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A blood feast of American film

Joe Bob Briggs is the world's most famous drive-in movie critic. These days, however, he's fascinated by films that drove audiences out of theaters.

Movies such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, in which violence became a slow-motion ballet outraging some viewers, or the porn classic Deep Throat that made stag films fashionable. Movies as old as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that introduced the concept of psychological horror, or as recent as David Cronenberg's Crash, an exercise in automobile erotica that came along when Joe Bob thought he had seen it all.

These films and a dozen more that got under people's skin are the subjects of Joe Bob's sixth book, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History! Joe Bob visited the Sarasota Film Festival last weekend to plug his book, host screenings of two of his choices _ Blood Feast and Creature from the Black Lagoon _ and make folks forget for a while that the festival is a classy event.

"I'm sure this is the first, last and only time this particular movie will be shown at a legitimate film festival," Joe Bob said before Blood Feast, the heart-tugging tale of an insane caterer preparing a grisly Egyptian banquet with body parts. "Do you people realize just how sick you have to be to be here tonight?"

Loud cheers from a near-capacity crowd indicated they knew, and they were proud of it.

If you don't know Joe Bob, who looks a lot like a serious journalist also from Texas named John Bloom, it certainly isn't his fault. Twenty-two years ago, he was only a guest columnist for the lateDallas Times Herald where (not so coincidentally) Bloom worked. Some folks didn't cotton to his rambling tales of beer-soaked rednecks and the exploitation movies they love.

Efforts to run him out of town worked. Joe Bob ended up in dozens of cities when someone explained the word "syndication" to him. Bad taste became good business, resulting in a stand-up comedy act, then television gigs for the Movie Channel, TNT Network and Comedy Central, plus publication of five books and freelance work for numerous publications that didn't seem quite as prestigious after he came along.

Now Joe Bob has gone, as he might put it in his twang, semilegit. That Bloom guy must have gotten to him. Profoundly Disturbing is the work of a commentator more than the common man who used to measure a film's value by its quotient of beasts, breasts and blood. The book describes those 16 films in relation to the era in which they arrived, the impact they had upon society, and a lesson that no matter how shocking a film may be, there's something coming later to top it.

"I chose these movies because they're movies I particularly like and they were so upsetting in their time that they actually changed our culture," Joe Bob told a rapt audience during a casual bull session outside Regal Hollywood 20. "They're disorienting. They stun people. In some cases literally, with hacked-off limbs like Blood Feast, or Brigitte Bardot's body in And God Created Woman.

"These are movies that are not necessarily that great _ although I did include The Wild Bunch _ but culturally they catch on, like guilty pleasures. They change the way we actually behave. What I'm trying to do is choose the first film of its kind."

Joe Bob points to the 1972 phenomenon Deep Throat as a prime example. That cheaply produced porn flick marked the first time that couples and celebrities widely attended a dirty movie, unashamed to be seen standing in a ticket line around the block. Suddenly, smut was acceptable, simply by the public demand for it, causing the watchdogs of decency to chase their tails with unsuccessful attempts to have the film banned.

"It was an important censorship escapade because once they decided Deep Throat satisfied community standards, then anything satisfied community standards," Joe Bob said. "It really ushered in an era of pornography that, for good or bad, changed the idea of what constitutes what a normal person could go to watch, and what could be available at home when the video industry boomed."

Other films profiled in the book have more tongue-in-cheek reasons to be there than Deep Throat. The blaxploitation classic Shaft introduced the concept of what Joe Bob calls "pedestrian terrorism" when the ultra-cool hero casually crossed New York streets and flipped off a cabbie who almost hit him. The Exorcist created a new film genre, "Catholic gloom," and an alibi for criminals who claimed in court that the devil made them do it. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs immediately changed the Sundance Film Festival's cinematic tastes from granola to grit.

At the same time, Joe Bob digs into the dirt behind these groundbreakers, fondly reflecting on less cynical days when drive-in hucksters sold shock-schlock like Mom and Dad, featuring a live birth resulting from a teen tryst, as an educational film. None has a more colorful, Florida-based history than Blood Feast.

"In Peoria, Ill., on July 19, 1963, the slasher film was born," Joe Bob said in his preshow remarks. Blood Feast was the splattered brainchild of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman, two guys who made money on nudist camp flicks _ "ugly, naked people playing a lot of volleyball," as Joe Bob recalled _ filmed in the Sunshine State. They wanted to come up with an idea Hollywood wouldn't touch and found it in one word: gore.

Blood Feast is a sorry excuse for cinema. "It's one of those films that gets better the more you know about it," Joe Bob said. "In some ways, it's a little more fun to talk about than to sit through."

So he did, spinning a tale of cheap beach locations in 1963 before Miami was Miami. When innocence was in and lurid was profitable. When a Playboy Club waitress could be talked into a scene with a jellied sheep's tongue in her mouth to be ripped out in the film's most infamous moment. When Friedman bought a boa constrictor for $30 and stuck it in scenes just to get his money's worth. When the star had to read her lines off the furniture.

Lewis and Friedman dragged Blood Feast around the drive-in circuit for years, writing phony letters to editors in the next town on the map, posing as a minister complaining about the film's severity. Protests only sold more tickets. It worked, always, like a charm in Tampa. Things were different in Sarasota.

Friedman couldn't make anyone mad enough there to turn a profit. Then, an idea: He rented a motel room in Sarasota for a local address, then filed an injunction to keep Blood Feast out of "his" town. He got the publicity he wanted, and something he didn't expect.

The judge granted the injunction. Blood Feast could never be shown in Sarasota. Friedman hired an attorney to convince the judge that the plaintiff had seen the movie and had been wrong. This was, indeed, an educational film that should be seen. The injunction was overturned and Blood Feast made another killing.

Such shocking cinema is as old as The Great Train Robbery showing gunfights in 1903, and as recent as Mel Gibson's equally praised and maligned The Passion of the Christ. Whatever stuns moviegoers is likely something they haven't seen before, catches them by surprise and shakes them down. And some will want to ban it.

But, as Joe Bob noted, today's audiences are getting the same cheap thrills from amazing car-chase reality shows on TV and imported shockers from Japan that make U.S. gore seem tame. Yet the 16 films in Profoundly Disturbing each did something nasty first, becoming "a cultural artifact that you could celebrate because it was forbidden, it was antisocial, gross, sleazy and bizarre."

Joe Bob said: "I don't want to get too philosophical about it, but in a way it's like watching yourself watching the film. Part of the experience is being able to appreciate it on two levels: one, as an assault on the senses so it upsets Mom, and, secondly, as part of a subculture that only the cool initiates know about."

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