During the Blood Cult media frenzy splashed across the trash cinema, monster, and underground movie magazines of my youth — such as my cherished issues of Famous Monsters and Fangoria — I can’t recall if the Hollywood movie and rock ‘n’ roll royalty lineage of director Christopher Lewis was reported on, and, if it was, that it meant anything to anyone at the time.
I doubt it: I was too busy jamming Slayer’s new album, Hell Awaits, and saving my slave wages to see Iron Maiden. I was pissed off I wasted money on tickets to specifically see Saxon open for Triumph — only for Saxon to pull out at the last minute. And I was trying to retrieve my cherished April Wine concert t-shirt from my psycho ex-girlfriend (my nutty, late-cousin, Johnny, made up a parody tribute to her insanity: “Psycho Robyn” — appropriately enough, within the context of this film review — based on the Talking Heads’ hit “Psycho Killer”: Psycho Robyn /She’s a bitch /a ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba bi-i-i-tich).
Anyway, it turns out, Christopher’s dad, Tom Lewis, was a noted film and television producer; his mother an award-winning Emmy and Oscar-caliber actress, Loretta Young. His stepdad was Clark Gable of Gone with the Wind (1936) fame. His uncles were Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II:The Wrath of Kahn) and director Norman Foster (of the “Charlie Chan” series of movies). His rock ‘n’ roll connection came courtesy of his little brother, Peter, who co-founded seminal San Franciscan rockers, Moby Grape. His cousin was noted lap-steel guitarist David Lindley who, in addition to fronting his own psych-rock band, Kaleidoscope, joined the bands of Jackson Brown, Warren Zevon, and Linda Ronstadt (remember his FM “Top 40” hit, “Mercury Blues” from the MTV ’80s?).
Meanwhile . . . cuzzin’ Chris spearheaded the ‘80s SOV home video distribution boom.
In the lost kingdom of ‘80s Big Box VHS/SOV horror (sigh . . . just look at Blood Cult’s beautiful, soft-pak clamshell with the artwork insert), Christopher Lewis was the king of the video fringe that we all survey with his exclusively distributed-by-video store, blockbuster triple threat of Blood Cult, The Ripper (1985), and Revenge (1986; aka Blood Cult 2). For those two gloriously bloody years, you couldn’t open a genre magazine and not see an interview, a film review, or an ad adulating his SOV oeuvre.
Sure the Big Box/SOV horrors Boardinghouse (1982) and Sledgehammer (1983), along with Blődaren (1983), Copperhead (1983), and Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984) — and not taking into account the video-shot-for-television movies canons of the prolific Dan Curtis (‘70s TV Movies!!!!) — were the first of the low-budget, VHS-only issued films. Inspired by the blockbuster success of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, SOV horror films took advantage of JVC’s VHS tape-format and the cost-effectiveness of shooting with 3/4-inch U-Matic tape via broadcast ENG and Ikegami cameras. But those films, while groundbreaking, were mail-order distributed, with a few gaining convention-based screenings at comic-cons and horror-fests.
So while Blood Cult isn’t the “first” shot-on-video horror film, it is the first SOV to bypass con-fest screenings and Grindhouse theatres and Drive-Ins in one-off showings to be distributed exclusively on the new “screens” created by the home video market. Filmed in nine days on a paltry $27,000 budget that wouldn’t cover the cost of a Roger Corman Philippines-shot schlock fest (we love you, Cirio H. Santiago!!!!), Christopher Lewis revolutionized the video store industry. Courtesy of his success, all other SOVs in his bloody wake spilled upon the retail-rental altars of the brick-and-mortar afterworld.
Courtesy of my craving-nostalgia fueled by the glorious results of my misspent youth, I give Blood Cult a Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert “Two Thumbs Up,” a Time Magazine “5 out of 5 Stars,” and the Rotten Tomatoes couldn’t be juicer and plumper; however, I am not going to sugarcoat. The damsels in Blood Cult, with their unconvincing caterwauling under the threat of rubbery blade makes the sundress-clad and high heels-running from Templar-zombie babes on the Italian and Spanish Gialli fringes (can you hear the Panic Beats?) look like Oscar and Emmy winners. If you’re looking for novelty special effects of the Spirit Halloween or Party City variety — this is your movie. If you don’t want be shocked — as the Big Box claims: “In the tradition of horror legends Psycho, Halloween, and Friday the 13th” — then this is your movie. While Blood Cult is no Necropolis (and what SOV is, thank god), the body-part cult shenanigans are more of the Rocktober Blood variety than any of those films.
