Blood Freak (1972)
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, so I can’t think of a better time to give thanks for the existence of Blood Freak, a film that is truly a cinematic turkey. And I do mean that literally.
For once, I can’t describe a movie much better than the DVD packaging, which in this case calls Blood Freak “the world’s only turkey-monster anti-drug pro-Jesus gore film!” It’s pretty hard to argue with a distinction like that.
Who was this movie made for, and who was it made by? And why was it made at all? These are just a few of the questions you’ll contemplate while watching Blood Freak. In this film, a Vietnam vet smokes a lot of weed and eats a scientifically-altered turkey cooked up by guys in white lab coats. He awakes to find he’s turned into a crazed, lustful, drug-addicted, homicidal were-turkey, complete with a giant turkey head and a taste for the blood of young female junkies.
And that’s not even the best part. No, the best part is that he ultimately overcomes his troubles by praying to Jesus [!!]. Well, that’s certainly an ending no one could have seen coming, that’s for sure. Surely, this plot twist was mandated by whatever churchgoing financier the filmmakers found who didn’t care one wit about the movie’s content, as long as it had an uplifting religious message at the end.
But upon further reflection, I realize that’s not even the best part. The best part is the movie’s sporadic, incoherent vignettes provided by the movie’s wizened, leathery co-writer and co-director Brad Grinter. At random intervals throughout the film, we cut to Grinter sitting alone in a room with wood paneling, chain-smoking while he talks directly to the camera. Adding to the hilarity, Grinter is constantly looking down during his insane speeches, obviously reading the lines off a script. A script, I should remind you, that he himself wrote, and couldn’t be bothered to memorize.
Oh, but no. That’s not even the best part. The absolute, undeniable highlight of this film is Grinter’s final speech, where he breaks into a loud, hacking cough that is caught on camera and clearly wasn’t planned, judging by the embarrassed look on his face. One thing’s for sure: Grinter was a director with only a passing familiarity with the phrase “take two”.
Grinter specialized in making ’50s nudie pictures, which would have worked out great, except he was making them in the ’70s. So eventually he tried his hand at gore movies. But even by the low, low standards of grindhouse exploitation Z-grade sleaze filmed in Florida in the early ’70s, Blood Freak is bizarre, magnificently incompetent, and probably the most fun you’ll ever suffer through.
As you might have guessed, all the sins of Z-grade cinema are on display here: Over half the scenes are too dark to tell what’s going on, the audio is muffled, and most of the actors routinely fall out of focus. And it’s obvious that the camera operator didn’t particularly care, either.
But it’s the acting that’s truly atrocious. It’s about on par (if not below par) with most porno films. Generally speaking, to act in films, you have to be able to speak at least as loud as the hum of your refrigerator. This does not bode well for the cast of Blood Freak. And that’s even after cutting them some slack for being stuck with a script with 500 uses of the phrase “dumb bastard” and lines like “How can such a big hunk of man be such a damn coward?”
According to the credits, Brad Grinter’s co-writer and co-director was star Steve Hawkes. But apparently, this was only because the producers went bankrupt midway through filming, and bailed on the project. Hawkes was forced to take the reins halfway through, and finish the movie himself just so he could collect a paycheck.
Steve Hawkes was a bodybuilder and former Mr. Canada, and he starred in a couple of Tarzan movies (or “Zan” movies, as they were retitled, to avoid a lawsuit from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ estate). During one of these films, a fire special effect went bad, leaving Hawkes with burns over most of his body, not to mention enormous medical bills. Strangely enough, it’s around this same time that Steve decided to appear in Blood Freak. (When Hawkes wears short sleeves in this film, look closely for some pretty gnarly scars on his left bicep.)
Hawkes stars as Herschell, a character most likely named after the Wizard of Gore himself, Herschell Gordon Lewis. (Grinter even appeared in one of Lewis’ nudie movies.) But before we get to meet Herschell, we’re treated to the first of Grinter’s bizarre soliloquies. Ed Wood may be the one who’s famous for writing total non sequitir monologues, but I challenge you to find any speech by Criswell that comes close to the incoherence of this tirade:
[Looks down] And yet there seems to be some kind of fantastic order to the whole thing. [Looks down] We never know how or when we will meet a person [looks down] who will become a catalyst. Or, who will lead us to one! What is a catalyst? [Looks down] Well, in this case, a catalyst is a person that will bring about changes. [Looks down] They could be good, or bad. [Looks down] But there will be changes.
[Looks down] You can meet one almost anywhere, in your everyday life. In a supermarket, drugstore, [looks down] anywhere. Even riding down the Florida Turnpike. [Looks down] A pretty girl with a problem. Who could resist? Certainly not Herschell.
And then Herschell appears: A bloated, muscle-bound guy on a motorcycle, cruising down the Florida Turnpike. He’s got bleary eyes, an indeterminate accent, big Elvis-style sunglasses, and even bigger Elvis-style muttonchops. Actually, I momentarily wondered if he was Elvis in his later years. He certainly seems to outweigh his chopper by at least fifty pounds.
True to the opening speech, Herschell pulls over on the side of the road when he sees a gal with car trouble. This is Angel, a miniskirt momma with the very sexy tendency to talk about Jesus and quote scripture. (So, the devoutly religious woman is named Angel? That’s a nice, subtle touch.) After Herschell gets her car started, Angel invites him back to her pad, presumably to sit and quietly read verse together.
Unfortunately, Angel’s evil skank of sister Anne is there, and she’s invited over about a dozen of her best druggie friends. Anne is in her twenties, but oddly, the youngest of her friends looks to be about 50, and one of them is a dead ringer for country singer George Jones circa 1980. We watch for several seconds as George snorts something up his nose and passes it around, and I would swear it was a tube of Chap Stick.
Anne is immediately smitten with Herschell, and offers him some drugs, but Herschell just says no. Our sweet, sweet Angel lectures Anne about her body being a temple of the Holy Spirit and how she shouldn’t defile it, blah blah blah.
So Angel and Herschell head over to the house of another Jesus lover, an old man with horn-rimmed glasses who might be Angel and Anne’s father. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell. While watching this movie, you could ask me my first name and I don’t think I’d be too sure of the answer. Angel’s Presumed Dad gives Herschell the once-over and says he could use a “husky man” like him down at his turkey ranch.
This is where things take an ugly turn for poor Herschell, because it’s not only a turkey ranch, but also a laboratory where two scientists carry out questionable experiments on turkeys. According to one scientist, they’re “testing the chemical cathenization of, uh, poultry,” and, yeah. I have no idea what that means, and I’m presume the filmmakers didn’t either, so let’s move on.
They offer Herschell the chance to be a human guinea pig and eat their mutated meat, presumably so they can see if he dies or not. After they throw in the promise of providing him with some extra dope on the side, he’s ready to sign up. Most people prefer stuffing with their turkey, but I suppose Herschell is a man of peculiar taste.
By the way, can I just say, Good lord! Because the two scientists in this scene are by far the worst actors in the movie. They stutter, they pause after every other word, and they continually look directly into the camera. I’m seriously thinking they found these two guys working on a real turkey farm. And perhaps they really were turkey scientists. Who knows?
Unbeknownst to the scientists, however, Anne has already gotten Herschell hooked on a drug referred to only as “the stuff”, but apparently is some kind of Super Weed. The pot in this movie, it seems, is to normal pot what crack cocaine is to Pop Tarts. Because after taking just a couple of puffs the day before, Herschell is now a raging addict.
In true Raging Addict fashion, he goes home, grabs at his face and head, and stumbles around the room. He begs Anne for more of the Stuff, and when he gets it, he instantly changes back into Bruce Banner. But something doesn’t sit quite right with him: “I have a feeling I’m hooked!” Now, what would have given him that impression?
Nevertheless, the next day at the turkey farm, Herschell is served a entire scientifically-altered turkey. He sits right down in front of a pen of live turkeys as he eats, which personally speaking, wouldn’t help me work up much of an appetite. But Herschell scarfs down the entire thing, and immediately starts to feel not so good, and not even a pack of Tums can save him now.
After stumbling around in the woods, and having a Grand Mal seizure in the grass, he wakes up to find himself transformed into a were-turkey, a horrifyingly stupid half-man, half-turkey. Obviously, the budget wasn’t quite there for a full transformation, so he’s become the next best thing: A guy with a papier-maché turkey head with ping-pong ball eyes, wearing a button-down long sleeve shirt and jeans. Come to think of it, I guess that’s not even close to the next best thing. But they’ve dubbed in some gobbling noises, so strike one blow for verisimilitude.
