Remembering a True Indie Giant: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Herschell Gordon Lewis (Courtesy: MUBI)

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 bloodfeastthe 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.

two_thousand_maniacs-1964-mss-poster-06But 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.

 

 

My Shameless Plug For a New Movie I Appear In

nursejillby Legendary Lew

Years ago, I made an appearance in a horror film, made on 16mm, called Nurse Jill. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten my role, but I think I play some sort of psychologist.

Anyway, Chicago, you have a chance to see Peter Lambert’s horror film finally projected on the big screen at Showboat Gallery in Pilsen (2058 W. 21st St) tonight starting at 9pm. I’ve not seen the film, so this will be a first for me, too. Massacre Video is releasing the Blu-Ray version of the film soon.

Watch the trailer here:

 

 

Netflix Can’t Duplicate Anything from the Video Store Experience

Chicago's Odd Obsession Movies, one of the indie video stores still surviving despite Netflix and cable

Chicago’s Odd Obsession Movies, one of the indie video stores still surviving despite Netflix and cable

by Legendary Lew

Film School Rejects recently posted an interesting article by Colin Biggs, who advises Netflix to take on staff recommendations for movies instead of relying on analytics for viewer’s next entertainment choices. It’s an interesting idea and one that Netflix could perhaps give serious consideration.

I’m a former personal video consultant (yes, that was actually the title of the job I had at a video store) of almost twenty years in three different video stores. I’ve helped film and TV fans choose entertainment from 1998-2016. One of the three video stores I’ve worked in failed miserably and closed in less than two years. The other two  struggle to keep on, but they have done so, even while Blockbuster Video has collapsed all around them. So I think I can give some insight regarding Netflix and having paid employees make thoughtful recommendations to customers.

My main thought on this is, “It’ll probably suck.”  Why? Allow me to give several reasons for what would be an almost certain failure:

1.  Netflix was Built on Dehumanizing the Viewing Experience

You can argue that Blockbuster Video separated viewers from the movie theater, but Netflix took the idea one step further in this ingenious, creepy ad. Note how the Netflix customer sits comfortably, relaxed and alone in his chair while various unfocused others in the background scramble to reach the video store that shutters and darkens like a prison.

Of course, there could never be a mention that you could actually meet other film fans face-to-face in video stores or that, due to different circumstances, late fees could always be negotiated or waived. I’ve done that plenty of times to keep customers.

This personal viewer isolation was definitely in Netflix’s DNA–so much so that you could not phone nor visit Netflix regarding DVDs lost or broken in the mail. You could only email to unseen, unheard associates. Even if you wanted to work at one of Netflix’s distribution centers  across the country, finding their locations was like a search for government hangars performing interplanetary alien autopsies.

2. Any Paid Video Consultants Would Probably Not Be Allowed the Freedom to Suggest Their Own Movies and TV Choices

Netflix is now in the business of producing streamed entertainment. Despite strong attempts to de-emphasize their rent-by-mail service, the company still offers it and acknowledges the die-hards who stick to it. However, DVD subscriber membership is dropping yearly to less than 5 million today–down from almost 15 million in 2011.

Thus, it should be no surprise when DVD.com (Netflix’s mailing service) releases a YouTube ad in April and garners less than 700 hits in five months. Note how the approach is much more subdued than the 2004 ad above. There’s even a lack of voice over. Stay awake if you can.

If Netflix were to hire its own “personal viewing consultants” to guide you through different choices, what do you think the chances are they will compel employees to suggest only Netflix programming? If they are like any other place I worked for that had competition, those chances are pretty darn high.  You can also bet those unlucky consultants could only suggest what’s currently available:

“Sorry, Mrs. Haggerfield. We love that movie too and highly suggest it. However, we just removed that film from our catalog yesterday.”

Suddenly, Mrs. Haggerfield feels no less frustrated than the late video return customers in that 2004 ad.

3. Video “Clerks” Would Need to be Redefined and Respected

This point is most crucial. I will always contend that Blockbuster Video’s greatest failure was not its powerlessness against Netflix and cable. It was the lack of good, expert customer service. Yes, I am sure that many former Blockbuster clerks knew their stuff, handled unruly customers well and were competent retail employees.

