Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Unsung Hero of “Barf-Bag” Cinema

Hey guys!  I just turned in my LAST paper for my undergrad degree, and funny enough it was for my Film Genre: Horror class (a subject I am particularly fond of).  Anyway, I put a lot of effort into this report and I enjoyed working on it so much, I thought it would be fun to share with more people than just my professor!  So here it is, in all its glory - my final paper for my horror class, written about "The Godfather of Gore," Herschell Gordon Lewis... Now with BONUS PICTURES!

Peter Waters
RTVF 157

Herschell Gordon Lewis:
The Unsung Hero of “Barf-Bag” Cinema

For the most part, horror films today are all about the gore.  Whether it’s Jigsaw’s diabolical death traps in the Saw films, or Michael Myer’s hundredth gutted victim from the Halloween series, modern audiences that pay for their movie tickets on a Saturday night to see an R-Rated horror film expect some bloodshed.  We tend to take it for granted nowadays, but the man that started the “gorror” subgenre was a young director named Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Back in 1963, with a small, micro-budgeted horror film meant for a drive-in double bill called Blood Feast, cinema history was made.  Blood Feast (1963) was the first feature strictly marketed and sold as a movie featuring extensive ‘gore’ (not sex or nudity, like the common exploitation films of the day).  Lewis found his niche, and although his films didn’t even stand the test of time at the period of their release, their importance to the horror genre is insurmountable.

Herschell Gordon Lewis began his career as an English and Humanities professor at Mississippi State College, and eventually evolved into the advertising business.  Realizing that the only certain way to make money in his business was making feature films, Gordon Lewis rounded up his friends and created the production company Mid-Continent Films.   The first film he produced was called The Prime Time (1960), which despite featuring the screen debut of a young Karen Black, never ended up having any sort of box office value – but it was on this picture that Lewis met and befriended his long-time producing partner, David F. Friedman, who would go on to work with him for most of his career.

(There's Karen Black on the left in her "breakout" role...)

After hitting it off with Friedman, Lewis decided to self-distribute their films and tap into the burgeoning market known as “nudie-cuties.”  These were films that pre-dated the ratings system, and would essentially feature naked beautiful women doing mundane activities (they were basically sex films with sex-less situations).  Lewis and Friedman, on a two-man crew (Lewis as director/cameraman, Friedman as producer/sound man), pooled together $8,000 and made The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), a thinly plotted film about a voyeur who watches women undress (the entire script was written in only 6 hours).  Once the film was released and turned a profit for the producers, the two went on to crank out more and more ‘nudie-cutie’ films “like so much hamburger,” (HGL).

(You know a movie's gonna be worth it if it's shot in "skinamascope")

Even in this early period, Lewis’s filmmaking style and famously money-saving, business-like direction emerged.  While shooting the film Daughter of the Sun (1962), in an effort to conserve the budget, Lewis would shoot the non-nude portions of the film in black and white, and the scenes taking place in the nudist colony would be shot in color, which according to fellow cult filmmaker Frank Henenlotter: “[Is] like a degenerate version of Wizard of Oz.”

(Fun fact: the cast and crew also had to get naked while filming in the nudist camp)

After a number of these productions were made and word got around how much money Lewis and Friedman were making off of these pictures, soon everybody wanted in on the business, and in the oversaturated “nudie-cutie” marketplace returns were staring to diminish.  So Lewis knew that he needed to come up with a fresh idea to stay profitable – an idea that the major publishers wouldn’t touch, but that theater owners would still book and audiences would still pay for.  Then he had the epiphany that there was an untapped market that would pay to see blood and guts on the screen.  Thus, Blood Feast was born, the first-ever “gore” movie.

(The only thing more horrific than the gore is Connie Mason's acting)

Before Blood Feast, gore itself wasn’t absent from the cinematic language. There were certainly plenty of previous films that featured some notable uses of the grotesque (PsychoThe Pit and the Pendulum), but it wasn’t until Lewis’s film that the entire reason for a movie existing was for its blood and guts.  The film centers on a killer named Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), who murders women so he can serve them in his food catering business and sacrifice them to the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. The plot was intentionally left mindless; though Allison Louise Dowd is credited for the script, the shooting script was more or less assembled by the crew as filming progressed.  One of the most shocking gross-out moments comes during a killing scene where Ramses cuts out a girl’s tongue (actress Astrid Olsen was cast as the girl because they needed someone with a mouth big enough to fit an entire second tongue in).  Often credited as the “beginning of the splatter film,” this scene was even more nauseating off screen, as the night before there was a power outage, and the tongue (a cow tongue from a local butcher shop) had been stored in the refrigerator at the Suez Motel. Reportedly it could be smelled two blocks away.  But with no time to waste, Lewis shot the scene anyway and Olsen had to act alongside a rancid cow tongue with her only compensation a paltry paycheck and being a part of horror history.

(Got your tongue!)

