A gutsy legacy

Pub date August 9, 2011

Movies today might be a gutless affair if not for the industry of Herschell Gordon Lewis a half-century ago. Literally gutless — you have Lewis to thank for every splattersome moment of exposed entrails and explicit gougings since.

Oh sure, the restrictions against graphic violence in U.S. cinema would have lapsed eventually, degree by degree. But who else would have had the nerve to do it all in one swoop with a movie as early, and thoroughly tasteless, as 1963’s Blood Feast? Nothing like it had existed before, and those few who noticed it outside rural drive-in and urban grindhouse viewers surely wished it never would again. (The L.A. Times called it “a blot on the American film industry,” Variety “an insult to even the most puerile and salacious audiences.”) A futile wish, that.

Next week sees the DVD release of, incredibly, 82-year-old Lewis’ latest feature: The Uh-Oh! Show, a reality TV spoof whose game contestants win fabulous prizes for getting answers right — and suffer grisly body-part losses if they don’t. A month later Image Entertainment and Something Weird will spring both a “Blood Trilogy” Blu-ray set of his first three horror “classics,” as well as Jimmy Maslon and Basket Case (1982) director Frank Henenlotter’s documentary portrait Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore. The latter features such fans as Joe Bob Briggs and John Waters, surviving collaborators, and of course Lewis himself tracing his infamous influential cinematic path amidst myriad original clips.

This was not begun as a personal mission of rebellion, perversity, or artistic aspiration, but for sheer profit pursuit. After checking out possible careers from radio to teaching English Lit, he found a Chicago berth in advertising, which eventually led to making commercials and buying out a small production company. Figuring there was more moolah in features, Lewis partnered with producer Dave Friedman and found some success via pre-porn “nudie cuties” with titles like Boin-n-g and Goldilocks and the Three Bares (both 1963).

Just as they’d imitated Russ Meyer, however, others soon imitated them, overcrowding the field with topless frolics. What other naughty but inexpensive concept could they exploit that others hadn’t milked dry yet? The answer was Blood Feast, shot in nine days for $20,000, wherein an alleged caterer (the wildly hammy Mal Arnold as “Fuad Ramses”) gathering ingredients for a socialite’s “Egyptian feast” rips limbs and whatnot from comely young women to revive an ancient goddess.

The acting was atrocious (especially by Playboy centerfold star Connie Mason), the script was laughable, and the craftsmanship primitive at best. When Blood premiered at a Peoria, Ill. drive-in, viewers howled with laughter — then hurled, as on-screen victims had brains, tongues, etc. separated from their person, then dangled in front of the camera at length. (These local butcher-shop bits often grew rather ripe by shooting time; pity the poor actress who had to stuff a rank cow tongue in her mouth.) Friedman and Lewis duly provided souvenir vomit bags at future venues. They had a hit.

Plenty more such followed, though Friedman eventually went off to L.A. to make his own sexier cheapies (such as 1968’s Nude Django and Thar She Blows!, and 1971’s The Big Snatch). Feast‘s immediate follow-up Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) was a comparatively elaborate horror comedy that remains Lewis’ personal favorite. But when it failed to make more money despite improved production values, he learned his lesson and kept costs dirt cheap. By 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, even he realized he’d taken red paint and animal innards as far over-the-top as they could go, leaving the movie biz to become a highly successful guru of direct marketing. Until a rising tide of cult rediscovery finally prompted a larky return in 2002’s Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, that is.

At nearly two hours, The Godfather of Gore covers a lot of ground, guided by an octogenarian subject who’s still every inch the flamboyant salesman. Beyond the horror films, it touches on Lewis’ forays into biker action (1968’s incredible She-Devils on Wheels), juvenile delinquency (1968’s Just for the Hell of It), hicksploitation (1972’s Year of the Yahoo!) and even children’s entertainment (1967’s The Magic Land of Mother Goose).

Several other lesser-known 60s features are now considered lost, although it’s too bad Godfather doesn’t make room for such extant obscurities as Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In (1970) and the great wife-swapping saga Suburban Roulette (1968), whose theme song promises “ring-a-dingin’ with that swingin’ set,” while the trailer posits 1968 Illinois suburbia as “where the stakes are as high as the morality is low.”