Great timing Mr Lewis, as always. Just as Arrow Video completes work on this everything-and-the-fake-eyeball magnum opus box set of his work, the maestro of marketing goes and dies. Result: maximum publicity and interest. Of course, we’d much prefer the great man to still be around to expound the brilliance of this final manoeuvre in that inimitable drawl, but he’s genially present throughout these 17 discs in the form of commentaries, specially shot introductions and a wealth of archive materials lovingly curated for our disgusted delight.
Taken as a whole, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s adventures in the screen trade represent a remarkably committed middle finger to the Hollywood system. His trademark palate of one-note acting, resolutely un-looped dialogue (you’ll be thankful for the subtitles here), single-shot coverage and lugubrious astro jazz soundtracks may be seen as charming today but his mission statement was anything but; here are films designed to shock and disturb, to give you nightmares and, for all that, keep you coming back for more of the same. This set includes 14 of his works, in dual format, looking just about as good as can be given that the Smithsonian is unlikely to ever request that the original negatives of Lewis’s films be immortalised for posterity alongside those of Spielberg, Lean and Scorsese. In fact, some of these prints still have some gloriously scratchy sections, belying their authentic heritage as censor-baiting cinematic contraband.
Blood Feast (1963), the film that inspired a thousand splatter-fests since, remains a bizarrely bracing template, but it’s far from the best of the Lewis line. In all the ‘gore’ series that followed, be it the banjo-Brigadoon mayhem of Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), the ridiculous lunacy of The Gruesome Twosome (1967) or the fiendish stagecraft of The Wizard of Gore (1970), Lewis constantly outdid himself, pushing his voyeuristic format as far as his blood-hungry Southern state audiences demanded. You have to wait until 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, a deliberate attempt to bookmark his decade of filmic degradation with a flourish before moving onto more lucrative pursuits, to find Lewis genuinely breaking his own mould. Starring Frank Kress as effete private investigator Abraham Gentry, heavily channelling UK export Jason King, and Amy Farrell as his Emma Peel-alike sidekick, it’s a refreshing shot in the arm that leaves you wanting more. Alas, this engaging mix of giallo, The Avengers and extreme eyeball violence was the end of the Lewis line. Shame, that.
But Lewis was far more than just ‘The Godfather of Gore’ as the six non-splatter features here ably demonstrate. They’re a very mixed bag; the ‘roughie’ sexual predator warning of 1963’s shot-in-six-days Scum of the Earth and 1964’s hillbilly throwdown Moonshine Mountain might prove a bit of a slog even for connoisseurs. But by the time Lewis got around to his take on the biker gang flick with 1968’s She-Devils on Wheels, he was jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon as entertainingly as Roger Corman, if not as slickly. For our money, the best of these (relatively) non-gory sideshows is 1967’s Something Weird, which mixes a woozy late-60s cocktail of LSD, witchcraft, the occult and serial killings into a be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable for the modern man. It also sports the crown jewel of Lewis soundtracks. All spacy bleeps and jazzy parps, it’s an atonal masterpiece.
The extras here are pretty damn great. A hell of a lot of work has clearly gone into producing a giant gutbucket of new features and scholarly dissections from fans, filmmakers and former collaborators. With no stone left unturned, you’ll be lost in them for weeks. Also included is Frank Henenlotter’s feature-length Godfather of Gore documentary from 2010 although UK viewers may be just as pleased to re-acquaint themselves with Jonathan Ross’s excellent Incredibly Strange Film Show episode from 1988 that really kick-started interest in Lewis on this side of the pond. If you’re feeling bold and go for the super deluxe ‘Shock and Gore’ edition of this set you also get a barf bag, the Blood Feast score on vinyl and, almost inevitably, an “individually handmade super-gory eyeball”. Talk about lovingly tooled.
If exploitation is your bag, Herschell Gordon Lewis wrote the book on it (and a few other subjects, besides). This is a richly rewarding tribute and the ultimate celebration of a truly pioneering body of work. Bloody good show, old man.
Special Features: Brand New Introductions to the films by Lewis / Hours of extras including newly-produced Interviews and Featurettes, Commentaries and Short Films / Additional Bonus DVD: Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore Documentary / Exclusive Books, Vinyl and Eyeball
THE HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: VARIOUS / RELEASE DATE: 24TH OCTOBER