Herschell Gordon Lewis: The knight of the long knives

He made low-budget horror flicks such as Blood Feast and 2,000 Maniacs!. He then inflicted collectors' plates on the world. Now he's back.
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The Independent Culture

You may never have heard of him, but when the definitive history of 20th-century culture comes to be written, Herschell Gordon Lewis will deserve a paragraph of his own. For a start, he is responsible for the ubiquity of those limited-edition collectors' plates that you see advertised in the back of TV Quick.

You know the kind of thing. Shire Horses in the Snow by an award-winning artist, The Magic of Elvis on dishwasher-proof porcelain, Princess Diana rendered in gold vermeil, to treasure for ever. "They are my natural bastard children," he explains. "First we did a 12-plate series based on the Book of Genesis. It was so successful that in six months we were on to Exodus."

So why, you may be wondering, is he being profiled on The Independent's film pages, and not in a pull-out section on hand-embossed souvenir crockery? Because Herschell Gordon Lewis, before he became a plate marketeer and advertising-industry guru, was one of the most successful and influential exploitation film-makers of the 1960s. He produced, wrote, directed and scored dozens of horror and softcore porn flicks, with titles that promised a world of bloody, bare-bosomed sensation to hormonal teens and pensioners with slobber on their lapels: Alley Tramp (1960), Monster a-Go-Go (1965), Suburban Roulette (1967), Copenhagen's Psychic Loves (1968) and This Stuff'll Kill Ya! (1971). And when he shot a no-budget drive-in movie called Blood Feast (1963) – the story of a club-footed Egyptian cultist who slices up young women and bakes their giblets in a pizza oven in order to resurrect an ancient deity named Ishtar – he thereby invented that most permissive and single-minded of film genres, the splatter movie. He also prompted Jean-Luc Godard to declare in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that Herschell Gordon Lewis was "worthy of further study". "Yeah," rumbles the object of this praise, "that's what they say about cancer."

Despite this scepticism, there are a number of reasons why it may be appropriate to speak of J-LG and HGL in the same breath. Exploitation cinema and avant-garde cinema both owed their existence to a series of legal challenges to the Hollywood system that were made in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1949, the Supreme Court forced the big studios to surrender control of their chains of cinemas, breaking their monopoly on distribution and allowing exhibitors to screen what they liked. Three years later, a second court decision ruled that the movies were a medium of free speech and should therefore enjoy protection from prosecution under the First Amendment. Independent cinema – of both the artsy and artless kind – was born.

When the cultural economy took that turn, Lewis, born in Pittsburgh in 1926, sensed a commercial opportunity. In the early 1950s, he was professor of English at Mississippi State College, a job he soon packed in to work in local radio and television. Then he met David Friedman, producer of a film entitled Cannibal Island (1956), screened at carnival sideshows and largely composed of stock footage from a 25-year-old ethnographic movie about Papua New Guinea. Together, they made a handful of nudie films – pseudo-educational pieces about naturist camps, much like the one that inspires Sid James in the first reel of Carry On Camping – but the profit margins on such pictures were so tight, and the market so over-supplied with material, that the pair soon began to explore other avenues.

"We were competing against MGM and Paramount," Lewis recalls. "How could we get a theatre to book our pictures? The answer was to make the kind of movie that the major studios either would not or could not make. And here comes that lovely four-letter word 'G-O-R-E'. The rest is history."

Blood Feast proved to be an accidental gold mine. Lewis shot it in two days for $24,000, using the streets of suburban Miami as locations and a cast including a Playboy Playmate and members of a local community theatre. The posters blared: "You'll Recoil and Shudder as You Witness the Slaughter and Mutilation of Nubile Young Girls – in A Weird and Horrendous Ancient Era!" Despite the dreadful acting and a climax in which the limping Egyptian serial killer is clearly given a 500-foot head start by his police pursuers before being pulped in the maw of a garbage truck, the movie grossed $4m and was still a drive-in mainstay 20 years after its release. "We made the film thinking it was very camp. Maybe Blood Feast is pretty humourless, apart from the calibre of the acting, but we couldn't believe that anyone would take it seriously. But they did. Nobody laughed. Not audiences. Not censor boards, not local newspapers."

