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Herschell Gordon Lewis, Godfather of Gore - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2008

Films directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis on (re)Search my Trash

 

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First and foremost, Herschell Gordon Lewis is of course known as the Godfather of Gore, a title nothing short of fitting considering his amazing accomplishments that helped to create modern gore cinema as such. But to reduce Lewis merely to his output inside the gore genre wouldn't do justice to the man, who from the late 1950's to early 1970's worked in quite a variety of genres, shooting movies almost exclusively for the drive-in and grindhouse market, and one thing these films do almost all have in common, and it's not their explicitness (neither concerning sex nor violence) but their humour, as most of his films have a comic edge to it not usually seen in your standard, sensationalist drive-in fare. And thanks to their tongue-in-cheek approach, Lewis films are never quite as stupid as their often outrageously silly storylines make them out to be.

 

That said, Herschell Gordon Lewis never took too much pride in his work, he never saw himself as the big artist, but merely as a craftsman cranking out what the public wants - and he often took swipes at exploitation directors who saw themselves as auteurs ... which is kind of ironic, because among the many exploitation filmmakers, he is one of the few who has over the years developed a personal style, one that makes his films easily recognizable (and I'm not talking about his gore-scenes here, even if Lewis has put a unique spin to them too) - which would of course qualify him as an auteur in the explotiation field (thing is of course, you can't plan on becoming an auteur, either you have the talent or you don't).

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Considering the outrageousness of at least some of Herschell Gordon Lewis' films (and the inherent sleaze of others), his early, pre-film business life seems rather uneventful if not to say boring:

Lewis was born in 1926 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He later studied at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and got a Master's degree in Journalism. Eventually, he became a professor of English literature at Mississippi State College, but soon would leave that job again to work first on radio, then television in its early days, and eventually he would move to Chicago and go into advertising. In Chicago, he soon teamed up with Martin Schmidhofer and the two formed an advertising company of their own, rather ironically titled Lewis and Martin Films, which also had its own studio to film TV commercials.

Schmidhofer though soon grew tired of advertising and moved to Florida, leaving the company to Lewis ... and Lewis soon figured that with a film studio of his own, the best idea would be to start producing feature films, in which he figures was quite some money to be made, especially in the drive-in circuit.

 


 

Sexploitation

 



Lewis produced his first film, The Prime Time, in 1960, directed by Gordon Weisenborn (sometimes mistaken for an alias of Lewis himself). The Prime Time was a not particularly good but highly sensationalist movie about a young girl's coming of age with a bit of nudity thrown into the mix (including nude scenes of a young Karen Black in her first film).

What Lewis definitely did not like about this movie was handing direction over to someone else, since he couldn't see Weisenborn do anything that he couldn't do himself (Lewis by that time did already have a background in directing advertisements and television), and Lewis knew for sure he could do it more cost conscious ... so for his second film, The Living Venus (1961), Lewis (who back then pretty much paid for these films out of his own pocket) was happy to take over directing chores himself.

The Living Venus, a film about a Hugh Hefner-style magazine editor, was sleazy enough to lure in a sizeable audience but still tame enough to get by the (then much stricter) censor, and both this one and The Prime Time made ok profits - but still blew up in Herschell Gordon Lewis' face when the distributor went bust before Lewis was paid any significant share of the money that the films had made.

 





So having made two films, Herschell Gordon Lewis' career almost came to a halt, and he even sold his Chicago studio to at least be able to carry on. Still, his initial experiences in the film business were not all bad, since on the set of The Living Venus, Lewis met David F.Friedman, a former carnival promoter who back then worked for Lewis' distributor - and it seemed, in Friedman Lewis has found the Yang to his Yin: Friedman knew his way about producing and distributing films while Lewis was a director who was not too proud to make films along advertising campaigns (instead of the other way round) and direct whatever was thrown at him - and in the early 1960's, in the wake of the Russ Meyer-sex comedy The Immoral Mr Teas (1959), sex movies were the thing to do ... if you wanted to make a quick buck from minimal investment at least.

