Despite having a background as an English literature teacher at Mississippi State College, Herschell Gordon Lewis would soon capitalise on his talent for directing TV commercials to bring to the screen a series of over the top, lurid, colour films that would see him christened 'The Godfather of Gore'. Lewis' films are that rare beast; uniformly badly acted, patchily written, unevenly paced and for a mainstream audience, completely impenetrable, but immensely influential and fun. Lewis himself likened Blood Feast to a Walt Whitman poem; “It's no good, but it's the first of its kind”.
Taking his cue from Russ Meyer's success with The Immoral Mr Teas (1959), he teamed up with independent producer David F. Friedman to make The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, quickly followed by several others, including the marvellously titled Boin-n-g and Goldilocks and the Three Bares. By 1963, they were looking for something they could make that no one else was doing. Lewis suggested one four letter word – gore. Blood Feast – and a new generation of filmmaking - was born. Mal Arnold, with his hair and eyebrows sprayed grey to make him look older, plays Fuad Ramses, a Miami caterer who harvests body parts from nubile females in order to prepare an Egyptian feast for the Goddess Ishtar. For the first time on screen, in vivid colour, legs were cut off, tongues cut out (an effect created by putting a cow's tongue into the actress' mouth) and eyes gouged and other atrocities were shown in unflinching close-up.
After the première, at a drive in at Peoria, Illinois, Friedman asked his wife what she thought of the film. “In one word – vomitous”, instantly giving him the idea of sending out 'barf bags', similar to ones used on aeroplanes, printed with the film's logo to theatres; a gimmick used several times for other films later. In order to gain more publicity, they credited the screenplay to Lewis regular Alison Louise 'Bunny' Downe, who had appeared in his nudie cuties, although Lewis and Friedman wrote the script as they went along. The film was an instant success, despite critical mauling. For a budget of just over $24,000 (which included the original answer print) the film took over $4,000,000.
Lewis had the thought, “what if we made one that was good?” and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) was the result. Set in the Deep South, where the good ol' citizens of Pleasant Valley have lured some tourists to become guests of honour at the centennial celebrations that commemorate the decimation of the town by renegade Union soldiers. A far more accomplished effort than its predecessor, while still displaying all the low-budget trappings, the film is remembered fondly by Lewis; “of all the films I've excreted on to the screen, it is my personal favourite”. It begins more restrained, with almost 30 minutes of narrative before the blood-letting begins. In this case, a startling moment in which a girl has her thumb chopped off by a local she thinks is attempting to woo her. A steady stream of slaughter follows with arm chopping, being torn apart by horses and being rolled down a hill in a barrel full of spikes amongst the set pieces. The theme song was sung by Lewis himself when it turned out the band he booked had a vocalist with a higher voice than was needed.
Color Me Blood Red (1965) was a step backwards quality wise but did coin the much-imitated ad line “Keep repeating: It's just a movie...” It also saw the Lewis-Friedman partnership disband. When one of their business partners refused to hold up his end of a deal, Friedman settled his part of a litigation suit toward him out of court and disappeared without a word. It would be two years before Lewis spoke to Friedman again, and the pair would not make another film together until the next Millennium.
In a departure from the formula that made him famous, and taking on the vampire legend, A Taste of Blood (1967) saw the emphasis on story rather than gore. Running at just under two hours, it is also the longest of Lewis' films. A Miami businessman inherits an estate in London, along with some aged brandy with turns him into a vampire, tasked to kill the descendants of those who murdered Count Dracula. Surprisingly, it's not a bad film, if you can get by with the pedestrian pace. Lewis even has a cameo (due to an actor not showing up) as a Cockney seaman, with an accent that makes Quentin Tarantino's recent Australian turn sound authentic.
Running times would be an issue for his next film too, as The Gruesome Twosome was too short. The story of a mother and daughter team of wig makers (no prizes for guessing how they get their stock) had finished shooting when Lewis found he had little over an hour of usable footage, so he shot a six-minute opening sequence of two model wig blocks setting the scene for the atrocities to come. This surreal moment, along with the film's wicked humour makes it a favourite amongst fans.
Lewis spent a few years tapping the teen market with films such as She-Devils on Wheels (which pre-dates Easy Rider), The Girl, The Body and The Pill (which tackled the old chestnut of youngsters being pressured into having sex and includes a teacher, sacked for giving sex education lessons, raising suspicions when she begins giving private tuition at her home), rock n' roll caper Blast Off Girls - which has a cameo from the one and only Colonel Sanders whose Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise provided the shoot with food in exchange for product placement, went a little sci-fi in How to Make a Doll, and even attempted to expose the swingers scene in Suburban Roulette. The strangest film of this period was The Magic Land of Mother Goose, a filmed version of a stage show that producer Jim Baker used to perform at matinees. A magician (meant to be Merlin) performing lame tricks while Old King Cole chases a terrifying Raggedy Ann. As nightmare educing as any of Lewis' gore oeuvre.