The lucrative controversy allowed Lewis to double the budget for his next film, 2,000 Maniacs! (1964), a stalk'n'slash version of Brigadoon, in which the inhabitants of a phantom village in the Florida swamps celebrate their centenary by massacring a gang of Yankee tourists. It's the Citizen Kane of drive-in schlock, made genuinely uncanny by participation of the inhabitants of St Cloud (a settlement since swallowed up by Disneyland), in its scenes of grotesque violence: cat-hanging, rolling some hapless bloke down a hill in a barrel pierced with nails, a fairground game that squishes the heroine with a boulder.

When you watch these films today, lovingly restored for DVD release in order that they may be experienced by another generation of dope-whacked students, their power to shock is undiluted by the quaint crumminess of the special make-up effects. There's nothing shown in cinemas today as gleefully savage as Lewis's pictures.

Take his swan song, The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), in which a masked killer stalks a series of strippers. We're invited to consider the suspects. Is the guilty party Grout, the Vietnam vet who sits by the strip-club bar, felt-tipping faces on to melons and then smashing them to pieces? Or is it the leader of the feminist group who causes a riot in the club by screaming, "We'll show these striptease bitches what we think of them!" More importantly, we're invited to consider the murders. One victim has her face steam-ironed and her (plainly plastic) nipples snipped off with scissors. A second victim has her face slammed into a pan of crinkle-cut chips. A third has her buttocks pulped with a steak-hammer, and doused in salt – after which Lewis cuts to a horribly suggestive shot of a bloodied gherkin. And just when you're full of righteous disgust, he gives you a scene in which the hero is threatened with a jar of smoking chemicals, labelled, "Acid. Made in Poland."

"I thought it was funny," chuckles Lewis. "He chops off her nipple and out comes milk. He chops off the other nipple and out comes chocolate milk. We generated two kinds of reaction to that, depending on the age of the person looking at the movie. Older people said, "Oooh, yeuch, how can you do that!" Younger people were convulsed with laughter. But neither then nor now would I involve myself in movies that were too far beyond normal acceptance. The intention was to shock, not to outrage." And what's the difference? "Let's suppose that after having chopped a girl to bits, the lunatic then jumped on that girl and ravished her. That not just shocks, it outrages. And I wouldn't go that far."

It's hard to reconstruct that cultural moment now, when cinema has, comparatively, become so coy and chaste, its misogynies so smoothly marketed. During the time that Lewis was professionally active in the movies, A-list celebs turned out for the opening night of Deep Throat (1972) and cinephiles were gripped by the scenes of cannibalism in Godard's Week End (1967). Watch the latter back to back with 2,000 Maniacs!, and you'll be struck by the similarities: the road-trip plots, the scenes of immolation and cannibalism, the assault on bourgeois sensibilities.

There's one irreconcilable difference between these two figures, however. When Lewis hears the word "auteur", he reaches for his revolver. "Anybody can aim a camera. That doesn't require any talent at all. You turn it on and you get a picture. To get people to say, 'I want to see that', you have to have a mastery of primitive psychology. I wasn't a director, I just wanted to get people into the theatre." He may soon get the chance to put his instincts to the test. As I talk to him, a document chunters through his fax machine. He disappears to extract it, then whoops with delight. "You are present at a moment in history!" he declares. It's a contract to direct Blood Feast 2: Buffet of Blood, slated to begin shooting in New Orleans this Monday. I congratulate him, but he's not so sure. "Hmm," he rumbles. "I don't know about that. Maybe you should offer your condolences."


'Blood Feast', '2000 Maniacs!', 'Color Me Blood Red' and 'The Gore-Gore Girs' are out on DVD from Metro Tartan on 30 July