At the end of September, a filmmaker named Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away at the age of 90. If you’re familiar with his name at all, it’s because he’s often credited (rightfully, too) as being the creator of the “gore” picture, at a time when any kind of viscera was heavily looked down upon. Lewis was more than just a maker of schlocky horror, though; he was a maker of any kind of exploitation cinema, from nudie cuties to biker and teen violence flicks to even a porno or two. The fascinating working career of Lewis is detailed in Arrow Films’ fantastic Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast box set.
As far as I recall — my college days were a blur of way too many bad horror movies — I’d only seen two H.G. Lewis movies up to now: Blood Feast, his 1963 first foray into the gore picture, and The Wizard of Gore from 1970, one of his latter-day numbers. In truth, his career in feature films is incredibly brief but amazingly prolific. He directed just over 30 pictures in an 11 year span before becoming a successful copywriter and marketing guru, a career which made him millions.
There are so many weird and wondrous facts about Herschell Gordon Lewis that this box set — lovingly made to look like a cereal box if the cereal inside weighed 6 lbs. Lewis was, at his heart, a businessman who though making films for the sake of art was a waste of time. He got into feature filmmaking for one reason and one reason only: money. He knew that if he made flicks cheaply and depict things audiences could never get from a major studio, he could get them shown at a minor drive-in market in Florida (where he began) or throughout smaller Midwestern markets for a week and then turn a profit. If kids ultimately liked the movies and they ran for several weeks, all the better.
And in a lot of ways, this lack of “artistry” shows in the films; most of them have strange or nonexistent plots, poor acting, bland staging, grossly flat lighting, and ludicrously over-the-top violence, but these have all become part and parcel to what an H.G. Lewis movie is, and in that way, it’s what made him an artist. He hated second takes; what a waste of money! As Chris Alexander says in one of the set’s many featurettes, you don’t watch and study each movie; you watch the catalog and only then do you understand. His movies are silly, often parodies of themselves, and while it might be tempting to watch them just to laugh at the shoddiness, you’ll find there’s not enough laughable about them for that to work. These movies were like Troma before Troma.
The set contains 14 of Lewis’ essential films. (It doesn’t include any of the nudie cuties or movies for kids he made, though there are several short interviews about them.) What we get is a straight-forward amalgamation of all of hid gore films and a few of his other favorites. I won’t go so far as to give full reviews of all of them, but here’s a breakdown of what you’ll be getting.
Blood Feast (1963)
The infamous first gore film, which runs a spry 67 minutes (he was told they needed to be at least 70 minutes to play anywhere). It concerns an Egyptian man named Fuad Ramses who owns a grocery store and secretly kills and butchers women to create the titular viscera smorgasbord with the hopes of bringing back the goddess Ishtar. It contains a scene where a poor young lady gets her tongue ripped out of her skull.
Scum of the Earth! (1963)
Lewis’ last black & white movie and the only one in this set. It’s not a gore picture but is instead a salacious crime movie in which an innocent young woman is lured into doing more and more provocative photo shoots, first as a way to pay for school, then after she’s blackmailed.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
Another Lewis fan favorite, on the one with the highest IMDb user rating (a whopping 5.9!). It follows a group of Northern tourists who are savagely tortured and murdered during a Confederate celebration of a small southern community’s centennial.
Moonshine Mountain (1964)
The first “oddity” in the set, this movie isn’t gory or violent at all. Instead, it’s a musical set in the deep south.
Color Me Blood Red (1965)
A quite enjoyable entry, about a struggling artist looking for the exact right shade of red to finish his masterpiece of a painting…and guess where the only place he can find that particular hue is? If you guessed the blood of people he has to kill, you are correct.
Something Weird (1967)
A simply fascinating entry, not a gore movie per se, but definitely an odd, almost nightmarish horror movie about a psychic who uses his gift to aid local police following a string of murders, and the old haggard witch who tries to kill him, and with whom he also falls in love…it’s all there in the title.
The Gruesome Twosome (1967)
While all of his movies are in bad taste, this one sat the worst with me. It’s about an older woman who owns a wig shop and has her mentally handicapped adult son murder and butcher woman to scalp them and get their hair to make her wigs. It’s…yeah, it’s something.
A Taste of Blood (1967)
Lewis himself calls this the only true failure he made, and that’s largely because he was coaxed into lessening the gore so that more markets could carry it. It’s about a guy who becomes a vampire and then goes off to get revenge on the descendants of the townsfolk who had Dracula killed. It doesn’t have enough production value to work without buckets and buckets of fake blood.
She-Devils On Wheels (1968)
An attempt to capitalize on the biker movie craze started by Roger Corman and later perfected in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, only this one is about a gang of violent women on bikes.
Just for the Hell of It (1968)
An attempt to start a new craze — the destruction movie. This is about a group of juvenile delinquents who vandalize room after room in a small town. There are massive set pieces where whole rooms are destroyed buy angry young people, and it’s all shot in wides.
How to Make a Doll (1968)
A weird little sci-fi movie about making robotic people to do your bidding. Sort of apropos these days in an Westworld world.
The Wizard of Gore (1970)
Nearing the end of Gordon’s reign as the Godfather of Gore, he became the owner of a movie house/grand guignol in Chicago called the Blood Shed. This movie is an extension of that, about a stage magician who performs disgusting live illusions, including evisceration and head-removal. Everybody goes home happy, content in the knowledge it was all for show…but the real trick is that his “putting them back together” only works for a limited time, and out of nowhere, the victims will be out doing things and drop dead with their guts falling out. Eeeeew.
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971)
A silly action movie where a con artist acts as a preacher to run his moonshine distillery in a small town in the Deep South and clashes with a number of locals and a federal agent bent on shutting his operation down.
The Gore Gore Girls (1972)
Lewis’ final film for a 30-year period, it’s also the only of his “post-punk” period. His movies all look like crap and are shot in wide shots to maximize time and money. However, with this movie — about a supercilious private eye tasked with catching a black-gloved murderer who mutilates strippers — Lewis began to show marked improvement as a director, owing to the story which mandated the audience not see or know who the killer is until the end. Obviously inspired by Italian gialli, this movie is strange and fitting swansong to Lewis’ decade of exploitation and points to how he might have actually begun to grow in technique had he continued.
Each disc also contains many featurettes which include interviews with Lewis conducted shortly prior to his death (still even then a smart, savvy, with-it guy), interviews with filmmakers who’d been inspired by Lewis (like Joe Swanberg, Peaches Christ, Spencer Parsons, Bob Murawski, Fred Olen Ray, Jeremy Kasten, Chris Alexander, Tim Sullivan, Nicholas McCarthy, and Rodney Ascher), film scholars Jeffrey Sconce and Stephen Thrower, video essays on producer David F. Friedman, Hicksploitation cinema, the artist as horror monster, and more, and audio commentary on just about every film by Lewis and others.
This is an exhaustive but highly enlightening look at one of cinema’s true mavericks, who sought only to shock and make a buck doing it. Whether any actual art trickled through, well, that’s for you to decide.
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Images: Shock Films/Arrow Vidoe