Bloodsucking Freaks/The Incredible Torture Show/House of the Screaming Virgins/The Heritage of Caligula (1975/1978/1982) -*****
Horror movies in general have something of a bad reputation in mainstream circles. The genre often comes under attack from liberals for its supposed misogyny, and from conservatives for its antisocial tendencies, and there was nothing new about this even in 1975. But there are a few movies that have been repeatedly singled out for special attention on the grounds that they are said to represent the worst excesses of the genre; I Spit On Your Grave/Day of the Woman is a good example. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another. And then, of course, there’s this movie. I have frequently heard Bloodsucking Freaks reviled by inveterate horror fans, by people who enjoyed such intensely disturbing movies as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. That’s saying a lot, and you know what? In marked contrast to Chainsaw or I Spit On Your Grave or The Last House on the Left, this is one of those rare instances in which every word is true. Bloodsucking Freaks is every bit as vile, noxious, filthy, degenerate, and indefensible-- both morally and artistically-- as its detractors say it is. And that is why it is also one of my favorite movies of all time.
You want to know what it’s about? Well, the plot’s paper-thin, so this shouldn’t take too long. Sardu (Seamus O’Brien, who was stabbed to death by a burglar a few years after this was made) and his midget sidekick, Ralphus (Louie de Jesus, whose performance here is bracketed nicely by his role in the eight-minute stag loop The Anal Dwarf and his more recent appearance as an Ewok in Return of the Jedi), run an off-off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway playhouse called the Theatre of the Macabre, a sort of Wal-Mart Grand Guignol. Their performances consist of little more than Ralphus torturing nude women while Sardu offers preposterous post-modernist commentary on the action: “If you find that what you see turns your stomach, just pretend that it is all an illusion. But if you find yourself skeptical or bored, then just pretend that what you see is real.” Just guess which half of that exhortation describes what really goes on in the Theatre of the Macabre. Yeah, that’s right, there aren’t too many repeat performances from Sardu’s “actors”-- it’s strictly “appearing one night only” for these folks. What’s more, the whole operation is a front for Sardu’s main business of kidnapping teenage girls and shipping them (apparently via UPS) to unscrupulous magnates in the Third World. (I sometimes like to imagine that Sheik Hakim from Ilsa: Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks buys his girls from Sardu.) Anyway, in the audience at the first performance we see are a football player named Tom Maverick (Niles McMaster) and his girlfriend, an Estonian ballerina (nevermind her Italian name; the movie doesn’t) by the name of Natasha De Natalie (Viju Krem, who, interestingly enough, is also dead now), and Creasy Silo (Alan Dellay-- look for him as the butler in Trading Places), theater critic for some newspaper or other. All three draw Sardu’s attention in one way or another. Maverick and Silo both heckle the performance, though the former eventually comes around to it. Silo remains contemptuous, to the extent that he refuses even to review the show. “I fear that if I reviewed your show-- even badly-- some of my readers might be drawn to it out of curiosity, and I don’t want to be responsible for keeping your ‘theater’ open for one more day!” Sardu’s interest in De Natalie is more sinister. He wants her to star in his next production.
To that end, he sends Ralphus to kidnap her, along with Creasy Silo. Sardu figures that it does him little good to feature a big-name star in his performance if nobody is going to review it, and he also figures that the brainwashing techniques he uses to produce his slave-girls will be just as efficacious for creating a favorably inclined critic. While Sardu and Ralphus torture the two into doing their bidding, Maverick gets in touch with a thoroughly corrupt cop named Tucci (Dan Fauci), and reports De Natalie’s disappearance. (Tucci wants $10,000 to conduct the investigation.) Eventually, Tucci and Maverick catch on to Sardu’s scheme, and raid the psycho’s home in the hopes of freeing De Natalie and making off with as much as possible of the proceeds from Sardu’s white slavery operation. The bust goes bad when Tucci accidentally frees the dozen or so insane, naked cannibal women Sardu keeps locked in the basement, and as near as I can tell, every character to whom the movie bothered to give a name is killed in the ensuing rampage (though it’s possible that De Natalie survives to join the rampage herself).
What sets Bloodsucking Freaks apart is the way in which the filmmakers make the audience complicit in Sardu’s atrocities. A lot of ink has been spilled, mostly by liberal critics, to the effect that this is what horror movies do anyway, but trust me, there is a world of difference. In any normal movie, even a slasher movie-- even Make Them Die Slowly, for Christ’s sake-- the first third-to-half of the film is spent introducing us to the protagonists, letting us get to know them so that we will identify with them when horrible fates begin to befall them. Note that it is not important for my purposes whether or not a movie succeeds in creating that identification with the characters; all I’m interested in is the fact that the all try, no matter how ineptly. Not so with this movie. The first half of Bloodsucking Freaks has us get to know Sardu and Ralphus! This goes far beyond the phenomenon by which Freddy Krueger gradually became the real hero of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. After all, that happened pretty much accidentally, over the course of four movies and five years. Bloodsucking Freaks has you rooting for Ralphus ten minutes in. Perversely, he and Sardu are absolutely the only likeable characters in the movie, while Seamus O’Brien and Louie de Jesus are far and away the best actors. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much.) Conversely, among the so-called heroes, Tucci is an unreconstructed scumbag, Silo is a smug asshole, Maverick is little more than a cardboard cut-out, and De Natalie is a complete non-entity. And we never even learn the names of Sardu’s other victims, the literally dozens of usually nude women who are starved, dismembered, electrocuted, beheaded, stretched on the rack, fed to one another, and generally degraded in innumerable ways great and small. In short, I defy anyone to watch this movie and identify with anybody but the evildoers. I swear to you, no matter how sensitive and civilized you think you are, you will laugh out loud at the Ass-Darts scene, and at the sight of Ralphus playing cowboy with a naked girl as his horse.
Bloodsucking Freaks will make you feel dirty, and you will love every minute of it. That’s the wonder of this movie. And there can be no question whether the filmmakers realized what they were doing-- they most assuredly did. Shortly after Ralphus kidnaps Creasy Silo, Sardu tells the critic how the Theatre of the Macabre works. “To display sadism and discipline in its purest form would only lead to imprisonment,” he says, “but by simply disguising it with a story, with a minimal plot, with a musical score, will result in my being hailed as a creative genius.” Now tell me he didn’t just describe this movie to you right there! And just so you can’t possibly miss it, this scene is shot from Silo’s point of view, so that Sardu is speaking directly to the camera, and thus to you as you sit in the movie theater or your living room. “Disguised... with a minimal plot”? Shit, man, this plot is so minimal that the story actually grinds to a halt every fifteen minutes or so in order to “display sadism” that is totally unrelated to anything happening in the scenes to either side of it. In addition to the sequences in which De Natalie and Silo are tortured into performing for Sardu-- which could, by an admittedly very lenient standard, be called necessary to the story-- there are a number of scenes that are entirely gratuitous, even by the most restrictive definition. Ralphus sautés eyeballs and plays Dismemberment Backgammon and the aforementioned Ass-Darts with Sardu. An evil doctor appears in the story just long enough to pull all of a girl’s teeth and to do something even worse with her cerebrospinal fluid. There is a scene involving Ralphus and a severed head that must simply be seen to be believed. And all of it happens for absolutely no reason as far as the main thrust of the story is concerned; it’s just there for your personal edification, as it were. Make no mistake, you will be edified. Joel M. Reed and Stephen Margolin, the two schlockmeisters whose brainchild Bloodsucking Freaks is, may not be “creative geniuses”, and God knows they were never hailed as such, but they will have you in the palms of their fucking hands the entire time.