From among the Video Nasties

In 1963, indie producer-director and godfather of gore and direct marketing Herschell Gordon Lewis made Blood Feast, a movie typically identified as the very first gore picture (that is, a movie with no intrinsic merits and no hook to its marketing campaign other than "there is blood, lots of it). It's hokey and inept and hilarious. 15 years later, indie producer-director Jack Weis made the merely hokey and inept Mardi Gras Massacre, something of an uncredited remake of Blood Feast, and this already raises a substantial number of questions. Questions like, "but why?" and "did people actually, like, watch Blood Feast into the 1970s?" But the greater question still: how in the name of all things bright and beautiful is it possible to remake Blood Feast and come out with an even worse film?

I may never be able to answer that specific question, but to the wider question of how Mardi Gras Massacre should turn out to be such a sack of crap in and of itself, I have many ideas. The film implicitly starts three weeks before Mardi Gras, in a bar frequented by New Orleans's population of freelance prostitutes. Two such women have just arrived, looking for some good marks; the only one we need to keep in mind is Sherry (Gwen Arment), and she's easy to pick out because she's the one who flubs the first line delivery of the movie, in only the third overall shot. Yessiree, it's going to be one of those movies, the kind where they didn't have the money for reshoots. Or, by and large, for shooting coverage: one of the more naggingly apparent elements of Mardi Gras Massacre's aesthetic is that a tremendously large number of its shots are very wide, much too wide to be a wide shot and slightly too close to be an establishing shot. As I write, it strikes me that they're basically the proscenium frames of a silent from the 1901-1905 era or so, the ones where you see a lot of floor in front of the characters and a lot of wall on either side of them. And, like, entire scenes go by in this angle, without cutting. Although I say that, but there's at least one time where there is a cut, to later in the same angle. And to be sure, there are plenty of scenes that break down into a proper shot-reverse shot relationship between characters, though I am not at all certain that those scenes make up a majority of the film. The point being, anyway, that as near as I can tell, Weis did this because it's the absolute simplest (& thus cheapest) way to make a movie, and so a sizable portion of the film consists of watching uncomfortably-framed wide shots of people having deeply uninteresting conversations.

But I was introducing our prostitutes. Sherry and her friend are looking for work, and so they ask the bartender, Sam (Butch Benit) who in the bar seems to be a likely mark. After spitting some insults at them and then receiving some in return, Sam points them towards a very well-to-do man (Bill Metzo) in a prim suit with a mildly snooty accent. I'm not sure if his name is "John" or if he is a john, but for the sake of having something to call him, John will do. John's not interested in either of the first pair; he wants "the most evil" woman in the bar, and they both cheerily agree that must be Shirley Anderson (Laura Misch). To confirm this, John sidles up to Shirley, and offers just about the silkiest-smooth pickup line you ever did hear: "I understand that you are the most evil woman here". To which a wholly unphased Shirley replies, "Listen, honey, I could probably take first prize in any evil contest."

So there you have it.

John takes Shirley to his apartment where he ushers her into his red-curtained room that is 100% clearly not a sacrificial altar. He tells her to lay down on the bed in the middle of the room, and to make it extra-clear how not at all creepy and menacing the character is, Metzo inserts a roughly seven-second pause into the middle of the phrase "this bed." He then puts on a gold mask and starts massaging Shirley's naked torso, until she grows so excited that she doesn't notice him pull out the knife that he uses to slice her open and pull out her organs (this part, of course, is not in wide shot). It is at the exact moment that the scene turns towards particularly gloomy menace that the whoosing, tuneless  synth score drops out and a disco song comes in to replace it.

Hopefully you find all of that really terrific, exciting stuff, because Mardi Gras Massacre repeats it in every last detail (up to and including the abrupt, awful disco intrusion) three whole times. That is, literally, the entirety of the first... hour of the movie? I wasn't timing it, in part because by Cycle #3 I had sort of stopped paying attention. But yes, that's the film. John goes to a bar, asks for the most evil woman, finds her with very little effort, massages her, kills her. And then we get a few scenes of the cops working the case, Detective Frank Abraham (Curt Dawson) and Detective Mayer (Ronald Tanet), during which we learn that Abraham gets the job done and done well, but he's also a mean shit that no other cops like. He manages to fall in love with Sherry - I told you to keep her in mind! - despite how much he despises whores and how much she despises pigs. This is, naturally enough, the warm humanising arc of the film, or something.

Anyway, it's all just so unbelievably bad: the acting, the pacing, the staging, the sexual politics, the unbelievably boring misuse of the seedy underbelly of New Orleans as a place where people have meandering, antagonist conversations about a murder investigation. Two things actually do sort of work here. One is the gore: for the most part, it's actually quite a convincing piece of work. Aye, there are some things that happen, like when one of the victims - Shirley, I think - has to visibly work her jaw to keep oozing stage blood. But the fake torsos used in the close-ups are unnervingly convincing, and while the blood inside them is a bit too red, the organs John pulls out are, well they're definitely organs. The second thing that works is the music; not the out-of-place disco during the murders, but the wide range of disco and funk in the bars and on the streets, all of it from some fly-by-night label that presumably cut a good deal with Weis to get some of their acts prominently placed in his movie. It worked, basically; the music was catchy and appealing, and I will likely remember it longer than movie itself, or at least I will endeavor to.

It's a badly-made, repetitive, boring movie with an ugly view of humanity, and then it hits the final act, and gets really bad. Somehow, despite nothing having happened anywhere in the film up to that point, the film manages to slow down: in part by focusing more on the utterly uninteresting relationship between Sherry and Frank, and in greater part by focusing on the even less interesting matter of the investigation. At one point, the cops know it's John, and there are two cops sitting right outside his apartment, and the captain (Wayne Mack) asks the other one what to do next. The junior officer basically shrugs. The captain then picks up the radio and orders a roadblock. I don't even know if we should call a little moment like that shrug "padding". It's much too aggressive and confrontational in its narrative emptiness for that.

But the point being, the final act is a sluggish, confusing chase that involves the Mardi Gras parade - for it turns out that John had to make his final sacrifice of three evil women on Mardi Gras, thereby raising an ancient god that is either Aztec or Incan depending on where we are in the film - and also, somehow, a lot of static conversations. It's amazing to think that a movie as dull and bad as Mardi Gras Massacre in its first hour hasn't bottomed out yet, but at least it has the funk and gore - the final act of the movie has nothing at all except the incompetent framing and dismal acting. It's a suffocating bore where Blood Feast was at least zany and stupid, and I can think of no reason to watch this film when that one still exists, unless five-minute-long scenes of a masked man massaging naked women sounds worth the rest of the slog, and also you have no idea how to search for porn on the internet.

Body count: 4, and not a one of them during Mardi Gras itself, which does rather call into question the title.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. Given that the gore effects are close to being the only thing the film has going for it, it feels right that they are decidedly not for the weak-hearted; still, it's the same "fondling butcher store cast-offs" routine that was a good decade old by '78.