Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
[after sawing a naked woman's hand off]: "Oh yes! Now we're getting the proper reaction." - Master SarduBloodsucking Freaks (aka: The Incredible Torture Show) is the Salò of exploitation cinema. Unlike Pasolini's sadean last film however, the cruelties are not couched in political allegory, and the shocking events have no claims on art house sensitivities. If anything, while perhaps influenced by the Italian production of the year before, this anarchistic film is deliberately anti-art house, as well as a grinding assault on the humanist values many of us hold dear. The staging is grubby, cheap and rudimentary, and the acting poor. Why then does this Troma production (about which founder Lloyd Kaufman, still feels squeamish) remain such a controversial and memorable cult item?
The plot is straightforward. Sardu (Seamus O'Brien), master of the Theatre of the Macabre, assisted by his midget assistant Ralphus (Luis de Jesus) operate an 'off-off Broadway' show in which, Grand Guignol style, women are tortured on stage to the delight of audiences who applaud the special effects. Naturally enough, it is soon obvious that Sardu's victims are actually killed and mutilated for his own pleasure and that his show conceals a white slave racket. He takes a fancy to a ballet dancer Natasha (Viju Krem) who visits one of his shows accompanied by her footballer boyfriend Tom (Neils McMaster), as well as umbrage at the curt dismissal by a visiting art critic - the wonderfully named Creasy Silo (Alan Dellay). Soon, Sardu has them both kidnapped, and works on them both to achieve just the show he wants.
Reed wrote and directed two other films, include the similarly gory Blood Bath (1976), in which the cast of a horror film go out for dinner and swap gruesome stories, as well as the weak Night Of The Zombies (1981). Bloodsucking Freaks comes closest to having an outright message, as in Sardu's opening remarks to his audience that "This is just a theatrical presentation, and offers no reality, (it) just allows us to delve into our grossest fantasies, far beyond erotica." The amiable, mocking Sardu, as portrayed by O'Brien, makes a perfect host for the gruesome events on stage as well as for the ghastly events off it. The film is a work of fiction, and Sardu can't possibly be doing what it purports to show. But for the sake of the fiction we must habitually suspend disbelief, an act that immediately provokes a crisis of conscience.
That's the obvious parallel between Sardu's show and the film itself. Director and writer Reed and his creation Sardu have the same targets, principally art critics and the complacency of audiences. If he upsets and leads us to strong emotion, then he has succeeded. Those who sit and dismiss the projection of cruelty as 'a trick' - therefore to be ignored, or walk out, are the targets. The critic Silo is the worst offender in this respect, and is therefore singled out for special treatment. (A hatred of critics shared with Douglas Hickox's much more innocent Theatre Of Blood, 1973.) Silo's view of Sardu's show is that he has, ironically, "seen better" at the Paris Grand Guignol. He refuses to review the show, even negatively, in case people are encouraged to see it. After his capture, subjugation and forced feeding by Sardu, the critic's awakening to the truth is apt as it is poetic: as a kick in the mouth by a ballerina.
Sardu by name is uncomfortably close enough to De Sade to make further comment unnecessary on the torture and abuse of his captives, although several of them are lightened by laboured, grisly humour (e.g. while playing backgammon with his assistant: "I'll put a finger in the pot") or sustained grossness (the brain sucking episode). Understandably, this film was one of those picketed by Women Against Pornography, and there's no arguing with the fact that women here are continuously degraded, abused and butchered as entertainment. Surprisingly, however, the erotic level is low; given the high level of nudity one would expect more sexual explicitness in a film which contains little more than a breast fondle by the mad doctor or a suggested blowjob from a just-decapitated head, worked by Ralphus. There were stories of orgies on set between members of the cast, but these can perhaps be dismissed as the Troma publicity machine on overdrive. The sex feels an afterthought in a film whose main concern is with punishing the unconcerned, and provoking a jaded audience into shock.
"A movie that makes you feel like you need a shower."
"I'll never watch it again. It made me want to vomit."
"After watching this movie I felt like a worse human being for having seen it."
These viewer comments from the IMDb site prove the point: while the on-screen audience watch Sardu's show with polite appreciation of the mayhem, it is (reassuringly) hard to watch Reed's film with a similar detachment. At one point Ralphus is seen consuming popcorn while gleefully enjoying a show of cruelty with his master, which flies in the air as they rush to applaud the fatal finale. Our initial relation to the theatre audience, then our need to disassociate ourselves from their unpleasant indifference, is what continues to give Bloodsucking Freaks strength. We popcorn-munchers cannot disregard what we are seeing, but by the same token we can't clap. That we are expected to be excited, then outraged, hating Sardu yet agreeing with his contempt for the smug, is the purpose of the piece. Like the originally sneering Silo, our forced agreement with Sardu that his show of cruelty "is not a trick (but) drama, pure theatre" is extremely uncomfortable, given that the master owns the props, participants and stage.
Sardu's career, and Reed's film end, appropriately enough, in anarchy. The final rampage of the cannibal women, and their laboured penis hot dog joke, is an event waiting to happen. In a film with no moral centre, it is fitting that the final moments should be spent in the company of the female inmates of Sardu's menagerie, whose brutish glee at final liberation finishes off the cast, as much as it does the picture. Sardu, of course, has probably enjoyed his fate. Whether or not most viewers have been finished off before this is a moot point but for the curious who remain, it was an interesting show along the way.