Welcome to “Original Outlaws,” a column that seeks to canonize cinema’s greatest works of exploitation. Think of it as the Criterion Collection of skeeze and sleaze, a discovery portal for those looking to dive into the deep end of disreputable filmmaking.
Spine Number One of this sticky, icky compendium is the finest work of Manson-exploitation, David Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970) …
uentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood became the latest (and greatest) in a string of modern Manson-exploitation pictures, a minor 2019 trend that includes Mary Harron’s Charlie Says; the second season of David Fincher’s Mindhunter; and the truly misbegotten The Haunting of Sharon Tate. As is common with latter-day transmutations of exploitation, these modern titles are far more tasteful than the subgenre’s origins, which trace back to The Commune (1970), a work of trash art that tragically vanished from Hollywood following a single-week run at Santa Monica’s Paris Theater.
Released a mere seven months after the Tate-LaBianca murders were committed, gay cinema pioneers Shan Sayles and Monro Beehler produced and directed, respectively, The Commune. Sayles’ Nob Hill played The Commune in March 1970. Jefferson Airplane bassist Robert Harvey (billed here: “Robert Harry”) starred as our Charlie stand-in in The Commune, which is, based on the scant information this writer can glean on the barely seen film, a sensationalistic stab at recreating the Family’s orgy-filled days on the Spahn Movie Ranch before crudely refabricating their Cielo Drive slaughter. Ads for Beehler’s directorial effort promised a “document that blowtorches the whole world … depicting the shocking cult of desert animalism and sex cruelty climaxed by death!”
The Other Side of Madness (1971, aka The Helter Skelter Murders) attempted to approach Manson’s crimes with a sense of realism in league with Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967) or Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1970). Produced by Wade Williams, Madness was based on the filmmaker’s experiences witnessing the Family’s trial, as well as jailhouse chats with Manson.
Shot in stark black and white by director Frank Howard, there’s a faux documentary façade that defines Madness’ aesthetic, manufacturing a you-are-here-now-tension. Williams included audio of Manson singing “Mechanical Man” on the soundtrack and never even refers to Sharon Tate by name. This isn’t surprising; most bona fide exploitation cinema isn’t interested in victims, knowing full well that rock-star murderers and their greatest hits are more likely to guarantee butts in seats.
Manson-exploitation achieved a modicum of respectability via Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick’s immersive non-fiction feature, Manson (1972), which would be nominated for Best Documentary at the 45th Annual Academy Awards. Like The Other Side of Madness, Manson borders on exaltation, an unfortunate recurring quality of the “Mondo” styling that, through a barrage of shocking images, often ends up seeming to celebrate the portrayed evil. Despite being recognized by the Academy, Manson would virtually disappear following its wider 1976 theatrical bow and subsequent VHS release.
Yet the finest work of Manson-exploitation came courtesy of huckster extraordinaire Jerry Gross and eventual gay pornographer David Durston, who teamed to deliver I Drink Your Blood (1970). It is one of the premier examples of American exploitation, both in its service as a mirror to multiple societal fears of its time and in its ripping of astonishing atrocities from the headlines, mutating real-world misfortune into a grimy pulp parable regarding the dangers of hippies, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and rabies-injected meat pies. The fact that Durston constructs the picture with the unwavering competence of a filmic carpenter merely makes I Drink Your Blood that much more revolting. This is pure smut, through and through, without a hint of pretension — and it’s glorious.
“Satan was an acid head. Drink from his cup and pledge yourselves. Together, we’ll all freak out!”
The central cabal in I Drink Your Blood is even more overtly frightening than the creepy-crawly flower children they’re based upon, as right away Durston signals his clan to be nothing less than sex-crazed ghouls. Led by a commanding presence named Horace Bones (single-monikered weirdo Bhaskar [Roy Chowdhury]), this Family is comprised of perverse misfits: a primped hustler (George Patterson); a mute sex kitten (Lynn Lowry); a pregnant idol worshiper (Rhonda Fultz); a stereotypical Dragon Lady (Jadin Wong); a promiscuous temptress (Iris Brooks); and an unnamed horde of sex-crazed murderers.
To be fair, this is how the majority of “straight America” viewed the hippie movement. And there’s an air of VD-warning industrial film to I Drink Your Blood, as you can practically picture a horn-rimmed, junior-high teacher, standing to the right of the screen as it plays on 16mm, cautioning the class that should you grow up to love marijuana and unprotected sex, you could become a monster, too.
Unfortunately for these savages, they incur the wrath of a blonde, pudgy moppet who talks like a character from Fraggle Rock (Riley Mills, making his only big-screen appearance count) after they forcibly dose the kid’s kindly grandpa with LSD. In perhaps one of the oddest acts of vengeance ever perpetrated onscreen, the tyke injects the blood of a rabid dog into pot pies that are then fed to the squatting squad. Once the disease — whose symptoms (madness, violence, and death) are explained to both the boy and us by a stock doctor character (played by Durston, no less) — interacts with the hallucinogens already in the cult’s collective system, they become raving lunatics, hellbent on murdering everyone in New York who crosses their paths.
At this point, I Drink Your Blood becomes a zombie movie without the zombies, complete with an awkward interlude where the group’s slutty girl escapes, only to be gang-raped by a crew of construction workers. They contract the disease, creating a blue-collar contingent within the murderous mutant pack.
