Herschell Gordon Lewis: 1929 – 2016

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Image source: herschellgordonlewis.com

A lot of latter-day horror directors want to be Herschell Gordon Lewis.

With the genre as crammed with amateurs and posers as it is today, imitation hasn’t become the sincerest form of flattery; it’s become the surest way to make sure you’re forgotten, and fast.

Many of them are trying their damnedest to kick open a door that was already blown off its hinges in 1963 with Blood Feast.

Some may wonder what integrity can be found within films that are calibrated to sell to a specific audience by the truth-in-advertising use of “blood” and “gore” in the title.

Maybe integrity’s not the point.

Maybe Lewis’s decision to create Blood Feast was a calibrated experiment to test the waters of what drive-in audiences were willing to embrace. The 1950s were clogged with black-and-white sci-fi efforts banking on Cold War paranoia, and low-budget filmmaking had stagnated to a “been there, zapped that” kind of feel.

When I think about industry cynicism, I think about the collective of directors aping the filmmaking techniques of the 1970s and ’80s, to diminishing creative returns. People shoot themselves in the foot by trying to defend their alleged excesses, or pontificating on the social and political subtext of a decapitation or evisceration. Intelligent audiences are going to see the subtext (if there truly is any).

There are times when gore is best left to speak for itself.

Lewis’s films were blunt objects looking to knock filmgoers over the heads by giving them exactly the kind of taboo-breaking experience they wanted.

Flaws and all, Blood Feast was a transgressive piece of cinema, but one that made its carnage complementary to the plot. Despite its title, the gore wasn’t there for its own sake. It’s rather impressive that the carnage resonates as well as it does today, but also that Lewis’s handling of A. Louise Downe’s screenplay (about a bug-eyed caterer collecting body parts to invoke the Egyptian goddess Ishtar) stays focused on the story.

The same can be said of Two Thousand Maniacs and The Wizard of Gore. Even lesser films like The Gore Gore Girls almost felt sneaky in how they tricked audiences into thinking that the violence was the be-all, end-all. The fact that it was so unabashedly in-your-face certainly made it impossible to ignore.

Who knows? Perhaps the over-the-top nature of the gore was endemic of Lewis’s own indifference toward the scripts he was given. In any event, the approach almost always worked.

Even if the films were “just” the first exercises in colorized gore, they would still be remembered, albeit in a musty archival sense. But the fact that Lewis’s efforts were so disparate in theme, plot, and character underlined his sense of hucksterism (which he was always the first to admit) – after all, why do we bypass those worn-down rides and probably-rigged games on the boardwalk? Because they’ve been there for decades and never change.

Like William Castle, Lewis recognized the value in finding different stories to serve as vessels for his gimmicks. Say what you will about potential sociopolitical commentary, sexual subtext, or the hidden depth of his work; in the end, he treated film as a means to a financial end, and was successful. That his body of work has such a devoted cult following today indicates a longevity Lewis himself probably never intended or anticipated.

I had the good fortune to meet Lewis at New Jersey’s Monster Mania Con several years ago. Not only was it a thrill to have him autograph my print of the Blood Feast poster (complete with “an admonition” to sensitive viewers), but there was a sense of awe at being in the presence of a man who had had such an impact on not only the American horror scene, but purveyors of cinematic extremity the world over.

At a time when other filmmakers were spinning their wheels with Xeroxed crap for the masses, Lewis pushed forward boldly and fearlessly. His movies were low-budget, sure, but the confidence (and audacity) behind the camera was undeniable. It was the type of purity of vision that we will never see again.

(On October 25, Arrow Video will release The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, a 17-disc, limited-edition Blu-ray box set of Lewis’s work.)