February 11, 2015
Cinematic Hell: Blood Freak (1972)
Star: Steve Hawkes
It's hard to imagine a film like Blood Freak existing and it's even harder to imagine what possible motivations the filmmakers had to make such a thing. It's not just that it's so far out there that it becomes truly surreal, which it is; it's that it seems to be an anomaly in the careers of everyone involved. I can only assume that it carried the message that its financiers wanted to be carried, but once their money supply had run out and they abandoned the film, it fell to Brad Grinter and Steve Hawkes to finish it on their own. How much they obscured the original message I have no idea, whether deliberately or accidentally, but it's certainly an unholy mishmash of a number of genres, tones and styles and apparently Hawkes, when asked about the film later in life, called it 'a sad chapter in my life.' So what is it? Well, it's a pro-Christian, anti-pot, biker movie about a man who turns into a bloodthirsty freak with the head of a turkey. You know, the usual.
Grinter seems to be the focal point. He wrote, produced and directed the film, all in collaboration with Hawkes. Most of the cast are students from his film class who had never acted in anything professional before and would never do so again. His son, Randy Grinter, took a part and also took charge of the sound department. Now, all this may suggest that Grinter is exactly the sort of authority figure who might make a Christian propaganda movie, a sort of updated version of Reefer Madness, made thirty years on, but that doesn't seem to be the case. His main focus in life was naturism, to which cause most of his films are dedicated. He acted in William Kerwin's Sweet Bird of Aquarius, in the all together; directed Never the Twain, which merges possession by Mark Twain with the Miss Nude World Pageant; and produced, directed and starred in Barely Proper, a film about a pretty schoolteacher brought up on charges of immorality for being a nudist.
While naturism was the driving force in his life, he did make other movies, appearing in Barry Mahon films as varied as Musical Mutiny, which revolved around the rock band Iron Butterfly, and The Love Pirate, a sexploitation flick in which he appeared as Capt Fu. It's as a director that he's most remembered though, chiefly for Blood Freak and Flesh Feast, a movie shot in 1967 but not released until 1970 that marks Veronica Lake's final appearance on film. Grinter turned the star of Sullivan's Travels, I Married a Witch and The Blue Dahlia into a deranged doctor trying to restore youth using flesh eating maggots. He didn't have a long career, almost entirely centred around the year of 1970, but it's a bizarre one. If it's even possible, his collaborator on this film had even more of a bizarre career. That's Steve Hawkes, who wrote, produced and directed with Grinter, and also starred in the lead role of Herschell. He's still in the news today.
Usually known as Steve Sipek, Hawkes is best known for playing the lead in a couple of Spanish language Tarzan movies in the early seventies, even though he's Croatian. Playing Tarzan was a dream come true for Hawkes, who had survived a tough childhood through an identification with Johnny Weissmuller, but on the second Tarzan picture a set fire left him with burns that covered 90% of his body. He spent six months recuperating in hospital while the production moved to Colombia. He was rescued from the fire by a lion called Samson, who he promptly adopted and, while he did make a few further films, including this one, he devoted the rest of his life to caring for great cats in his wildlife sanctuary home in Florida. He's spent the last forty years living with lions, tigers and panthers, making headlines only once in 2004 when his tiger Bobo escaped into the neighbourhood. I like the sign on his electronic gate that reads, 'Trespassers will be eaten.'
So these are the folks who made Blood Freak and if you can fathom how these two backgrounds generated this picture then you're a better man than I am. We begin with Grinter himself, in one of a number of scenes that presumably exist to pad out the running time to eighty minutes once the money supply had dried up. Periodically he appears on screen to chain smoke and read to us from notes on his desk. His utter lack of charisma may help him to fade into the background at naturist colonies but as an on screen narrator he's terrible. Every time he appeared I wished for him to turn into the Amazing Criswell but he steadfastly refused to do so. To begin with he just talks about catalysts, which is what Angel is about to become to Herschell. Angel breaks down on the Florida turnpike and Herschell is a Vietnam veteran and biker who helps her get moving again. In thanks, she takes him back to her place, but she isn't the sort of character you think.
While she initially appears to be the standard catalyst to begin a porn movie, Angel is a devout Christian who is tolerant beyond anyone I've ever met. She offers Herschell hospitality out of the goodness of her heart, but she's also offered the same to her sister Ann, who is heavily into the drug scene, along with a whole collection of her swinger buddies who sit around doing drugs all day and trying to pick up on anyone who walks into the house. 'You know your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit,' she tells your sister. 'You shouldn't defile it.' Herschell appears to fit well with Angel. It literally takes ninety seconds for one of the girls to pick up on him and his muscles, but he lectures her on her lack of morality. 'I just don't go for a girl that acts like a tramp,' he tells her, 'even if she's very beautiful.' The responses are predictable. Angel's a drag and Herschell's a dumb bastard, but they're our heroes anyway in what appears to be a Christian home video.
They're a fascinating pair of leads. Steve Hawkes, who is so massively important to this film that he apparently needs 'Starring Steve Hawkes' credits both before and after the film's title, looks like a cross between Hugh Jackman and Alvin Stardust, complete with jacket and large Elvis quiff, but he sounds more like Tommy Wiseau. He doesn't hide his burns, which are visible the moment he sheds his jacket, and he's acutely polite. He's exactly who you'd want to take home to grandma. Heather Hughes is far more attractive as Angel, not only because of her perpetually bare legs, than Dana Cullivan is as her sleazy sister Ann, but after her initial warning to Herschell about her sister, every word she says is tied to the Bible. Whether it's odd lines like, 'I believe therefore I speak' and 'Praise the Lord!' or whole discussions about the commandments, she just doesn't quit. No wonder she's driving Ann crazy, not that she wasn't halfway there already.
