You can’t always take a film director at his word. Herschell Gordon Lewis, the self-proclaimed “Wizard of Gore” who passed away, at the age of 90, on Sept. 26, was way far down on the totem pole of filmmaker respectability — in fact, he probably occupied its second-to-last rung, with Edward D. Wood Jr. on the very bottom. When it came to discussing the art of directing, Lewis made no claims for himself. At all. Next to him, even a low-budget exploitation mercenary like Roger Corman came off as a bohemian artiste. Lewis’ theory of filmmaking revolved around one thing and one thing only: He was in it for the money. He repeated this in countless interviews, like the one he gave to John Waters for Waters’ great first book, “Shock Value,” in 1981. Lewis, who invented the gore film, talked about movies in strictly utilitarian terms, and that became part of his legend. If you take him at his word, he appeared to have all the filmmaking passion of a Fuller Brush salesman. Maybe that’s why Simon Abrams and Matt Zoller Seitz, in their affectionate and in-depth tribute to Lewis on rogerebert.com, make the statement: “Lewis’ films don’t stand the test of time, but his legacy as a salesman is as timeless as a carnival barker’s patter.”
The truth, though, is that they’re wrong: Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films, or at least two them, do stand the test of time. Not because they’re “good” (though you could make the claim that within the aesthetic Lewis created, good is exactly what they are) but because everything about them that made them startling, influential, and perpetually entertaining to go back to (I watch them again every five or six years) was accomplished without a semblance of awareness on Lewis’ part that he was doing anything that had a meaning beyond the bottom line. He simply didn’t think about it, but that’s tied to the liberating and totally unhinged recklessness of what he created. Forget what he was thinking: His id guided every decision, and that’s why he was, in his gaudy primitive way — for a couple of movies, at least — a true filmmaker.
So is there art in what Herschell Gordon Lewis did? A very raw kind of art, but the reason I think it passes the test of art is that if you watch it today, it still carries the shock of the new. Lewis’s original gore film — which is to say, the first all-out, you-buy-it-you-eat-it splatter movie ever made – was “Blood Feast,” released in drive-in movie theaters on July 6, 1963. This was the “Mad Men” era — in spirit, still the winding down of the late ’50s — and there’s a pre-media-age stodginess about “Blood Feast” that makes the film feel truly underground, and that gives its crudely audacious special effects a timeless charge of radicalism. Lewis set about creating a movie that featured murder victims coated in what Divine, a decade later in “Pink Flamingos,” would refer to as “freshly killed blood,” and damned if that isn’t how it looks.
The corpses and body parts lay there, coated in rivulets of candy-apple brightness that drip down like something on a spattered paint can, and the effect is unsettling. Sure, the color of real blood is a few shades darker (Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter”: “Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will? It appears quite black”), but the whole thing about a crime scene — an honest-to-God crime scene — is that it may be the most shocking thing you’ve ever seen, and Lewis, obviously asking himself “What would that look like?,” imagines and re-creates that shock. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that there was no blood in his films, only red, but the queasy alchemy of “Blood Feast” is that it’s staged with so much primeval “Look at this!” sick glee that red truly becomes blood. Even if you see it now, 53 years later, after hundreds upon thousands of relentlessly grisly horror films, there’s something momentous about it. The no-budget atmosphere — forget lighting and mood, in this movie there is barely furniture — communicates a sense that nothing is going to protect these people. They are bodies waiting to be carved up into parts.
The man doing the carving has his own bizarro mystique. For decades, our horror culture has celebrated slasher mascots like Jason and Freddy, but the original gangsta of cartoon psycho mania is Fuad Ramses from “Blood Feast,” a scowling Egyptian food caterer who is planning to serve up the bodies he kills in a ritual feast done in homage to the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. The character is, on some level, hilarious, because he’s played by an actor named Mal Arnold in thick eyebrows and gray hair that make him look like Norman Mailer dispatching his critics. Yet there’s also something a bit jaw-dropping about Fuad Ramses. Seen now, he comes off like the missing link between Boris Karloff in “The Mummy” and a grade-Z version of radical Islam. The film’s climactic moment arrives when he extracts the tongue of one of his victims, and it’s a truly sickening money shot (a sheep’s tongue was used, making the effects at once less sophisticated and more real than almost anything you’d see today). At that moment, what Lewis is going for, and achieves, is a catharsis of disgust. He may have staged it as a gut-bucket box-office stunt, but “Blood Feast” is a movie of tacky awe.
The film was a huge success, grossing $4 million, which in today’s market would be the equivalent of a grimy exploitation picture making $50 million. (Think “Blair Witch,” only off the grid and under the radar.) It all but demanded a follow-up, and Lewis’ next movie showed that he could actually improve on his formula. “Two Thousand Maniacs!,” released in 1964, wasn’t as successful as “Blood Feast,” yet it became Lewis’ defining statement, a movie whose influence has never been fully recognized. It is actually, in its way, an ambitious little horror film — a dismembered version of “Brigadoon,” with a crew of lost Yankee travelers driving into the “friendly” Southern small town of Pleasant Valley (population: 2,000), whose inhabitants are about to host a Civil War centennial cued, of course, to a celebration of the Confederacy. I never get tired of hearing the film’s outrageously jaunty opening bluegrass ditty, written by Lewis himself (“Yeeee-ha! Oh, the South’s gonna rise again!”). It positions the slasher mania to come as a continuation of the American conflict that has never gone away (at least, in the South). The residents of Pleasant Valley keep talking, in super-smiley tones, about how the visitors are just gonna have to stick around for the barbecue they’re about to have, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to figure out that that barbecue is more ominous than it sounds.
It you watch “Two Thousand Maniacs!” today, part of the happy shock of it is realizing that it’s the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” — the first movie about a bunch of travelers who take the wrong off-ramp only to get gruesomely swallowed up by the barbaric dementia of redneck culture. Herschell Gordon Lewis invented that. And he made it cheeky, and scary, and dangerous, and gross, and creepy all at the same time. Each of the Yankees gets dispatched in a different over-the-top way, which basically sets the entire template for the slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s. Lewis, it must be said, comes up with some pretty cool ways to kill a person, notably the game in which someone gets placed in a barrel with nails pounded into it and rolled down a hill. In “Two Thousand Maniacs!,” the South really does rise again, but what rises even more is the funhouse-meets-grindhouse imagination of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who was out to make a buck but changed movie culture by putting on his shameless el cheapo version of a bloody unforgettable show.