Color, 1976, 89 mins. 23 secs. / 88 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Joel M. Reed
Starring Seamus O'Brien, Luis De Jesus, Viju Krem, Niles McMaster, Alan Dellay, Dan Fauci, Ernie Pysher
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), Troma (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), 88 Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

A key title in the history of the Bloodsucking Freaksunrated horror boom from the late '70s into the 1980s is this notoriously nasty, sick little puppy. Bloodsucking FreaksA perennial on lists of the most offensive films of all time and still a popular party title due to its outrageously kinky violence and bizarre black comedy, Bloodsucking Freaks continues in its fourth decade of existence showing little sign of mellowing with age.

A scuzzy New York live theater is drawing crowds with its Grand Guignol depictions of inventive violence inflicted on naked actresses by the master of ceremonies, the theatrical Sardu (O'Brien), and his pint-sized assistant, Ralphus (De Jesus). Everyone thinks the savagery is all make believe, but of course, we horror fans know better. When cranky critic Creasy Silo (Dellay) gives the show a negative review, Sardu and company capture him and subject the naysayer to a harrowing captivity alongside a cage of nude cannibal girls and other random depravities conducted in the show's off hours. Added to the mix is another new unwilling addition, famed ballerina Natasha (the acting-challenged Krem), whose football star boyfriend Tom (Alice Sweet Alice's McMaster) turns to the police for help. Meanwhile Sardu and company indulge in numerous forms of deadly perversion including unorthodox games of darts and checkers, enforced electroshock therapy, and a visiting dentist with a fondness for opera and cranial surgery, the source for the film's notorious current title.

Drawing inspiration from the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (especially The Wizard of Gore) and the sado-sexual excesses of the Ilsa series, this was originally released as The Incredible Torture Show in '76 with very little fanfare from veteran softcore distributor AFDC at the end of their long run (most notably handling several Michael Findlay and Olga films). It was another cheap little sickie from director Joel M. Reed, who also had some seedy but comparatively palatable roughies under his belt like Sex by Advertisement and Career Bed. However, the film was too sleazy and hilariously depraved to stay hidden for long, and when Troma picked it up for a rerelease in 1981 under the title Bloodsucking Freaks (or Blood Sucking Freaks on the title card), all bets were off. National critics were outraged, women's groups loudly protested it in the media, and the MPAA threw a fit when a drastically cut version was approved for an R rating only for the Bloodsucking FreaksBloodsucking Freaksmuch stronger unrated one appearing on movie screens instead.

Troma has kept the film more or less in circulation ever since, with the first DVD popping up in 2000 with the same faded, ragged, but unrated transfer dating back to the mid-'80s VHS release. That edition contained an enthusiastic but unpolished audio commentary by young "blood and guts expert" Eli Roth (way before Cabin Fever), plus a brief (just under four minutes) video interview with him and Arlana Blue, who performs the unforgettable final shot of the film, and Ernie Pysher, the Mozart-singing "dentist," who points out how the film was very obviously a satire of Broadway culture with Sardu modeled after Joe Papp(!). There's also a bit with co-editor Victor Kanefsky, too. The only other relevant extras (excluding the usual Troma ephemera) were the trailer and a stills gallery, mostly highlights from the reissue poster art photo shoot.

Flash forward to 2014, and the film finally received an HD overhaul (supposedly from the original negative courtesy of Troma, but...). The first Blu-ray out of the gate (by a few mere months) came from 88 Films in the U.K., and it's a major improvement all around with more detail, film grain, color, and pretty much everything else you can name. There's some unavoidable grittiness and debris here and there, and it's been matted to 1.78:1 with some obvious horizontal squeezing and compositional issues, but it was still a big step up at the time. The significant extras from the DVD and the preexisting Tromatic stuff (Troma tour, Radiation March, Troma service announcements, etc.) have been ported over apart from the gallery. Miraculously for the U.K., the film is presented in its full unrated cut as well, though the lurid cover art is obscured with a Bloodsucking Freakscardboard O-card simply featuring the title emblazoned on a black background.

