Double Feature: “Blood Cult” & “The Ripper” were among the first direct-to-video horror films

By on October 24, 2018

Like many of our fellow Night Flight fans, we’re excited for Halloween too, and over the next couple of weeks we’ll be adding new vintage cult horror classics to Night Flight Plus, beginning with Christopher Lewis’s Blood Cult (1985) — the first-ever direct-to-video title — and The Ripper (1986), featuring horror film legend Tom Savini as an immortal Jack the Ripper.

Check ‘em both out in our ever-expanding Horror section on Night Flight Plus.

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Director Christopher Lewis — the son of actress Loretta Young —  attended film school at the University of Southern California, where he was pals with George Lucas.

By the mid-’80s, he was working in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hosting the afternoon news-magazine show, “PM Magazine,”  for the local KOTV channel.

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His wife, Linda Lewis, was working as a promotions director for a local Tulsa radio station, KRAV.

One of her jobs was doing 15-minute face-to-face interviews publicizing new movies coming to Tulsa’s movie theaters. These “Intermission with Linda Lewis” interviews aired on KOTV.

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Since Christopher Lewis really wanted to direct feature films, he and his wife — who became a film producer — came up with the idea to shoot a film which could be sold directly to United Entertainment Pictures (later VCI Entertainment), who provided VHS titles to rental houses.

They decided that their first film could be an exploitation horror story — originally titled The Sorority House Murders, later re-titled Blood Cult – from the screenplay Christopher had written with a former Tulsa-based neurologist, Dr. Stuart Rosenthal.

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That plot concerns occasionally scantily-clad sorority girls at Tulsa’s Central State College who are being savagely murdered, their body parts hacked off and used for blood sacrifices, causing a lot of grief for town sheriff “Ron Wilbois” (Charles Ellis).

The Lewis’s had a very limited budget to work with, just $27,000, and came up with all kinds of ideas in order to save money, including asking friends for favors.

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Only one actor — Julie Andelman, playing the sheriff’s daughter, “Tina Wilbois” — had any previous theatrical-film experience (1980’s The Silent Scream).

Most were local stage theater actors, including James Vance (“Joel Hogan”), an award-winning playwright (he was given a co-writing credit on Blood Cult for providing additional dialogue).

The Lewis’s used the “PM Magazine” crew, who took their week-off vacation at the same time and worked on weekends.

They built just one set for the film, otherwise using existing structures they found in and around Tulsa and Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The dorm footage was lensed at Cascia Hall, a private Tulsa high school, and some scenes were shot at Tulsa’s Central Library, among other local locations.

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The Lewis’s shot on Super VHS video, just like a TV soap opera, instead of 16mm or even 35mm film.

Director of photography Paul MacFarlane did what he could with moody lighting and wide angle lenses to create the necessary tone.

Special effects makeup artists Dave Powell and Robert Brewer created such gruesomely realistic work, despite their limited budget, that Blood Cult was later banned from being shown on two mid-western campuses.

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Read more about Christopher Lewis’s The Ripper below.

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Blood Cult went into production in March of ’85, and by August of that year it was ready for distribution on VHS home video. VCI spent $100,000 promoting the straight-to-video title.

By September of 1985, the Lewis’s discovered their straight-to-video release Blood Cult had sold fifteen thousand VHS videocassette copies at $60 apiece, for a profit of $475,000.

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From then on, thousands of direct-to-consumer home video titles began being produced, thereafter removing the need for theatrical distribution in order to reach an audience.

“Before the Lewises,”
Tulsa World film critic Dennis King (he wrote for Tulsa’s daily newspaper from 1986 to 2006) would note later in an interview, “everybody thought you needed millions of dollars and a big studio machine behind you to make a movie. What they did was the first inkling of democratization of filmmaking.”

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Having achieved success with their first effort, the Lewis’s came together again quickly for their next direct-to-video title, 1986’s The Ripper.

The plot follows what happens when an Oklahoma University college professor “Richard Harwell” (Tom Schreier) purchases a ring at a pawn shop hat once belonged the infamous killer Jack the Ripper, only to find out later that wearing the ring has turned him into a Ripper-type slasher.

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In the film, Lewis attempts lots of interesting flashback scenes by recreating Victorian London on the streets of Tulsa.

Noted makeup-effects artist and future horror legend Tom Savini appears as the modern-day Jack the Ripper (he shows up rather late in the film, unfortunately, in The Ripper‘s final five minutes).

Released in February of 1986, The Ripper sold 17,000 videocassettes, for a profit of $586,000.

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In the Spring of 1987, Christopher and Linda Lewis formed their own straight-to-video company, the Entertainment Group, which would not only create direct-to-videos for sale and rental, but also provide titles for cable and broadcast TV programming.

One of the very first titles they produced was a sequel-of-sorts to Blood Cult called Revenge, which was shot on 16mm. It starred Hollywood film legends Patrick Wayne and John Carradine.

Along with his co-producing wife, Lewis was since directed and co-produced many films (including several documentaries) for the Entertainment Group.

A few of those titles include Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective (a.k.a. The Raven Red Kiss-Off, 1990), Still Swingin’ (1994), Journey Down Route 66 (1994), Hauntings Across America (1996), Haunted Places (1997), and The Psychic Connection: Exploring the Spiritual Link Between People and Animals (1998).

Watch Christopher Lewis’s Blood Cult (1985) and The Ripper (1986) on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.