Thursday, July 2, 2009

Herschell Gordon Lewis: Happy Birthday, Wizard of Gore

I began this blog on the thirteenth of June this year, with a small piece celebrating the knighthood of Christopher Lee. (All the older pieces are crossovers from Movietone News.)
Somehow, I then managed to let June the fifteenth drift idly by, without stopping to note that it was the eightieth birthday of one of the most celebrated, reviled, loved, hated and incontestably significant film-makers ever to work in the horror genre.
That man is of course the wizard of gore himself, Mr Herschell Gordon Lewis, the man who invented the gore film and created in Blood Feast one of the dozen or so most important horror movies of all time.
I came of age as a film fan at the height of the mania for "incredibly strange films", the moment when systematic serious critical scrutiny was devoted for the first time to the universe of international exploitation cinema. The moment had been anticipated somewhat by the slightly earlier fad for bad movies, spearheaded by the Medved Brothers and their Golden Turkey Awards, but this was altogether different: it was academic; it took the films seriously and on occasion even went so far as to hail them as great art.
From its researches a new pantheon of alternative artists emerged: Lewis, Meyer, Steckler, Wishman, Mikels...
It was an exhilarating time. Learning about these strange and eccentric directors and their wild product was undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods of my film education. Lewis, we learned, was the gore man, whose breakthrough shocker Blood Feast had revolutionised the horror film by showing dismemberment, guts and gore in unflinching - if reassuringly unrealistic - close-up profusion, for the first time on the American screen.
The interesting thing, however, is that if one was a young English boy, growing up in a country with few outlets for bizarre non-mainstream cinema and what remained at that time a pretty thoroughgoing board of censors (pornography was unequivocally illegal, for instance), there was very little opportunity to actually see the films being discussed, simply because the saleable ones were too controversial, and the uncontroversial ones weren't saleable.

So apart from a few enticing clips on documentaries, we devoured everything we could read about the films, but hardly ever got the chance to see any of them.
(I can still remember my excitement at finally getting hold of copies of 2,000 Maniacs, which turned out to be cut, She-Devils on Wheels, which turned out to be boring, and Double Agent 73 - and we all know how that turned out.)
Eventually, that would all change. The market for obscure exploitation grew large enough to justify proper video and DVD releases, and censorship relaxed sufficiently to pass the once outrageous titles as suitable for adults. The result, inevitably, was anticlimactic.
The real exceptions to this, for me, were Ray Dennis Steckler, of whom much more later, and Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast, 2,000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red and The Wizard of Gore.
Unlike the films of Russ Meyer or John Waters, and all those others so much better read about than sampled, Lewis's gore films more than lived up to their promise and reputation.
I bought Blood Feast out of only the mildest residual curiosity at the chance to finally see a film I had done so much thinking and reading about over so formative a period of my life. I was expecting to be, at best, mildly amused, slightly interested. But the damned thing worked like it had never been out of the box.
.This is not to say that it was without fault, for that would be a frankly crazy thing to say. On one level all of Lewis's films are pretty much a catalogue of faults. Neither am I claiming that it works as a horror-suspense film: it is not exciting and it is not scary, nor was it ever.
But here at last was that demented creative energy we were taught to believe was common to the whole crowd of them, that sense of being taken into a truly unique imagination, unfettered at any stage by the traditional restraints imposed upon artists in the mainstream machine.
.Blood Feast (1963) is the first, simplest and most creatively inspired of the man's oeuvre, if not perhaps the best in the strictly relative sense in which Lewis's movies can be assessed for quality. It's short, the plot is nonsensical, much of what happens in it is impossible, and, as many before me have pointed out, the acting is not merely amateurish but wretched: much worse, in fact, than might be expected of a cast chosen completely at random.
The narrative is of course merely an excuse to string a series of set-piece outrages together, and is insufficient even as that.
Why, then, does it continue to cast the spell that transfixed drive-in audiences on original release?
Partly, because the film has a very modern kind of knowingness to it. There is an inept quality to much of it fully the equal of Ed Wood, but where Wood was naive and heartfelt, Lewis is cynical and mocking. The statue of Ishtar is a shop window mannequin sprayed gold not solely because Lewis couldn't afford anything better, nor solely because he simply couldn't care, but because he couldn't afford anything better and simply couldn't care.
That's why the book the detectives are reading is called Ancient Weird Religious Rites; it's why Fuad Ramses, crazed Egyptian caterer, chooses a blonde co-ed's birthday party, seemingly at random, to be the venue at which he stages the atrocity for which he has presumably been planning his whole adult life, then tries to kill the girl herself in the kitchen before unveiling it, then runs away when she screams, then falls in a garbage truck fleeing the police. It's why he shuffles along with a pronounced limp, yet somehow manages to outrun several policemen in hot pursuit.
And it's why the newspaper headline following a scene in which a girl's legs are cut off is LEGS CUT OFF!!!
Partly because verisimilitude costs money that Lewis does not have, but also because he knows - as Wood (whose aspirations, paradoxically, were so much higher) does not - that money spent on verisimilitude is money wasted.