In 1969, he opened The Blood Shed Theatre in Chicago, Illinois where they would show a mix of classic horror films and Lewis' own and perform a gore show in front of an audience. Some newspapers refused to run ads for the name, so it was re-christened Cinema Bizarre. This would lead to 1970's The Wizard of Gore, in which Lewis was back doing what audiences expected. While the acting was still poor, the effects were more elaborate. Montag the magician's act is pure Grand Guignol. Volunteers are selected by hypnosis and subjected to all manner of disembowelling and evisceration, yet walk away from the stage oblivious to what has occurred. Only when they are found dead with the same injuries later in the evening does it arouse the suspicions of a local TV interviewer and her sports reporter boyfriend. You are never quite sure what is really happening and what is illusion, thanks to Lewis cutting between the gory stage act, and what we assume the audience is seeing, where the blades, chainsaws, and steel presses are having no effect. It also comes up with the most bizarre and surreal ending, wrong-footing the audience all the way. By the time Lewis made The Gore Gore Girls (1972), he already knew the writing was on the wall. Big studios and established artists were moving into the exploitation circuit, and theatres wouldn't give independents as much screen space (a problem that has not got any better). However, Lewis went out with a bang; a story which allowed the screen to be filled with topless dancing girls and nastier gore than ever. Lewis' humour was more evident also. The lead character, a Jason King style private eye named Abraham Gentry is paid by a journalist to help find a serial killer who is knocking off strippers, and leaving their faces pummelled beyond recognition. Much more brutal than any of his previous efforts, with bare behinds being tenderised, eyes being gouged out and nipples snipped off (with a resulting fountain of milk) the film ends with the leads breaking the fourth wall and giving the audience a knowing glance, along with the on screen proclamation 'We announce with pride: this movie is over'. With it, Lewis' screen career.
Leaving Hollywood behind, he went on to make millions teaching direct marketing. The rights to his films were picked up by Jimmy Maslon, who along with Something Weird Video made the films available for a new generation. For many years the link between the infamous gore director and his alternate, incredibly successful career in marketing was unknown. Occasionally, people would ask him at seminars “Did you know there was an old film director with the same name as you?”; “I'll sue him!” was his standard response. Despite numerous bestselling books and being highly respected in the field, his 'other life' went undetected by many horror fans. With the advent of the internet, he began getting messages asking if he'd ever make a sequel to Blood Feast. His response, “Put together a deal and get back to me” would be enough to put people off, but in 2002 he finally relented when Jackie Lee Morgan and W. Boyd Ford (who had worked on Larry Clark's Bully) put their money where their mouth is and financed Blood Feast 2 – All You Can Eat. Being just a hired director left Lewis a little frustrated, but the advances in special effects and a bigger budget meant the film managed to ramp up the gore. The script was written with an eye on the past and Lewis' legacy. The emphasis on humour, the cast manage to live up (or would that be down?) to the stars of his past glories. The film's plot, as if it really needed one, has Fuad Ramses III, grandchild of the original mad caterer, inherit the family business. The statue of Ishtar, the Egyptian Goddess has for some reason gone unnoticed in the back room of the shop for all these years, and, under her spell, he begins to turn a socialite's wedding banquet into the titular feast of blood. The usual dumb cops, a bevy of beauties (amusingly named Misti Morning, Laci Hundees – you get the idea) wearing little or nothing, and some rather good gore make the film bearable. John Waters appears as a priest, drafted in as payback for Herschell appearing at Waters' Baltimore film festival. The film also saw Friedman return for executive production duties, and eagle-eyed viewers can spot him making a cameo appearance.
Lewis would return again in 2009, this time with his own script, and full creative control with the satirical hodgepodge The Uh-Oh! Show. Taking a swipe at the mundane game shows and vacuous contestants, as well as the television executives who put profit above creativity, the film begins with Herschell himself telling overly gruesome and macabre versions of popular fairy tales to a bunch of attentive kids. The steady stream of decapitated heads and limbs lapped up as if they were milk. The eponymous show is a wheel of fortune type, with the options being much more sinister, of course. The wheel chooses which body part the hapless contestants will lose should they fail to answer the questions correctly. An investigative reporter begins to look into where the losing contestants end up when her shiftless boyfriend signs up to appear. Meanwhile, the studio has been offered big money to develop a prime-time version of the show, which they will base on Grimm's fairy tales, aimed at a younger audience. While it's played completely for laughs; often missing more than hitting sadly, the gore is ever present and is so over the top that it's hard not to like it. However, once the story kicks in and the new show takes over, it runs out of steam, but as a Troma-esque romp, it is fun. Lloyd Kaufman himself pops up as a pimp, just to add to the low budget credentials. Lewis wanted to bring the gore scene back to where he had started and put the humour back into the bloodletting, and in that respect, he succeeded.
In early 2012, prints of three of Lewis' later ‘60/70s sexploitation films, previously considered lost (or buried) were found and a Kickstarter campaign launched to restore them. The Ecstasies of Women (1969), a sex comedy about a womanising playboy on the verge of marriage, Linda and Abilene (1969), a lesbian western shot at the Spahn Ranch, only months before the Manson Family moved in, and Black Love (1972) an explicit, hard-core sex film that purports to lift the lid on African American lovemaking, were released on Blu-ray in January 2013 as The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and, while not being in the same blood-red vein as his gore flicks, are certainly eye opening.
David Frank Friedman died in February 2011. Herschell Gordon Lewis continued to be an incredibly successful direct marketing mogul and fully embraced his past right up to his death on September 26th, 2016 aged 87.
Fans the world over will forever enjoy his movies, and will miss the great man. We salute you, Sir.
Previously printed in Horror Obscura, STARBURST #388.