... aka: Heritage of Caligula, The
... aka: Heritage of Caligula: An Orgy of Sick Minds, The
... aka: Incredible Torture Show, The
... aka: Sardu
... aka: Sardu: Master of the Screaming Virgins
Joel M. Reed
I've always felt it best to judge movies strictly on their individual intentions. Every movie is made for a reason and for a specific type of audience. Just because you or I don't happen to be that particular audience doesn't necessarily mean the film is bad per se. It can also mean it just wasn't meant for us or we had certain expectations (perhaps even unfair ones) that weren't fulfilled. One common reference point in the improper evaluation of horror films is the anti-slasher flick crusade - which eventually more-or-less morphed into the 'anti-violent movie' crusade - shepherded by the late "Two Thumbs Up / Down" gurus Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. As opposed to actually evaluating these films on an individual basis, both men fell into the trap of using their platform to criticize people - the audience - who got enjoyment out of these films. In other words, they were passing negative judgment on others simply because they happened to like seeing things they personally didn't. In doing so, both wrongfully drew parallels between the violence depicted on the screen and an increasing, perceived lack of morals they personally felt uncomfortable with. This stance was especially perplexing in Ebert's case since he'd previously scripted the X-rated sex-and-violence exploitation film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and had written a glowing review for Wes Craven's notoriously violent The Last House on the Left (1972). I hope both men eventually came to the realization that none of the films they spent years obsessively worrying about had the negative impact on society they assumed they would. While Siskel and Ebert eventually did seem to lighten up a bit on their wishy-washy sanctimonious stance, some reviewers never did... and never will.
Case in point is critic Kyle Smith, who writes for the staunchly conservative New York Post. Smith's political beliefs bleed into nearly every review he writes and if a film's viewpoint happens to differ from his own, he often simply brands it a bad film. Smith's conservatism is not the issue here. The issue is that his conservatism clearly takes precedence over his love for film and completely clouds his ability to be objective. Sure, everyone has their own beliefs and their own biases, but this man is so rigid and inflexible, he has absolutely no business being in the line of work he's in. As a result he joins the equally ridiculous Armond White as today's most laughed-at critics. Both seem to realize - and revel in the fact - that they're getting attention. After all, negative attention is better than no attention at all, right? Just ask any 5-year-old. [For the record, this same problem often plagues more liberal film critics, who are frequently more lenient with films that blatantly push their ideology. It goes both ways.]
On the flip side, Kevin Thomas, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times until 2005, sadly hasn't been given his due for being a champion of horror over the years, even when it was extremely unpopular to be doing so. This man was one of the only mainstream critics around in the 70s and 80s who seemed to actually enjoy horror and exploitation films and show genuine enthusiasm for them. He had a knack for being able to fairly evaluate various films within the genre on their own terms. While he certainly didn't praise every horror flick he watched (far from it), he seemed to know what he was getting himself into, understood the unjustified bad rap genre films were getting and embraced the credo that there's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying these kind of films. Thomas also had no problem sharing an unpopular opinion, even ones deemed laughable by many of his peers. For instance, he felt that Vincent Price should have won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Theatre of Blood (1973) but wasn't even in consideration because of the unfair bias genre films face.
Sitting down to watch Bloodsucking Freaks, I was already aware of numerous things. I was aware that the film had been somewhat controversial upon release. I was aware that theaters who showed the film were picketed by angry feminists from the organization Women Against Pornography. I was aware the film got absolutely demolished by critics. And I was aware that the film was deemed offensive and in extremely poor taste. And I can now totally understand all of the above. I understand the controversy and rage from some women: this movie is misogynistic. I can understand critics disliking it, not only for the content, but for the fact it's rough around the edges, has wildly uneven acting, murky photography and other technical guffaws that belie its very low budget. And the film is indeed offensive and in extremely poor taste. However, it was made specifically to be offensive, misogynistic and in extremely poor taste. In fact, it takes absolute glee in being all of the above. In other words, it achieves just what it set out to do. If you don't want to see it, simply don't watch it. From my perspective, there's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to see imaginary depictions of any kind of questionable content imaginable. We all have a bit of morbid curiosity inside of us, even those who'll never admit it.
