AKA The Incredible Torture Show
DIRECTED BY: Joel Reed
FEATURING: Seamus O’Brien, Luis de Jesus
PLOT: A sadist who runs a Grand Guignol off-off-Broadway show as a cover for his white slavery ring kidnaps a theater critic and a ballerina to design his greatest production yet.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I don’t think Bloodsucking Freaks is all that weird, although I have trouble convincing my maiden aunt of that fact. The problem is one of definition: many people out there identify “immoral” or “shocking” as “weird,” while I consider shock films to be a distinct, if occasionally overlapping, category from weird movies. Essentially, Bloodsucking Freaks is just cheaply made, misogynist, grindhouse soft porn, peppered with some intentional and some unintentional comedy, a bit bizarre only because it goes to the absurdest extremes in its quest to shock the viewer.
COMMENTS: A naked girl has her hand cut off with a hacksaw and her eye pulled out of its socket while a live audience chuckles at her. A naked girl has her teeth pulled out one by one with pliers. A naked girl has a hole drilled in her skull, then her brain is sucked out through a straw. That’s pretty much all there is to Bloodsucking Freaks; there’s a thin plot tying these violations together, and torturers Sardu (the tall, fey one) and Ralphus (the smelly-looking dwarf who can’t act) make bad puns in between atrocities (“I bet you an arm and a leg…”). Still, the film obviously exists for no other reason than to show naked women humiliated, tortured and dismembered.
But, it’s a comedy, so that’s OK. (Seriously, this is people’s defense of the film: it’s intended as comedy, so we shouldn’t be offended. These same fans would presumably champion a Ku Klux Klan white supremacist screed, if it’s presented in the form of a humorous monologue). The problem with Bloodsucking Freaks, of course, is all one of attitude and context. Nudity isn’t controversial, graphic violence isn’t categorically offensive, and even mixing the two doesn’t automatically create offense. Freaks’ sin is that its main purpose is to give men who watch it an erection from watching women being tortured. The movie’s constant parade of nude, nubile victims have no personalities; they rarely object to the torture, or plead with their captors, and never hint at having jobs or families or any existence outside of the dungeon. For the most part their cries of pain are indistinguishable from a porn actresses’ faked orgasmic moans. When a woman is tortured via electrocution administered through nipple clips, her writhing appears to come from a sensation very different from agony.
Male arousal isn’t a matter of free choice or will; being exposed to sexual images causes the male libido to click into readiness, and Freaks’ main calling is to relentlessly associate that stirring in the loins with expressions of wanton cruelty. I’m no politically correct critic who searches out nude scenes so I can howl about the “objectification” of women, but when Sardu eats dinner using a naked woman as a table or tosses darts at a bulls-eye painted on a lass’ backside, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some slight, perhaps unconscious objectification of women going on here.
But the most offensive issue with Bloodsucking Freaks isn’t its pornographic nature, but its refusal to own up to its own obscenity. The movie contains witty black jokes: a box of white slaves marked “fragile,” Sardu and Ralphus’ grossed-out reactions to the doctor’s brand of “elective neurosurgery,” and the unforgettable line “her mouth will make an interesting urinal.” But the purpose of putting such gibes into the script at all is to provide an excuse to watch swomen being symbolically punished and brutalized. Men can claim to watch Bloodsucking Freaks for the comedy the way that they used to pretend to read Playboy “for the articles.”
The movie is in self-denial; it holds itself at arm’s length and pretends its images don’t mean the things they quite obviously do. In the opening moments of the movie Sardu congratulates the attendees at his off-Broadway torture show on their “courage” in watching a nude blonde’s fingers crushed in a vise, then argues “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…” That’s writer/director Reed speaking directly to the movie audience, preemptively disowning his own vile tableaux by arguing they have no power or meaning, granting viewers permission to indulge the most loathsome parts of themselves. More perceptive, however, are the lines he wrote for the theater critic: “No true actor would submit to engage in such trash.” In advice I wish I could follow, he continues, “If I were to review your so-called show, even badly, I fear some of my readers might come just out of curiosity.”
I have no doubt that many of you will want to see Bloodsucking Freaks after reading this review. Watching a truly filthy movie is something of a rite of passage, and it won’t turn you into a rapist. It’s not my job to tell you not to see it, just to give you fair warning that its reputation is not exaggerated: this movie can scar your soul, and you will see things you may wish you could forget. But if you don’t mind watching something Ted Bundy probably masturbated to, then by all means, have at it.
Many people believe Troma Entertainment produced Bloodsucking Freaks (they did not make it but only distributed it, buying the rights and re-releasing the movie to drive-ins in 1983 with a brilliantly cynical campaign that included tipping off “Women Against Pornography” on what theaters to picket). Troma is responsible for the special edition “director’s cut” DVD, however, with an audio track provided by torture porn impresario Eli Roth. Roth’s sarcastic commentary, which compares the movie to Taxi Driver and muses about the symbolism of the caged cannibal women, starts out amusing, but the mockery wears thin (just how much trash should the director of Hostel be talking, anyway?) Roth’s insincerity is a typical approach to Bloodsucking Freaks, though: cover up a guilty erection with the lowest form of wit.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a boffo presentation is arranged out of Busby Berkeley, Hi, Mom! and Theater of Blood, borrowing Herschell Gordon Lewis’s electric organ while building toward the image of the chained reviewer kicked in the mouth by the topless ballerina… a manifesto for an immoral cinema…exists in that disconcerting crossroads of loathsome exploitation and annihilating art.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion.org
(This movie was nominated for review by Lee Townsend, who said “this distorted my mind many years ago and let me realize what weird really was.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)