Sucking Meaning from Bloodsucking Freaks By Rob St. Mary. Joel M. Reed’s 1976 film Bloodsucking Freaks (aka The Incredible Torture Show) is one of the few films that is still as notorious today as it was when it was originally released over 35 years ago...
Joel M. Reed’s 1976 film Bloodsucking Freaks (aka The Incredible Torture Show) is one of the few films that is still as notorious today as it was when it was originally released over 35 years ago. The only other film I can think of that meets the same controversial label is Pasolini’s Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom. And like Salo, Bloodsucking Freaks has things to say that many can’t see because they find the surface images too shocking to stomach. In my analysis, Reed’s film places female nudity, torture and dismemberment center stage but is not anti-woman. In fact, the film is a radical pro-feminist statement like something Valerie Solanas (of SCUM manifesto fame) could have penned.
Sardu (played by Seamus O’Brien) is the master of the theatre of the macabre a middle aged white man of some continental extraction who provides the stage for the rest of the characters to act upon. Like Sardu, the other main characters are more symbolic than real people. The ballerina, the cop, the football star, the theatre critic and the henchman can all be seen as stand-ins for ideas or concepts. The theatre itself can be seen as a microcosm for the mid-’70s society, a world in which women are dominated by men, made to feel inferior and do the bidding of the master while having their passions taken from them if they refuse to conform.
Sardu (undoubtedly named after French dramatist Vintorien Sardou) is an upper-class gentleman who appreciates the finer things in life brandy, cigars, parlor games, and of course, a little bondage because he’s been a "bad boy." As a businessman, he runs the theatre for the art of it. It represents the legitimate face of his operations. The underground aspect of Sardu’s business is slavery, the sale of young women to the highest bidders worldwide.
Ralphus (Luis De Jesus) is Sardu’s Latino dwarf henchman who will do whatever the master commands in a "Stepin Fetchit" style. We see in the interactions, and the physical stature of Ralphus, that the henchman is never equal to the master. As a little person Ralphus can be seen as symbol of the white supremacist idea that other races are never on equal footing to the white man. We can also see that Ralphus does the bidding of Sardu by torturing the women to his specifications. Sardu is far too dignified to do such things. One could see this attitude as a comment on the place of minorities doing the dirty work of the powerful in society anything from domestics and nannies to waiters and soldiers. The Vietnam War had ended just as Bloodsucking Freaks was being released and that war saw a huge percentage of African Americans fighting on the frontlines.
Maverick (Niles McMaster) is an all-American football hero. He is a big man in the eyes of other men because of his career. Based on 1970s New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, Maverick is similarly good-looking, charming and popular. He’s a real man’s man and a real ladies’ man by extension. Maverick dates the ballerina Natasha DeNatalie (Viju Krem).
Natasha D’Natalie (Viju Krem) is a Lincoln Center ballerina who was kidnapped and forced into Sardu’s show. She can be seen as a general symbol for most women. As for her career, being a dancer or a ballerina is often the dream of many little girls. Natasha is repulsed by the torture show and refuses to be dominated by Sardu.
Sergeant Tucci (Dan Fauci) is a crooked cop looking for a payoff any which way he can get one. He couldn’t care less about the laws and ethics he is supposed to uphold. Tucci is an opportunist who plays all sides against each other for his own gain. He’s a symbol for the government and a comment on the cynicism felt post-Watergate. Tucci could also stand in for the New York City police because the department had just gone through a major corruption scandal a few years earlier that became the basis for the film Serpico starring Al Pacino.
Creasy Silo (Alan Dellay) is the New York Times theatre critic. The name is an obvious riff on long time Times critic Clive Barnes. Silo is a man who calls Sardu on his actions. He’s eventually kidnapped and tortured in the film. His outspoken ways represent an intellectual and enlightened point of view looking at Sardu’s so-called art. Silo can see Sardu’s work is garbage and, beyond that, dangerous.
The various tortures in Bloodsucking Freaks work on a symbolic level. As noted earlier, Sardu doesn’t execute the tortures, he leaves that to Ralphus. As the lesser in the relationship, Ralphus appreciates the privileged position he occupies for doing the master’s bidding. The tortures can be viewed as conforming and containing women’s desires on physical, mental and spiritual levels. The various body parts tortured can point to the various ways society conforms women.
For example, in "the iron tourniquet" scene a woman’s skull is placed in a metal halo and tightened until her death. One could make the case that the world created by the patriarchy (represented by Sardu) seeks to squeeze the mental power out of women and conform them into a cold, pre-set mold.