Centered around "Sardu's Theatre of the Macabre" in New York City, Freaks is essentially an updating of Grand Guignol for the 42nd Street Grindhouse crowd... only in this particular Grand Guignol theater, the tortures depicted on stage happen to be real. The highly mannered and glibly sadistic Master Sardu (Seamus O'Brien) runs the joint. Under his employ are many shady types who help him kidnap various women, who are then stripped bare and sadistically tortured into obedience and compliance. Some of these women become "actresses" and are tortured and murdered on stage in front of a live audience, while others are sold to a white slave dealer (Alphonso DeNoble), knocked out, put in shipping boxes and then mailed off to some third world country! Those woman who can't handle the stress and go crazy are thrown into a cage naked and fed scraps of raw human meat from the various victims. Quite an establishment they've got going on there!
Sardu's right hand man is Ralphus ("Louie" / Luis de Jesus), a twisted dwarf who takes great pleasure in torturing, killing and doing - a-hem - other things with the victims. During one scene, he slowly saws off a woman's hand and then pulls out her eyeball and eats it. He also likes to ride naked women like horses, goes out with a blowgun to acquire new victims, gets frisky with a freshly-severed head, administers electroshock to nipples and terrorizes the ladies with whipping and nonstop cymbal playing. The theater also employs two usually-topless black female assistants (in an idea probably pinched from Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks), who aid Sardu and whip him when he's in the mood for it. A demented doctor (Ernie Pysher) occasionally swings by to help in exchange for getting to do things like drilling a hole in a woman's head and sucking out her brains with a straw. When they're not being outright killed or being shipped overseas, the captive females are used as tables, chairs and dartboards and are clubbed, kicked, smacked, whipped and casually knocked around by the cast as if they're some petty inconvenience.
Celebrity couple Tom Maverick (Niles McMaster), a famous football player, and Natasha de Natalie (Viju Krem), a famous prima ballerina, get mixed up in the action after attending one of the shows and Sardu decides he wants to be taken seriously as an artist by combining ballet with sadism. He then has her kidnapped and brought back to his theater where she's subjected to rape, brainwashing and torture until she agrees to perform for him. Tom enlists the aid of a scumbag detective (Dan Fauci) to try to locate her. Also finding himself kidnapped and being held prisoner is snobby theater critic Creasy Silo (Alan Dellay), who refuses to write a review about the "third rate magic show" so he's chained up, tricked into eating human flesh and force fed. Sardu's ultimate plans are for Natasha to murder him on stage in front of a live audience.
There are many genre films that claim to be shocking and many genre directors who claim they're pushing the envelope, but this is one of the few films that actually delivers on those promises. This is exploitation cranked up to extreme levels with Reed giving trash movie fans everything they want to see and perhaps even a few things they don't. There's lots of gore, inventive torture techniques, rape, near-constant full frontal female nudity, cannibalism, castration, necrophilia, you name it and it's probably here. The strange magic of this one is that the director somehow manages to keep the film from becoming completely depressing by leavening the depravity with sick humor and macabre one-liners whilst allowing many of the actors to ham it up even in the most ghastly of situations if need be. Though much of the acting is admittedly awful, O'Brien adds a surprising dash of class to the proceedings by giving an inspired performance as our Master of Ceremonies.
Much of the primary cast was dead by 1990. The British-born O'Brien, primarily a stage actor, was murdered in his apartment by a burglar in 1977. The morbidly obese DeNoble (who also appeared in ALICE, SWEET ALICE around the same time, along with McMaster) is said to have died in 1978. Leading lady Krem (a former model who authored the book How to Become a Successful Model in 1975) was accidentally shot and killed by her husband in a hunting accident in 1983. De Jesus (star of the notorious porn loop The Anal Dwarf and later adult titles) died of a heart attack in 1988. Speaking of porn, the several dozen nude women featured here were mostly New York-based porno actresses of the time, including Ellen Faison, Arlana Blue, Crystal Sync and Juliet Graham. Non-porn actresses Rita Montone (from the slasher classic Maniac) and Jennifer Stock (from the wonderfully awful Shriek of the Mutilated) also have small roles.
American Film Distributing Corporation originally released this unrated to theaters under the title The Incredible Torture Show in 1976. Once Troma acquired the rights, they re-titled it Bloodsucking Freaks, whittled the film down considerably to gain an R rating and then released the uncut film theatrically instead, which got them in hot water with the MPAA. Troma also somehow managed to get this into the Cannes Film Festival, likely so they could benefit from the obligatory bad press that followed. IMDb lists other alternate titles like The House of Screaming Virgins and Sardu: Master Of The Theatre Of The Macabre but I can find no evidence that the film was released under any of those titles.