This is the key to Lewis's directorial uniqueness, why his films are unmistakably his, why they are mocking rather than self-mocking, and why his violence is simultaneously gross and nonthreatening. These absurdities listed above are not intended to be funny, yet neither is Lewis unaware of their absurdity, both individually and cumulatively. He just knew that everything was incidental, and he knew that his target audience would not be troubled.
Interviewed in the book Incredibly Strange Films it is interesting to see him bridle at the suggestion that the films could be read as self-parodying, and that the original audiences found them funny:
I don't share that view. The reason I don't is this: I'm not a film historian. I'm the kind of jerk who sits in the theater watching the audience, and if they react, that's all I care about. (...) That's what's missing today: no one thinks in terms of audience reaction. They make films like Heaven's Gate. They choose impossible, stupid titles; the titles alone would keep people out of the theaters... They don't think in terms of showmanship. Some of the campaigns I see look like they were written by half-wit oysters.
In a neat reversal, it is now the sophisticates who cherish Lewis, as he himself observed when asked to describe the typical H. G. Lewis audience member for an interview in the book The Sleaze Merchants:
A typical audience member would live south of the Mason-Dixon line, would be between twenty-five and forty-five, would live in rural rather than urban circumstances, would probably be male, would not be highly educated, and would have a terrific number of prejudices. Oddly enough, the fans I run into now in my posthumous appearances as an historical figure - a cult figure like the late James Dean - are exactly the opposite.
Blood Feast worked because it was perfectly pitched to its target audience; the films that followed were better, perhaps, but inevitably lacked the original's freshness and surprise. 2,000 Maniacs (1964) boasts what amounts almost to a coherent plot; it's a nice supernatural revenge story, and the murder scenes are inventive and reasonably well-staged.
Color Me Blood Red
(1965), my personal favourite, is less liberal in its bloodshed (albeit incredibly intense in two sequences at least) but the film scores because it is basically a satire on the creative process, with Don Joseph's Adam Sorg unquestionably my favourite movie mad painter (though Bogey in The Two Mrs Carrolls comes close), slaughtering girls for their blood because it is the only way he can achieve the exact shade of red he needs for his hilarious paintings. There are some wonderful scenes of him locking antlers with exhibitors and critics, and a good deal of humour at the expense of would-be arbiters of aesthetic consensus. It's Lewis's wittiest horror film, and, for me at least, the most interesting; it's certainly the one I find myself watching most frequently.
Nonetheless, like those that followed (The Gruesome Twosome, A Taste of Blood, The Gore Gore Girls) it is really vital only to completists: to the casual historian of horror, Blood Feast tells you all you need.