Bloodsucking FreaksSignificantly beefier is the American Blu-ray from Troma (with a DVD included in the same package), which features the same image quality but tosses in one heck of an added bonus. They uncovered elements of a longer version under the title Sardu, Master of the Screaming Virgins, with that title sequence now in place, and you can either play the standard theatrical cut or the new extended edition. The difference amounts to about 40 seconds in all, with the recovered footage looking significantly paler in comparison -- but it's a doozy. Let's just say you should pay attention at the 16-minute mark for an eye-opening twist on the relationship between Ralphus and Sardu. The audio here is Dolby Digital versus the LPCM mono of the British one. Kaufman provides a new HD intro to the film, pretty much reiterating what he said in the old DVD release but with extra comments about the recovered footage. The original commentary and interviews with Roth are included, and he's still quite a fan since he also pops up in a new video interview. Running 20 minutes, it's definitely one of his best on-camera testimonial pieces as he talks about tracking down the cast members as a young fan and discusses the sad fate of O'Brien, who was supposedly murdered by a potential "rough trade" partner. No one to this day seems to know what happened to De Jesus, who also enjoyed a career as a porn actor and supposedly surprised Reed with an impromptu orgy at the end of the shoot. The self-promotion runs a bit high at the end as he plugs The Green Inferno and The Crypt, but otherwise it's a great dissection of the film's merits and a good case for its importance in the extreme cinema canon. Also new is a 14-minute interview with WWE star Chris Jericho, who became a huge fan of the film and introduced the character of Ralphus into his routine. The '81 reissue trailer from Troma is here of course, as are the usual unrelated Tromatic extras closing out the disc including the Radiation March, Tromaloha, Sell Your Own Damn Spider, and trailers for Return to Nuke 'Em High, The Toxic Avenger, Poultrygeist, and The Bloodsucking FreaksTaint.

In 2023, Bloodsucking FreaksVinegar Syndrome gave the film its inevitable upgrade to 4K UHD with a two-disc set also featuring a Blu-ray with additional extras. We may not have 4K editions of Seven Samurai or Gone with the Wind, but at least we finally have a pristine 4K edition of Reed's grubby classic in our hands. The presentation (with HDR on the UHD and transferred from the 35mm internegative, the best element around) is back to 1.33:1, a welcome gesture as it's far better composed that way and no longer squeezed, and the leap in quality is drastic with rich black levels, much more natural skin tones, and finer detail throughout. This is also the extended cut (including the Sardu, Master of the Screaming Virgins title card), with the restored scene now immaculate (see the second frame grab comparison below) and matching the rest of the film. In addition to the Roth commentary, you get a terrific new commentary track by John Szpunar, author of Blood Sucking Freak: The Life and Films of the Incredible Joel M. Reed, who offers a packed history of the film from its outgrowth during the development of another unrealized project called Teen Demon, the financing process, the inspiration of a real S&M ballet performance, and wild stories about nearly every single cast member. Absolutely essential listening, especially if you're a fan of the film. "Freaks Come Out at the Drive-In" (14m31s) captures highlights from the Troma-Thon 2023 screening of the film at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, PA, including an interview with Lloyd Kaufman about the film's distribution history and its success as a midnight movie title along with the real and fake women's rights protests. A full live commentary (93m37s) captured on VHS from a 2009 screening features Reed, Art Ettinger and Ken Kish, plus an intro by Reed, with lots of loose and funny stories from the shoot all the way through. The audio quality is hit and miss since Reed tends to mumble and the movie audio is fairly loud, but it's a priceless record to have for sure. A colorful screening Q&A with Reed (55m9s) has him answering questions at length in a movie theater lobby and on a stage, while a "random hotel room interview" with Reed (24m39s) from his Cinema Wasteland appearance lives up to its name as he takes a weird phone call, talks about doing conventions, and ruminates on his career. Ported over from the earlier releases are Kaufman's intro (2m36s), the archival cast and crew interviews by Roth (3m52s), the Roth interview (20m11s), and the Chris Jericho interview (14m36s), plus the reissue Blood Sucking Freaks main titles.


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TROMA (Blu-ray)

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Updated review on November 19, 2023