Blood Freak opens with director Brad Grinter, seated and smoking a cigarette. Glancing down every three to five seconds to read from the script, he speaks into the camera with that double-edged, apathetic sternness of a post-War dad:
"We live in a world subject to constant change. Every second of every minute of every hour—changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to us, because our level of awareness is limited. Take for example, the things we do and say to the people we meet. All these things affect our lives, influence our destiny, and yet there seems to be some kind of fantastic order to the whole thing. We never know how or when we will meet a person who will become a catalyst—or who will lead us to one. What is a catalyst? Well, in this case, a catalyst is a person who will bring about change. They could be good or bad, but there will be changes. You can meet one almost anywhere in your everyday life. In a supermarket, drugstore, anywhere. Even riding down the Florida Turnpike. A pretty girl with a problem. Who could resist? Certainly not Herschell."
First off, I'm sure a lot of destinies have been irrevocably altered driving down the Florida Turnpike (Aileen Wuornos definitely comes to mind). Secondly: doesn't that monologue sound, you know, kinda stoner-dorm-room-talky for one of the most infamous anti-drug films ever made?
(Side note: my wife is currently looking over my shoulder, rolling her eyes at the Blood Freak poster. Eventually, she says, "but hey, at least that girl has a nice rack." Now, I roll my eyes: "Of course she has a nice rack, it's a Christian film.")
And oooh boy, a Christian film, indeed. As a matter of fact, Blood Freak may be the pinnacle of 1970's Christian anti-drug turkey-man monster exploitation. The other films in the genre just can't touch it. Okay, well, you got me. There aren't any other films. But the Judeo-Christian literary tradition of CRAZY-ASS, HYPERBOLIC ALLEGORY is as old and robust as Man Itself.
I'm thinking, of course, of Jonah and the Whale.
Naturally, a modern thinker and rhetorician may overlook this story and others of its ilk (David and Goliath, etc.), surmising that the introduction of the fantastique ironically dilutes the message and power of God, since the heightened aspects of the stories don't mirror reality—and thus, erode the possibility of a supernatural, all-powerful being. And don't worry, if you're not following me, it's only because you don't have Blood Freak Brain.
The point is, if you wanted to convince a godless philistine to believe in God, wouldn't you tone it down some? Why do missionaries always start at 11? Maybe begin with: hey, if you go to church every other sabbath, it'll make your psoriasis slightly less worse. Or, look at this fucking sweet tax write-off! Salvation also comes with a 20% coupon from Buffalo Wild Wings ($50 minimum purchase).
But back to Jonah. The main thrust of it is this: God was totally bragging to Jonah that he was gonna Sodomize the city of Nineveh, but he totally wouldn't if Jonah went to tell them he totally would. God is basically Anthony Fauci when it comes to whether or not you should wear the mask—masks do help in preventing the transmission of the virus, but you shouldn't be wearing one...[wink]. What the fuck?
Yet Jonah, that rascal, fled from his duty (and ultimately, God), and thinking he was just hired as a staff writer for the second season of Fear the Walking Dead, decided to escape his problems via boat. And we all know how that ended. A storm hits, God saves Jonah (but fuck all those other Jews on the boat who did nothing wrong) by having a whale swallow him. Jonah, seeing the true mercy of God, repents, and the whale pukes him up, so he can go show Nineveh all that sweet whale goo.
Bottomline: Jonah defied the commands of God and strayed in sin, but upon seeing God's true power and forgiveness, returned to the heavenly fold. Which is the exact same story structure as Blood Freak. Minus a blood freak or two.
The Herschell introduced in the opening monologue is a wandering, aimless Vietnam vet cruising around on his motorcycle when he picks up this smoking hot Jesus freak, Angel (see what they did there?). Doing what any good missionary would do, she takes him to a raging drug party, where she instructs him adamantly: no drugs. No, the zonked-out writers of the Gnostic texts would never want that. There, while everyone else is having fun, Angel sits Herschell down and sermonizes endlessly about how God hates anything cool.
Being a Good Samaritan, Angel brings Herschell home to stay with her family. He immediately meets her father, who offers him a job at his poultry farm. In the meantime, Herschell encounters Angel's sexually liberated younger sister, Anne while cleaning the pool (they really put his ass to work). She coerces him into a little pot and sex, and thus, the age-old story of weed addiction begins.
Herschell begins his employment at the family farm in between shifts smoking weed like a crack fiend. Taking advantage of the situation, two scientists performing experiments on turkeys bribe Herschell with grass to be their Guinea pig, in which he has to eat their tainted poultry to see if there are any ill side effects. You can probably guess where this is going...
Never take a toker to a turkey farm, as my dad used to say.
One night, after some bad bird, Herschell has a seizure and loses consciousness. Apparently not bound by any FDA regulations, the two scientists find his body and toss it into the woods, assuming he's dead. Herschell wakes up, transformed into the hideous Blood Freak: all man, except for a giant turkey head. Much like Cain, he wanders the land in shame, slaughtering and eating drug addicts (complete with hilarious ADR'ed turkey gobbles littering the soundtrack).
Now, I don't want to give away the horribly contrived ending, but let's just say Herschell has a chance to complete his Jonah-esque arc, correct the errors of his ways, and redeem himself in the eyes of the Lord.
A lot of folks—even loving fans—rag on this film as Ed Wood-level amateurishness, and I honestly couldn't disagree more. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the acting is rough. Steve Hawkes is the biggest name here, and he was only minutely known at the time for playing Tarzan in a series of Spanish films. Every other actor is what you might expect to find in this type of affair. So not great.
But there is a strange level of craft going on that you don't normally see in an Ed Wood or Herschell Gordon Lewis film: i.e., Brad Grinter actually shoots some coverage! There are closeups and genuine edits between characters talking. The pacing holds together better than a thousand similar films. There's a reason why Blood Freak has clung to the cult world the way it has all these years.
And much of that is due to the movie's earnestness. Grinter set out to make an evangelical film that could play in grindhouses and drive-ins, but he didn't make make a Christian exploitation film, he made an exploitation Christian film. It's just as much a love letter to the blood and sex of the genre (the name Herschell is an obvious nod) as it is a sincere message film. Or at the very least, he didn't feel the more exploitative elements were beneath him—something many genre directors are often guilty of.
Hence, if the road to Hell is paved with the best of intentions, Blood Freak may quite well be the inverse.