At the age of 87, it probably shouldn’t come as much of a shock to hear that legendary cult film director Herschell Gordon Lewis has died. Yet it is. Lewis seemed to be one of those people who would go on forever, always lively – and just last year, he was still fundraising for a comeback movie.
Lewis was known as The Godfather of Gore, for good reason – his trilogy films from 1963 and 1963 (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red) introduced a new visceral outrageousness to cinema. Most of his splatter movies – which also include The Gruesome Twosome, The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls remained forbidden in the UK until well into the 2000s, censors simply not getting the excessive absurdity and wicked sense of humour inherent in his work. If you met Lewis, you immediately recognised a certain twinkle in his eye – the classic carny attitude that showed that he wasn’t taking all this very seriously, and neither should anyone else.
In fact, Lewis – unlike his colleague David Friedman and other exploitation filmmakers of the time – wasn’t part of the carnival roadshow at all. he started out as an academic, and worked in advertising – a business he returned to after his film career ended. I remember some years ago, sitting in the reception room of an office suite and casually picking up a marketing magazine, only to be amazed that Lewis was there on the front cover, offering promotional advice to people who presumably had no idea of his other career.
There was more to Lewis than just gore. In partnership with Friedman, he was one of the first to climb on the nudie-cutie bandwagon in the wake of Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr Teas, with The Adventures of Lucky Pierre – followed quickly by a whole bunch more innocently cute nudie films. In fact, Blood Feast was a rather desperate attempt to find something new, as that market became flooded. After he split with Friedman, Lewis would make horror comedies (without the gore), teasing T&A films, biker and juvenile delinquent movies, melodramas, redneck comedies, softcore and – in the case of one of his final films, Black Love – hardcore porn. He was nothing if not versatile.
His career fizzled out in 1972, and he would sink into obscurity and the odd legal problem until interest in his career was revived by the Fangoria generation. He made a sequel to Blood Feast in 2002, and the obscure The Uh-Oh Show a couple of years later, but for the most part, his post 1980 film career consisted of attending festivals and conventions, essentially revelling in his new fan base – he didn’t need the money or the hassle involved in making movies, after all.
Lewis’s films are still often dismissed as dreadful – important culturally, but worthless artistically. That’s unfair. Blood Feast might be a hilariously bad film, but Two Thousand Maniacs is very good, and much of his later work, like She Devils on Wheels and The Wizard of Gore, are equally impressive. Of course, he ground them out and had little interest himself in some of the films he made, and that certainly shows at times – but by and large, a bad HGL film is still an interesting film.
Herschell Gordon Lewis – 1929 – 2016