saw him with a CHICK last night!" But as good as all that sounds, it does get a little tedious.

The climax, though, in which Herschell imagines himself beheaded by the stoners (warning PETA folks--ACTUAL turkey assassination on film!) and segues into a nightmare sequence with his turkey head on a platter while grasping hands pull apart a roasted turkey beside him, is worth seeing. Still, the "it was all a bad trip" ending leans heavy on the Power of Prayer, which was probably necessary to finance the thing but is still very dissatisfying. And a tacked-on anti-drug message from our narrator ends with a coughing fit that supposed to be a clever anti-smoking message--I guess--but it just doesn't work for me.

Looks Delicious

Also, for a movie about a turkey-headed muscleman, this movie is relatively light on the laffs. Perhaps it's because everyone involved seems to take the thing so deadly serious. Perhaps it's the ham-fisted static filming and the constant use of cue-cards and cheat sheets by the actors that takes us out of the movie when we need to be drawn in by the glorious turkey carnage. Maybe it's the MIND-NUMBING SCREAM TRACK that plays on repeat during every turkey attack. Maybe it's just not all that good. It has its good moments--more than a few--but somehow it all fails to come together into one glorious casserole of HORROR.

So in the end, Blood Freak is high on concept but falters a bit as it enters the home stretch. Still, that concept is hard to resist, and anything with a line in the Netflix synopsis that reads, "However, the turkey-headed bodybuilder still craves weed!" pretty much HAS to be seen at least once. A shining example of "What in the hell were they THINKING?" filmmaking, I give Blood Freak 2 thumbs, one for the Turkeytaur and one for the Smoking Man. Give it a shot, and when it comes to Frankenturkey Butterballs, JUST SAY NO!

All the Gulls Love Him


Kitty LeClaw said...

"Pot! And WORSE than pot!"

Hashish? Horse tranquilizers?

Also, adding "Turkeytaur" to Litter Box Lexicon now!!!

Very plemusing.

Tenebrous Kate said...

VICAR! You keep seeing the movies I was *supposed* to be seeing when I was *actually* seeing other crappier movies. I bet this was about a hundred times better than the Steve Hawkes Tarzan movie that put me right to sleep.

That Narrator is awesome. I kind of wish he was my uncle or something--we could hang out at the holidays and discuss his illustrious movie career and his time living in Tijuana as a draft-dodger and stuff...

The Duke of DVD said...

A chain smoking narrator, hog-straddling, orange shag carpet, AND impromptu Bible study? You just described both this awesome movie and my last vacation to the south of France.

I must see this, kudos again on one awesome review, dearest Vicar.

Mr. Karswell said...

The Totally Awesome Narrator (let's call him TAN for short) was obviously the single main influence on Stan Lee's disco daddy look circa '79. Whether he's a brother or whether he's a mother is still undecided though.

The Film Fiend said...

Very cool. I just picked this up on a whim. Sounds like I made the right choice...?

Anonymous said...

Blood Freak is a Thanksgiving tradition in my household.

Forget the bowl games; this movie is the perfect accompaniment to a tryptophan-and-box-chardonnay stupor.

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