The transformed Herschell goes back to Anne. She’s initially terrified by his big turkey head, but he writes a note and hands it to her. The gist is that, yeah, the turkey head thing is sort of a bummer, but his real concern is getting more of the Stuff. She agrees to help him out, but it turns out becoming a Turkey Man has made Herschell a bit more lusty. He switches off the lights, and while the screen remains black, we’re treated to one of the film’s more unbelievable scenes, one that will make even the most heterosexual man snap his fingers and go Oh no they di-int: Anne’s orgasmic moans and coos are mixed in with gobbling noises [!]. Yes, we’ve reached the moment in mankind’s development when a woman can finally be depicted having sex with a turkey man on film.
Unfortunately, Turkey Man’s cravings don’t end with Super Weed and kinky sex. He eventually sets out on a murderous rampage, where he kidnaps young female potheads and hangs them upside down in his backyard. In several poorly staged scenes, he sticks an ice pick in their necks, and as fake blood squirts down their faces, Herschell eagerly cups his hands and smears big facefuls of fake blood around his beak.
I guess Turkey Man is something like Dracula, in that he only feasts on the blood of young women. But that doesn’t stop him from taking out his rage on men, too. In the film’s goriest moment, Herschell throws a drug dealer up on a table saw and chops off his leg. I know you’re gonna hate me for this, but: That is one cold turkey. Reportedly, the actor playing the drug dealer was an amputee, and already had a prosthetic leg, making this scene much more gruesome and convincing than it has any right to be.
So, it’s up to Angel and Anne and her druggie friends to stop Herschell’s wild (turkey) killing spree. And how do they accomplish this? Well, I don’t want to spoil things for you. Actually, I do want to spoil things for you, because the ending is somehow both the most amazing and the most idiotic thing I’ve ever seen.
Anne’s friends go after Herschell, and swing at him with a machete. Then we immediately come to a place where good taste fears to tread, where the film cuts to actual footage of a turkey getting decapitated, complete with its headless body twitching around on the ground.
This is followed by a bizarre sequence where Herschell’s turkey head sits on a table next to a cooked turkey. Nondescript chatter is heard in the background as a multitude of hands reach out and grab hunks of meat off the turkey. I have to say, this was an effective scene, in that it makes me never, ever want to eat turkey again. This film should have won some sort of award from the Vegan Society.
And then, after all of that, and after everything we’ve witnessed… we’re right back with a normal-looking Herschell, still having his seizure in the grass. Yes, apparently the whole were-turkey thing was all one big turkey-fueled hallucination. Wow, and all tryptophan does is make me sleepy.
From there, the ending is trite and predictable (well, predictable compared to a turkey monster sawing off a guy’s leg, I suppose), with Herschell vowing never to do drugs again, and finding Jesus with Angel’s help. After one last speech from Grinter that has to be seen to be believed, Herschell walks off into the sunset, arm in arm with his skanky sweetheart Anne.
Classic moments abound in this film. Here’s just a select few:
- The movie starts with the title in a blood-dripping font, followed immediately by the blood-dripping credit “Starring Steve Hawkes”. When Herschell meets Angel on the Turnpike ten minutes later, bizarrely, we get the “Starring Steve Hawkes” credit again. The hell?
- When Herschell takes his first hit of Super Weed, there’s a jump cut to him taking his first hit all over again, which is not only a nice continuity flub, but also notable for Grinter’s voice in the background saying, “Action.”
- When Herschell attacks a drug dealer, he pins the guy down on the couch. As soon as he gets up off of him, you can hear Grinter clearly tell the actor playing the drug dealer, “Get up slowly.”
- Apparently, the filmmakers only had one stock sound effect of a woman screaming, because every time Herschell attacks someone, it’s played over, and over, and over. Even if the victim’s mouth isn’t moving.
- Somebody pinch me, because simply put, Grinter’s speeches are a bad movie fanatic’s dream come true. Every time he shows up on screen is even more hilarious and incoherent than the last. At one point he seems to completely lose his place in the script, and after babbling about the predictable paths of life being repeated again and again, he simply ends with, “Right on.” [?]
And to sum up this review and this movie, here’s Grinter’s final speech in its entirety. Just try to imagine the irony of this being delivered by a guy who looks like he just came off a five-day bender, and who seems about to cough up a lung on camera:
Ignoring the warnings, indeed. Happy Thanksgiving!