Monday, July 20, 2009

Bloodsucking Freaks (1976, Joel M. Reed)



Lloyd Kaufman, director of The Toxic Avenger and distributor of this film to this day, remarked in his autobio that Bloodsucking Freaks is possibly the most morally irredeemable film the infamous Troma Entertainment ever associated with. I have long held The Toxic Avenger's hit and run/head crushing scene as the personal barometer of offense. Every longtime exploitation film fan likes to think of themselves impervious to any context of onscreen violence, yet we all have a film in mind that does the damage as personally as the sounds of nails on a chalkboard for some people, fingers on a rubber balloon for others, and still more sounds for each individual. Bloodsucking Freaks is ripped off from Hershel Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore, about a stage magician of death whose "magic" murders are real, except in Freaks the women are supplied from a secret lair in the back of the New York theater owned by the evil Sardu and his dwarf henchman Ralphus. During their non-performing hours, they torture the nameless, faceless girls in an endless procession with minor interludes into ridiculous sublots about kidnapping a ballerina and a theater critic.

The real show is the torture, as Reed's original title The Incredible Torture Show denoted before the quizzical change to BSF. Kaufman's offense at his own company's pickup distribution title became apparent ominously at first. If this nameless woman being tortured is not really part of the act, why doesn't she scream for help? Then when we first see Sardu's recreational torture games backstage, why are all the women just taking it? The script refers to his racket as "white slavery," but how many white slaves just stand around like zombies waiting to be killed after having darts thrown in their bulls-eye painted butts? In one telling scene, Ralphus runs a shipping room to other white slavers full of live shaking shaking inside cardboard boxes. When one lamely springs out, he konks her on the head and marks the package FRAGILE. Bloodsucking Freaks has perhaps the most passive female victims in movie history. If you're the kind of person who yells at slasher movie bimbos for not running fast enough or in the right direction, BSF should make your head explode.

The mostly mute and naked women are objectified in a carnivalesque manner so pure and crude I've never seen before, actually making the film an important document: this is the film to distinguish true misogyny in exploitation films, as opposed to the various balances of cheap eroticism and righteous womanhood in rape/revenge film like , I Spit On Your Grave, all the way up to Savage Streets. The dirty little secret of films like those and that of Russ Meyer or Lloyd Kaufman is that for all their fear, exploitation and occasional mutilation of the female form, these movies always contain some degree of empathy for them to soften the exploitation of their sex appeal. There's nothing remotely erotic about Bloodsucking Freaks, which neatly reduces countless naked women into meat for gran guignol death setpieces. The sole male victim of Sardu in the whole film is eaten by a cage of women starved into mindless cannibals; growling and mewling as Ralphus the dwarf dances a happy jig. It's astonishing these women were even credited by name. The misogyny of the Hostel movies is by comparison deeply restrained and lacking such single minded focus on torture with a plot that touts omniscient moral superiority while hypocritically enjoying the pageantry of execution. Sardu's women victims are more disposable than Friday the 13th bimbos, and unlike them, Friday girls have a wealth of character by comparison - you might know what their favorite sandwich is before their head goes flying off, for instance.

Joel M. Reed might have intended to soften the blow of a movie about the novelty torture of women by making them faceless, in the sense that after awhile the cartoonish nature of constant set pieces in degradation would become anticipatory. The question of how low can things go is the same asked rhetorically by both viewers who do and do not want to find out. Low key hamball Seamus O'Brien's lead performance is a bearly passable Vincent Price imitation while Luis De Jesus simply leers at everything like a good creepy little person should do. The staging of scenes is as hokey as the setup, as if O'Brien is hosting a late night creature feature on TV while high pitched organ and calliope music screeches maniacally. The violence and gore is exactly along the creative lines of young boys with firecrackers and frogs, both gimmicky and skirting the line where cartoon violence meets real life consequences. I think this must have been where Kaufman took an interest in picking up this film. His Toxic Avenger head crush scene skirts that line for me personally and if cold blooded violence against women is your personal disturbance, Bloodsucking Freaks touches a raw nerve with the same tasteless black humor that The Toxic Avenger later tapped with verve, skill and by comparison a moral center buried somewhere.

The shoddy special effects are nonetheless consistently shocking thanks to their willingness to deliver on punchlines to every disturbing setup Reed conceives: one girl is placed in a guillotine and the draw string placed in her teeth, when she's tortured further into letting the string go, we see a fake head lopped off. When a woman's feet are sawed off, we see two painted broom handles dragged in crawling motion across a pool of blood intercut with the actress crying pitifully on her hands and knees. In a flabbergasting reversal of expectations, these fake looking effects become more real the longer we see them, which is always longer than necessary to make the point. The incessant screaming of the women helps bring you into the madness of each moment by inducing headaches. Troma's poster tagline "Join the fun! Home style brain surgery...Dental Hijinks!" actually refers to the same scene, the most protracted and sickly setpiece of the film involving a dentist who takes out "in trade" Sardu's dental bill on a woman victim. The fake head is then belabored upon so long that the scene takes on a life of it's own and you truly feel as though you're staring through some magic window into an actual deranged sadist's imagination, with comic relief.

According to an uncited claim on Wikipedia, Reed produced this film on commission from backers in the New York S&M market. Even if this is true, it's impossible to believe they could've wanted anything so simultaneously sadistic, disgusting and goofball.

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