However, Blockbuster Video did not value the extra knowledge of eclectic or rare finds. It didn’t make much sense for me as an employee to apply my expertise on films if a similarly positioned co-worker had no idea who the world famous filmmaker Fellini was. Knowing the “top ten” movies and having enough new releases to please every customer was enough. Eventually, though, any film fan with an ounce of curiosity will seek out something different, and the Big Blue was ill-prepared for that.

With media becoming cheaper to produce, many more independent works are being created. It’s truly impossible for anyone alive to take in all good movies and TV shows, so the knowledge of unknown or unappreciated works has more worth. Consuming so many different films from different countries over the span of 100+ years takes an enormous amount of time and money. Theater ticket prices are expensive. Include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, HBO and a host of other online/cable offerings and it all adds up. (No wonder piracy is popular). Paying a college-aged clerk minimum wage won’t cut it. Nor is it respectful of customers’ demands.

One reason Biggs’ suggestion falls short is because there’s no mention of the context in which films are viewed. As a personal video consultant, I had to answer questions like, “What film would you recommend as a suitable Halloween movie for my two sons aged 10 years and younger?” This was an actual request I fulfilled for actress Joan Cusack. (She and I eventually agreed that Jason and the Argonauts was good for her adventure-seeking boys). I’ve had rental requests for DJ dance parties, Thanksgiving family entertainment, dating–straight and gay, art galleries, business meetings, depression cures, frat parties, teachers’ research projects and more. These specific types of demands are the ones that really test you.

So what would Netflix need to have satisfactory staff recommendations? It would need very well-paid experts on different genres of film. Those persons would take no other responsibilities for Netflix, except to watch as many films/TV show  in their designated categories as possible. They would need to have the freedom to suggest works Netflix doesn’t carry, but another service might. They would need to know local independent films with limited DVD/online releases. And they would need excellent customer service savvy to care about each individual’s particular need. Netflix has a legendary business growth plan currently, but given its past history with vast catalog mail rentals, they would be foolish to try inching back. You’d be better off going to independent video stores that survived the Netflix onslaught.

lew-win_20160713_205425Legendary 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mediatrocities #24: Director Andrew Friend on His New Documentary “Schoolidarity”

schoolidarity-poster-4webby Legendary Lew

Over the last few years, teachers unions in Madison, WI and Chicago, IL have been under attack from political forces with a privatization drive. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker fought for a right-to-work law, which union claim would undermine the power of collective bargaining guaranteed by law. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel showed a consistent disdain for the Chicago Teachers Union from the moment he took office.

Documentary filmmaker Andrew Friend, an unapologetic supporter of teacher unions, created a new documentary recounting the struggles in Madison and Chicago over the last few years.

The film Schoolidarity is a reminder of what can be accomplished with collective action and what it means to be in a struggle for the long haul.

I interviewed Andrew via Skype for the latest installment of Mediatrocities. Give a listen and please comment and/or share with others!

Right-Wing Sites Losing Their Shit Over Mr. Loop’s Transgender Potty Song for Kids

mrloopsmeismeby Legendary Lew

Rochester, NY children’s entertainer and personal friend (full disclosure), Mr. Loops, released a new music video a little over a week ago, singing about how “everyone needs a place (a bathroom) where they feel safe.”

This song, encouraging respect and acceptance for transgender persons, is a fun little ditty with some common sense understanding of the issue for kids.

For some adults, however, that understanding is a tough task. Breitbart, Charisma News and Newsbusters,  three right-leaning media research sites,  have come down on the entertainer. They blasted the video as “potty propaganda” “endangering our children” and refer to Mr. and Mrs. Loops as a ‘clownish couple.”

One point of high irony from these attacks, of course, is that they’re countered by Loop’s assertion, “we can solve the problem while still remaining friends.” If you want to teach the gentlest approach to bigotry for kids, this video shows how.

The second is that Jon Lewis (Mr. Loops) has received death threats for even posting the video–ironic, since the news gathering websites accuse Mr. Loops of lacking a sense of “safety and respect.” Perhaps, we can expect those morality-based  websites to condemn such attacks, eh?

(NB: No, I will not hyperlink to Breitbart, Newsbusters nor Charisma News. They don’t need the hits from me. Use search engines and you can find the articles quickly.)

3 Lessons From the Box Office Failure of Ghostbusters 2016

Courtesy: Funny or Die

Courtesy: Funny or Die

by Legendary Lew

The news is now out that the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters is a box office failure. Reports are coming in that the Sony Pictures feature, directed by Paul Feig, will end up as much as $75 million in the red.

Finger-pointing is bound to bubble up like the flasked, hate-laced goo in Egon’s laboratory and, indeed, it may be signaled by Feig’s promise to never direct any future classic movie reboots.

Well-covered on social media is the tussle between pro and anti- 2016 Ghostbusters, sliming each other with accusations of misogyny, racism and shameless pandering to women. After Cinemassacre’s James Rolfe posted a video stating he would not watch the 2016 Ghostbusters based on what he perceived (along with 1,000,000+ viewers) as a poor trailer, he was attacked in social media unfairly as being misogynist. Coming to his defense was Comic Book Girl 19 making some very good points about how the criticisms against Rolfe were misguided. About halfway during her video, she brings up more valid points regarding Sony Pictures and its enterprise, so I urge you to watch her video as it’s really worth watching:

I would like to go further, however, because we’re now wading through another flood of social media outrage on Twitter, this time over remaking Ocean’s Eleven as the new release, Ocean’s Eight, with women in the leading roles once held by George Clooney and Matt Damon.

If you’re one those numbskulls bitching about how a once male-dominated movie remake can’t be good because women, you’ve no idea what the real issue is. If we don’t get the lessons right about what’s going on with blockbusters nowadays, we’re doomed to have this social media nonsense repeat, so I would like to offer:

3 Lessons We Should Learn from the Ghostbusters 2016 Failure

1. Ghostbusters is Not Strong Movie Franchise Material

I can just hear all the clicks as people turn away from the page at this point or hurry down to breathe dragon fire in the comments, but hear me out.

If a movie is to be timeless, then it must be able to stand on its own merits over long periods of time. It’s completely reasonable to re-evaluate certain movies considered classics but showing signs of poor aging. A few examples I can think of are Gone With The Wind, The Graduate and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. (BTW, the reverse can be true as well with such movies as Buster Keaton’s The General, It’s a Wonderful Life and White Dog.)

Ghostbusters should go through an honest re-evaluation. Peter is introduced as a con-artist who delights in torturing students and is a sexual predator to female college students and eventually to Dana. Some of the special effects, such as the dogs, are great. Others look cheesy nowadays, reminding me of the now-hilarious squid attack scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Yes, CGI has advanced since 1984.

Egon and Ray are one-dimensional characters, a major flaw that Ghostbusters 2 tries to correct with a copycat script. And speaking of GB2, didn’t the first GB establish that the quartet of buddies were news worthy heroes in NYC and even get the mayor possibly reelected? If so, why then de-establish the GBers and have them go through the very same plot devices a second time? How many times are they going to be incarcerated or isolated before they’re dramatically called up for services when the city goes to Hell?

I find it totally understandable that Bill Murray had major trouble with the series. The first GB was mildly entertaining with some good special effects and Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis stealing every scene they’re in. Sony should have left well enough alone.

2. Sony Pictures is Remarkably Irresponsible

I agree with Comic Book Girl 19 that Sony saw the value in generating a sexist and racist fight on social media regarding GB 2016. Who thought that removing damning reviews from Sony’s YouTube account and leaving vehemently sexist and racist comments was a good idea?

This irresponsibility follows a long line of incredible blunders Sony’s made over the years. James Spaltro made the infamous claim as director of infomation security in 2007 that spending significant amounts of money in cybersecurity wasn’t necessary. Making such a claim was an unintentional challenge to hackers. Playstations were hacked four years later, causing an outage for as many as 77 million accounts. Then, in 2014 Sony went through a catastrophic hack that released private emails and personal information of many Sony employees. Some former employees stated that Sony’s cavalier attitude towards cybersecurity was a disaster waiting to happen.

The hacker group, Guardians of Peace, claimed the action and eventually caused an international incident regarding Sony’s pending release of the comedy, The Interview, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. Washington got involved when the Guardians of Peace threatened to bomb theaters showing the bomb (believe me on this, I’ve seen it).

