Daily | Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1929 - 2016
The "godfather of gore" was 87. Updated through 11/5.
"Exploitation legend and 'godfather of gore' Herschell Gordon Lewis has died aged 87," reports the Guardian's Andrew Pulver. "His longtime distributors Something Weird Video (named after Lewis’s 1967 feature) broke the news in a Facebook post. With his 1963 film Blood Feast, Lewis is widely credited with pioneering the splatter genre, despite it being considered 'an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences' in a Variety review. A later critique described it as 'one of the important releases in film history, ushering in a new acceptance of explicit violence that was obviously just waiting to be exploited.'"
From the Austin Film Society's Lars Nilsen:
Lewis was a very smart, funny and well read man who was making industrial films for a living when he caught wind of the audience demand for nudist and sexploitation films, he made a few of these in tandem with producer David Friedman—theirs was a dream team of witty, energetic showmen—and when the market for skin was more than satiated, they tried something new: the gore film. 1963's Blood Feast was the first of these, a hysterically overamplified horror film that featured lots and lots of full color blood and entrails. This was truly something new, and the market responded, especially the drive-in audiences who demanded more. Gordon responded with many more of these including the ambitious Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and his masterpiece, The Wizard of Gore (1970), which I think we can consider a true work of art.
It's probable that without Lewis we would not have had John Waters's forays into bad taste land, and his aesthetic helped to define a peculiarly American strain of weirdness that has permeated music and culture since.
"The Gore Gore Girls was Lewis’s last film for 30 years, during which he focused on direct marketing and advertising work, before coming out of cinematic retirement in 2002 with Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat," writes Alex McCown-Levy for the AV Club. "He most recently hosted a retrospective of his work last month in Philadelphia. The world of horror cinema just got a little less delightfully disgusting."
Updates: "Lewis was a sort of cross between Ed Wood Jr, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Dale Carnegie and maybe even Bernie Madoff," suggests the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "Because as well as being a conveyor-belt of trash movies, Lewis was a formidable and unnervingly driven entrepreneur and compulsive wheeler-dealer who did three years’ jail time in the 1970s for fraud, having conned people through crooked schemes, like a fake car rental company and—incredibly—a phony abortion referral service, and for (nearly) all these services he borrowed money from the bank using as collateral the cinemas of which he claimed to be the un-mortgaged owner. It was a breathtaking and crazy illegality, but nothing dented his almost sociopathic self-belief and work ethic."
"Today," wrote Nick Pinkerton in the Voice in 2011, "Blood Feast’s banquet is humbled by multiplex trash like Drive Angry and Black Swan, but the perversity in Lewis’s movies is a lost recipe. The documentary quality intrinsic to exploitation films is abundant—time capsules of mid-60s Florida strip malls and motel rooms; naïve, mismatched performances of the centerfold/dinner-theater/gym-rat/bank-teller school. Lewis’s gifts as a composer show in the timpani drums under harrowing trombone that give Blood Feast its austere, ceremonial tone, while the lurid delectation of Lewis’s films counter his own implication that his attraction to such material was strictly business."
Update, 9/27: "While the work of others consigned to his general ballpark of production (Ed Wood, for example) hasn't shown the necessary depth to accrue interest with the passing of time, something about Lewis's gritty, silly, sometimes angry work continues to tighten its hold on the fascinated and appalled imagination," writes Tim Lucas:
Regardless of their rough edges (and they are plentiful with their clashing colors, mechanical cinematography and toothache performances), Lewis's films had the significant advantage of being made in the midst of the 20th Century's most dazzling decade. Consequently, they possess a certain value as retorts to such 1960s topics as nudism (Scum of the Earth), Deep South separatism (Two Thousand Maniacs! presents an extreme South so separate from the rest of the country that it comes and goes from reality like the ghost village in Brigadoon!), the Pill (The Girl, The Body and the Pill), LSD (Something Weird), bikers (She Devils on Wheels), swingers (Suburban Roulette), automation (How to Make a Doll), juvenile delinquency (Just for the Hell of It), sexual liberation (The Alley Tramp), and political corruption (The Year of the Yahoo!). His extreme gore film The Wizard of Gore (1970), remade in 2007, even dabbled in Pirandellian illusion and subjective reality. Remarkably, of the 37 films that credit him or his screen names as director, the IMDb lists him as having produced 24, acted in and written 23, photographed 20, and provided the scores for 11—which, like his work or not, validates him as one of our last "complete" filmmakers. He seems to have done everything but edit them, but I'll bet he had a hand in that, too.