Because he could direct films for next to no money and wasted little time, Lewis was able to direct many features (he made 37 movies within the span of 12 years), including such cult classics as Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), A Taste of Blood (1967), and The Wizard of Gore (1970).  He became notorious for his money and time-saving techniques; for instance he would almost never do a second take of a shot. Shooting on film was costly, especially in color, and time equals money on a film set.  So even if it was at the cost of continuity, any mistakes, however noticeable, were often left in the film. The actor William “Bill” Curwin, frequent collaborator with Gordon Lewis, refused to put out his cigarette in one scene of A Taste of Blood, even though in the shot prior he wasn’t holding one; cameras kept rolling regardless (sadly Bill would pass away of lung cancer in 1989).

(A still from 2000 Maniacs!, HGL's favorite of his own films)

They weren’t exactly masterpieces of cinema, but Herschell Gordon Lewis’s films were meant more for an audience to enjoy than to elevate to any sort of artistic endeavor.  Lewis himself detested the idea of being labeled an “artist” and considered himself more of a businessman.  The third film in his original “Blood Trilogy,” Color Me Blood Red, takes a jab at the idea of the art world taking themselves seriously by having a character that kills women and uses their blood to paint with (because it’s the perfect shade of red), and is in turn lauded by the critics.  Another instance of self-deprecation, in Lewis’s last “nudie-cutie” film, Boin-n-g! (1963), the semi-autobiographical plot tells the story of two inept filmmakers who set out to make their own “nudie-cutie,” eventually screening their film for a local theater owner, who proclaims that it’s the single worst film he’s ever seen and then adds “I’ll take it!”  Lewis and Friedman’s self-aware nature and inclusion of content that catered to the lusts of the audience made them critic-proof.

(A critic analyzes a killer piece of art in Color Me Blood Red)

These gore films were mostly limited to drive-ins and “underground” theaters around the Southern United States, where a print of the film would travel from one place to the next, as opposed to the scheduled “wide releases” you see in many of today’s features.  As a producer, Friedman knew how to drum up business; after hearing cases of people vomiting during early screenings of Blood Feast, he would henceforth travel from theater to theater before the film would play, and hand out promotional barf-bags with a note on the front saying: ‘You may need this when you see Blood Feast’ - this would be a gimmick to be repeated many times in horror movie history, with such titles as Mark of the Devil (1970) and Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972).  There became a sort of social endurance test to watching these films, asking the audience “can you watch this without throwing up?”

(In the 60's you didn't have IMAX, you had barf bags)

One of Lewis’s most gruesome pictures is The Wizard of Gore (1970).  By this point Friedman and Lewis’s partnership had split because of a personal quarrel, but while Friedman left for Hollywood, Lewis continued to make gore movies out of both Chicago and Miami.  The plot for The Wizard of Gore surrounds a magician, Montag, who slices and dices women on stage in front of a live audience who all think it’s one big show.  In a way, this film is Lewis’s commentary on the actual audience of his films; they all have this insatiable bloodlust, harking back to the Roman Coliseum.  But Lewis found that violence in films was not an issue, and in a way was a healthy manner to get these primal emotions out.  According to HGL: “I think bloodlust is ingrained in the human psyche, and one benefit these films bring to the psychological arena is providing a passive outlet.”           

(This is why I check off 'no' when I'm asked to be an organ donor)

  Herschell Gordon Lewis’s films were the forerunners of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, leading up to today’s gore-fests like Saw and Hostel.  But while those films all get their due recognition, Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose pioneering work in the horror genre remains mostly unnoticed by anyone other than hardcore genre fans, made it all possible.  In Lewis’s words: “If you take a shot that nobody’s ever done before, you’re an outlaw. “ Lewis was certainly a filmmaking “outlaw” of his day.  He shot outside of the Hollywood system, often using real people (non-actors) as his on-screen talent, shooting in real places instead of Hollywood sets, and strayed from “the gothic” tone that most horror films used (even the slasher-inspiring Psycho featured an old, Victorian mansion).  He was most noted for his gore pictures, but it’s his independent spirit and his ability to create a kind of mini-time capsule that make his films still enjoyable, even if they are “terrible” movies made only to turn a profit. In the words of horror host Joe Bob Briggs on Lewis’s work: “The degrees of greatness to awfulness is really close together.”            

(Lewis and Friedman, reminiscing post-breakup)


The Godfather of Gore.  Dir. Frank Henenlotter.  Perf. John Waters, Joe Bob Briggs.  Something Weird Video, 2011.  DVD.

Lewis, Herschell Gordon.  Audio Commentary.  The Blood Trilogy. Dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Perf. William Kerwin, Mal Arnold. 1965. Something Weird Video, 2011. Blu Ray.

Lewis, Herschell Gordon.  Audio Commentary. A Taste of Blood. Dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis. Perf. Bill Rogers, William Kerwin. 1967. Something Weird Video, 2004. DVD.

Lewis, Herschell Gordon, and Rausch, Andrew J.  The Godfather of Gore Speaks.  Duncan: BearManor Media, 2012.  Print.

Palmer, Randy. Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore. Jefferson: Macfarland & Company, Inc., 2000. Print.

Wisniewski, John. "The Wizard of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis Speaks!" Bright Lights Film Journal. N.p., Oct. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014.

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