Sunday, October 2, 2016

Herschell Gordon Lewis: In Memoriam

The Godfather of Gore

By Ed Garea

Known as “The Godfather of Gore,” and “The Sultan of Splatter,” Herschell Gordon Lewis influenced a generation of filmmakers leading the way with his approach to low-budget, violent films. The critics were appalled by his product, Variety described Blood Feast (1963) as “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences,” but moviegoers ate it up, even though his films had no chance of being shown in mainstream theaters.

Lewis, 87, died in his sleep September 26 at his home in Pompano, Fla.

Beginning in the world of softcore pornographic films known in the business as “nudie-cuties,” Lewis, aided and abetted by his partner, David F. Friedman, created a whole new genre of films that celebrated hyper-violence and exploring the world of mayhem, torture and mass mayhem, all with a copious amount of blood thrown in along the way.

Lewis was born on June 15, 1926, in Pittsburgh, Pa. His father, Emmanuel, died when he was six, and his mother, the former Geraldine Waldman (who never remarried), moved the family to Chicago. Lewis matriculated at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, earning a B.A. and M.A. in journalism. Afterward, he taught English literature at Mississippi State University before leaving to become manager of WRAC radio in Racine, Wis. He later worked as a studio director at WKY-TV in Oklahoma City. 

Returning to Chicago, he worked as a copywriter for Morlock, a direct-mail advertising agency. He also directed television commercials for Alexander & Associates, a small production company, a job which influenced his future direction. When he realized the company was being mismanaged, he and partner Martin Schmidhofer bought a controlling half-interest in Alexander and Associates. They renamed the company Lewis and Martin Films, and relocated to California. But Schmidhofer dissolved their partnership after Lewis joined the Cameraman's Union, and moved to Florida. Lewis returned to Chicago bitter but wiser, concluding that “the only way to make money in this business is to shoot features.” 

His film career began in 1956 as the producer of a locally-produced documentary, The Naked Eye, which follows the history of camera and photography development from Da Vinci through Louis Daguerre and Matthew Brady, to Margaret Bourke-White, Sulfated Eisenstadt, Weegee and Edward Weston.

In 1959, he founded Mid-Continent Films, a venture he later admitted in an interview that cost him “many friends,” and produced the exploitation film The Prime Time (Gordon Weisenborn directed). The story of a bored young girl looking for excitement and getting involved with nude modeling, drugs and a rock band, it is only notable today as the film debut of Karen Black in a tiny, “don’t blink or you’ll miss her,” role as Betty, a girl seen dancing and later posing on a stool. Legend has it that her agent paid $2,500 to have the negatives of her nude scene destroyed before the final cut, but no evidence exists to verify the story. Filmed in Chicago at the Fred Niles Studio, it was the first feature movie made there since the late 1910s.

In 1961, Lewis met David F. Friedman, an ex-publicist at Paramount Pictures who was working at the Chicago-based Modern Film Distributors, the company that distributed The Prime Time. As they checked each other out, Friedman asked Lewis what sort of films he wanted to make. "The kind that make money," said Lewis.

With that, a partnership was born and they began filming Living Venus for Mid-Continental Films with Friedman as producer and Lewis as co-producer and director. The movie starred William Kerwin as a Hugh Hefner-type character who establishes a men’s magazine called Pagan. As with The Prime Time, the film’s only claim to fame is it's the feature film debut of local actor Harvey Korman, who played Kerwin’s cheesecake photographer.

Though the film did decent business at the box office, Modern Film Distributors, which owed Lewis $100,000, went bankrupt. That caused Lewis’ Mid-Continent Films to follow suit, another hard lesson for the filmmaker. To make ends meet, Lewis worked as a staff director at The United Film and Recording Company, shooting TV commercials. One day, Friedman came to him with an offer from Dallas-based distributor Al Sack, whose company, Sack Amusements, made its fortune distributing African-American movies during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Friedman told Lewis Sack would give them $7,000 for a one-reel film of cute girls running around naked in the sun. 

Lewis jumped at the chance, borrowing an old Mitchell camera from his employer and becoming the cameraman and film editor. He also wrote and performed the score as United Film had a piano, an organ and a celeste. Friedman, for his part, supplied the girls. Film laboratory owner Jack Curtin, who knew Lewis, offered a deal – if Lewis made a film at least 70 minutes long, there would be no lab bills until 90 days after they get the answer print (the first version of the movie printed to film with the sound properly synced to the picture). 

Lewis jumped at the offer and he and Friedman turned it into The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961) about a man who imagines that everyone he sees is naked and goes to a psychiatrist to see if he can be cured. Lewis directed under the moniker “Lewis H. Gordon.” Friedman took the print to Tom Dowd, a friend who owned the Capri Theater in Chicago. It played at the Capri for nine weeks, earning enough to play the lab bill and fund 10 additional prints. Lewis and Friedman went to Florida, where they made two more nudie features, Daughter of the Sun and Nature’s Playmates, both under the moniker Lewis H. Gordon. That also shot a number of other nudie features for other people, including Tom Dowd. 

In 1963, they made their best softcore feature to date, Boin-n-g, again with Lewis directing as Lewis H. Gordon. It was a comedy about an inexperienced producer and director who auditions women for a nudie movie with everything that could go wrong actually going wrong. Though it made money, the partners realized they were at the end of the line. “Everybody and his brother was making those cute-girl movies,” Lewis said. The only direction to go was into hardcore pornography, and they didn’t want to do that. They sat down and thought what could be successful on the kind of budgets they had to work with.

The only film that an independent can make and survive with is a film that the major producers cannot or will not make,” Lewis said in an interview with Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. “I regard that as a physical law, I don’t regard it as a theory. It’s been proved so many hundreds of times that it’s no longer in question.”

As the barriers in sex were falling year by year, there was only one taboo left, that of extreme violence. Lewis and Friedman weren’t the first to exploit violence, a 1960 Japanese film called Jigoku (The Sinners of Hell) was the first to feature elements of gore as FX, but Lewis and Friedman were the first to exploit violence for its own sake, not to necessarily advance the plot. And it would be shown in glorious color.

While filming Bell, Bare and Beautiful in 1963, a sexploitation film centered on the obvious attractions of curvaceous Virginia Bell, Lewis and Friedman drew up plans for a new kind of film centered around the concept of gore as their point of departure for what would become Blood Feast.

As they reassembled the cast of Bell, Bare and Beautiful, they came up with the story of a caterer named Fuad Ramses who harvests body parts of virgins for an elaborate ritual feast honoring the goddess Ishtar (represented in the film by a spray-painted gold department-store mannequin). Allison Louise Downe, Lewis’ wife at the time, wrote the screenplay. Viewers knew early on where the film was going when a teenage girl, reading the book Ancient Weird Rites in the bathtub, has her legs hacked off. The “highlight” of the film, if it can be called such, is the scene where a victim has her tongue ripped out. 

To quote critic Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “The acting is terrible. If the actors were as good as the effects it would be nearly impossible to watch.” Watching the film, the first word that comes to mind is “amateurish.” It is not a very well-made picture, which also made it easier to take. Once the film was edited and ready to go, the problem now became one of where to show it. Mainstream theater were not ready for this kind of film. In an interview with the website The AV Club, Lewis said he and Friedman “made a deal with a rather unpleasant man named Stanford Kohlberg, who owned a bunch of drive-ins, to open this movie at his drive-in in Peoria.” The reasoning was that if it died there, no one would notice. 

Their next step was to create an ad campaign, the basis of was “nothing so appalling in the annals of horror.” Many newspaper rejected the ads outright and Lewis had to tone them down. When the moment of truth came, Lewis and Friedman motored down from Chicago to see what business, if any, the film was doing. To their surprise, there was line of cars half a mile long waiting to get in. They had a hit on their hands; eventually the film would gross over $4 million on a budget of $25,000. The division of that fortune led to a prolonged falling out between partners Lewis and Friedman, as well as a lengthy legal battle with exhibitor Kohlberg.

The film also caught the censors completely off-guard. Regulations concerning sexual content had long been in place, but there were no such regulations against gore. The censors soon caught up, however, and Lewis’ 1972 film, The Gore Gore Girls (starring Henny Youngman, of all people, as the owner of a nightclub) was the first film to be rated X because of violence. England had long banned Lewis’ films and only recently has the ban been lifted.

While Blood Feast did well with audiences, the critics were not so kind. Besides the previously mentioned review from Variety, The Los Angeles Times called it “a blot on the American film industry.” But with the passage of time came the inevitable: Lewis was discovered by the French. In Issue #150 of Cahiers du Cinema, devoted to American cinema, an article praised Lewis’ The Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! as two of the best horror films of all time and classified Lewis as a “subject for further study.” When informed of the article, Lewis’s only comment was, “That’s what they say about cancer.”

For their next film, Friedman used the question of what would happen if they made a decent film? They thought about it and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) was born, a psychotronic version of Brigadoon about a Southern village from the Civil War that comes back to life 100 years after the end of the Civil War. The village was ravaged by renegade Union soldiers and its residents take out their revenge on six luckless tourists lured there for a “Centennial Celebration.” Though it contained the same sort of gore effects as the previous film and marked an improvement, Two Thousand Maniacs! failed to make the same impact at the box office. Lewis even novelized the story as a movie tie-in.

Two Thousand Maniacs! starred William Kerwin (who used the aliases “Thomas Wood” and “Thomas Sweetwood” when appearing in Lewis films) and former Playboy model Connie Mason from Blood Feast. Working with the wooden Mason could be quite a challenge, Lewis stated in a interview with John Waters: “She never knew a line. Not ever. Nor could she ever be on the set on time. What we did in Two Thousand Maniacs! was to pull about two-thirds of her lines in order to finish on time. I often felt if one took the key out of Connie's back, she'd simply stand in place.”

The final film of the Lewis-Friedman partnership was Color Me Blood Red (1965), about a demented artist who discovers that no color can approximate the crimson red he uses like blood, so he kills to obtain a supply of blood for his paintings. After the film was released, Friedman set out for California while Lewis remained in Chicago. The reasons for the split come down to rumors. Lewis, for his part, said they had no differences, but several others involved at the time and later have said that Friedman wanted to make better quality films using gore effects as part of the plot and not the other way around, as Lewis did. Friedman was put off by Lewis’s insistence on filming everything in one-take and his neglect of any quality in favor of his gross-out gore effects.

Those expecting Lewis to continue making only gore pictures were in for rather a surprise. Though the first two of his four films after the split were in the gore genre (A Taste of Blood and The Gruesome Twosome, both 1967), he moved from the gore template by making films such as Something Weird (1967), a excursion into the world of the supernatural; The Girl, the Body and the Pill (1967), about a sex-ed teacher who gives private lessons in her home; Blast-Off Girls (1967), featuring a female rock band exploited by their male manager; She-Devils on Wheels (1968), following the exploits of an all-female biker gang called The Man Eaters; Suburban Roulette (1968), a look at the world of wife-swapping parties; Just for the Hell of It (1968), a JD film; and a lesbian Western, Linda and Abilene (1969). Lewis even turned out two children’s films: Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (1966) and The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967). 

Besides gore, Lewis was noted for his hicksploitation movies (although Two Thousand Maniacs! might be seen to fit the bill, it was more of a gore film), and made Moonshine Mountain (1964), This Stuff’ll Kill Ya (1971), and The Year of the Yahoo (1972).

Ever the savvy businessman, Lewis bought an unfinished 1961 film by anti-auteur Bill Rebate (most famous for The Giant Spider Invasion, released in 1975), shot additional footage and added narration, releasing the finished product as Monster a-Go Go in 1965. It wallowed in obscurity until it was shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose cast members recalled that it was the worst film ever featured on the show. How bad? Lewis tried to bring back the original actors, but some weren’t interested, so their characters merely disappeared without explanation. One character had changed so much over the years that he was cast as his own brother. It’s a film that needs to be seen through the prism of MST 3000 in order to get the full effect and stop from dozing off.

But gore films were his bread and butter. In 1969, he released The Wizard of Gore, starring Ray Sager as a magician who selects female volunteers at his shows and appears to put swords, drill and knives through them. They walk away unscathed to the applause of the crowd, but are later found dead of the same injuries they endured during the magic show.

In The Gore Gore Girls (1972), a scatterbrained reporter (Amy Farrell) seeks the help of a sleazy private eye (Frank Kress) to solve a series of killings of female strippers at a Chicago nightclub owned by Youngman. As noted above, it was the first film to be rated X for violence. Screened today, we can see most of the violent effects were badly done and come off as quite laughable.

After the release of The Gore Gore Girls, Lewis retired from filmmaking and in 1975 started Communicomp, a direct-mail (known popularly as ‘junk mail’) advertising agency. He wrote a number of books on advertising and marketing, including The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion (1974), How to Handle Your Own Public Relations (1977), and On the Art of Writing Copy (2003). In all, he wrote 26 books.

With the popularity of home video, Lewis experienced a renaissance, especially among bad film and psychotronic fans. He came out of retirement in 2002 with Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. The plot concerned Fuad Ramses III (J.P. Delahoussaye) who reopens his grandfather’s catering business, only to become possessed by the spirit of Ishtar. Longtime Lewis admirer John Waters has a cameo role as a pedophile priest. 

Lewis’ first marriage to Allison Louise Downe ended in divorce, as did his second to Yvonne Gilbert. Lewis is survived by his third wife, the former Margo Ellis; four daughters, two sons and two grandchildren.

Lewis saw filmmaking as a business and pitied anyone who regarded it as an art form. Of his most famous film, he also had an unsentimental view: “I've often compared Blood Feast (1963) to a Walt Whitman poem; it's no good, but it was the first of its kind.”

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