There have been times – many times – when Herschell Gordon Lewis has left me furious. I won’t coat the Godfather of Gore in sugar, he made some unwatchable movies and the man is no artist. Not that Lewis is claiming to be an artist. To quote him, “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form.” I don’t entirely agree with Lewis (though there is wisdom in his words), but his viewpoint on filmmaking certainly shines through in his films. Yes, Lewis made garbage. Even his best films are garbage. But they are brilliant and, mostly, entertaining garbage. For me, the line between good and bad films has always been irrelevant. I can enjoy a “bad” film as much as a “good film. And I don’t mean purely ironic enjoyment. There is real value even in the worst b-grade stinkers and garbage can be a beautiful thing. There is, however, no value in soulless Hollywood tripe. They are the true bad movies.
Lewis was, and I suppose is (I’ve not seen his recent films), an auteur of exploitation. The brown stains of the “Herschell touch” is spattered over each and every one of his brilliant, horrible movies. I’ve grown to love Lewis’s films so much that I actually found it quite difficult to pick only five for this Starter Pack for the Overwhelmed. I’m sure many would strongly disagree with my selection. For starters, it’s missing Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and The Wizard of Gore (1970) – two of his two most fan-beloved pictures. I apologise for not including those classics, Lewis fans, but these are my honestly five faves. And here they are…
BLOOD FEAST (1963)
How could Blood Feast not be on my list? Not only is this the film that essentially invented gore, it also stands as one of Herschell’s most downright entertaining films. Focusing on a mad caterer and his bloody sacrifices to an Egyptian goddess, Blood Feast is relentless fun, which is not something that can be said for even the better films by Lewis. It’s hilarious – both intentionally and unintentionally – with an amazing (terrible) performance from Mal Arnold as Ramses, the film’s villain, and a fantastically cringe-worthy hero played by Herschell regular, William Kerwin. This is the perfect place to start if you’re yet to sink your teeth into the filmography of Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Here’s a particularly magical moment…
COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1965)
Color Me Blood Red is probably the least gory of the unofficial “Blood Trilogy”, which consists of this, Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!, but it’s surprisingly well put together and I’d almost go as far to call it well-written. Almost. A reasonably original story of an artist becoming hugely popular after using blood in his paintings, Color Me Blood Red features a manic lead performance from Gordon Oas-Heim and a beach setting that is somehow incredibly depressing. A strange film in that there’s nothing particularly good about it, yet it completely engrosses me with each viewing. This one isn’t especially praised by fans, so maybe save it for later.
For all its ineptitude, I love this scene to pieces…
YEAR OF THE YAHOO (1972)
Until not too long ago, Year of the Yahoo was considered lost. Thankfully, Something Weird Video dug a copy out from god knows where and released it on DVD with the hideously bad This Stuff’ll Kill Ya (1971). Year of the Yahoo blew my mind. Why? Because it is a genuinely good film. While I believe Herschell Gordon Lewis is definitely an intelligent man, political satire – and decent political satire at that – is not something I’d ever associate him with. Year of the Yahoo is the story of a country singer, Hank Jackson (played by singer Claude King), who is convinced by a team of evil right-wingers to be their candidate for the Senate. They groom Hank to be the ultimate republican poster boy and all goes swimmingly, until Hank morals start acting up. Oh yeah, and Hank’s girlfriend also gets raped along the way, which doesn’t help things. Despite having one of the most horrific sex scenes put to film, Year of the Yahoo is solid stuff. Reasonably professional looking with decent cinematography and a great soundtrack, Year of the Yahoo is by far Herschell’s most well made film, yet it still retains that dodgy Lewis charm.
I imagine Herschell’s experience in the world of advertising helped in creating the excellent political commercial parodies…
THE ALLEY TRAMP (1968)
Herschell fans would most likely be confused by the appearance of The Alley Tramp in this list. But goddamn, I love this movie for all its dull, passionless sex and nudity; for its horrendous leading lady and her terrible facial expressions; for its creepy parent characters; for the wild 60s score; and for… well, I could go on forever about The Alley Tramp. Most folks will find this flick unbearably infuriating, but those that can find the humour in this classic 60s morality tale will lap it the fuck up.
How could you not love a film that opens like this?
THE GORE GORE GIRLS (1972)
The Gore Gore Girls is the only film by Herschell Gordon Lewis that I find genuinely repulsive. It is made especially foul by having its grimy content floating amongst some of the goofiest comedy and most obnoxious actors Lewis has put to film. The Gore Gore Girls is undoubtedly a film of the 70s. It’s filthy, unpolished, amateurish and offensive. In other words, it’s bloody amazing. With moments that have me scrunching my face up in disapproval and jokes in such bad taste that my skin crawls, films don’t get much cruder than this. Admittedly, the scenes between the death scenes are excruciatingly boring at times. The film drags terribly towards the end. But the nasty gore and creative dispatchments ensure that The Gore Gore Girls is a true horror classic of the early 70s.
Here’s the film’s most hideous and uncomfortably hilarious moment: