Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Selected works from the Godfather of Gore

I love the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who made 26 groundbreaking super low budget exploitation films between 1959 and 1972. He is credited as being the man who brought buckets of rich blood and gore to the big screen when Hollywood wouldn't dare go near anything of the sort. His films are bargain basement cardboard productions, made with a charming tackiness, claustrophobic cinematography and tinny sound but with a sly sense of black humor. Partnered with exploitation impresario David F. Friedman in the early 60s, the two men began their campaign of cinematic mayhem by making "nudie cutie" films that were popular in the late 50s and early 60s. These were films that featured pasty guys and gals sans clothing in an outdoor setting playing volleyball or nature hiking and not really much else. When that market dried up, they needed a new hook that the major studios were ignoring. Extreme violence and horror was the key to their success and the release of 1963's Blood Feast was a milestone. For the first time in film history, you can witness a mad butcher sever a woman's tongue in explicit detail. Never mind that the blood itself looked like tomato soup.

Blood Feast was a surprise drive-in smash and Lewis and Friedman had to dream up more ghastly blood epics like Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) which were released to great financial success. But the two partners broke up and Lewis was left on his own to continue his insane work.

Two of his titles that I finally got around to seeing are particular standouts: 1970's The Wizard of Gore and 1972's The Gore Gore Girls, which until Blood Feast 2 (2002), was Lewis' last film before retiring from the movies and excelling in the field of direct marketing and authoring numerous books on the subject.

The Wizard of Gore must be seen to be believed. A manic magician named Montag the Magnificent hypnotizes his audience into seeing incredible feats of illusion while he's actually butchering his volunteers on stage. He saws them in half, cuts out their tongues, punctures their stomachs with a punch press all while the dazed audience sees nothing but harmless trickery. He's getting away with murder. A reporter and her boyfriend investigate his bizarre exploits as the body count rises and baffles police.

Ray Sager plays Montag with great over the top hammy relish. This is a one of kind horror character. The bad special effects and cheap staginess of the production only add to the delights of this mad piece of work. It was influential enough to inspire a
recent remake with Crispin Glover in the title role.

The Gore Gore Girls is a much more extreme and bloody exercise in debauchery for Lewis. With ample nudity and nastier use of gore this time around, this film follows fey private detective Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) as he investigates the brutal murders of go-go dancers. He's aided, or at least hounded, by an air headed reporter (Amy Farrell) as he frequently visits a local strip joint (run by none other than legendary comedian Henny Youngman!) and questions anyone he can as he tries finding the killer, whose methods are jaw dropping. In one scene, scissors are applied to the tip of a woman's breast so that bloody milk can spray out into a glass! Her bare bottom is then battered with a meat tenderizer. Only in the movies.

Alternating between a tawdry farce and a slasher film, The Gore Gore Girls is a perfect example of fly by night, el cheapo exploitation. Violent, obscene but with tongue in severed cheek and very funny. These movies were far ahead of their time, before irony and dark humor became mainstream and shocking audiences was easier. In times when Jackass 3-D grosses $50 million in one weekend, Lewis' work can be viewed today as the birth of modern gross out cinema.

I have somewhat of a personal link to Lewis' films. My close friend, exploitation filmmaker Lee Demarbre, directed a loving homage to Lewis' filmography (with scenes practically lifted from The Gore Gore Girls) entitled Smash Cut (2009) which stars cult film actor David Hess (Last House on the Left) as a crazed filmmaker who resorts to killing people to use their blood and body parts as convincing props in his cheap horror productions. This is a film in which Mr. Lewis comes full circle. The coming attractions of his early work often featured an actor looking at the camera warning audiences of the shocking things they were about to see. At the beginning of Smash Cut, Lewis provides the warning himself.

"I implore you, ladies and gentlemen, to never forget that filmmaking is a blood sport. Watch if you must, but remember, you were warned!"

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