The bloodiness of Blood Feast would go on to influence such filmmakers as Frank Hennenlotter, who dedicated Basket Case (1982) to Lewis; Tom Savini, who recalls Lewis’s work as "very visceral, very different from anything else I’d ever seen, and it always stuck in my head;” and John Carpenter, who commends Lewis for, “[wanting] to slap us in the face, and say ‘Look at this stuff.” John Waters prominently featured a Blood Feast poster in his violent satire Serial Mom and interviewed Lewis alongside Russ Meyer in his book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste. Stuart Gordon has said that he referred back to Blood Feast when devising practical effects for Re-Animator, a movie whose main setting is a morgue where autopsies and Frankenstein-like medical experiments are performed.
But even as subsequent generations of filmmakers paid him homage, Lewis never deluded himself into thinking that Blood Feast was a triumph of artistry rather than sheer gall plus marketing acumen. When the writers of Cahiers du Cinema praised Lewis’s Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) as two of the best horror films of all time and classified Lewis as a “subject for further study." Lewis joked, “That’s what they say about cancer."
"While I can’t say I was ever an obsessive devotee of Lewis, his slapdash, wildly amateur films had an impact on me far greater than the refined works of his peers, "writes We Are Still Here director Ted Geoghegan at the Talkhouse Film. "As I tweeted when I learned of his death, the films of H.G. Lewis had more of an impact on my impressionable young brain than Spielberg, Lucas or Scorsese. He was one of us: a pervy, splatter-loving geek who wasn’t out to win awards, but lived simply to entertain. He was a lifelong Southerner who wallowed in the ridiculousness of Southern pride, poked fun at every form of political correctness, and was so on the cutting edge of horror, he managed to perfectly spoof the tropes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 10 years before Tobe Hooper even made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."
Update, 10/7: Lewis's films "convey a rambunctious sense of fun and provocation," writes Stephen Thrower for Sight & Sound. "It may seem an odd assertion when dealing with such violent material, but fans of Lewis really do love his movies. They adore his brash showmanship and revel in his riotous black humor. Lewis knew how to tickle an audience: gruesome murders are presented in his work with the obstreperous relish of a kid throwing a rotten dog carcass into a swimming pool, and it’s the gleeful anarchic childishness that amuses (or offends) as much as the gore itself."
Update, 10/16: "Herschell Gordon Lewis’s films, or at least two them [Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!,], do stand the test of time," argues Variety's Owen Gleiberman. "Not because they’re 'good' (though you could make the claim that within the aesthetic Lewis created, good is exactly what they are) but because everything about them that made them startling, influential, and perpetually entertaining to go back to (I watch them again every five or six years) was accomplished without a semblance of awareness on Lewis’ part that he was doing anything that had a meaning beyond the bottom line. He simply didn’t think about it, but that’s tied to the liberating and totally unhinged recklessness of what he created. Forget what he was thinking: His id guided every decision, and that’s why he was, in his gaudy primitive way—for a couple of movies, at least—a true filmmaker."
Update, 11/5: Writing at the House Next Door, Budd Wilkins suggests that "we should perhaps 'learn to see the worst films,' as Ado Kyrou writes in Surrealism in the Cinema, because 'they are sometimes sublime.' Consumed in sufficient quantities (a delectable prospect now afforded by Arrow Video's gargantuan Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast box set), these films can induce a state of cinematic delirium, with familiar faces and themes bleeding from one film to the next, as though they were only installments in one sprawling, mind-melting serial. What's more, taken together in synoptic overview, Lewis's work constitutes a secret history of the 1960s and early '70s, holding up a funhouse mirror to an increasingly turbulent era."