In the pantheon of horror and exploitation geniuses, no star shines brighter than Herschell Gordon Lewis’s. He invented the splatter/gore genre single handedly and was a true auteur when it came to his approach to producing his films. Lewis first dabbled in soft core nudie films, then temporarily abandoned them, when the genre became crowded due to the lack of censorship laws at the time. The director then had an epiphany:
Herschell Gordon Lewis would create films that would have “…young boys opening their car doors at drive-ins to puke”.
Lewis showed audiences something they’d never seen before on screen. Blood Feast, his first gore film, treated audiences to a woman’s arm being hacked off, another’s tongue torn out, the spectacle of a girl on the beach having the top of her skull removed and then the brains being scooped out. Each of these effects was filmed in a single take, making the scenes crude but effective. As time went on and Lewis had larger budgets to work with, the effects became gorier and more outrageous. Dangling intestines and ripped open bodies filled the running time of his masterpieces.
One thing that set Lewis apart was his tongue in cheek attitude towards the atrocities on the screen. There are subtle touches of humor in many of his nastier films, as if he was winking at the audience saying “Yes I know this is disgusting, but it’s all in fun!” His films never lingered on the suffering of the victims, removing the Sadean sting from the gruesome proceedings. There are also the occasional touches of absurdity, such as in one film [1972’s The Gore Gore Girls] where the killer scissors off the nipples of a female victim. The audience expecting gushers of blood, instead sees milk pouring out of one nipple and chocolate milk from the other.
In some of his films Lewis manages to capture the dreamlike horror found in The Twilight Zone. In what some consider his Magnum Opus, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Lewis borrowed the plot from Brigadoon, a Broadway musical about a town that comes to life every 200 years. However, the town in question is a Southern one, whose inhabitants were slaughtered by renegade Union troops at the end of the Civil War.
The inhabitants are driven to sacrifice any Northerners they come across and are delighted when six tourists happen upon their village. The film is an interesting mix of Southern stereotypes with rednecks and images of extrajudicial killing abounding, yet shows the inhabitants in a strangely sympathetic way at the same time. Naturally, the poor Yankees are dispatched in some awful ways, just to make sure you know it’s a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. Overall, Two Thousand Maniacs! works as both a ghost story and a nasty bit of Grand Guignol. Lewis directs with a sure hand and the production values are higher than most of his other works.
Herschell Gordon Lewis was born in Pittsburgh (the home of another horror legend, George A. Romero). He then moved to Chicago, where he graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Journalism from Northwestern University, one of the finest colleges in the country for that discipline. After spending a short time at Mississippi State University as a professor, Lewis moved back to Chicago and started an advertisement agency. Lewis was a renaissance man in the truest sense of the word. He produced, edited, shot, edited and scored many of his films. A prolific author, he published over twenty books after he stepped away from his film career. Lewis was also a savvy businessman, securing the rights to all his films avoided being cheated out of revenue by distributors and theater owners.
When Blood Feast debuted in 1963, no one could predict the door Herschell Gordon Lewis was opening. His films were not the most polished, or logical, but they had a trash aesthetic no audience had ever seen before. John Waters, George A. Romero and dozens of other young directors were influenced by the unassuming professorial genius. I recommend all horror fans consider purchasing Arrow Video’s 17 disc box set The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast which has 14 essential films by the great man.
Herschell Gordon Lewis may not have had the style of Mario Bava or some of his contemporaries, but his films are unmistakable and his legacy will endure forever.