Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Some Thoughts on…
Blood Beach
(Jeffrey Bloom, 1980)

I don’t know, maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, but this little movie seems to get a pretty bad rap within horror fandom. I mean, of course I understand that those coming to it expecting a routine slasher or a Tremors/Deadly Spawn style monster-bash or something might not get very far with it, but even such sources as Bleeding Skull, where you’d expect an off-beat mess of a film like this to find a natural home, don’t seem to think much of it.

Quoth Dan Budnik on page 14 of the otherwise admirable and highly recommended Bleeding Skull book: “Everyone does their best to be as much of a ‘character’ as they can, but it just doesn’t hold. The scenes between the attacks just aren’t very memorable. They’re clichéd and sometimes boring.”

What can I say - with all due respect to Dan, I felt differently. In fact, I had a wonderful time with ‘Blood Beach’, and particularly enjoyed its unhurried, lugubrious approach to staging a monster movie. Well, things are always subjective aren’t they, and fleeting impressions created by late night viewings of trash-horror films more so than most.

It is sometimes said of horror that a successful movie is one that would remain interesting even if the threatening/supernatural element were removed. I don’t know whether that’s a credo I’d always subscribe to, but in this case it seems apt. In contrast to Mr. Budnik, I found myself largely ambivalent to the antics of the carnivorous subterranean beast inexplicably feasting on sunbathers and joggers beneath the sands of Santa-Monica through the duration of ‘Blood Beach’. Instead, I was pleasantly captivated by the miscellaneous goings on that surrounded it. I mean, sure, it was nice to have the monster there. It gave the characters something to do, and gave us an insight into what they might react when stressed, confused or frightened. It catalyzed the events of the film, you might say. But, for me at least, it wasn’t really the central point of the piece.

Anyone who has read this blog for long enough will know that I have a soft spot for that particular kind of disconnected, quasi-bohemian sense of otherness that seems to characterise horror films set around Southern Californian beach communities. From Night Tide through Messiah of Evil to ‘The Witch Who Came From The Sea’, these locales seem to lend a very specific ‘vibe’ to horror films, and, despite being a considerably more linear proposition than the aforementioned examples, ‘Blood Beach’ has it in spades.

You wouldn’t exactly call this an ‘artistic’ or technically accomplished movie. Indeed, in objective terms you may even by justified in deeming it a ‘bad’ movie – one that is poorly paced and sloppily directed with wildly erratic performances, and certainly one that largely fails to deliver on promise of its somewhat legendary poster (see above). Nevertheless though, it has its moments. The photography is very nice (insofar as I can tell from the terribly degraded version I’m watching – see below), and the musical score sounds surprisingly slick and accomplished for this kind of film.

In between ‘Blood Beach’s more eventful moments, there are many shots of stuff like a guy standing by the sea-front playing a violin, lengthy close-ups of a grown woman doing a paint by numbers picture – you know, that sort of thing. All this eccentricity is a tad over-done perhaps, but director Jeffrey Bloom seems very much concerned with building a sense of place around his characters, and I can dig that. I always enjoy films set in locales that I feel I’d enjoy living in. Do I want to see this place torn apart by some big carnivorous worm? Hell no! I feel quite strongly about it in fact, just like the characters do.

Admittedly, there is a kind of self-conscious quirkiness to a lot of the lackadaisical goings-on here that some may find off-putting, but at the same kind there’s a peculiar earnestness about them too - a gentle, deliberate approach that conversely led to me finding this film is very charming.

For instance, you’ve got this one guy, a minor character who works with the main male lead as a lifeguard, or harbour patrol officer, or something. Said guy has a pretty wild mop of curly hair, and he can’t stick around for the night shift, because, quote, “I’m planning to BOOGIE tomorrow night, and I haven’t slept in a week!”. Say no more, brother – male hero guy understands. In a lesser film, such a conversation would probably provide lead-up for some ho-hum monster/killer set piece. Here, it initially leads nowhere, but eventually sets us up for a delightful scene later in the film where we see curly-hair guy getting his boogie on in a cramped and beer-sodden local bar.

