THE “GODFATHER OF GORE” FINALLY GETS HIS DUE
After recently viewing the documentary AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, where exploitation director H.G. Lewis has a brief (but memorable) appearance, my appetite was set for more from the “Wizard of Gore.” Directors Jimmy Maslon and Frank Henenlotter do a phenomenal job of satisfying that appetite with HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE, a 106-minute look at the life and career of a man who is both worshipped and loathed in horror film circles.
There’s a lot of time spent on Herschell’s pre-gore films, which were mainly nudie movies. Herschell’s old partner, David Friedman (who passed away this past February of 2011) shares some hysterical stories of what they went through when they got into the nudie film market, and confesses they were coming in on the heels of what Russ Meyer was doing at the same time. But where Meyer shot his women in an innocent, almost artistic way, Lewis and Friedman always featured their women in ways that could more easily be taken as something more than a tame peepshow (and hence a precursor to their coming extreme horror films). And the duo’s explanations of how nudies (as well as all independent films) were distributed back in the early 60s will give modern filmmakers a whole new appreciation for what Lewis had to go through to sell his product.
For those fascinated with the evolution of the “splatter” film, it’s simply amazing how Lewis came up with BLOOD FEAST (1963). He and Friedman had wondered to themselves, “What is something that NO ONE else is doing right now?” (in the world of exploitation films). They had been in Florida staying at a hotel with an Egyptian theme, and before long they started writing/shooting BLOOD FEAST on the fly. Fans of the film will be glued to the screen when star Mal Arnold (who plays the film’s killer, Fuad Ramses) is interviewed (there’s even footage of some early nudie films he had done for Lewis), and when Lewis speaks of the difficulties they had working with Playboy Playmate Connie Mason, who had zero acting abilities and refused to do a nude scene despite being a Playboy centerfold. There’s also much about actor William Kerwin, who plays BLOOD FEAST’s main detective (and starred in many other Lewis films) and was also Lewis’s “do everything else” guy on several projects. Kerwin died in 1989, and his presence as a commentator would surely have added to this film.
The success of BLOOD FEAST (despite horrendous reviews—some critics are interviewed) made Lewis and Friedman a lot of money, and set them on a course they never thought would catch on.
If you’re a fan of Lewis’s second gore film, 2000 MANIACS (1964), you’re in for a treat. Directors Maslon and Henenlotter cut footage from the original film’s opening sequence with new footage of Lewis and Friedman re-visiting the small Florida town where they shot MANIACS, making it look like the original cast is welcoming them back to town. They visit the hotel and some rooms where the film takes place, and there are interviews with some of the cast (including and adult Vincent Santo, who played young Jimmy in the film). Lewis says 2000 MANIACS is his personal favorite film, the one he wishes he’d be remembered for, although he knows BLOOD FEAST will forever hold that title. There are also some great stories of what went on with some of the gore effects, and a near-fatal accident Lewis almost had while filming the infamous boulder-drop sequence.
One of the funniest interviews comes from director Frank Henenlotter. He claims one of his favorite scenes in any movie—ever—is in Lewis’s COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1965). And when you see the scene he’s speaking about, you’ll laugh as hard as the audience I saw this with did. Henelotter’s commentary is always interesting, as are memories shared by director John Waters (who shows off his rare novelizations of two Lewis films) and the legendary Joe Bob Briggs. Former Playboy photographer Bunny Yeager shares some great stories and explains why she refused Lewis’s offer to star as Connie Mason’s mother in BLOOD FEAST.
Being a huge fan of Lewis’s 1970 epic THE WIZARD OF GORE, I was happy to see plenty of interview time with its star, Ray Sager. Every time he imitates Herschell the crowd cracked up, and his story of a blooper he caused on the set of Lewis’s JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT (1968) is priceless.
Every one of Lewis’s gore films get coverage (there’s even a lot of time spent on A TASTE OF BLOOD (1967), Lewis’s attempt at a modern Dracula film), and gorehounds will be happy to know they show all the blood and guts in all their karo-syrupy glory. An audience favorite seemed to be stories told about THE GRUESOME TWOSOME (1967), as well as the dual nipple-slicing scene from THE GORE GORE GIRLS (1972).
While I would’ve liked to have heard a bit about some of the director’s more obscure titles (such as 1969′s LINDA AND ABILENE), Lewis does spend some time explaining what caused him to “shoot” a kiddie feature in 1967 titled THE MAGICAL LAND OF MOTHER GOOSE (and it’s a doozie!). There’s also no mention of BLOOD FEAST 2 (2002) or THE UH-OH SHOW (2009), two recent films directed by Lewis (which I found odd), although they do go a bit into his post-film career as a money-marketing expert.
There’s also a genuine treat IN the film itself: Henenlotter and Maslon managed to get footage of a film Lewis never finished titled AN EYE FOR AN EYE, and pieced it together as a mini-movie (which stars BLOOD FEAST alumni William Kerwin). It’s a supernatural-type thriller and actually seemed to be of higher quality than most of Lewis’s other films.
I’m not sure how interesting THE GODFATHER OF GORE will be to the average horror film fan; surely the history of BLOOD FEAST and Lewis’s early gore films should have respect from any genre fan, but it’s no secret that the majority of horror fans find Lewis’s work too bad to watch and too cheap to even mention. But love it or hate it, BLOOD FEAST started something (and yes, I know a film from Japan released in 1960 has recently been claiming the title as the world’s first gore film—but I’m willing to bet it’s not a quarter as entertaining—or gory—as Lewis’s epic . . . and it didn’t inspire the slasher films to come in the 70s and 80s).
Packed with more gore and nudity than any documentary I can think of, THE GODFATHER OF GORE is almost like watching a “Greatest Hits” list of Lewis’s films, so I’m hoping newcomers will be enticed to go back and check out these precursors to FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) and HALLOWEEN (1978), and the haters may see what a great guy (if not the greatest director) Herschell Gordon Lewis was (and still is).
Even though I’ve been a fan of Lewis since reading about him in the fourth issue of FANGORIA Magazine way back when, have read three books about him, and have met and spoke with him and David Friedman, I still learned some things about him in this wonderfully entertaining and educational tribute that any horror fan interested in the roots of modern horror cinema would be crazy to miss.
(The film is dedicated to the late Daniel Krogh, who filmed a few of Herschell’s later films and co-wrote the first book about him titled THE AMAZING HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS AND HIS WORLD OF EXPLOITATION FILMS [1983 Fantaco] ).
© Copyright 2011 by Nick Cato