You have to give Blood Cult credit though: it wastes no time in getting a kill on the TV screen. As soon as the VHS tape rolls — WACK! — a nubile sorority shower bunny loses an arm. Then, on no — it’s a “tell, don’t show” prologue alert: We’re in a bogus crime story documentary about a serial killer collecting body parts in a small Oklahoma college town. The only clues, beside the lost limbs, are some gumball-machine golden amulets left on the bodies. I guess they couldn’t afford any grey velvet or flies, or Donald Duck heads, or lizard skins. Or call F.B.I agent Jake Malloy from D-Tox.
We are, of course, supposed to care for the cadaverous sheriff (that makes horror icon John Carradine look moist) who, in a modus operandi typical of a politician, is more concerned with his jeopardized run for state senate as result of all the limbless woman piling up around him.
Luckily, his resourceful student-librarian daughter, Tina (local Okie actress Juli Andelman of the Cameron Mitchell slasher, The Silent Scream), picks through some books and discovers the shiny trinkets are the symbol of a Salem Witch Trials-era cult bent on avenging the death of 19 witches. To return balance to the afterworld, they must create a complete body—one body part at a time (“my ears, my nose, and mouth . . . head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes” come on, sing it with me)—and have a midnight body barbeque to celebrate.
Uh-oh. Here comes The Wicker Man. All the major political power players in Hicksville, USA are the cult and want Sheriff Cadaverous out of the senate race; so they spike his coffee and ready him for dismemberment and burning . . . and here go again with the was-it-a-dream-or-was-it-real double-plot twist.
Regardless of its SOV shortcoming and, like with John Howard’s Spine, Christopher Lewis knew what he was doing behind the camera; Blood Cult isn’t a Plan 9-Ed Wood boondoggle. Chris capitalized on its blockbuster rental status with Revenge, which picks up where Blood Cult left off.
In the grand tradition of notable-successful actors hitting hard times and slumming in an SOV romp to pay the rent (and for a producer to get a marketable name on the Big Box), such as Michael J. Pollard in Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989), adult-film star Amber Lynn in Things (1989), and Janus Blythe of The Hills Have Eyes in Spine (1986), Revenge stars John Wayne’s son, Patrick — the star of the huge (in our hearts!!!!) mid-‘70s drive-In hits The People That Time Forget and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
Exhibiting still cheesy, but vastly improved technical skills in front of and behind the camera, star Wayne returns home to investigate the death of his brother from the first film. Rut-ro, Shaggy! He runs afoul of a dog-god cult with a body-part fetish overseen by cadaverous horror icon John Carradine who, even with the dreck he’s been in, deserves better than ending his career with an SOV appearance.
In between those body-part cult romps, Christopher Lewis teamed with famed special effects artist and horror icon Tom Savini on The Ripper (because of Tom, everyone rented it). Starring as Jack the Ripper, Tom (who’s very good) comes to possess a college professor and recreate The White Chapel Murders, courtesy of an antique ring.
As with the “video nasty” status of Spine, here we are, 30 years later, able to type “Blood Cult 1985” into Google and take our pick of Best Buy and Walmart, Amazon or eBay to buy our copies. Blood Cult made its DVD debut via VCI Video (2001) as a standalone disc and as part of its three-disc “The Ripper Blood Pack” featuring The Ripper and Revenge (2006). Mill Creek issued Blood Cult on its 12-disc “Decrepit Crypt of Nightmares: 50 Movie Pack” (2007), and as a double feature “Scream Theatre: Volume 5” with its sequel, Revenge (2012).
You can learn more about the making of Blood Cult and the world of SOV filmmaking with a two-part documentary uploaded to the You Tube page of Christopher Lewis: Part 1 and Part 2. While there’s no VHS or DVD rip online for Blood Cult, you can watch Revenge and The Ripper on You Tube.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and B&S Movies, and learn more about his work on Facebook.