Turns out he is the shirt & tie wearing, Joe Cocker-esque vocalist in a sweaty pub rock band. This is a short scene, no fanfare and it just sort of comes out of nowhere, but it’s great. It has a very authentic feel, and it looks like everyone present is having a really good time. An anonymous female singer gets up from the audience, takes a mic, and her and Curly do a few verses of this really haggard, sub-Gram & Emmy-Lou style wind-swept ballad together. Everyone in the crowd cheers them on (or at least they do in my head). It is awesome. I wish I was there.

Similarly, well, actually quite dissimilarly but you take my point, the soap opera-esque plot line about the main harbour patrol guy getting back together with his old flame after her Dad and his fiancée were both eaten by the beach-monster was quite diverting – strangely touching in its earnest, am-dram sorta fashion.

Meanwhile, Burt Young is in this movie too, which is always a treat. He is hanging around playing a fish-out-of-water sidekick to the main police detective, transferred in from Chicago. His character is very ‘one joke’, but boy can Burt Young ever do ‘one joke’ well. He dresses like a 1920s gangster and he keeps saying stuff like “I tells ya, dis wouldn’t happen in Chicago, hyuk hyuk”. He seems to be drunk much of the time, and a lot of his dialogue is slightly incomprehensible. It’s nice to have him around.

Then, after a while, no less a personage than John Saxon himself turns up, playing a hard-headed police captain who is charged with delivering some of the most ridiculous dialogue I’ve heard in a motion picture in recent memory (“you snot-nosed, scissor-billed crow-bait”, he calls an elderly woman at one point).

Saxon has a great two hander scene with this incredibly untogether, wigged out scientist guy they dug up from somewhere, who speaks in the most unbearably disjointed, monotonous sort of manner for ages and ages about what he conjectures that this beach monster may or may not be. (“What I’m trying to do is… try to define… some kind of living THING… perhaps a creature currently, uh, in a state of a evolution… that CRAWLS, subterraneanly… in, uh… MOIST, probably dark… places…?”.) Saxon, getting increasingly irate, tells him, “You gotta lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo that’s about as much use as whiskers on a sausage!”. Frankly I think someone was putting lines like that in the script for a dare, just to see whether John Saxon could get through them without breaking his straight-faced composure. Needless to say, he bats every one straight back like a pro. It’s a joy to behold.

Now that we’ve got all that straight, let’s sit back and reflect. The Joe Cocker bar band guy, the earnest lifeguard guy and his old flame, Burt Young, John Saxon, the rambling old scientist and their pals – they’re all going to get together to combat a carnivorous subterranean beast inexplicably feasting on sunbathers and joggers beneath the sands of Santa-Monica. How are they going to do it? What ideas will they come up with, and what challenges will they face? I bet you want to find out too, to share this strange journey with them.

Well, don’t worry, you have plenty of time. ‘Blood Beach’ only just got going. If you came for gore and boobs and the not-so-special effects, what can I tell you – the exit is that way. But if you’ve got time for Burt and John and the gang, and you like the thought of hanging out with them and maybe sharing a coffee in a paper cup from the refreshments shack in between searching the sand for body parts (Quoth Burt: “say, what colour eyes did ya stewardess have, I mean, uh, had..?”) and ruminating over what might have happened to that nice old lady who used to go jogging along the sea-front – welcome aboard. I don’t care what anybody says, ‘Blood Beach’ is awesome.

(As a final note, it’s possible I might have enjoyed this film even more if the bootleg copy of it I was watching didn’t appear to be a 3rd gen, cropped VHS rip downloaded from the internet in 1996. I have subsequently tried by best to obtain a proper copy, and am even willing to pay money for the privilege, but no dice apparently. Surely a watchable version of this charming motion picture must have hit the streets at some point! Can anybody help? ‘Blood Beach’ fans, stand up and be counted! If I’m not watching this on blu-ray by the end of 2015, can we really say that the great journey of the human race has truly been worthwhile? You tell me.)


Elliot James said...

Other So Cal films that have that peculiar, undefinable atmosphere you write about are Track of the Vampire with William Campbell (which suffers from B&W photography) and a serial killer film with Tab Hunter of all people. The name escapes me.

Ben said...

Ah, yes - you're right Elliot! I reviewed 'Track of the Vampire' on here years ago... I should have linked to it in the post. I love that film, in all its random, cut-n-paste glory.