There’s never been a filmmaker quite like Herschell Gordon Lewis. His movies are trashy, cheap and fun, perfectly aware of how dumb and low-rent they are, and all the better for it. With the dual instincts of a salesman and a showman, Lewis combined the grisly and the goofy like no one else. Films such as “Blood Feast” (1963), “Two Thousand Maniacs!” (1964), “Color Me Blood Red” (1965), “She-Devils on Wheels” (1968) and “The Gore-Gore Girls” (1972), truly earned him a place among the pantheon of directors covered in the seminal 1986 book on exploitation filmmaking, “Incredibly Strange Films.”
Just this week, a documentary titled “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore” directed by Lewis acolytes Frank Henenlotter (“Basket Case”) and Jimmy Maslon (“The Wizard of Gore”) was released on DVD. Three of Lewis’ better-known splatter films “Blood Feast,” Lewis’ own favorite “Two Thousand Maniacs” and “Color Me Blood Red” have also just been released as a single set on Blu-ray, with commentary tracks and other assorted extras.
Since backing away from filmmaking in the early 1970s, Lewis, now in his early 80s, has maintained a successful career in direct marketing, authoring more than 30 books on the subject. Hero Complex contributor Mark Olsen reached him by phone earlier this week at his offices in Florida, where Lewis noted, “In the world of marketing I have some fame; in the world of film I have notoriety. And there is the difference.”
MO: Is there some connection between your work in marketing and your work as a filmmaker?
HGL: In fact I don’t know which one quite led to the other. In the early days I became known as the master of campaigns, based on a fairly well-publicized philosophy that the campaign was really more significant for an independent filmmaker than what appeared on film. Any schnook can aim a camera, I proved that. But to be able to get somebody to spend money to look at what you’ve shot, that requires a different kind of talent altogether. I began getting together marketing campaigns for other peoples’ pictures and the seed spread around. Now of course my principle income is in the area of marketing. Films are a lot of fun, but from the viewpoint of cold-blooded business procedure I’m delighted to have another foot in another place.
HGL: I’ll tell you what happened. As you may or may not be aware, I am given credit or blame for starting this whole genre of motion pictures which we now call “splatter films.” I made the very first one, called “Blood Feast,” and for some time I had that entire arena to myself. And then the major film companies looked at this and said “How long has this been going on?” And they invaded my sacred territory and began to make their own movies with three elements I did not have. One, budget. Two, reasonably professional effects. And three, semi-name value of the people who were either in the cast or behind the camera. And I could see that the kind of thing I was grinding out had a limited future. And rather than be driven into the wall, I simply walked to the wall. I felt those days were over.
MO: Did you consider yourself an artist?
HGL: Certainly not. Good heavens. That would be the height of arrogance and stupidity. Art is not a factor. I really have some compassion but also a good deal of contempt for people who make this kind of movie and regard themselves as artists. Art is really not even a secondary factor, it’s a tertiary factor. Showmanship, now that’s a different story.
MO: So what was the impulse that drove you to make those films?
HGL: Oh, I can tell you what my impulse was in one sentence. The impulse was to produce a motion picture that the major film companies either could not make or would not make but a brave theater might exhibit and a brave theater-goer might pay to view.
MO: How did you come to transition from making the kind of soft-core skin flicks known as “nudie-cuties” into making gore pictures? Was there a eureka moment?
HGL: There was no epiphany as such. Here’s what happened – in that arena of nudie-cuties, the field was becoming crowded and I didn’t like the direction that genre of motion pictures was taking. I had small children at the time and it became a matter of some embarrassment really when someone asked “What kind of movies do you make?” It was more and more difficult to answer that question and maintain any possible facade of respectability. So I began to scout around, what other kind of movie might there be that the motion picture industry would not make, which left a hole for me within my budgetary range? I certainly was not going to be able to show a bunch of rocket ships flying to Mars. What I could show was blood gushing, because stage blood was not all that expensive. And that’s what planted the seed.
MO: Given the recent rise of graphic films often referred to as “torture porn,” do you ever have any regrets over what you started?
HGL: Regret is too harsh a word. Yes, like Dr. Frankenstein I have some feelings of conscience based on what my construction has done. But it’s like asking if the person who invented Oxycodone should apologize for all the addicts out there. It comes deep in the sequence and is peripheral to the initial benefit accrued from being the first of these films made at all. I established it, and over the years whether people have corrupted my corruption is beyond my ability to control. If your question is, would I make that kind of movie in which I try to outdo myself for more realistic effects, then we are heading in the direction of the ultimate, which would be the genre of the snuff film. And I just don’t want to be part of that.
MO: Did it take some getting used to that part of what people like about your films is that they are so bad?
HGL: Of course! I don’t revel in that, but I certainly don’t resent it. It’s simply a matter of judgment. What a movie like “Blood Feast” proves is that attention can be given to elements other than the spending of money for effects. To me the basis of comparison is if I put a dollar in, I get back a dollar and one cent. It’s a basic business equation. So let them laugh.
— Mark Olsen
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