Written and Directed by: Joel M. Reed
Starring: Seamus O'Brien, Luis De Jesus, Niles McMaster, Viju Krem, and Dan Fauci
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“What a marvelous, wonderful, attentive audience you are, and may I add…a brave one too. Now, those of you who are weak-willed or cowards would’ve fled by now or regurgitated over the seats in front of you. But why, really? This is just a theatrical presentation. A show, which offers no reality. Not a fraction of reality. And just allows us, you and me, to delve into our grossest fantasies far beyond erotica. I am Sardu: Master of the Theatre of the Macabre.”
Many decades ago, the French began a form of live theatre nicknamed “grand guignol” after the theatre at which it was born. In grand guignol, the plays were depicted as realistic and graphic horror shows, featuring depictions of on-stage mutilation and dismemberment. Though the guignol theater closed its doors in the 60s, many filmmakers continue to be fascinated by the subject of audiences paying to see snuff-type material portrayed live in front of them. H.G. Lewis tackled the subject in his film, The Wizard of Gore. Years later, an enterprising young horror film writer and director by the name of Joel Reed selected the subject for his next project. Though it was filmed as Sardu, Master of the Screaming Virgins and initially released to theaters as The Incredible Torture Show, most audiences would come to know the film under its notorious re-release title, Blood Sucking Freaks.
A mysterious stage performer, known only as Sardu, uses brings female “actors” to the stage and performs acts of vile mutilation and dismemberment before a somewhat disbelieving, somewhat horrified crowd. One member of the audience is a critic, and makes his disgust with what Sardu is doing well known to the showman. Soon, the critic is kidnapped and discovers the secret to Sardu’s stage show: Everything is real and the actors are murdered and tortured live on stage each night. He also finds out that Sardu and his deranged dwarf assistant Ralphus keep a number of brainwashed and nude slave women captive underneath the theater. Soon, a man’s ballerina girlfriend is kidnapped by Ralphus for use in Sardu’s show. Will she fall under Sardu’s spell? Will her boyfriend and the detective he has at his side be able to stop Sardu and end his reign of gore once and for all?
A horror movie that is named on just as many “all-time worst” lists as Citizen Kane is on “all-time best” lists is either A) Doing something right seriously wrong, or B) Doing something wrong seriously right. I pick the latter. This film aims to disgust, revolt, and offend...and it probably does so better than just about any movie I have ever seen. There is nothing taboo to Joel M. Reed and his band of renegade filmmakers. There is a reckless abandon to the film that despite knowing you probably don’t want to see any more of it, you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to the screen. I’ve heard of many horror movies that are supposedly pretty extreme and intense and just plain nasty, but few actually live up to their reputations. I’ve read about films being described as “you’ll want to take a shower after seeing this one!” I’ve not once felt that feeling, but Blood Sucking Freaks came pretty darn close. It’s perhaps the only horror film I’ve seen where it truly feels like there are no limits. I felt vulnerable while watching it. Murder, sadism, necrophilia, humiliation, mutilation, torture, rape, perversion, masochism, cannibalism, slavery, and many more deplorable subjects and acts are proudly celebrated in Reed’s vomitorium. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’ve shown the worst stuff up front. I am not lying to you when I say that each subsequent scene is literally more disgusting than the one before it and it keeps up this pace until the film’s closing frames.
Sardu, while sick, twisted, and depraved is quite a scary character. His tastes in the areas of both sex and entertainment show that he is capable of anything and everything. He is a truly dangerous and domineering individual and made for a surprisingly effective horror villain. His wardrobe, his voice, his face, his laugh...the man is just thoroughly creepy and weird. Imagine if Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka were heavily into S&M, murder, and bodily mutilation...that is Seamus O’Brien’s portrayal of Sardu. O'Brien seems suited for horror, and it's unfortunate that this was his last film appearance. Not long after the film was released, he was stabbed to death in his apartment during a burglary attempt. The relationship between Sardu and Ralphus affectionately recalls the relationship between Count Dracula and Renfield. The rest of the characters in the film are pretty much throw-aways. Joel Reed seems to have had a bleak outlook on humanity, as none of the characters have no readily apparent redeemable qualities. The detective that helps the ballerina’s boyfriend requests a bribe in order to help. Forget that it's you know, his job. He wants cash or he's walking. Once more, after they discover what is going on, Sardu bribes the detective even higher to keep him quiet and it works! But he’s not the only sleazeball. After torturing the ballerina almost to the brink of death, Sardu has a doctor friend come by to check and make sure she’s still alive. After doing so, instead of paying the doctor a fee, Sardu gives him one of his slave girls to “operate” on as he pleases (quite reminiscent of Eli Roth’s Hostel). The things the doctor does to this girl are better left unsaid. I will say this, though…by the end of the sequence, I did feel a tad queasy and I did have to look away from the screen once or twice. Doctors, cops...everybody is capable of demented acts in Joel Reed’s twisted view. If I had seen this movie for the first time in the 1970s, you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to move to New York City. No way, no how.
