One look at David E. Durston and one might guess that he would be the least likely person to have directed one of the most genuinely shocking horror films of the 1970’s, and one brief glance at the truly ridiculous synopsis for his crowning cinematic achievement, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, might cause one to anticipate that the sum will not indeed be greater than its parts. Billed during its time alongside I EAT YOUR SKIN, a voodoo cheapie straight out of the 60’s, this is the sort of film that we only think we know going in, although most viewers will soon discover that this is not the case. This is a curio and a half, an invigorating subversion of genre filmmaking that is as delightfully demented as it is thoroughly engaging. It wears its sleaze on its sleeves, devoid of any real pretentions; all thrills and chills with little time for filler.
We open on a naked fireside ritual being held somewhere in the woods amongst a group of hippies with a penchant for the dark arts, led by the exotic Horace Bones (Bhaskar, an Indian performance artist). They kill a chicken and drain its blood into a goblet before spotting a local girl (Iris Brooks) sneaking a peek at the action from between some trees, who is then chased down and raped by a couple of their men. Devastated, she drags herself back into the sleepy town of Sally Hills the next morning, where she’s taken into the care of her kid brother Pete (Riley Mills) and the owner of the town bakery, Mildred (Elizabeth Marner-Brooks). Her grandfather comes over to check on the poor girl and decides that these rowdy characters must be dealt with immediately.
Meanwhile, the Manson-esque cult makes themselves at home in one of the town’s many abandoned hotels, where they run rampant hunting rats and destroying what’s left of the furniture. The grandfather grabs his shotgun and heads out the door in search of the group, but when he finds them, they take him down and he is force-fed LSD before returning home. Unable to stand by whilst his grandpa is in the throes of a bad trip, Pete takes the gun and goes out into the woods to do some snooping of his own. While exploring the woodland, Pete spots a rabid dog that charges at him, but he’s quick to shoot and after killing the wild animal, he takes some of its blood in a syringe. And what, do you imagine, he does with it? Why, what any other reasonable young fellow would – meaning that he injects the blood into some meat pies back at the bakery, which are then sold to the hippies.
Everyone but Andy (Tyde Kierney), the suspicious and insecure local kid who somehow got mixed up in the group’s nasty business, digs in to the pies and you can probably – emphasis on PROBABLY – imagine where it’s going from there. What ensues is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Psychopathic – not to mention hydrophobic – hippies running rabid around a US ghost town, foaming at the mouth and spreading their disease far and wide. Durston goes all the way, trying his damned hardest to offend as many parties as he possibly can – religious folks, animal lovers, anyone with the tiniest glimmer of hope in the Good Old American Way – and he gets the job done with a more genuine style and class than one might expect.
Jacques Demarecaux’s work here (as cinematographer) should be commended, certainly more than it has been in the past, with his ethereal and startlingly naturalistic compositions complementing the film’s shamelessly nasty contents. Sometimes, filthy movies are shot beautifully, and this is one of them. However, it’s Durston’s willingness to manipulate tone and audience expectations that makes this a significant cut above the rest and it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t immediately register as a dark comedy for most viewers. This nevertheless appears to be the intention, or so the unforgettably over-the-top dialogue (“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head!”) and performances, totally psyched-out self-aware soundtrack (credited to Clay Pitts, who has yet to be found), blatant disregard for scientific fact and frequently amusing editing would suggest.
Sure, it all seems quite mean-spirited, but deep down it is the work of a man whose roots and interests were not necessarily in the macabre, and whose sole desire is to entertain. The tonal shifts may prove to be a bit much for some, alternating between hysterical hippie hangout and sad, disturbing body horror once the pies have been consumed, but they are undoubtedly what make up the film’s distinctive identity. For all their inherent crassness, one feels something akin to sympathy for the deadly deadbeats by the end of their separate ordeals, although it’s understood that they’ve made their own problems up to this point. As hard as it is to watch them destroy one-another, it does make for some spectacular set pieces, such as a sequence which has a mute Lynn Lowry wielding an electric meat carver, and another where Horace squares off against a fellow rabid Satanist, Rollo (George Patterson) in an axe-sword fight. There are many others, but one should embrace all the secrets and ask questions later.
The residents of Sally Hills are like lost souls occupying a space where time does not apply. Mildred looks as if she’s just walked off the set of a porno film, Pete’s an overly moralistic little shit who is most likely based on Durston himself, and the construction workers are an ugly bunch who show their true colors once the epidemic is well underway. A kind of hazy ambience hangs over the film, infusing it with a surreal sense of danger which in turn ensures that it never feels too relaxed. There is authentic tension here, and the pacing could not be more perfect; as mentioned before, there’s little time left for wandering around aimlessly. This is a spectacular entertainment as well as a surprisingly transcendent one and there even seems to be a running commentary about the deconstruction of the American Dream, but perhaps that’s all just as a result of context. It’s nothing that is explored in great detail, but these are the kinds of themes that can make or break a movie like this just by showing up (or not).
We feel as if we’re seeing something we shouldn’t, and the emotions that such an experience arouses from deep within are conflicting to say the least, but healthy nevertheless. The grime oozes consistently from this one – reach out and touch it and you might just learn something. I DRINK YOUR BLOOD revels in its absurdism and artifice, playing more like a perverted piece of performance art than a silver screen serenade, and also works well as an invaluable time capsule. Some films skate by on that alone, but luckily Durston’s opus has plenty more going for it. This is quintessential viewing for the insane, the unstable, and the amoral; it may be the closest some come to sheer filth without actually involving themselves directly. The title may be misleading, as there is no drinking of the liquid red at any point and this is certainly no vampire tale, but make no mistake – this is a groovy good time, an important entry in the unofficial “psych” horror sub-genre that is less about mind-melting visuals and more about the essence of psychedelia. Exploitation cinema doesn’t get much better. “Drink from his cup, pledge yourselves. And together we’ll all freak out!”