 



So after some sexy one-reelers, Lewis and Friedman got into sexploitation feature filmmaking with The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), a by today's standards harmless sex comedy that was considered pretty risqué though for its time (and truth to be told, it still couldn't be shown on US-American terrestrial television), which made Lewis and Friedman quite an amount of money ... also of course because this time around, they handled distribution themselves, and because Lewis was an extremely economical filmmaker, using just 8,000 feet of filmstock for a film that ran 6,300 feet - which leaves an incredibly small margin for error.

 

So, with Adventures of Lucky Pierre doing pretty well, Lewis and Friedman decided to handle a few more sex films, the nudist camp films Daughter of the Sun (1962), Nature's Playmates (1962), Goldilocks and the Three Bares (1963) and Bell, Bare and Beautiful (1963) - while seeming nothing short of ridiculous today, the nudist camp movie was one of the few genres actually showing bare breasts in the early 1960's -, and the sex dramas Boin-n-g and Scum of Earth (both 1963).

 



By the way, Lewis made several of these films under an alias, as was standard at the time in the sex movie business, but since Lewis saw himself more as a craftsman than as an artiste, he didn't try particularly hard to hide his true identity behind a made up name - Lewis H.Gordon is not really too misleading, now is it? Accordingly, David F.Friedman called himself Davis Freeman to hide (?) his identity.

Still, after a while, the market by that time also had become over-saturated with nudie flicks and Lewis and Friedman seem to have grown tired of nthem too and were looking for something new to try their hands on ...

 


 

Gore

 


Looking for something that hasn't been done before and that would promise a tidy profit at the box office (just like nudie films did just a few years back), Lewis and Friedman came up with a shocker that went straight to the jugular, a horror film that not only suggests murders, bodily mutilations and the like but actually showed them - and thus, Blood Feast (1963) was conceived.

As a movie, Blood Feast - a film about a caterer (Mal Arnold) who brutally kills people in order to sacrifice them to Egyptian God Ishtar (actually, Ishtar is a Babylonian God, but not too much research was put into writing of the film) and plans to publicly slaughter a girl (Connie Mason) at her own birthday party - actually isn't all that good (and certainly not one of Lewis' better ones), the script lacks decent pacing and humour (rather unusual for a Herschell Gordon Lewis shocker), Mal Arnold's overacting is almost ridiculous but without actually being funny, and the dialogues often border the clumsy ... but the film has something other films of the time just didn't have: an abundance of extremely explicit gore scenes, and even if these scenes were crudely executed not only by today's standards, they certainly were effective nevertheless, and thus, virtually overnight, the gore- or splatter-genre was born. (All that said of course, I'm not implying that Blood Feast is not fun to watch even when disregarding its film-historical significance, it's just that it could have been done much better.)

 



Allegedly, once they had finished Blood Feast and handed it over to the theatres, Lewis and Friedman quickly lost faith in their procject, thinking it too radical for the audiences of the day besides being really shoddily made - but once they saw the lines of cars at drive ins all over the country waiting to get in to see the film and received the box office returns, they quickly changed their mind about Blood Feast and the splatter-genre as such - and one year later, they came up with a follow-up ...

 


Fortunately, Lewis and Friedman did not make the mistake to simply shoot a rehash of the first movie, and thus kill the genre pretty much upon arrival, instead they learned from their obvious mistakes making Blood Feast and improvee over them - and their effort paid off: 2.000 Maniacs (1964) is a vast improvement over Blood Feast in pretty much every department: It contains better (if by no means perfect) acting perormances, a much more elaborate plot, more inventive murder-scenes, and there's a certain comedic edge to 2.000 Maniacs as well that makes it almost irresistible - in its own, far-out way, that is.

Basically, 2.000 Maniacs is Brigadoon (1954, Vincente Minelli) retold as a gore film: In this one, a Southern town appears out of nothing every hundred years to give abode to a few Northern tourists - to have them brutally slaughtered as revenge for the Civil War. Of course, the whole plotline is more than a little silly, but that actually is part of the film's charm, and Lewis handles the whole thing with the necessary rough verve to make it into an entertaining piece of crude drive-in fare of the rather violent variety.

