In Defence Of Blood Sucking Freaks

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There aren’t many cult movies as divisive as Blood Sucking Freaks. A noxious display of violent misogyny? A raucous, subversive black comedy? A gut-wrenching work of extreme horror? Pathetic dated drivel with terrible special effects and even worse acting? Whatever your personal opinion of the film, there’s something intriguing about the diverse reactions it elicits even amongst hardcore exploitation devotees. The debate has no doubt helped keep its reputation alive and interest simmering for nigh on 40 years.

Sardu (Seamus O’Brien) and his midget sidekick Ralphus (Luis De Jesus) operate a Grand Guignol-style theatre in the seedy backstreets of 70’s New York. Their nightly stage-shows mostly consist of nude women being tortured and mutilated in a variety of creative ways but, unbeknown to the audience, these acts of butchery are real. Furthermore, behind the backdrop lies a dilapidated labyrinth of dungeons where Sardu holds his nubile abductees in cages; dispatching some to a Middle Eastern slave trader and using others as playthings or even furniture (!). Growing frustrated by the indifference of the press, Sardu plans his artistic piece de la resistance; a ballet-of-death starring his harshest critic Creasy Silo (Alan Dellay) and Natasha De Natalie (Viju Krem), a world class dancer. But how will he coerce the delectable Ms Natalie into joining the cast and serving out this theatrical form of revenge?

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Above all else, Blood Sucking Freaks is an exercise in outlandish camp. The many set pieces depicting torture – by thumbscrew, hacksaw, vice etc, etc – may be bloody and soundtracked by endless female screaming but several factors greatly undermine any potential shock impact. Crucially, for all its visual and conceptual depravity, the tone is the film is generally light-hearted. Sardu and Ralphus are really no more threatening than pantomime villains. There’s no palpable sense of them deriving sexual pleasure from their activities; both are hollow cartoon characters, as befits a movie presented and framed like a ghoulish horror comic. As Sardu, the late London-born Seamus O’Brien is by far the most accomplished performer – a hybrid of The Wizard Of Gore and Kenneth Williams. His lines are littered with corny gags, fey pretentiousness, and the odd sickoid one-liner (the notorious, immortal “Her mouth will make an interesting urinal”). An amusing character but certainly no candidate for the screen-psycho hall of fame. De Jesus, meanwhile, plays his part with gusto but any presence stems mostly from his oddball appearance.

The only point where Blood Sucking Freaks really approaches disturbing occurs as a deranged doctor (a ‘guest’ freak) prepares to perform unwarranted tooth extraction on a young woman (you can guess the reasoning)…. Initially, the actor’s performance bears a frightening psychopathic intensity, as he rants excitedly, roughly grasping the victim’s breast. In fact, even Sardu and Ralphus are sickened by the spectacle. However, the film quickly switches back to farce as the mad quack merrily sings opera while drilling into her skull so that he can slurp liquidised brains through a drinking straw. On paper, it sounds horrendous; in practice those with a strong stomach and unhealthy sense of humour will more than likely appreciate the joke.

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Unsurprisingly, Blood Sucking Freaks was the subject of feminist ire on release. The fact that the mostly female victims are invariably nude is probably at the heart of the controversy. Nobody could successfully defend the film against charges of exploiting female flesh but, moving beyond kneejerk reaction, the level of actual sexual violence is low (there are no rape scenes, for example). Also, it shouldn’t go unmentioned that Sardu is assisted by two (OK, scantily-clad) female assistants and that – at the risk of spoiling the plot (ha!) – the perpetrators do, ultimately, receive their just desserts. Mostly though, whatever the director’s true intentions / personal perversions, it’s the overall absurdity permeating each and every frame that reduces the film’s offensiveness down to a very superficial and gleeful level. The fact that it was originally released as The Incredible Torture Show (or T.I.T.S. for short) should tell you everything you need to know about just how serious an undertaking this was.

As an anarchic taboo-smasher, very much of its time and place, Blood Sucking Freaks has a lot to offer those who with a fondness for’ 70s American exploitation and the filthpit culture of 42nd Street. For all its silliness, it exudes an oppressive squalid atmosphere thanks to the grimy, mostly interior locations which also serve to accentuate the luridness of the onscreen events . The film’s ceaseless, boisterous energy ensures that things never lag. Police procedurals and dull subplots are rejected in favour of numerous gore-drenched set-pieces – naked arses used as a dartboards; severed fingers as betting chips; frying pans stuffed full of eyeballs – all delivered with tongue-firmly-in-cheek and peppered with Sardu’s enjoyably naff gags. As the ‘heroine’ and only real female character , Viju Krem puts in a perfunctory performance though she’s quite pleasing on the eye. Just try to banish from your mind the director’s claim that he engaged in a threesome with the actress and De Jesus during the wrap party. That’s taking bad taste too far.

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From its quirky piano-tango score to its idiotic death-by-ballet premise; from its snuff-as- pantomime humour to its overt stagey campiness; Blood Sucking Freaks is a work of insane, unfettered creativity that would never, ever get made today. Even if you’re an exploitation fan who detests the film, as an example of burn-the-rulebook cinema, you’ll probably agree that it remains a fascinating curio for its audaciously leftfield presentation of violent horror.

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