If a second helping were required, however, The Wizard of Gore (1972) may be the one to go for, since it is surely one of the very strangest horror films ever made, unspooling like a drunkard's nightmare, without least concession to logic, meaning or even internal consistency. Whereas his previous films had the flimsiest of functional plots, this one is truly anarchic - it deliberately makes no sense at all and frustrates every attempt to come to terms with it.
The basic idea is simple, and quintessential Lewis: Montag, master of illusion - played, like Blood Feast's Fuad Ramses, by a youngish actor made up terribly to look older - is a stage magician who hypnotises his audience into seeing on-stage acts of outrageous mutilation - including a pre-Tobe Hooper chainsaw massacre - as harmless illusion. This false perception is shared likewise by the victim, and somehow persists for a time after the show until, eventually, suddenly, reality reasserts itself and the victim reverts to a true state of hideously mutilated death!
Everything else about Montag's motives and actions is unexplained, and the basic idea - though fascinatingly strange - can't really be called clever because it simply makes no sense, nor ever attempts to. It could be the most knowingly peculiar horror film ever unleashed upon unsuspecting rednecks. Each new twist is more meaningless than the last, and by the time it finishes back at the beginning you'll swear you fell asleep somewhere in the middle, missed bits and dreamed others, or else that you're still asleep and the film doesn't really exist at all. Montag would certainly have you believe as much:
Are you certain you know what reality is? How do you know that, at this second, you aren't asleep in your bed, dreaming that you are here in this theater? I know - it all seems too real... well, haven't you ever had a dream that seemed so very real... till you woke up? Then again, how do you know that you ever really did wake up? In fact, perhaps when you thought that you were waking up, you had actually just begun to dream. You see what I mean, don't you? All your life, your past, your rules of what can and cannot be... may all be part of one long dream from which you are about to awake - and discover the world as it really is!
There's no answer to that, as Eric Morecambe would say, and no desire on Lewis's part to make anything of it, either: it's merely the most ridiculous peg he ever invented on which to hang a half-dozen set-pieces of outrageous mutilation and dismemberment.
.One final observation: if there is, by any chance, anyone reading this who was not previously aware of Lewis or his legacy, let me head off one possible misunderstanding. These films, though this would surely not be obvious from the above, are in no way comparable to the modern style of horror film that has come to be known as 'torture porn'. Lewis in no way trades on pain, distress or even sadism for his effects. Indeed, considering the material, it is amazing how little the films make even inadvertent use of these ingredients. (He himself once said in an interview that he would shy away from scenes in which the victims died slowly.) The action and set-ups are so wildly unrealistic that nobody could possibly become involved in the characters' plights to a degree sufficient either to be distressed or aroused by them. The drama is always, and deliberately, pitched at the most banal of levels. The gimmick, the twist, the disruption, the fault-line dividing Lewis's cinema from that of his peers is the totally unprecedented quantity and intensity of unflinching, onscreen blood and guts, in the most literal sense. As well as unexpected, it is also, of course, unjustified within the narrative context: Blood Feast, for example, is basically a cop thriller, but one that simply refuses to look away when the killer goes to work.
It need not absolve him of crimes against taste and decency if you feel, quite reasonably, that such things are in themselves abhorrent, neither does it grant him immunity from the charge of culpability in the matter of influence upon later, less innocent variations on the same model, but I feel certain that the man's own motives lay a million miles away from the exploitation of cruelty and suffering. Nothing is real here. It's the blood itself, divorced from all context, that fascinated, and continues to fascinate; it's the instinctive, primal lure (or recoil) of this simple physical commodity, that explains the man's unique and incredible success story.
.Fuad Ramses leans towards the camera. He looks ridiculous, with drawn-on eyebrows, talking to a woman giving one of the worst performances in screen history in one of the most negligible sets ever erected.

"Have you ever had... an Egyptian feast?"

The moment could not be more ludicrous. But the excitement is palpable.
Because we know what the film is called, and we've seen the opening titles, and we've seen the first scene, and we know that for the next hour all bets are off.
That worked for the original audiences and it still works for us now, and it's why Herschell Gordon Lewis has to be taken seriously, as a film-maker as well as a showman. Good or bad, he knew exactly what he was doing.


Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: Great post! This is one of best things I have read on HGL, and I agree with you on your observations completely. I, too, followed much the same route as you to his films; and, like you, was surprised to discover they were really . . . boring as toast (yet Blood Feast and Wizard of Gore shine if for nothing else that Lewis' fantastic commentary track - on the Something Weird DVD versions. He really loved the business of making movies).

What kills Gordon for me is something you point out - he took absolutely no care in his gore films at all - no sense of individual style whatsoever. As you say, Wood did his best; whereas Lewis didn't really give a damn about making a good movie as long as pig guts were splattered around generously.

Have you ever seen Scum of the Earth (1963)? It is a film Lewis made when he was in his semi-porn stage. This is a good example of Lewis actually trying hard, and the results are very good (and not at all boring).

I will have to look up some of the other film-makers you mention. Other than Lewis, the only one I recognized was Meyer. Thanks for a really enjoyable post! – Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

No, never saw Scum of the Earth. The only non-horror HGL I've seen is She-Devils on Wheels, his girl biker film. Apart from one decapitation it's just ugly girls on bikes.
Of the other guys I namechecked, the most fun is probably Ray Dennis Steckler, but none of them prove anything like as good as they threaten.
If you don't know Doris Wishman or Double Agent 73 I cautiously direct you to Lolita's site, where far more photographic evidence than is strictly necessary awaits -
but don't say I didn't warn you.

Thanks for the comments!
Best, Matthew

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: I have just visited Lolita's blog. Sure, you warned me, but you didn't sufficiently warn me. Chesty Morgan! -- Mykal