This is the hardest review that I’ve ever had to write (and hopefully, the hardest I ever will), because I’m trying come to terms with the fact that I really didn’t completely hate the film. I won’t say that I enjoyed it, but in a strange drive-in movie sort of way, it’s quite engaging and watchable. By all means, I shouldn’t have liked the film at all for the reasons I described earlier. It’s unpleasant, mean, offensive, sick, cruel...well look, I could hurl 500 similarly damning adjectives at this film, but the cold, hard facts are Blood Sucking Freaks works. For what it shamelessly tries to do, it works. It is crudely well made and it is effective. It may not be the scariest film ever made, but if what you’re wanting is an evening of something highly exploitative in nature that you’ve never seen before, this is a movie you I would recommend. For what its worth, the film also probably has the absolute most constant on-screen bare breasts, frontal and rear female nudity of just about any horror film I’ve ever seen. Though, most scenes are accompanied by scenes featuring bondage and S&M. It’s also hard to find the nudity arousing, because of the high quotient of violence against women. It’s not just your typical slasher movie stabbings of women. No, that would be too nice. Here, women are stripped nude, slapped, beaten, kicked, caned, and much worse. I’m not sure if Joel Reed had any sort of ulterior motives on the brain, but one this is for certain, he put his actresses through pure Hell.
Technically speaking, the film is a mixed bag. The scenes are fairly soundly put together, but there is a rough, almost student film feeling to the proceedings. There are no great flourishes of the camera, as everything is shot pretty straightforward and plainly. The music is a playful mix of saloon piano and late 70s synth. I won’t even go into the level of blood, violence, and gore in this film, except to say that if the things you see in this movie don’t satisfy your craving for the red stuff, you might as well give up on the genre. Horror has nothing else to offer you. What is the most disturbing is that the film alternates tones between satirical and gritty realism. One scene, you’re watching a woman flogged with a cane, while having to hold a cord in her mouth so she won't have her head chopped off by a guillotine’s blade, and the next you’re looking at Sardu and Ralphus drinking beer and throwing darts at the nude rear of one of their captives (and yes, there is a painted bullseye as well). Now, I have nothing against films that attempt to take brutality to new, gritty depths, nor am I opposed to films with much more 'extreme' subject matter. I love Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, but in that film, as unpleaseant and unrelenting as it was, at least Craven made sure the audience felt that justice and revenge was accomplished by the film's end. In Reed's film, retribution is merely an afterthought of the "Oh yeah, and the villains died, too" variety.
Blood Sucking Freaks is definitely a trippy moviegoing experience that shouldn’t be attempted by people more accustomed to the safe and sanitary nature of modern horror. If Hostel is the absolute sickest movie you’ve ever seen, you are not ready for Blood Sucking Freaks. It contains extremely powerful, graphic content and themes, which are unlike anything produced in Hollywood (or even the Indie circuit) today. Modern horror has come a long way from the more conservative nature of 80s and 90s fare. There are films today released with an R rating that would've been ripped to pieces by the MPAA twenty years ago. Then again, no films made today can even hold a candle to the type of carnal brutality and violence on display in this movie. There is positively no way a movie like this could get funding today, and in his eloquent introduction to the film on DVD, Troma founder Lloyd Kauffman even agrees. If you’re ready for a horrific and bloody journey through the absolute lowest depths of humanity and horror filmmaking, by all means watch Blood Sucking Freaks at least once. It’s not a very pleasant journey, but I think if you look at what the film is trying to do, you’ll find that on some weird level, it actually does work. Oh, and did I forget to mention the penis sandwich being eaten at the end of the film? Ugh. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to go take a much-needed shower. If you dare, Rent it! (But don't say I didn't warn you).
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