“I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an artform.”
On September 26, 2016, we lost one of the most influential faces of horror films, Herschell Gordon Lewis. He passed away in his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in his sleep. The characters in his movies only wish they could have gone out so peacefully!
Best known as the “Godfather of Gore”, Lewis produced films in the 50’s and 60’s that were outside of the mainstream. Still, Lewis learned how to make movies that made money. He gave the viewing audience what they couldn’t find in Hollywood films. He made movies that catered to drive-in theaters that were starving for content, rather than dealing with the harsh censorship of the Motion Picture Association of America. He got his start making nudie pictures, and then branched off to “sexy” comedies before ultimately landing into the realm of horror. Up until that point in time, most horror films had become rather banal. They were dry, both figuratively and literally. That all changed in 1963 when Lewis released the film Blood Feast.
Blood Feast is considered the first “gore” film ever made. It opened the (bloody) floodgates that have influenced the horror genre ever since.
The films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, as revolutionary as they were, were not for everybody. During their heyday they certainly not for the faint of heart. They were made with minuscule budgets, amateur crews, and have aged poorly. Still, if that’s your bailiwick, and you’ve never seen any of his films allow me to guide you some of my personal favorites…
The Wizard of Gore (1970)
Arguably the best of, and also one of the last gore films Lewis ever made. The Wizard of Gore told the tale of Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager), a magician who puts on gruesome displays. After seemingly mutilating audience members it turns out to be all an illusion… Or does it? After each show, the volunteers drop dead in a similarly gruesome fashion. This gains the attention of daytime talk show host Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) who begins investigating Montag.
Over-the-top scenes of dismemberment and disembowelment are the highlight of this film. For a movie made in 1970 and on a shoe-string, it is quite an impressive feat. It also doesn’t pull any punches either, often lingering on the aftermath of bloody carnage.
The film also tries to screw with your mind by questioning what is reality and what is illusion. While shocking for the era it came out, The Wizard of Gore hasn’t aged very well. If you can stomach the gore the film is laughably bad, and that’s what makes it so good.
Interestingly, Hollywood later remade the film in 2007, it had Crispen Glover in the role of Montag the Magician.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
See that exclamation point? This movie means business. Two Thousand Maniacs! is another milestone in the annals of film history. It created another sub-genre of horror! That of the redneck horror film.
Two Thousand Maniacs! follows the story of six tourists who travel to the American south. There they are lured into the town of Pleasant Valley by the locals. What appears to be a peaceful southern town is actually home to Confederate loyalists and it just so happens that they are celebrating their “blood centennial”.
You see, the people of Pleasant Valley are still a little cheesed off that the south lost the Civil War. So every 100 years or so, they capture a bunch of northern visitors and horribly murder them. People drawn by horses, crushed by rocks, and — my personal favorite — being rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails, this movie is pretty gruesome.
Does it have any star power? Well if you count Connie Mason, a former Playboy Playmate, then boy-howdy it certainly does!
This movie inspired pretty much every insane-southern-people movie from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to um… Texas Chainsaw 3-D. This movie was also remade (titled 2001 Maniacs) which featured Robert Englund.
Monster A-Go-Go (1965)
Monster A-Go-Go is the tamest movie on this list. I like this movie because it’s actually an old sci-fi horror film that was started by fellow low-budget filmmaker Bill Rebane. Rebane abandoned the film in 1961, and Lewis purchased the footage a few years later, because he needed a second film for a double feature. He finished the film and released it as Monster A-Go-Go.
The film is about an astronaut travels into outer space. While in space he is exposed to radiation and turns into a horrific monster. The film mostly follows a team of scientists and authorities trying to stop the monster.
This movie is hilarious in that Lewis had to replace the entire cast. The only actor from Rebane’s shoot had changed so much, Herschell recast him as the characters brother instead. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the fate of the monster is going to make you angry.
This movie is hard to watch on its own. You’ll be happy to know that Monster A-Go-Go ended up on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
No matter what you think of his body of work, Herschell Gordon Lewis still made a massive impact on the movie business. He inspired filmmakers such as John Waters, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and James Gunn. Talented filmmakers all. Just proving that one person’s trash is another person’s art.