The Godfather of Gore or the King of Trash Cinema...whatever way you look at it, the impact on the genre scene by Herschell Gordon Lewis is impossible to deny. Low budget oddball flicks filled with gruesome gore, his films are both amusing and shocking at the same time.
It was in the late 1950's that a bright young advertising producer Herschell Gordon Lewis teamed up with film distributor David Friedman to make some money in the growing exploitation movie field. Using Gordon's knowledge of production and Friedman's marketing skills the two jumped feet first into the 'nudie cutie' scene with the tale of a young woman's wild abandon in 'The Prime Time' (aka 'Hell Kitten').
For three years this unlikely pair of mercenary moviemakers enjoyed some reasonable success in the theatres and drive-in cinemas but soon found the sexploitation market burgeoned with similar product and knew they had to try something new...
Filmed in two days with a budget of $24,000 'Blood Feast' hit the theatres with wild success! Trash cinema in the extreme and all the more lovely for it, 'Blood Feast' truly is a wonderful viewing experience and one that any fan of horror wishing to enjoy a bit of the genre's history should enjoy!
Sure, it is B movie exploitation at its best (or is that worst?) - the wooden acting and creepy muzac aside, let's not forget the gore! Way ahead of its time (by a long shot) and still at times very effective viewing today. Limbs are hacked off and cooked, heads scalped, and of course there's the infamous tongue removal scene too!
All of this is lovingly pieced together by Lewis with some well paced editing and excellent vintage sinister cinema direction (you know the stuff, close shot of maniac's eyes etc). Great stuff and still packs a punch in this the age of the computer-generated effects work (who needs CGI when there's a sheep's tongue to hand or a pile of intestines available from the friendly butcher's shop!)
For the next nine years following 'Blood Feast' Herschell Gordon Lewis went on to make another thirty or so movies in the exploitation field, from the cool but crazy femme flick 'She Devils on Wheels'' to kiddie flicks like 'Jimmy the Wonder Boy' and the downright strange 'Something Weird'. But Herschell always returned to producing infamously gory delights such as 'Two Thousand Maniacs', 'Color Me Blood Red' and 'The Wizard of Gore'. But it was in 1972 that it all came sadly to an end with probably his best work 'The Gore-Gore Girls'. In a market where low budget drive-in cinema delights were dwindling up against the likes of big budget shockers like 'The Exorcist' the Lewis legacy came to an end.
But what happened to Herschell? Well would you believe that as well as teaching for twenty or so years in Mass Communications to eager graduates, he now heads Lewis Enterprises and is renowned as the best-known direct response writer and consultant in the US. Now after 30 years at the grand age of a mere 75 years old, the grand father of gore has returned once again to bring the horror loving masses the long awaited 'Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat'.
SGM caught up with Herschell just before he arrived in Scotland for the 'Dead by Dawn' festival...
SGM: So how did a young fresh faced Herschell Gordon Lewis make the move from advertising into full on exploitation cinema?
HGL: I had been the television director of an advertising agency in Chicago. I bought a half-interest in the film studio at which we had been producing commercials and, subsequently, invested in 35mm equipment. Expanding to features required no investment other than film and cast.
SGM: Throughout the eighties onwards films like 'Blood Feast' and 'The Gore Gore Girls' et al have rightfully brought you the crowning title of 'The Godfather of Gore'. From all your blood red movies which has been your favourite gory moment?
HGL: My favourite moment has to be the "tongue scene" in the original "Blood Feast". This was the watershed effect that forever changed the course of motion picture history.
SGM: Working in the exploitation field with no money and little time for the extravagances that bigger productions had, did you never find the workload or limitations daunting or was it in fact (what I would hope) a lot of fun?
HGL: We always had a rip-roaring good time making these films. We took nothing seriously - not the medium, not the script, and not one another.
SGM: As I've often mentioned, my own favourite of your movies has to be the vastly underrated 'The Gore Gore Girls' - which of your movies is your own personal favourite and why?
HGL: My personal favourite is "2,000 Maniacs!" which, in my opinion, successfully combines good drama, adequate acting, and my own voice for the theme music (which I also wrote).
SGM: It feels as though your work has been mostly maligned by the so called movie industry when in fact your contribution is very significant, more so to the genre movie scene. Has there been a specific moment when you realised yourself the impact and significance of your work in the movie world?
HGL: One moment I never will forget occurred about ten years ago. I was invited to appear at a "retrospective" in Los Angeles - the hotbed of high-budget films. From Saturday evening through Sunday, the Variety Arts Theatre screened eleven of my old movies, and I realised for the first time that I was, indeed, a footnote to motion picture history.
SGM: As one of the most successful low budget genre movie makers, what advice would you offer to upcoming independent film makers?
HGL: Aspiring movie makers would seldom heed my advice: Keep your ego out of the production. Too many young film-makers want to make a statement while having no statement to make. Don't succumb to the smugly self-serving auteur-syndrome; instead, be aware of yourself as a caterer of entertainment.
SGM: It's almost forty years (would you believe it!) since you brought films like 'Blood Feast' and '2,000 Maniacs' to the Drive In theatres. Did it ever cross your mind that these films would have such a large following all these years later?
HGL: I not only had no anticipation of the longevity of these films; to this day I marvel at this phenomenon.
SGM: The DVD format is a long shot from the days of Drive In cinema. The rise of the format has brought new life to your movies yet again to a new generation of horror fans, how do you see this new renaissance?
HGL: I'm delighted to see these films preserved in DVD format, where colors don't fade. As each one is released on DVD, I re-visit it, The effect is that of a lost child returning home.
SGM: Following the release of 'The Gore Gore Girls' (my personal favourite of your work) you seemed to disappear from the genre movie scene. Was there any particular reason for this?
HGL: Bookings were down, and the invasion of what had been my private domain by major film companies told me it was time to leave. Who could predict the renaissance?
SGM: You have been massively successful with your work in Mass Communications. Along with your many books on the subject you have spent many years lecturing on the subject. Has your work in exploitation cinema never interfered with your educational work?
HGL: The Internet has exposed my checkered past so much so that my own Web site (www.herschellgordonlewis.com) now recognises it. I no longer hold formal classes at the university level. When I do make appearances related to marketing - and when I lecture on marketing to professional groups - invariably someone has a book or a photo or a videocassette or a DVD to be autographed. I find that very satisfying.
SGM: Something I've always found bewildering is the fact that it's taken so long for a sequel to 'Blood Feast' to be made. Was there any reason for this overlong delay?
HGL: Over a number of years, many would-be producers had discussed the possibility of making "Blood Feast 2". A producer named Jacky Morgan actually put the project together, ending the drought. Had someone taken this definitive step earlier, "Blood feast 2" would have come to fruition earlier.
SGM: How did you find getting behind the camera again after so many years? Was the prospect of the advance in movie making technology a daunting prospect?
HGL: Directing "Blood Feast 2" was remarkably easy. Instead of having to load and fire the camera, handle the lighting, pick up cables, and worry about what we might see in the daily "rushes", I was a genuine director, giving commands to others and able to see the footage immediately on a television monitor. Too, both the equipment and the film speed are vastly improved.
SGM: 'Blood Feast 2' is a stunning return to form, blackly humorous and gory as hell. What's next in the pipeline of the revitalised Godfather of Gore?
HGL: I hope to interest any logical producer in "Herschell Gordon Lewis's Grim Fairy Tale" - which goes even beyond "Blood Feast 2" in outrageous gore and black humour.
SGM: Should be great! Good luck with it all Herschell and thanks for your time!
HGL: Thank you all!
Whilst we had Herschell cornered we took the opportunity to ask him some questions which had been submitted by you the SGM readers. Here's what he had to say...
Reader Sacha asked how does Herschell feel about movie censorship and what does he find objectionable?
HGL: I see no reason for the gratuitous injection of four-letter words into screenplays that don't require them for plot advancement. For plotlines, I'm sick of stories centering around children making jackasses of adults. I wonder who decided that Steven Segal and Keanu Reeves qualify for the appellation "actor". But please understand clearly: These are personal prejudices, and I am inalterably opposed to censorship.
Reader Kamyar asked what was his inspiration to introduce gore into his movies and was there any specific directors that inspired him?
HGL: My "inspiration" was the simple conclusion that such effects never had been done before; blood had never gushed on film, and this was a niche I knew I could fill with a low-budget film. I never have compared myself to other directors. Style defies comparison: Can one compare apples and shoelaces? Each director has his or her own talents and shibboleths.
Reader Dan, a self professed fan of '2,000 Maniacs' asked what ever happened to the hillbilly band from the movie and does Herschell have any idea what they are up to now?
HGL: Chuck Scott (real name: Charles Glore), the guitarist, played the lead in "Moonshine Mountain". I had no further contact with the others.
Reader Letitia asked what was used for the blood in Herschell's movies?
HGL: We compounded our blood at a small cosmetics laboratory. The binder was kaopectate. We used various coloring agents. Today's stage blood differs in a major respect: It's considerably easier to remove.
Reader John reckons that as Mrs Lewis used to produce collectable commemorative plates. Wouldn't it be cool to have a 'Blood Feast' plate available to enjoy an Egyptian Feast on?
HGL: I have no control over either the release or the ancillaries of "Blood Feast 2"; but I think you have a splendid idea. If you want to be the driving force pursuing issuance of a collectible plate, contact the producer, Jacky L. Morgan.
Reader Helen wondered how Herschell would feel about an approach by one of the major Hollywood studios with the offer of remaking one of his vintage bloodfests?
HGL: Nothing short of perpetual life would please me more than having a major company either remake one of my films or initiate a new one, with major star value. I suspect, though, that this won't happen, for two reasons: First, "stars" refuse to take second position to effects; and second, astute producers know that star names add a level of artifice to a splatter/gore film, damaging the raw visuals that are the source of power.
"Have you ever had... an Egyptian Feast?!"
Mr. Lewis is a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is a tennis player, scuba diver and continues to be a pioneer of the gore genre!