Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)


Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) DVD Cover

directors Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon
viewed: 03/01/2015

Since I first read about it back in 2010, I was pretty keen to see Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore.  I’m typically up for documentaries about the more obscure and unusual of filmmakers, especially ones with such significant cult classics to their names, and even more so of ones about whom I only know so much.  I had it hopefully waiting in my Netflix queue, in the section called “Saved” for movies that they didn’t have on DVD and often had not timetable for acquiring.  I was pleasantly surprised to see it become available on Full Moon Streaming and somehow even more surprised that it was co-directed by Frank Henenlotter.  Or maybe just that it was directed by Henenlotter and that I for some reason hadn’t realized it.

Actually, it’s a predecessor akin to Henenlotter’s That’s Sexploitation! (2013), which makes a lot of sense.  Henenlotter, along with Mike Vraney and others founded Something Weird video back in the 1980’s, collecting tons of cult nudies and other exploitation films, named after one of Lewis’s flicks and featuring Lewis’ oeuvre as part of their core catalog.  Somewhere along the line Henenlotter and crew must have realized that Lewis and one-time partner and produced David F. Friedman weren’t getting any younger and that no one else was interviewing them about their history in the exploitation biz and that they might as well go ahead and make the documentary themselves.

Friedman has since passed away, but shows up both here and in That’s Sexploitation!, talking about the heady days of nudie cuties and the advent of the splatter movie, the concoction of Lewis and Friedman in the form of Blood Feast (1963) and several others.

The Godfather of Gore is a better doc than That’s Sexploitation!, in part because its focus is keener and it’s got Lewis himself talking through the shoots and experiences of making his famous “Gore” series, nudist films, and strange gamut of filmmaking innovations and practices.  You’ve even got John Waters on hand to pay homage to Lewis and field his always witty perspectives on the films.  Henenlotter and Maslon also venture back to some scenes of the crimes, taking Friendman and Lewis to the town where they filmed Lewis’s personal favorite film, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) along with cast and crew.

What’s most funny to me is my own sense of Lewis and his movies when I first saw them as a teen.  I didn’t know anything really about them other than their legendary status and cult influence.  They seemed cheap and campy to me (which they are) but I wasn’t able to fully appreciate them for that back then.  I had no idea that they’d been filmed in Florida, where I grew up and lived at the time I first saw them.  And I didn’t know who Lewis really was, the intelligent, funny, free-wheeling character that he is and was.

It’s funny too that this legend of cult splatter horror films is also a legend in the direct marketing business, a world he conquered after leaving movies in the 1970’s.  It’s a testament to his bootstrapping cleverness, if perhaps a far cry from his goriest moments and cinematic perversities.  I’m glad Henenlotter and team had the wherewithal to record these folks while they could, capturing some of the oral histories of the wild days of exploitation and the strange, carnival spirit of the men.

The Gruesome Twosome (1967)

The Gruesome Twosome (1967) movie poster

director Herschell Gordon Lewis
viewed: 02/28/2015

I’d signed up for Full Moon Streaming back in October and wound up not watching a lot on it.  I’ve decided to cut the cord on it but before I do hit the Something Weird part of the catalog with some last hurrah.  This included watching some Herschell Gordon Lewis.

In this one, it’s a wig shop, featuring wigs made out of human hair (and scalps!), harvested from the co-ed hunnies that venture to “The Little Wig Shop” for an off-campus abode.  There are a few “gruesome” sequences, in which Lewis furthered his fame as the “godfather of gore”, and it also features some wonderful low-budget acting by a cast that also munches down on Kentucky Fried Chicken and dances to the radio.

It’s quite John Waters-esque in its way.  But Lewis doesn’t do irony and camp with any intentionality.  Which is fine.  It would make a pretty hilarious party loop, as recommended by Joe Bob Briggs.

Carnival of Blood (1970)

Carnival of Blood (1970) poster

director Leonard Kirtman
viewed: 10/31/2014

Per Full Moon Streaming, “What happens when a porno director decides to make a gore film?”

Frankly, the film doesn’t quite live up to that titillating tease.