 


Just like Blood Feast, 2.000 Maniacs did phenomenal business (and unlike the somewhat shoddy Blood Feast, it was a film Lewis was really proud of and later named the favourite among his films), so it wasn't long before Lewis and Friedman made a third gore flick, Color Me Blood Red (1965).

 


However, just like Lewis' first two gore films had little in common, so did Color Me Blood Red differ from the first two, as it was less of an in-your-face shocker and more of a macabre comedy, the story of a desperate artist (Don Joseph) who is convinced his pictures suck and his career is at a standstill because he just cannot find the right shade of red to make his paintings perfect. Ultimately though, he finds exactly the red he is looking for, and it is - you've guessed it - blood, and all of a sudden he is able to paint masterpiece after masterpiece - but of course, at the expense of human lives - I mean, the blood has to come from somewhere, right?

Compared to the two earlier films, Color Me Blood Red is most certainly much more restrained, but what the film might lack in explicit violence it makes up for in dark humour - and thus the whole film is less of another Blood Feast and more of a Bucket of Blood (1959, Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here]) - interestingly this phrase also works figuratively speaking.

 


 

Parting Ways and Branching Out

 

During the filming of Color Me Blood Red, due to an argument, Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F.Friedman decided to discontinue their partnership, though it's not exactly clear why. However, their split must have been rather suddenly because it's actually rumoured that Friedman eventually finished Color Me Blood Red himself - not that that would by any means show.

Interestingly, immediately after their split, neither Friedman nor Lewis would comtinue making gore films right away: While Friedman went back to the sexploitation genre for the next few years, Lewis tried his hands on a variety of genres - with only limited success for the most part.



  • Moonshine Mountain (1964), the first film Lewis made after splitting from Friedman, is a backwoods comedy with a rough edge to please the drive-in crowd.
  • Sin, Suffer and Repent (1965) started life as a sex education reel, complete with the then stock-in-trade live birth, and eventually the whole thing was padded out to feature length. Unfortunately though, this film seems to be lost as of this writing (fall 2008).
  • Monster a Go-Go (1965) is actually actually credited to Bill Rebane as director while Lewis officially only handled production, but it is said that Lewis finished the film after Rebane bailed out. Be that as it may, Monster a Go-Go, your typical sci-fi monster flick, is not a very good movie.
  • With Jimmy the Boy Wonder (1966) and The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967), Herschell Gordon Lewis even tried his hand on kiddie-features - but the results are rather bad, but not bad in a good way ... though both films have a certain, unintentional triplike character to them.
  • Speaking of triplike: In 1967, Lewis also made a film including an LSD-trip as such called Something Weird, and the movie as a whole is a pretty strange experience, a weird blend of serialkiller elements, supernatural horrors and drug scare messages. Now this is a movie wou will probably not be able to make much sense of, but if you don't take it too seriously and decide to just enjoy it as a so-bad-it's-good piece of drive-in fare, you will probably be entertained.
  • With The Girl, the Body, and the Pill (1967) a film about a schoolteacher banned from her school after having taught sex education, Lewis actually attacks the hipocrisy of the educational system and the middle class of the time, but since this was of course a drive-in flick, Lewis did not make his attack overt or head on but rather packaged it as satirical subtext of a sex comedy - a genre Lewis has finally returned to after years of gore, as he would do again occasionally.


  • Blast-Off Girls (1967) is another satire, Herschell Gordon Lewis-style - and over the years, he has gotten quite good at this -, this time set within the music industry. Maybe not the greatest film about the subject for sure, but a great piece of 1960's nostalgia nevertheless.
  • With A Taste of Blood (1967), Herschell Gordon Lewis returned to the horror genre, but unfortunately, this movie, a modern-day Dracula tale, is one of his most bloodless films ... and bloodless both in the figurative and the literal meaning of the word: On one hand, there is next to no blood, quite a letdown after blood feasts à la Blood Feast, but the film's main problem is actually that it treats its main subject - vampirism - in a way too academic manner, lacks Lewis' trademark black humour, and running for almost two hours, it's way too long as well. That said, the film isn't all bad, it's actually pretty intelligent for a drive-in flick about vampires ... just don't expect this one to be great entertainment, Herschell Gordon Lewis-style.