And so our plot begins, or at least the plot we think we're about to watch unfold. One of the joys of this film is that every time we think we know what we're watching, it promptly changes into something completely different. Thus far, it seems to be a positive story all about Herschell. He does a good deed for a damsel in distress and gets somewhere to stay in return. He joins her at an impromptu bible session and that lands him a job at the Midway Turkey Farm and Hatchery. Yet just as he finds his life on the right track, he promptly derails it just because Ann calls him a coward. Sure, she throws every temptation his way but he refuses all of them because he's a character with plenty of inner strength. He's also obviously immune to the clouds of drugs that must surely float around the place but one dare later and this good guy instantly morphs into a drug addict boffing his host's sister. Talk about gratitude!
Ah, a morality play, you might think, three acts of Herschell's rise, fall and rise. Nah, we're about to turn into a mad scientist story. One solid day of throwing turkeys around and he starts his real job as a guinea pig in food experiments. The health and safety folks require proof of the quality of the meat before it can be distributed, but for some reason that eludes me they'll be satisfied by having the drug addicted new guy eat it and just tell them there are no ill effects. Either that or Herschell is a moron, which is very possible. He has plenty of ill effects too but how many are due to the turkey and how many to the drugs that Ann has got him hooked on is entirely open to question. The only differences between his seizures before and after eating a turkey come down to the way in which he shakes. Before, he just shimmies subtly like he wants to be a motion blur but after, he contorts like an epileptic Elvis. This scene is ripe for a YouTube mashup.
Now, you might wonder why this film is called Blood Freak and I'm still trying to figure that out myself. Most obviously it's because when Herschell goes home to Ann, we see that he's become a monster with the head of a turkey that lusts after human blood; not just any blood either: it has to be drug infused blood, so he's soon out searching the town for druggies, hanging them upside down, slitting their throats and drinking down their contamination. What's most amazing here is that Ann doesn't seem to mind. There's a truly surreal scene where she tries to come to terms with his new appearance. Sure, she faints when she sees him, but it takes a whole thirty seconds to progress to the point where she calmly wonders aloud about what kind of life they'll lead when they get married and what their future children would look like. This is one of those magic moments of 1970s cinema that make you wonder what drugs your parents were on.
A more subtle reason for the title surely has to tie to Angel and her strong beliefs in Jesus. When she left the film after a mere fifteen minutes, everything was looking good for Herschell, but a full half hour has gone by without her, even though much of that was spent in her own house. Everything has gone to Hell in a handbasket without her, suggesting pretty strongly that she's the way, the truth and the light, but what sort of good Samaritan would invite a stranger into her house, then leave him alone with a bunch of hippies and drug dealers while she swans off to do her own thing somewhere else? The only time the word 'freak' is used in the script is amazingly not to describe the man who's morphed into a murderous half-man half-turkey monster but to describe the adherence that Angel has to the scriptures. Is the title really suggesting that she's the blood freak, because her devotion to the Holy Blood was the catalyst for events to follow?
Who knows? There are some major twists to come, though you won't believe those either. It's hard to fathom anything in this film that anyone could believe, but these twists get seriously harder to buy into as the picture progresses, and it all inexorably comes back for me to that original question: what is this film trying to tell us? Is it all a Christian fable that explains that if you don't keep the Bible thumper in your life close, you're going to quickly lapse into depression, panic, addiction, hallucination and strange mutation into a weird turkey headed monster? Did the filmmakers (or the financiers) seriously believe that any filmgoer who turned out to see a movie called Blood Freak with a lead character deliberately named for the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis, would watch this and be persuaded to bring Jesus Christ into their lives? It's hardly the most subtle attempt in the book, gore entirely aside.
Perhaps it's a straight anti-drug film, suggesting that you can not only get hooked on your first experience with even the most minor drugs but also cured by your first bad trip? The revelations at the end of the film render that approach completely meaningless but then continuity is not a strong factor in this story. Such a message would also be rendered utterly unbelievable by the sight of Grinter throwing all this moral high ground at us while literally choking on cigarettes. We never see him without one, at any point in the film, and his last monologue is ended, quite possibly prematurely, by a coughing fit, through which he continues to smoke with dedication. I doubt this is deliberate irony on behalf of a filmmaker bitter at the financiers leaving his film high and dry. If these scenes were padding, as is likely, they were probably shot on odd ends of film and couldn't be redone, just as the conveniences that litter the plot couldn't be ironed out.
It could all even be a vague attempt to offer social commentary on the American presence in Vietnam, given some of what we're made privy to at the end. If so, it's so weak that it doesn't even approach half baked. I've watched this film a few times now and while I'm still fascinated by what drove such an incredibly strange picture to be made, I honestly don't expect any of it to ever be fully explained. Grinter died in 1993, his last film almost two decades behind him, with the exception of doing unit coordination on Masterblaster, a 1987 film written, produced and partly directed by his son Randy. Hawkes retired from the industry in 1975 and is happy taking care of his big cats in Florida. If any of the cast had future ambitions on the screen, they either came to naught or were jettisoned after their experiences on this production. Blood Freak is likely to simply abide, a left handed treasure for film fans who are willing to be utterly amazed.