Another torture of conformity occurs upon Natasha’s kidnapping. She is brought to Sardu who shows her what will happen if she refuses to dance for him. Natasha meets another dancer who had her feet cut off. Sardu uses the removal of the means of another woman’s way of expressing her passion to motivate for Natasha to start rehearsals. The message is clear: do what we tell you or we’ll remove your method of expressing your passion in life.
Later in the film a woman is strapped to a table and given electric shocks via her nipples. Nipples can represent motherhood a place of comfort and feeding as well as sexuality. The torture expresses how society clamps down on woman’s sexual passion and their expression of motherhood.
But the most obvious metaphor for restraining women’s passion in Bloodsucking Freaks is the use of caged, naked, savage women. Naked women in the film represent power and passion. They are kept in a cage this society (Sardu’s world) has built for them. One scene in particular plays into this idea when Sardu calls in a doctor to help nurse Natasha back to health. As payment for his services, the doctor is given a woman to torture. During the scene which involves removing the woman’s teeth, shaving her head and then the infamous "brain sucking scene," Sardu tells Ralphus to get rid of the doctor. We get the feeling that the doctor may have crossed some sort of unspoken line. This can be seen as an interesting statement on how people on the "same side," philosophically, can often times feel like others have gone too far.
After he’s done playing Dr. Mengele on this lovely lady, the doctor is taken down to the caged women and thrown in. They rip him apart. The doctor, a white male in a position of authority, can represent the kind of man society says women should want. He placates the caged, passionate women for short time.
One thing we learn about the world created by Sardu is that women are treated with respect only when they can be used for profit or entertainment. In one scene depicting the slave trade Sardu runs, Ralphus is boxing up one of the women for shipment when a woman pops out of a box. Like something out of a Loony Tunes cartoon, Ralphus hits her on the head with a mallet and pushes her back in the box. Then he places a "fragile handle with care" sticker on the box. Meaning, once we have properly processed a woman she now has a value to us because she has been correctly conformed to our society’s needs.
While Sardu never tortures any women on stage, in his private life he finds a use for the women. Sardu uses several as dinner tables, benches and entertainment. His use of them presents the idea of women as domestic objects with the only real value being how they can serve and please the master of the house while sacrificing their own needs.
The ending of Bloodsucking Freaks is where all the symbols come together in one giant pro-feminist collage of blood, sex and death. The final torture show features Natasha dancing and kicking the critic to death because Silo failed to give Sardu the respect he feels he so rightly deserves. Has she been brainwashed or has she been liberated?
Soon Maverick finally figures out that his ballerina girlfriend is under the control of Sardu the Svengali. Maverick then teams up with Sargent Tucci. The pair then searches the theatre for Natasha. Tucci ends up in the basement with the caged women who tear him apart before they break free. When the women are set loose, Sardu laughs because he knows his own destruction is imminent. As the caged women exact their revenge, off camera, Natasha kills Maverick with a hammer to the back of the head. She then kneels down next to his body to tastes his blood, peels off her coat and runs off naked to join the other women.
As the women dance in freedom, we get a pan shot over the heads of Sardu, Ralphus and a lone black female henchman. As the women continue to dance, we see one eating a sandwich. The final shot of the film is a close up of the sandwich the woman is eating. It’s made from a penis. Since it is Caucasian, one can infer that it is Sardu’s. A penis is the most obvious symbol of a man. The castration and cannibalization can be seen as the women not only fighting the power of the oppressor but completely destroying the system created by Sardu, and therefore, society.
Joel M. Reed film seems to infer that a great uprising is coming as the society and culture we live can no longer hold the caged passions of women. Was Reed trying to make a film full of images and ideas that one could put together, on a symbolic level, during a time in U.S. history when feminism, the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and other rights for women were in on the front pages of newspapers nationally?
I’m not 100% sure.
The main point of the film is to be horror sexploitation. But one cannot deny that these messages exist within Bloodsucking Freaks and, like all great art, the meanings and messages are not overt or preachy. Truly subversive art is often couched in a wrapper that many would find palatable. But, that is definitely not the case with Bloodsucking Freaks. The film still has the ability to shock and discomfort. In my view, the great irony of the film is that if the anti-porn feminists who picketed the release of Bloodsucking Freaks during its original run in New York City in the mid-1970s would have put down their signs, bought a ticket and could get past the images to see the symbolism they might hail the film today as an important statement on the subjugation of women and the battle against the patriarchy.
But then again, those images are so base, at times, that Bloodsucking Freaks is often hard to watch. So, I guess you can understand why the film is still as notorious today as it was in 1976.
Note: If you want to learn more about the production, the history and career of Joel M. Reed download The Projection Booth podcast #40 from 12/06/2011. You can find the podcast on iTunes and at www.projection-booth.com.
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