  • The Gruesome Twosome (1967) finally saw Herschell Gordon Lewis return to the folds of gore cinema again: This movie about a mother-son team (Elizabeth Davis, Chris Martell) of wigmakers who have found the perfect source for human hair - human heads - is a black comedy much in the tradition of Color Me Blood Red, and it's about as sick and bizarre - but sick and bizarre in a good way. Plus, several setpieces - first and foremost the talking styrofoam wigheads at the beginning of the film and a drive-in movie two characters watch later on - are simply priceless in their absurdity.



Still, The Gruesome Twosome did not mean that Lewis returned to the gore genre to stay, as soon he again branched out into other territories and actually did not make another gore movie for the remainder of the 1960's. Of all his later 1960's non-gore films, She-Devils on Wheels (1968), a biker film with female protagonists, is probably his most notorious - however, it's also far from his best ...

 


The main problem with She- Devils on Wheels might be that even though all the familiar genre elements are in place, and despite the female perspective and despite quite a bit of sleaze, it's just an impersonal and routine low budget exercise in genre cinema, with nothing that sets it apart from dozens of other biker movies (except the female leads of course, but that's a novelty that quickly wears off), and in its rehashing of biker movie mainstays, the She-Devils on Wheels soon even becomes episodic.

 


Of much more interest than She-Devils on Wheels is probably Suburban Roulette, also from 1968, a social satire about wife-swapping suburbia that's pretty similar to and but more biting than some of Joe Sarno's suburbia-movies - but somehow, this film failed to attract too much interest, mainly because there is no actual nudity involved, something that would have been natural only a decade ago, but seemed way too tame for a dirty little movie from the late 1960's. A bit of a shame, actually.

 



Lewis' other sex films he made in the late 1960's - Alley Tramp and the sci-fi-themed How to Make a Doll from 1968, and The Ecstasies of Women and Linda and Abilene from 1969 - were less restrained than Suburban Roulette for sure, but neither was as interesting or indeed as biting plotwise - and the same can be said about the juvenile delinquency movie Just for the Hell of it (1968) or Lewis' first film in the 1970's, the comic sex anthology Miss Nymphet's Zap-In (1970). It already seemed that Lewis was beginning to lose his bite.

 


 

Returning to Form and Saying Good Bye: The 1970's

 


By 1970, the attitude of the film industry towards on-screen violence and gore had changed considerably since 1963 and the taboo-breaking Blood Feast, and blood would splatter even in mainstream films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) - even if these movies were still relatively restrained in comparison to Lewis' gore flicks. The point is though that the novelty of gore on film had worn off and gore as such had almost become a mainstay. So it would seem that the days of Herschell Gordon Lewis, gore-filmmaker were counted ... when out of the blue, Lewis returned with one of his most gorey and violent and also most bizarre movies, The Wizard of Gore (1970).

 


Plotwise, The Wizard of Gore doesn't actually make all that much sense - and it doesn't need to, either. The nonsense story about a stage magician (Ray Sager), who performs terrible acts of murder on stage only to then have them appear as illusions only to turn them into murders again later is actually part of the film's weird charm, and even though the actors all play it straight, one can't help but regard the film as some sort of grand guignol comedy, in which the joke is lost on those who just can't find anything funny in Lewis' increasingly grotesque murder scenes.

More than any of his previous films, The Wizard of Gore has become Lewis' signature film, as it combined buckets of blood, bizarre murders and a far-out sense of humour perfectly, and Wizard of Gore would eventually become one of Lewis' nicknames (along with the more customary Godfather of Gore of course).

