I didn’t particularly care for the films of American director and producer Herschell Gordon Lewis, who was nicknamed ‘the Godfather of Gore’ and who passed away on September 26th. That said, I certainly liked the idea of Lewis.
Lewis’s exploitation movies spanned a variety of genres – softcore erotica (usually set in nudist colonies and including the likes of 1963’s Goldilocks and the Three Bares), comedies, children’s movies and at least one feminist biker flick, 1968’s splendidly titled She-Devils on Wheels. However, it’s for his horror films that he’ll be remembered, and for the simple but at the time innovative approach that he brought to the horror-film genre. He made the first horror movies that were truly horrible, i.e. loaded with bloodletting, dismemberment, disembowelment, scalping, eye-gouging, tongue-ripping and so on: Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), Colour Me Blood Red (1965), Taste of Blood (1967), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Gore Gore Girls (1972).
Not unexpectedly, Lewis’s approach did not go down well with mainstream movie critics – “Thoroughly revolting Z-grade garbage” was a typical assessment of Blood Feast – and his horror films were hardly the stuff that mainstream movie audiences flocked to. But they still packed enough folk into America’s drive-ins for them to turn a tidy profit and, over the years, he found a number of admirers among left-field film fans, filmmakers and commentators.
Needless to say, his work didn’t make its way to Britain anytime soon. I remember reading about Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs in film books and magazines when I was a kid and thinking, “Wow, these must be the most hideous and terrifying films ever made!” But at the same time I knew the chances of me seeing them in the censorious UK were non-existent. The chances became less than non-existent during the 1980s when politicians, tabloid newspapers and moral campaigners worked themselves into a lather over the ‘video nasties’ scare.
In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that I finally laid eyes on some footage from his movies. This was courtesy of Jonathan Ross’s offbeat TV series The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which devoted a whole episode to Lewis.
© The Jacqueline Kay Inc. / Friedman-Lewis Productions
How different it is today. We live in an era when Britain’s Horror Channel – available for all to watch on Freeview – airs Herschell Gordon Lewis double-bills regularly and quite a few of his movies are up on the Internet. And with modern films featuring high-tech animatronic and computer-generated effects, Lewis’s movie gore – basically all the offal he could find at the local butcher’s shop and lots of bright red paint – looks so primitive it almost has a retro charm.
Blood Feast was the film that made Lewis’s name and it remains his most famous, or infamous, effort. I have to say it’s a very bad film. The acting is atrocious, the budget is visibly tiny and the general level of professionalism is not much higher than Ed Wood standards. And yet… It might be one of the worst films I’ve seen, but I’ve never been able to forget it. Somehow, it still creeps me out. Maybe it’s the stark, single-minded way it goes about its bloody business – something reinforced by the score, a slow, thudding, doom-laden thing that’s little more than a funereal drumbeat. It’s so minimalist it makes the synth scores that John Carpenter did for his movies sound like Vivaldi.
Among the rest of Lewis’s oeuvre, I’ll admit to liking (a little bit) 2000 Maniacs, possibly because it’s an insolent remake of Brigadoon, the cheesy 1954 MGM musical about a phantom Scottish Highland village that appears out of the mist for one day every century. But while the village in Brigadoon appears so that Gene Kelly and Van Johnson can use it as a backdrop for song-and-dance numbers like The Heather on the Hill and I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean, the phantom village in 2000 Maniacs has a darker purpose. It’s a southern USA village whose inhabitants were slaughtered by Northern forces during the Civil War and now, as ghosts, they reappear every so often to take bloody revenge on any hapless Yankee travellers who come their way. As a commentary on the horrors of the Civil War, it’s hardly in the class of, say, the fiction of Ambrose Bierce; but in its crude, tacky way it’s effective.
I also have to confess to liking, again a little bit, 1970’s The Wizard of Gore, which is about a stage magician who uses power tools to perform mind-bogglingly gruesome tricks on volunteers from the audience. When the tricks are over, the volunteers seem to be alive, well and in one piece. But later, after the show, they revert to the grisly state they were in onstage and, obviously, die. Again, it’s cheap and ineptly made, but the film has a weirdness that’s difficult to forget. The Wizard of Gore also won Lewis one of his very few acknowledgements from mainstream cinema. In 2007’s acclaimed comedy-drama Juno, Jason Bateman’s music / comic-book / movie nerd convinces Ellen Page’s Juno that The Wizard of Gore is a better horror movie than Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). I have to say that if they honestly believe Lewis’s schlocky little opus to be superior to Argento’s masterpiece, Bateman and Page must be really thick.
© Mayflower Pictures
What I love about Lewis, though, is that in the early 1970s he packed in filmmaking and turned to something very different – advertising! He established himself as a guru on the subject and made a fortune writing books about it, including 1974’s The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion and 1977’s How to Handle your own Public Relations. His speciality was direct marketing, the practice of blitzing large numbers of people with word of your product via phone calls, texts, emails, leaflets and so on. While this usually results in the majority of those people ignoring you or getting pissed off at you, it should hook a sufficient minority of them to make the exercise worthwhile. In a way, that’s the effect Lewis’s horror movies had on the public too.
So Lewis ended up a very wealthy man – an exemplification of the American Dream. The fact that he achieved that dream on the back of direct marketing and excessive bloodletting seems odd but, also, appropriately American.