Sunday , 26 March 2017

R.I.P., Herschell Gordon Lewis, Godfather of Gore

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The Gore 4 deeply laments the passing of one of horror’s greats, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore. He died early Monday, September 26 in his sleep at the age of 90 at his home in Pompano Beach, Florida. (Most sources list Lewis’ age at 87, but Something Weird Video, which releases many of his films, states that he celebrated his 90th birthday this year.) Best known for ushering in what would become known as the ‘splatter film,’ Lewis paved the way for the likes of everyone from Romero to Cronenberg to Fulci to Roth. While never achieving the success of those filmmakers, Lewis’ films were popular among the drive-in crowds of the 60’s and 70’s, and his influence is still felt today.

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Born in Pittsburgh, PA (also home to George A. Romero, and birthplace of splatter effects wizards, Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero – there must be something in the water), Herschell Gordon Lewis spent most of his youth in Chicago, getting a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern, and ultimately teaching English lit at Mississippi State. Lewis moved onto radio and advertising before working his way into the movies, making exploitation films, including softcore sex films known as “nudie cuties.” It was 1963 when Lewis wrote, directed and scored what is considered to be the first gore film, Blood Feast. Shot on a shoestring budget, Lewis depicted crude but effective instances of violence the likes of which had never been seen before on screen in the story of a food caterer who uses the body parts of his female victims to resurrect an Egyptian goddess. Eye gouging, limb hacking, brain removal, and the most notorious of all, a tongue ripped from its jaw (in actuality, a sheep’s tongue), were all shown in eye-popping color, and movies would never be the same. Starring Playboy Playmate, Connie Mason, Blood Feast had plenty of nudity and gore galore. And while the writing wasn’t the greatest and the acting was admittedly poor, the film was the first of its kind. It’s success was the beginning of what is known as “The Blood Trilogy,” followed by Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965).

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Lewis continued making a variety of exploitation pictures throughout the 60’s, including biker and juvenile delinquent movies, and even a couple of children’s films. But his most popular movies were the ones that ultimately gave him his signature nickname. A Taste of Blood and The Gruesome Twosome (both 1967) led to Lewis fully embracing his moniker with perhaps his quintessential splatterfest, The Wizard of Gore (1970). The story of a magician who mutilates his victims on stage enabled Lewis to exhibit cutting a woman in half with a chainsaw, hammering a spike through the head, and the gore-de-force setpiece, using a punch press to disembowel an unfortunate audience member. There is an almost unbearable suspense as we watch the steel press descend painstakingly downward ever so slowly. Though understandably crude by today’s standards, the scene still manages to shock after all these years in its graphic display of intestines and organs spilling out (again, courtesy of a sheep).

Lewis would do one more of his signature films with The Gore Gore Girls (ya gotta love his titles) in 1972, before leaving filmmaking behind for a successful career in marketing and advertising, authoring many books on those subjects, lecturing on everything from copywriting to public relations and forming his own marketing firm. He returned to film in 2002 with his sequel, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, and worked on a handful of other projects following that. His final film, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ BloodMania, is set to be released next year.

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The Gore 4 was fortunate to meet the man himself last year at Chiller Theatre in Parsippany, New Jersey, where we got Herschell to sign a Blu-ray copy of his 70’s double feature. To say it was an honor for the Gore 4 to meet the Godfather of Gore would be an understatement. While Lewis’ films certainly weren’t masterpieces by any means – the ‘actors’ used often never performed again, the editing could be choppy and the effects were often unsatisfying to even the filmmaker himself – they were groundbreaking in their depictions of on-screen violence and gore. Their tongue-in-cheek (when not ripped out) nature gave them a certain charm that was nonetheless entertaining despite the low budgets that were clearly evident. Lewis helped give birth to the likes of Jason, Michael Myers and Leatherface. His movies have inspired many filmmakers, from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, to John Waters and James Gunn, who tweeted, “he changed cinema.” New Jersey’s own Tim Sullivan remade one of Lewis’ films in 2005 with 2001 Maniacs, starring Robert Englund and Lin Shaye, and did a sequel to that in 2010 with 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams, with Bill Mosely, Christa Campbell and again, his favorite, Lin Shaye. In 2007,  a remake of The Wizard of Gore entertained audiences with a cast that included Crispin Glover, Bijou Phillips and genre stalwarts, Jeffrey Combs and Brad Dourif. No doubt, Lewis’ influence continues to resonate. On television, it’s hard to imagine shows like The Walking Dead, Ash vs Evil Dead, Supernatural, Game of Thrones and The Strain, to name but a few, where almost anything goes, even existing without HGLewis getting the blood-soaked ball, dripping with entrails, rolling back in 1963.

Most of Lewis’ movies are available on home video. Next month, Arrow Video is releasing an extensive Blu-ray/DVD box set of fourteen of the goremaster’s films, loaded with a veritable gorenucopia (we just coined a new word-thanks, Herschell!) of extras. You can read all about it, and order it right at the MVD Shop or on Amazon. Long live Herschel Gordon Lewis! The Gore 4 will do its best to keep your legacy alive!

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— remembrance by Brian de Castro

3 comments

  1. 'Walking' Ed Turner

    Herschel Gordon Lewis was THE man to bring the Grand Guignol style of theater to the screen. Like it or not, when you attended, either in the late 1800’s or the mid-20th century, you just couldn’t look away. Herschel was to film, as Oscar Méténier and Max Maurey were to the Grand Guignol theater of it’s time.

    R.I.P., Mr. Lewis. You continued an old tradition that will go on.

  2. 'Walking' Ed Turner

    Nice send-off, Brian.

    • Thanks, Ed. It’s a real bummer whenever we lose one of horror’s greats – we’ve lost so many of late – Angus Scrimm, Wes Craven, Christopher Lee – so you want to take the time to extoll their virtues and remind people of their enduring impact today and how much they meant to fans of the genre we love so much. They may be gone, but never forgotten. And their work will always live on. Time to pop in that Blu-ray of The Gore Gore Girls!

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