 



Despite The Wizard of Gore's success, Herschell Gordon Lewis strayed away from the gore genre again, to make two very likeable and pretty funny backwood satires, This Stuff'll Kill Ya (1971) and Year of the Yahoo (1972). 

This Stuff'll Kill Ya tackles religion, telling the story of a smalltown preacher who uses his church to run a business selling moonshine (and ti eventually have girls gangraped, as it happens). The film might not be highly intelligent, but it's pretty amusing nevertheless.

Much more thoughtful was (the rather stupidly titled) Year of the Yahoo, the story of a simple-minded country singer (Claude King) making his way to the senate. Interestingly, this film not only anticipates Tim Robbins' clever political satire Bob Roberts by 20 years (and was almost certainly a direct influence, as the similarities are striking - even if Bob Roberts is the much more thought-through film), it also features some eerie similarities to the USA's 2004 election, where the American nation for some reason elected a simple minded hick (George W.Bush) over a competent but dry politician (John Kerry) - which is almost the exact plot of Year of the Yahoo, even if the film, unlike life, has a happy ending on election day ...

 

In 1971, Herschell Gordon Lewis also made his only excursion into hardcore pornography, Black Love, supposedly a documentary about sex among blacks, but actually just an excuse for showing some actual lovemaking (combined with simulated lovemaking with added on penetration close-ups) that takes itself so seriously and has so little to say on a documentary level, that it's a hoot to watch.

 


By 1972, Lewis had already grown a little tired with the film industry, and the drive-in end of the industry started to change as slowly but surely, Hollywood majors were taking over drive-in theatres and started to flood cinemascreens across the USA with soulless films that eventually became known as blockbusters. But it wouldn't be Herschell Gordon Lewis if he didn't go out with a bang, a bang called Gore Gore Girls (1972).

In terms of gore, Gore Gore Girls pretty much rivals The Wizard of Gore, but that's not the film's main, or at least not its only selling point, as Gore Gore Girls works rather as a black comedy than a gore film, an extremely violent and utterly bizarre comedy maybe but a comedy still. The film tells about a gogo-girl killer, and a flamboyant detective (Frank Kress) more than a little bit reminiscent of Jason King and a nosey girl reporter (Amy Farrell) trying to track him (or her, as it would turn out in the end) down - but the whole whodunnit plot is played strictly for the laughs and even the murders are too over-the-top to be taken all that seriously - and the whole thing is really lots of fun and shouldn't be missed by anyone who finds some humour in even the most gruesome killings.

In all, Gore Gore Girls is the perfect swansong to Lewis' career as a director, as it combines all the key ingredients - gore, sex and comedy - of his oeuvre so far into a uniquely crazy blend.

 


 

The Comeback Kid

 

After Gore Gore Girls, Herschell Gordon Lewis left the movie business to continue his career in the more profitable and less risky world of marketing - something he had never completely given up even when making movies - and over the years became something of a guru in that field, so much so that he also wrote more than 30 books and held lectures on the subject.

Of coure, many of his films were also marketing wonders, and he freely admits that he often modelled his films around their ad campaigns, sometimes quite successfully, and maybe, without his background in advertising, the gore genre would have never been born in the first place ...

 

In the mid-1970's, Herschell Gordon Lewis sold the rights to his films, as he thought he would have no more use for them and intended to leave the movie business completely ... but then, in the 1980's, the home video boom hit the filmworld, and following films like Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A.Romero) and Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S.Cunningham), the gore genre had something like a rennaissance and suddenly, Lewis' films, the undisputed forerunners of all 1970's and 80's gore cinema, found a second, successful life on videotape, while several publications were running articles on Herschell Gordon Lewis.

 


Amidst all of this, it is hardly surprising, that some time in the mid-1980's, Lewis and his former producer David F.Friedman decided to set aside their differences and make a sequel to the film that started it all, Blood Feast.

