Herschell Gordon Lewis (Courtesy: MUBI)
by Legendary Lew
Herschell Gordon Lewis, the famed exploitation filmmaker dubbed “The Godfather of Gore” passed away on Monday. Varying reports have him aged at 87 and 90.
Lewis practically invented a movie sub-genre that still exists today: the gore film. With his early grindhouse box office success of The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, a nudie film, Lewis wanted to move on to a style of movie that Hollywood wouldn’t or couldn’t touch. He came up with the idea of the gore film with the infamous Blood Feast.
The low-budget horror film tells the story of an Egyptian immigrant who runs a catering business and plots a feast of dismemberment and brutality. But many people who have seen the movie won’t remember the story line nor even care. That’s because Lewis inadvertently, but ingeniously, brought forth the cult party film–the type of wallpaper movie you can screen while chatting with a bunch of your friends until someone hushes the crowd saying, “Wait! Wait! You gotta check this out!”
Blood Feast was not the drive-in movie you would think to take your date to in the 1960’s. It was the movie you would drive miles on a dare with partying buddies packed in your car. Reports surfaced of theater lines stretching for miles to see the movie.
Lewis tapped into young peoples’ thirst for the outrageous and scored big with that film, plus Two Thousand Maniacs!, probably his best.
He was a marketer of film in truly the greatest sense. Yes, he went for the bucks and admitted to doing so. But with films like Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome and The Wizard of Gore, Lewis knew how to entertain the audience with his audacious gimmickry. There was no pretense to his films. They were poorly acted, dimly lit, sometimes set in high schools with sets that matched. That last point was especially true with his kids’ films (The Magic Land of Mother Goose and Jimmy, the Boy Wonder). Lewis also sporadically returned to sexploitation as well with a few of his lost films recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
But his independent spirit in these movies was true. Ironically, Hollywood eventually became quite influenced by Lewis’s gore films, banking on sub-genres like the 80’s splatter films (the Friday the 13th series) and the more recent torture porn films (Saw, Hostel). These latter films intensified the depravity, but also removed the true sense of fun by moralizing slut shaming (promiscuous women in slasher films tend to have the most torturous, drawn-out deaths). Hyper-realism in torture porn films, with hanging slaughterhouse hooks and blood-stained walls, intended to shock. However, the gimmicks never scared me. The spooky touches simply became annoyances, especially when added with bad actors screaming like the “emoting” exercises of a community college’s Acting 101 class.
Lewis went his own way and knew when to stop making films, concentrating on other pursuits. He may have gone about making movies as a purely capitalist enterprise, but his movies show a sense of cheesy pleasure. Watching those works of creative joy, I never felt as though he was giving me the business.
Legendary Lew is the co-founder of The Underground Multiplex and former personal video consultant of almost 20 years. He’s a writer, producer and host of the podcast “Mediatrocities” and the upcoming “Vital Media” series.