Wild Women With Steak Knives: BLOOD SABBATH (Brianne Murphy, 1972)

PTSD au go go.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · May 27, 2022, 10:00 AM PDT
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BLOOD SABBATH (1972)

We are told so often now as to the point of it becoming cliched that women filmmakers are particularly gifted when it comes to something that is amorphously described as 'women's stories'. But what exactly are women's stories? Do we mean stories told from a range of different women's perspectives (hooray!), or do we, more clumsily and reductively, mean stories about women? On the surface, the latter is surely all well and good (certainly a few less dudes taking top billing wouldn't be a bad thing), the problem here is that there is an implicit suggestion that women are somehow limited by their gendered experience to be best suited (or worse - only suited) to tell stories about other women. Which is, of course, bullshit, as filmmaking giants like Lynne Ramsay, Elaine May, and Athina Rachel Tsangari, amongst many, many others demonstrate across their breathtaking and impressively diverse range of films that center on powerful depictions of men and masculinity.

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Jumping back to 1972 and the altogether tackier Blood Sabbath, we find Brianne Murphy and her debut feature film. As the promotional materials for the film make clear, this is far from a prudish, somber exploration of the witchcraft-centric horror film; rather, it's all a little more on the 'boobs akimbo at a psychedelic go-go dancing coven ritual' side of things. At the heart of the movie, we find David (Anthony Geary), a recently returned Vietnam vet who wanders through the countryside with only his guitar for company until he happens across a water nymph called Yyala (Susan Damante) - as you do - and they promptly fall in love. Problem is, they can't be together because he has a soul. Finding himself in the territory of Alotta, Queen of the Witches (Dyanne Thorne), David wonders, might she hold the key to helping him get what he wants and protecting the innocent children of a nearby village from being sacrificed?

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Murphy would only direct one other film - the teen drama To Die, To Sleep in 1994 - but she has a significant place in film history as a cinematographer. As the Director of Photography on Anne Bancroft's Fatso in 1980, she became the first woman DOP on a major studio film. An award-winning cinematographer (she even won an Academy Award for Scientific and Engineering Achievement in 1982), Murphy's life story alone sounds like it would make an amazing film; born in London, she started her career as an actor, working everywhere from rodeos to allegedly crashing a circus playing at Madison Square Garden and pretending to be part of the troupe.

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And yet somehow, despite the otherwise impressive legacy of its director, Blood Sabbath has by and large fallen off the horror radar, even for those who purport to have an interest in women-directed genre movies. Sure, it may not exactly be a perfect film, but frankly, I have seen worse. One of the things I find so endlessly intriguing about this film - witches and boobalicious go-go dancing aside - is just how centrally David's war trauma sits at the heart of the film. Blood Sabbath was written by William A. Bairn, who didn't have a lot of other credits to his name; he wrote the story Joseph Adler's Sex and the College Girl was based on, and worked on the English language dialogue of Mario Bava's Baron Blood.

But somewhere in there, woven deep into the fabric of Blood Sabbath and the collaboration between Geary, Murphy, and Bairn, something really fascinating happens in terms of how David's war trauma manifests in what, one reading of the film may indicate, is nothing more than a delusional fantasy. Or not. It may not be up there with Jacob's Ladder or The Deer Hunter, sure, but there is a whole aspect to Blood Sabbath that has been broadly ignored and overlooked, just as the film itself has. Hopefully, this article will help remedy that, even if just in a small way.