For some reason though, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat did not take off until 2001 (in other words, 38 years after the first part) - but what a comeback it was: The film, basically a rehash of part one with added humour, is the perfect continuation of Herschell Gordon Lewis' distinct brand of cinema, and in its over-the-top depictions of violence paired with a weird, macabre kind of humour, it feels as if it was made the week after Gore Gore Girls and not 29 years later. And as if to prove Lewis' significance as a director, fellow cult director John Waters has a rather hilarious cameo in Blood Feast 2 playing sleazy priest.

 



Unfortunately, the Herschell Gordon Lewis-revival also saw less than special hommages to the man hitting the big and small screen, like the totally botched up dressed-as-a-sequel remake 2001 Maniacs (2005, Tim Sullivan) starring Robert Englund [Robert Englund bio - click here], that manages to match neither the original's violence nor its humour. But what do you expect from a movie produced by the vastly overrated Eli Roth? Unfortunately, a sequel to that movie, 2001 Maniacs: Beverly Hellbillies is set to be released Halloween 2008.

In 2007, director Jeremy Kasten remade Lewis quintessential The Wizard of Gore as - you might have guessed it - The Wizard of Gore, starring Crispin Glover in the title role, Bijou Phillips, Jeffrey Combs, Brad Dourif and the Suicide Girls, and at least he tried to update the original and give it a post-punk look - but somehow, this concept doesn't click, and despite all the gore, the new Wizard of Gore seems weirdly bloodless.

 



But not all is lost yet, as Herschell Gordon Lewis, a man now in his eighties, has not quite lost the desire to direct gore movies, and his next film, Blood De Madame: The Fallen Ones, a film starring such big names of the B-movie realm as Tiffany Shepis, ubiquitous Debbie Rochon and Monique Dupree, is announced for 2009.

 

Besides directing and being remade, Lewis also turned in several cameos in films by directors who are his declared devotees, like in Chainsaw Sally (2004, Jimmyo Burrill), which also features a cameo by Texas Chainsaw Massacre's (1974, Tobe Hooper) Gunnar Hansen, The Gainesville Ripper (2007, Josh Townsend) and the upcoming movies Psycho Holocaust (2008, Krist Rufty) and Smash Cut (2009, Lee Demarbre), the last one starring cult genre actors David Hess and Michael Berryman, and lovely young pornstar Sasha Grey.

 


 

Closing Words

 


Truth to be told, Herschell Gordon Lewis will probably never receive a lifetime achievement award from any self-respecting serious film institute, but on the other hand, his efforts for modern filmmaking cannot be overrated, as he, and he alone, has brought gore to the movies, and in buckets, too, modern action cinema would be a whole lot less violent with out him, and - for better or worse - slasher movies and torture porn would not exist without his pioneering efforts. But his influence cannot only be found in formulaic genre fair, many arthouse directors (from the fringes rather than the mainstream), first and foremost of course John Waters, have cited Lewis as a source of inspiration, as do most modern horror directors from every branch of the genre.

 

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As I have noted above, Herschell Gordon Lewis would hate to be considered an auteur, yet one can't deny his personal style, a style often born out of budgetary necessities, like somewhat random editing (everytime an actor fluffed a line, Lewismoved the camera and take it from there rather  than have the actor take it from the top again in order to save filmstock), less than perfect (sometimes even incompetent) actors, or a bellowing off-screen narration (being done by Lewis himself in order to save on a voice actor). Plus Lewis, who also had a background in music, also frequently wrote the soundtrack for his own films, operated the camera, and had his hands in special effects. Plus, thanks to his marketing backgrounds, his films often seemed like clever marketing gags to begin with, which invariably focussed on the obvious.

 

Having said all this, I admit it would be easy to just dismiss Lewis as a typical low budget hack, a bad director even - though it's true, he has made his fair share of artistic failures. The point is, if you manage to focus on his films' strengths rather than their shortcomings, if you open yourself up to his weird world of exploitation rather than just dismiss it as cheap trash, and if you keep an open mind for humour and satire found even in the darkest places, you are in for a quite amazing cinematic ride when exploring his movies.

Enjoy!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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