Earlier this year, Sony settled a class action lawsuit for $8 million brought on by employees whose information was compromised in the massive hack.
If all that weren’t enough, Sony is now in the middle of another hack-related lawsuit, this time by the production company of the film  To Write Love on Her Arms. The drama, involving a teenager’s battle with drug addiction and depression, was dropped from theatrical release consideration after the hack exposed the movie to piracy online. Sony’s response so far has been to claim they “had no obligation…to take any anti-piracy measures whatsoever.” They may have the legal edge, but this sure doesn’t make them look good.

Allowing a Ghostbusters PR campaign to feed off what Comic Book Girl 19 calls a “false flag” feminist issue gave Sony hope that people would read GB 2016 as a women empowering film, when in fact, it’s simply a cynical, lazy attempt to target women for on-screen ads. This is right in line with their history of callous business attitudes.

3. Sony Pictures Really Doesn’t Give a Shit about Ghostbusters Fans

The final point is the most depressing one to me.

You can currently watch the recently released documentary, Ghostheads, which shines the spotlight on several diehard GB fans and what the movie means to them. The stories are all warm-hearted: a GB group that visits young cancer patients in hospitals; a woman who quelled her alcoholism after becoming a fan; and a few stories of how family members connected to each other, thanks to the movie.

All of these stories are good and could have made for a fine film. However, like ghosts hidden in paintings and water pipes waiting to be released, Sony’s specter hung over the entire project waiting to spring in at the right moment.
That moment came at the end of the doc, when 60 GB fans were invited to the Hollywood studio screening of the first trailer. They each received a paper certificate and a lapel pin. Now, keep in mind, the people invited did the PR work for Sony on a stalled franchise that the company had no idea what to do with for a long time. Those fans, through their work and dedication to the film they love, helped Sony make a ton of money.

A paper certificate and lapel pin? Hell, they should have been flown first class to Japan and met the president of Sony.

What I’ve posted here is not meant to discourage you from being a fan of Ghostbusters. If the movie means a great deal to you, indulge in the fantastical pleasures. Bond with your children and grandchildren as Peter, Ray and Egon set out to save NYC from ghosts. Socialize with other fans who’ve had their lives changed by the film. There’s really nothing wrong with that.

My point is that Ghostbusters is a classic case of a movie viewed as merely consumable product by a company that doesn’t care about what the movie has meant to so many millions of people. The way Sony handled this property and their own history of bad judgments prove it.

Many of us have had childhood memories and family bonding involving corporate products. Our example was dinners with Kentucky Fried Chicken, long before their current trademark change to KFC. They were fond memories, but not so much that I’m walking around dressed like the Colonel (or a chicken for that matter). The reason is that at some point, either understood immediately or occurring later, we, like most people, can separate ourselves enough from the product to have proper perspectives on how its presentation is designed to manipulate us.

But what do you do when your deep connection to a company’s damaged product is broken? In the case of KFC, I learned how unhealthy the ingredients were. The solution was easy, because there are alternatives. You can seek out other restaurants serving fried chicken or prepared in healthier ways or even make your own chicken dishes at home.

In the case of Ghostbusters, owned by a company that has a hold on your memories, who you gonna call?

Cannes Film Festival Entry “The Gun Equation” Gets On-Demand Release

guneqby Legendary Lew

Matthew Weinstein’s new short film The Gun Equation gets released to day via Vimeo’s On-Demand option.  You can rent it for 99 cents, or pay 51 cents more and get to upload a load of special features.  Your daily cup of coffee easily costs more and entertains less.

As disclosure, of course, the star of the film (Tyler Pistorius) is the current co-director of The Underground Multiplex, so I’m very proud of his work on this film.

There’s some very good work done here, by wonderful competent pros that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting: Matt and Colin Jackson.  Terrific cinematography by A.J. Young. The short film’s been shown at Cannes and the Blue Whiskey Film Festival.

I should add that one of the bonus features has Matt, Colin and Tyler discussing the film at The Thrillo Pad, so you’ll get to see the interior of the famed place.

So shake the piggy for a buck fifty and help out these local Chicago filmmakers!