BLOOD SUCKING FREAK: The Participatory Approach To 42nd Street Grindhouse Archaeology

Joel M. Reed fits into the “deep cut” category of exploitation film knowledge. Most who remember his film career remember it for Bloodsucking Freaks, one of the most successful and notorious indie horrors that Troma picked up for distribution.  If your knowledge extends a little further you might remember the late ’60s sexploitation quickies he made, both of which featured future NYC scene porn stars, or his final film opus, Night Of The Zombies, an oddball Nazi-themed zombie movie which featured a rare mainstream lead role for another NYC scene porn star, Jamie Gillis.

In other words, Reed specialized in making the kind of film you would have seen on a 42nd Street marquee during its late ’60s to early ’80s peak period.  That said, there’s a lot to more to his life than just those films and you get a deep-dish insight into that life with Blood Sucking Freak, the recent biography by John Szpunar. It’s the result of a few decades’ worth of work on the author’s part and not only does it capture the scope of Reed’s filmmaking years, it also gives you a feel for what NYC was like in its final “wild west” days before the Giuliani cleanup era began.

If you want the stories behind the films, you won’t walk away from Blood Sucking Freak wanting.  Szpunar’s years of work show here as he not only gets detailed input from Reed on the how and why behind each film but also ropes in a number of cast, crew and financier types.  The stories often read like they would make fantastic films themselves: an oral history of Wit’s End (a.k.a. G.I. Executioner) is a Rashomon-style affair with everyone often having contradictory takes on each event and the section on Bloodsucking Freaks is an eye-popping pileup of ribald tales that show off how wild NYC was in the ’70s.

That said, Szpunar is going for much more than a biography-via-filmography tome here.  Blood Sucking Freak is the participatory kind of biography where the author also plays a prominent role in the story. That’s a risky approach but Szpunar makes it pay off because he never tries to compete with his subject. Instead, the author establishes an apprentice kind of relationship to Reed, who takes on a role similar to a charming, devilish uncle as he reveals to Szpunar the ways of the grindhouse survivor. 

Sections of the book between films are devoted to interviews with Reed taken during visits to NYC as Reed introduces him to different characters from his career and takes him to visit old haunts. A particularly neat touch is how each chapter on a film includes a scene-by-scene commentary with Reed offering his unfiltered thoughts and wisecracks a-plenty as he watches it with Szpunar.  A different chapter allows Reed to offer his take on his feud with Sleazoid Express kingpin Bill Landis: he’s tart in his assessment of the deceased provocateur but also reveals sadness at what seemed to be a one-sided war.

And there’s a final layer to the book that deserves mention. Szpunar devotes a percentage of his page count to explorations of the Times Square in the late 90’s as Giuliani brought the curtain down on its outlaw elements. He drinks in the bars, rubbernecks through the adult superstores and prowls the streets after dark, recording all he experiences in a handheld tape recorder.  These end-of-an-age moments, faithfully transcribed in the book, add poignancy, echoing the sense of longing cult film obsessives feel for an era that breeds obsession but will never happen again.

Blood Sucking Freak weaves these threads into an experience that stands out from the usual director biography.  It devotes a lot of ink (424 pages) to the task but grindhouse devotees will find themselves rewarded with a panoramic elegy for the grindhouse era and how its anything-goes ethos made cult figures out oddball but savvy operators like Reed.

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