Coming from a lurid craftsman who would eventually wind up in gay porn, this level of sex panic seems strange. But that’s what makes I Drink Your Blood so special: It’s keying into the fears of every suburban mom and dad who would rather send their seeds off to ‘Nam than see them become flower children. By the time Bones’ Dragon Lady is setting herself on fire in a fashion that echoes Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation, it’s clear who these villains are modeled after. For some, the counterculture and its values were terrifying, and when I Drink Your Blood expanded to drive-ins in Texas and the Midwest, you can bet these images played games with the subconscious of conservative Americans looking for cheap background noise to make out to in their Tornados.
Getting those who would otherwise dismiss an obvious obscenity such as I Drink Your Blood to plunk down their hard-earned green was all Jerry Gross’ doing. Already a veteran of the exploitation circuit — he founded Cinemation Industries in ’68 with partner Nick Demetroules after the Queens duo spent many days studying the shock tactics of NYC’s 42nd Street (heretofore known in this column as “The Deuce”) — Gross made his name with nonsense like Teenage Mother (1966). A cautionary tale about (you guessed it) high-school pregnancy starring Jerry’s wife, Arlene Sue Farber, Mother is little more than a rip of popular Frankie Avalon teeny bopper youth hits like Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). The kicker to Gross’ film? He tacked actual birthing footage he bought from a local hospital for $50 onto the grand finale of his otherwise forgettable lark.
But the movie made money thanks to a ruthless ad campaign that guaranteed audiences would see an actual baby being born on screen. For I Drink Your Blood, Jerry packaged the picture with I Eat Your Skin (1964, aka Voodoo Bloodbath, aka Zombie) from schlockmeister Del Tenney. The double bill’s artwork promised “Two Great Blood-Horrors to Rip Out Your Guts,” blending a man’s melting visage with a decomposing skull; the imagery was so striking that it kept the movie running in Manhattan grindhouses for six straight months while simultaneously expanding to drive-ins across the country, according to Deuce expert and Sleazoid Express author Bill Landis.
“Blood horror” began with Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman’s Blood Feast (1963), which slathered the screen in brightly colored Karo syrup as the film’s central maniac (Mal Arnold) sacrifices ruddy, platinum-haired minxes in the name of preparing the titular Egyptian smorgasbord. The whole exercise is an excuse to deliver as much dismemberment as possible, with Lewis and Friedman becoming the progenitors of literal gore porn. Their orgasms spray plasma instead of semen, hoping to make viewers gag in a combo of dismay and delight.
The “blood horror” tie that binds I Drink Your Blood to Lewis’ output was the element that generated urban legends about the movie’s content as it travelled across America. Gross and Durston pushed the boundaries of acceptable taste with the amount of sex, murder, and mutilation their movie contained, including a disgusting scene in which Lowry attacks an innocent housewife with an electric carving knife. When I Drink Your Blood was slapped with an ‘X’ rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, Gross appealed the classification and lost but released uncut prints into theaters anyway as a blatant middle finger to the ratings board. He had a strict deadline to meet, after all, and days wasted equaled money lost.
By the time the MPAA got wind of Gross’ rebellion, it was too late. I Drink Your Blood was out in the wild, and nervous projectionists got twitchy cutting hands, trimming the more objectionable moments from prints as they saw fit so that their rinky-dink havens for junkies, whores, and winos could evade any sort of penalization from concerned community standards organizations. This Wild West approach to self-censorship made it virtually impossible to see I Drink Your Blood in its uncut form, and rumors regarding disgusting scenarios being sliced out that weren’t even shot in the first place followed the film’s perverted road show.*
Gross would become a wildly influential exploitation maven beyond I Drink Your Blood, having a hand in Melvin Van Peebles’ Blaxploitation landmark, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971); Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated animated, Fritz the Cat (1972); and Meir Zarchi’s “feminist” violation tome, I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Meanwhile, I Drink Your Blood became a Deuce staple for over a decade, showing up on programs whenever theaters needed to fill a shock slot, playing alongside gnarly genre classics such as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Ruggero Deodato’s Jungle Holocaust (1977, aka Carnivorous).
Durston never made another movie that ascended to the same upsetting heights as I Drink Your Blood, though he did deliver two hardcore gems (under the nom de sleaze Spencer Logan) in the Patty Hearst riff, Boy-Napped (1975), as well as Manhold (1976), which held the distinction of being both filmed in 3-D and also buried because it featured a prominent actor who just so happened to land a part in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979).
Durston retired from directing soon after, reportedly ashamed of I Drink Your Blood’s lurid moniker and place in history. The director supposedly wanted to call the movie Blood Phobia (or, just Phobia). How those monikers are any more respectable than Gross’ garish retitling, this writer will never know. Either way, the former Your Hit Parade producer and writer on Tales From Tomorrow reportedly lived out the rest of his days as a decently paid script doctor, until passing away from complications due to pneumonia in 2010 at the robust age of 88.
“The mayhem has been copiously mythologized.”
This is how Mindhunter’s Lecter-esque take on coed killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) describes Charlie’s place in American pop history. His murderous misdeeds have certainly generated some great art, and I Drink Your blood remains infamous all these years later for good reason: It’s trash cinema that’s preposterously nightmarish in all the best ways possible.
*A similar sort of old-school “whisper down the lane” mythmaking would befall Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham’s all-timer rape/revenge shocker, The Last House on the Left (1972), as whole castration set pieces were purportedly lost to the jittery hands of coked-up print builders.
(This article would not have been possible without the research aid of queer cinema archivist/historian Evan Purchell, the writings of Bill Landis, and the recent Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray of I Drink Your Blood.)
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.