Monday, September 26, 2016

Herschell Gordon Lewis (1929-2016)

A Taste Of Blood VHS - Something Weird Video Herschell Gordon Lewis Horror:
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    Above: Frequent Herschell Gordon Lewis collaborator/actor, Bill Kerwin

"Have you ever had the fine luxury of observing the spectacle of human butchery in person?!" Montag the Magnificent [Ray Sager] in Herschell Gordon's Lewis' gore masterpiece, THE WIZARD OF GORE. A triumph of plastic aesthetics and balsa wood environments leading to Zen enlightenment on the nature of reality, consciousness, genre and cinema. The CITIZEN KANE of no budget gore. I love the shouted, totally non-realistic dialogue and delirious "magic" presentations. It still resonates as true Psychotronic cinema. The Wizard's shows are played with a delicious deadpan delivery which makes them all the more entertaining and unsettling. The blood spattered aesthetics are never convincing to the eye but they achieve the same kind of delayed horror depicted in this vaudeville of blood. The pleasures of watching and the disgusting nature of what is presented are contrasted in stark relief. You never really know where this film is going and that's part of the fun.

I immediately thought of this film today upon hearing of the passing of Herschell Gordon Lewis. It speaks to the mainstream 1960s naivete of an audience in search of the denied pleasures of the unconscious mind. The pleasure of the botched magic trick. The pleasure of someone else getting skewered by a mad barker of mutilation who gets away with it because somewhere deep down we want him to.

A Grindhouse auteur with no excuses, HGL was a kind of anti Orson Welles, enamored of the kind of magic which a drive-in admission could buy. I still remember the lurid newspaper ads for BLOOD FEAST in local newspapers. Of course I was too young to go, but they fired up my bloodthirsty 10 year old imagination. It should be remembered that he made some some highly entertaining and occasionally artful films (A TASTE OF BLOOD).

Lewis started out as a mainstream businessman in direct marketing and copy-writing. His early softcore features (LIVING VENUS) were made with legendary producer David Friedman. BLOOD FEAST and 2000 MANIACS burst the dam with torrents of crimson and detailed gore scenes featuring all matter of mutilations, usually visited upon attractive females by psychotic men. The huge success of these films allowed him to continue in a career of mind-boggling schlock cinema. My own personal favorites include THE GRUESOME TWOSOME, a mid 1960s tale of a demented mother-son relationship which culminates in madness and murder as a stuffed cat watches, and SOMETHING WEIRD, a startlingly original psycho-psychic-witchcraft thriller delightfully satirizing small town police incompetence, high level governmental cover-ups and the buried tensions between the sexes of that era.

While highbrow critics complained of amateurish acting and sometimes poor cinematography in his films he nevertheless packed his features with the non-stop violent/sexual action his audiences demanded while undermining them with sharp commentary on 1960s gender inequality (SUBURBAN ROULETTE), lingering resentments in the Deep South about the outcome of the US Civil war (2000 MANIACS) and those closed worlds of highbrow art critics vs. lowbrow artisans (COLOR ME BLOOD RED). His films delivered.

He was always self deprecating about his work, especially on his DVD commentaries with producer Friedman. One of my favorite of his stories is about the "actor" who played a police detective in BLOOD FEAST who wrote his lines on the inside of his palm for quick consultation during shooting. But among the amateur cast were pros like Bill Kerwin who solidly anchored such films as BLOOD FEAST and A TASTE OF BLOOD.

Some of his films included color gel lighting, Dutch camera angles and other effects which stood out in the low-budget-quickie aesthetic. He regularly included much dark humor in his crimson colored world, casting comedian Henny Youngman as a crude strip-club boss amidst the outrageous gore antics of THE GORE-GORE GIRLS. Lewis would return to marketing, writing some books on the subject and teaching college level literature classes after THE GORE-GORE GIRLS but would return to horror years later with a remake of BLOOD FEAST and on the fan circuit.

Some of his most iconic titles have appeared on Blu-ray, such as Something Weird Video's release of THE BLOOD TRILOGY in HD. The upcoming release of a massive 17 Disc Limited Collector's Edition Box set, The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, featuring key titles, fully loaded with commentaries, galleries and special features, seems destined to be a definitive collector's item.

Herschell Gordon Lewis was in the right place at the right historical moment, long before such "names" as Sam Peckinpah, John Waters, Lucio Fulci, got to where he started out in 1963. At least he opened doors that had previously been slammed shut by decades of Hollywood production codes, local censors, media outlets, mainstream critics and strict studio guidelines. He was an original and we won't see his likes again anytime soon.

(C) Robert Monell, 2016

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