Gore Pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis Gets His Due at Anthology
Yknow, an idea based on blood and lustit could spread quickly in a civilization founded on superstition. This from the much-pseudonymed William Rooney Kerwin, playing a detective in Herschell Gordon Lewiss Blood Feast (1963), a film whose unprecedented violence established the gore movie cult.
The audience loved it, recalls one former usher in Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore, of Blood Feasts Los Angeles movie-palace premiere. It was a realization for me as to what ghouls theater audiences really are. The release of Godfather, Jimmy Maslon and Frank Henenlotters H.G.L. documentary, occasions Anthologys Lewis retroand is coincidentally timed with the passing, just weeks ago, of his one-time producer and partner, David F. Friedman. Godfather reunites Lewis and Friedman to narrate their careers, illustrated by awkward re-enactments as well as ample excerpts and outtakes. A patchwork of digressionsfrom Kerwins womanizing, alcoholism, and appearance in educational films as a sympathetic cop who tells a kid not to eat worms to Lewiss talent for negotiating sponsorships from fried-chicken jointsevokes a bygone world of hustling, flimflam moviemaking. Recalling the birth of the promotional Blood Feast barf bag from the dim-eyed autumn of his life, the Alabama-born Friedman remains the same Southern midway pitchman-type he cameoed as in Byron Mabes She Freak (1967). Lewis, a trim, twinkling octogenarian with a Henry Fonda Midwestern drawl, shows off the gold sink at his house.
Headquartered in Chicago, Friedman and Lewis began as an independent two-man crew feeding the early-60s market for nudie cuties, four-day-wonder features with suspiciously tan-lined nudists romping at Floridian nature camps. Intimations of violence emerge in Scum of the Earth (1963), Friedman and Lewiss presumably tongue-in-cheek self-indictment, with grassroots pornographers, including Kerwin (as Thomas Sweetwood), in the process of entrapping a teen and threatening to expose her transgressions to her geriatric parent. Scums principal enticements are the murder of a thirtysomething minor with a cap pistol, which begins one of Lewiss boring climactic chases, and Lawrence Woods wind-up-toy-obsessed idiot smut-lord giving a sweaty-lipped soliloquy in sequentially tightening close-ups (Youre damaged merchandise, and this is a fire sale!).
Bodily harm isnt merely implied in Lewiss other 63 effort, Blood Feast, concerning a community terrorized by the serial murderer of innocent girls, perpetrated by an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold) who dedicates his sacrifices to a department-store mannequin, spray-painted gold. The Egyptian theme was determined by Friedman and Lewiss use of Miami Beachs Suez Motel as their studio, and parallels the raiding of Old Hollywood Biblical epics in 60s underground films.
Ramsess outrages were shown in close-up: torn-out tongues, giblets slithering in viscera the color of BBQ sauce. The profits from Blood Feast confirmed Lewiss formula for stage blood (the secret ingredient was Kaopectate) and success. He imagined fresh atrocities, while branching out into biker flicks, kiddie pics, lesbian Westerns, j.d. nihilism, and unclassifiables like Something Weird (1967). Maintaining a consistent non-sophistication, both avant-garde and Neolithic, through a dozen years and 30-plus films, Lewis retired from the saturated exploitation field in 1972 to fully focus on his side career in marketing, which had informed his filmmaking (an idea based on blood and lustit could spread quickly . . .), giving seminars and writing books like Sales Letters That Sizzle.
Today, Blood Feasts banquet is humbled by multiplex trash like Drive Angry and Black Swan, but the perversity in Lewiss movies is a lost recipe. The documentary quality intrinsic to exploitation films is abundanttime capsules of mid-60s Florida strip malls and motel rooms; naïve, mismatched performances of the centerfold/dinner-theater/gym-rat/bank-teller school. Lewiss 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 Lewiss films counter his own implication that his attraction to such material was strictly businessan ambivalence unchallenged in Godfather and summarized by the Moonshine Mountain (1964) credit in which he billed himself: Herschell Gordon Lewis, who ought to know better, but dont.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.