What it really is, in my take, is a sort of East Coast Al Adamson or Ray Dennis Steckler picture.  Yes, I’m thinking of you The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964) or Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), a zero budget slasher/horror flick shot mostly in and around the world of a seaside amusement park.  In Kirtman’s case, it’s New York’s Coney Island, captured all in the inglorious mutedness of grainy 16mm.

The plot here involves a serial killer around the sideshows, rides, and amusements, one bent on the destruction of very obnoxious women.  The more obnoxious, the more likely to come to an untimely end.  It also features Burt Young (later of Rocky (1975) fame) and a disfigured goon in training at one of the gaming amusements.  Maybe he is the killer?

More than anything, this movie underscored for me the prevalence of carnies, sideshows, beach amusement parks as settings and inspiration for these low-budget exploitation flicks.  It’s not so unusual, I guess.  A lot of the bigger names in Exploitation film-making have more explicit ties to the cranks and promotions in the tradition of P.T. Barnum and his legacy of showmanship and racy, radical promotion.  It’s still an interesting theme running through many, many of the films.  If they had done a better job of it, these documents would be even more invaluable, capturing places in time that are really, truly no more, these seaside attractions of times gone by.

But really, they offer setting, psychics, flashing lights, horror rides.  Inspiration.

Really, this is low-grade gutter fun.  An artifact.

Blood Feast (1963)

Blood Feast (1963) movie poster

director Herschell Gordon Lewis
viewed: 10/22/2014

The ultimate proof that you really ought to research the caterers you hire.

Considered the first “splatter” film, this is the movie that innovated on the front of gore.  And if you want to know, it was localgore (a la localvore), as the sheep’s tongue and other animal viscera (no FX like natural, organic FX) used to gross-out the world were all apparently from local Florida businesses.

Actually, I’ve stumbled on something I’m quite curious about: exploitation/horror filmmaking in the state of Florida in the 1960’s (Blood FeastI Eat Your Skin (1964),  Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)).   Note to self, something to research.

This is the story of a mom who hires a caterer to do some Egyptian-style feast at her daughter’s debutante party (her daughter studies Egyptian culture), only to hire a nutty caterer who has been living for the moment for such a request, because he wants to do a “Blood Feast” to the goddess Ishtar that is made up largely of human elements.  Human elements acquired by his dastardly, bloody deeds.

This is Herschell Gordon Lewis, the “godfather of gore”, working in partnership with David F. Friedman, a partnership that flowered and flowed with bathtubs of blood.  Blood Feast is considered the first of Lewis’ “Blood Trilogy”, followed by Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965).  These films are part of Something Weird’s line on the Full Moon Streaming.  So, more to come….

The Driller Killer (1979)

The Driller Killer (1979) movie poster

director Abel Ferrara
viewed: 10/22/2014

Believe it or not, I’d never seen Abel Ferrara’s punk splatter debut film The Driller Killer.  The writer/director of Ms. 45 (1981) and The Bad Lieutenant (1992), I always kind of assumed that The Driller Killer was a sort of Roger Corman-ish opportunity for a slasher film, maybe not so much of the purity of Ferrara’s style.  How wrong I was.

Really, it’s an amazingly personal film, I would guess.  Ferrara stars as Reno, a painter living in late 1970’s Manhattan’s gritty, pretentious art scene at the crux of the punk scene as well.  The problem is that he’s losing his grip or reality and fantasizing about going on random sprees of murder with a motorized but portable hand drill.

It’s far less Halloween (1978) and a little bit more Maniac (1980), and by this I mean it has gore and violence but it follows its psychopathic murderer more from the inside, a psychological sort of study.  But Ferrara’s killer is a reflection of New York City of its time, a critique of art culture and punk culture, hipster culture.  It also feels like a vision of a real sense of an individual’s response to the universe.

It earned a serious rep from its discredit in a British film ban.  A “video nasty” that is certainly perverse but is nowhere as nasty as some.

This was also yet another new tipping point for me.  Like I needed another outlet for content, I signed up for Full Moon Streaming (in large part because of a contract they have recently signed with Something Weird Video).  Their Grindhouse selection, from which The Driller Killer stemmed from has some goodly stuff on it as well.