Blood Freak (1972) – By Albert Walker

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 that distinction.

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. The best part is that he ultimately overcomes his troubles by praying to Jesus. Surely, this was a plot twist mandated by whatever churchgoing financier the filmmakers could find, one who didn’t care much what the movie was about as long as it had an uplifting religious message at the end.

But no, that’s not even the best part. The best part is the movie’s sporadic, incoherent vignettes featuring wizened, leathery co-writer and co-director Brad 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 in front of him. A script, I remind you, that he himself wrote, and couldn’t be bothered to memorize.

No, wait, that’s not even the best part. The absolute highlight of this film is Grinter’s final speech, where he breaks into a hacking cough that is caught on camera and clearly wasn’t planned, judging by the embarrassed smile on his face at the end of it. One thing is apparent: This is a director that never attained more than a passing familiarity with the words "take two".

Grinter was a director who specialized in making ’50s nudie pictures. Which would have worked out great, had he not been making them in the ’70s. So eventually he tried his hand at grindhouse 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.

The lighting is atrocious, the audio is muffled, and most of the actors routinely fall out of focus. And it’s obvious that the camera operator doesn’t particularly care, either.

But it’s the acting that’s truly atrocious. It’s about on par (if not below par) with your average porno film. Generally speaking, to act in films, you have to be able to speak at least as loud as the hum of your refrigerator, which doesn’t bode well for the cast of Blood Freak. And that’s even after you cut them some slack for having to work 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 co-wrote and co-directed with star Steve Hawkes, but this was only because the producers went bankrupt midway through filming, and bailed on the project. Hawkes was forced to 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 Blood Freak was filmed. (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:

"We live in a world subject to constant change. [Looks down] Every second, of every minute, of every hour [looks down], changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to [looks down] us, because our level of awareness is limited. [Looks down] Take for example [looks down], how the things we do and say to the people we meet [looks down], all these things affect our lives, influence our destiny. [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 every day 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 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 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 Bible 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. Angel lectures Anne about her body being a temple of the Holy Spirit and how she shouldn’t defile it. So instead, 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. I really couldn’t tell. 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," whatever that means.

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. And my god, these two scientists 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. Perhaps these two guys really did work on a turkey farm. As turkey scientists.

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. After taking a couple of puffs the day before, Herschell is a raging addict. 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, it instantly changes him right back into Bruce Banner. But something doesn’t sit quite right with him: "I have a feeling I’m hooked!" Now, what ever would have given him that impression?

Nevertheless, the next day at the turkey farm, Herschell is served a whole scientifically-altered turkey. He sits in front of a pen of live turkeys as he eats, which you’d think wouldn’t help him work up much of an appetite, but yet he scarfs down the entire thing anyway. But poor Herschell doesn’t feel 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-mâch&eactute; turkey head with ping-pong ball eyes, wearing a button-down long sleeve shirt and jeans. Oh, but they’ve dubbed in some gobbling noises, so strike one blow for verisimilitude.

The transformed Herschell goes back to Anne. After her initial terror at his big turkey head wears off, he writes a note and hands it to her. The gist is that, yeah, the turkey head thing is 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 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: Anne’s moans and coos are mixed in with gobbling sound effects. 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 sex. He eventually sets out on a murderous rampage, where he kidnaps young female potheads and hangs them upside down in his backyard. 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 more gruesome and convincing than it has any right to be.

So, how do Anne and Angel and her druggie friends eventually stop Herschell’s wild (turkey) killing spree? 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 craziest and the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.

Anne’s friends go after Herschell, and swing at him with a machete. This leads to an all-time low 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 mask 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 want to eat turkey again. This film should 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, anyway), 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 Grinter’s speeches are a bad movie fanatic’s dream come true. Every time he shows up on screen is even more 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, I’m transcribing the final speech in its entirety. Just consider the irony of this being delivered by a guy who looks like he just came off a five-day bender, and who seems nearly about to cough up a lung right there on camera:

There’s much to… warn us all… of the trends our destiny’s taking. Our scientists agree that the one immutable law of life is change. There’s much talk… and protest… about everything. About pollution, about drugs and their abuse. And this has been a story based… partly on fact, partly on probability. But the horrors that occur in the minds of those who allow the indiscriminate use of the human body as a mixing bowl for drugs and chemicals… are as real as the real horror. So when you eat or take into your body any chemical… or drugs… you take a chance on reactions that are untested. Unpredictable. There are government agencies, many responsible groups, fighting the use of chemicals. In the food we eat, in the water we drink. And yet there are far too [coughing] far too many of us, who go right on taking the good way of life for granted. Ignoring the warnings. So [cough] let’s give a little thought to making our own story [full-on hacking cough] have a happy ending! [Hacking some more, then smiles and fades out.]

Ignoring the warnings, indeed. Happy Thanksgiving!