If You Want BLOOD (You Got It)

Popularly known as “The Godfather of Gore,” Herschell Gordon Lewis died late last month at the age of 87. Though he wrote and directed nearly 40 films over his career (some of which he also photographed as well as scored), his reputation and legacy (such as they are) rest primarily on a smattering of splatter flicks made in the ’60s and ’70s. He may not have been an artist, but he was a real original, whose admirers have included such luminaries of Quentin Tarantino and John Waters.

Graduating from Northwestern with a journalism degree, Lewis taught at Mississippi State University before being lured into radio; soon, he was bitten bad by the movie bug. With producer David F. Friedman, Lewis dipped his lens into the exploitation pool with a handful of softcore nudie pictures of the ilk not being screened on neighborhood and city screens, due to the strictures of the Motion Picture Code.

Then came 1963’s Blood Feast, the first of three features dubbed The Blood Trilogy, which secured Lewis’ place in contemporary notoriety and film history. It took only nine days to film it in Miami, it cost only $24,000 — but Blood Feast realized a profit in the low millions over the next decade.

With a ludicrous script, ridiculous effects and absolutely execrable acting, the film is about an Egyptian caterer who butchers girls in various gruesome ways, to harvest body parts for a feast to honor the goddess Ishtar. Audiences had never seen anything like it — limbs hacked off, a woman’s tongue ripped out and more gore — all in vivid color.

Already a marketing wizard, a direction he moved toward later with even greater success than filmmaking, Lewis distributed airline vomit bags to audiences with the inscription “You May Need This When You See Blood Feast.”

Lots of folks eagerly took the bait, particularly at drive-ins. In Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror, author Jason Zinoman quotes Lewis regarding the premiere of Blood Feast in Peoria, Illinois: “Our audience was 90 percent men. If a woman showed up, she was dragged there. Anyone under 35 howled with pleasure. Anyone older than 35 simply howled.”

The following year, Two Thousand Maniacs was released; Lewis’ personal favorite of his films (and mine, too). We aren’t alone, either. 10,000 Maniacs (Alt-rock band) derived its name from Lewis’ opus.

Again filmed in Florida, this time in 14 days with an estimated budget of $65,000, Two Thousand Maniacs features the two “stars” of Blood Feast (William Kerwin and Playmate Connie Mason) as two of six Yankee travelers lured to Pleasant Valley to help celebrate the small burg’s centennial. The festivities include the torture and dismemberment of the Northerners by vengeful “maniacs” who are actually spirits of the dead who were butchered by Yankee soldiers during the War of Northern Aggression.

The plot might claim some pedigree, supposedly inspired by the magical musical Brigadoon, but the acting is only minimally better than in Blood Feast. Still, it’s a supernatural spin and occasional humor (intentional at times) are fun. The film includes a nifty theme song written by Lewis and performed by the Pleasant Valley Boys, a bluegrass trio.

Like Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs was remade decades later with more professionalism and less success. A nice footnote to the original was the real-life marriage of Kerwin and Mason.

The third film of the Blood Trilogy is also the weakest. Filmed near Sarasota in 1965, Color Me Blood Red is an obvious rip-off of Roger Corman’s equally low-budget, but much superior black-and-white thriller A Bucket of Blood (’59). It’s about a demented painter who discovers human blood makes the best paint.

Though the film’s star (Gordon Oas-Heim) may have been the best professional Lewis had yet worked with, the supporting cast is typically awful. The dialogue is dreadful, and the film’s requisite gore a bit dull compared to its predecessors.

Temporarily abandoning blood and guts for other exploitation gambits, Lewis returned to the genre in the early ’70s with The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls, which had a cameo by comic Henny Youngman. Even more outrageous than Blood Trilogy, these two films confirmed Herschell Gordon Lewis as the Splatter Master of his time.

Seen today, The Blood Trilogy is like a time capsule of another era, highlighted not so much by the preposterous gore as by the memorabilia of the ’60s — the cars, clothes, hairdos, and the slang. Bad as they are, the movies are still eminently watchable, especially if you turn off the dialogue and listen instead to Lewis’ and Friedman’s hilarious commentary.

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021

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