These days, when it comes to making violent movies, I guess Quentin Tarantino sits atop the heap in a crowded field of directors who specialize in that sort of thing. After all, the guy did bring us such modern day classics such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers. But long before he came along there was another guy known in the industry circles as “The Godfather of Gore”. That man was Herschell Gordon Lewis and here’s his story.
A Slow Start
Just like one of his movies, things started out innocently enough but soon would take a turn for the worst. Herschell Gordon Lewis arrived on the scene in the quiet suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania way back in 1926. Early accounts of his childhood appear normal and after graduating high school, Herschell packed his bags and headed off to Northwestern University where he eventually graduated with a Master’s degree in the field of Journalism. It wasn’t long afterwards that he took his talents on the road and began teaching English at Mississippi State College. I guess he found the quiet life of a teacher unappealing and was looking to unfurl his creative talents on the world and trotted off to Racine, Wisconsin to manage a radio station. From there, he bounced to Oklahoma City where he managed a television station and got his first taste to the world of filmmaking. Figuring this schtick was small potatoes, he packed up and headed to Chicago, Illinois where he was hoping to hit the big time.
He started out in advertising, filming commercials and soon bought out half of the company and with a partner named Martin Schmidhofer, Lewis and Martin films was born. It wasn’t long before they branched out into the world of filmmaking. Their first forays were sort of soft core porn/exploitation films and by his own estimates they made over thirty of them. Because of censorship and the then still strict adherence to The Motion Picture Production Code, only a few survived. Most notably were three shot in nudist camps that went by the names of Daughter of the Sun, Nature’s Playmates, and the tour de force Goldilocks and the Three Bares.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Looking to cash in a new market, Lewis practically invented an entire of genre of films when his epic Blood Feast hit the screens in 1963. The total production cost was less than $25,000 and they finished it in about a week. Word of mouth got out about the film and movie goers flocked to theaters and drive-ins to catch a glimpse of something they’d never seen before. There was much ado around the country regarding the graphic content of the movie and it was banned in many parts of the country due to its violent nature. Of course, by doing that, it had the exact opposite effect. Film attendance in places where it wasn’t banned went thought the roof.
Riding on the heels of his success, Lewis contracted to make another gore/slasher film. This one was called Two Thousand Maniacs! and centers around a town in the Deep South that only appears every one hundred years and then only to kill tourist from up North. The killings are meant to avenge the deaths of Southern Troops killed in the Civil War. For a full review, I suggest you read Thunderfoot’s take on the matter.
Next up was the classic Color Me Blood Red in 1964. This movie weaves the tale of an artist who kills so that he might use his victims blood as paint. This was the last film Lewis made with Martin and the pair split up citing creative differences and haggling over the films profits.
After some monumental flops that included trying his hand at making children’s movies, Lewis returned to his roots and scored big with A Taste of Blood. The tale centers around an average American business man who finds himself the heir to the riches left behind by none other than the Count himself, Dracula. Let your imagination be your guide.
Drugs were becoming popular in America in 1967 and Lewis tried to cash in on the times when her came out with Something Weird. After falling victim to a fallen power line and becoming horribly disfigured, a man finds his telepathic powers greatly enhanced. Enter a woman, who in reality is really a witch, who promises to restore his former good looks if he becomes her lover. He seals the deal but then tries to up the ante and enhance his telepathical talents by taking a massive dose of LSD. Oh, the horror that ensues…
Later that same year, Lewis unveiled The Gruesome Twosome, the story, of all things, of a mother/son team of wigmakers. They lure buxom young lasses from the local college campus on the pretense of renting them rooms and when no one is looking, they proceed to scalp them in order to keep their business afloat.
Once again, Lewis turned his back on his specialty and proceeded to make the following films for which, in most instances , the titles speak for themselves. In no particular order, those were Blast Off Girls, She Devils on Wheels, Just for the Hell of It, Linda and Abilene, The Ecstasies of Women, and last but not least, the incredibly titled Miss Nymphets Zap-In. That last one was a parody of the popular show of the day, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.
Figuring he should dance with who brought him, Lewis returned to the shock and awe genre with The Wizard of Gore. This one tells the tale of a magician with truly magical powers. I’m sure we’ve all seen the trick where a magician seems to saw a beautiful girl in half only to have her arise from the container in one piece. In the Lewis version, the magician spices up the act by using a chainsaw and while the woman does indeed escape intact, she later falls apart when nobody is looking except the audience. A nice spin on a familiar theme if you ask me. For a much more detailed review of the film, I refer you to Sid's fine write up
A Slow Fade to Black
Times were changing and Hollywood was changing with them. For the most part censorship had gone by the wayside and they were now free to make gore and slash films on their own, This sounded the death knell for Lewis and he filmed his last one called The Gore Gore Girls. In this one, he went for the full monty.
The premise centers around a maniac who targets the female employees of a strip club. Every item of destruction and mayhem that you can possibly think of seems to be brought into play as the girls suffer horrible deaths at the hands of meat tenderizing mallets, boiling grease and the innocent enough household iron.
With his career over, Lewis didn’t just ride off into the sunset. He went back to his skills in the field of advertising and has since published over twenty books on the topic. He did try his hand once more at directing back in 2002 when he teamed up with his original partners and gave us Blood Feast 2. All U Can Eat. By now though, times and tastes seemed to have had passed him by and the movie was a flop.
Written for The B Movie Quest