directors Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon
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.