Saturday, June 28, 2014
A Vintage Interview with The Godfather of Gore
Before the Internet, those of us who wanted to self-publish our musings on film (or whatever) had to do it the old-fashioned way, by creating a zine. My own compulsion to write about horror movies resulted in a publication entitled Raw Meat, which lasted for three whole issues in the early 1990s. I wrote all of the content on a typewriter, pasted it up, photocopied it and mailed it out, all by my lonesome. Content ranged from the usual movie reviews to articles on Hong Kong horror films, the gory antics of Monty Python and the various film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft. The pinnacle of my efforts came in the third issue, when I presented my first-ever interview, with director Herschell Gordon Lewis, the legendary "Godfather of Gore." I tracked him down via a book he'd published on plate collecting, of all things, and he graciously agreed to a phone interview.
Not everything I wrote back then is worth a second look, but having recently reread the interview, it occurred to me that I'm still pretty proud of it, and I figured I ought to resurrect it and publish it here for your enjoyment (although, for all I know, all of this information has been regurgitated in the intervening time in other interviews, DVD audio commentaries and the like). I considered merely scanning the old zine pages and posting the images, which would have been kind of cool, but there were a few mistakes I wanted to correct, and I also did some additional editing 23 years after the fact to remove a few sections that, in retrospect, perhaps weren't all that interesting (back then, it didn't occur to me that I didn't have to print every single word he said). Additionally, I've added a few editorial comments in brackets to clarify a few things. So, without further ado, here is my 1991 interview with H.G. Lewis.
In 1963, an enterprising filmmaker named Herschell Gordon Lewis made a film called Blood Feast. This tale of an insane caterer attempting to revive the ancient Egyptian goddess Ishtar was made on a microscopic budget, featured shoddy production values and execrable acting and had its world premiere in Peoria, Illinois. But despite everything it had going against it, Blood Feast was an enormous success, and it went on to become a minor classic? Why? One word tells it all: gore. Blood Feast contained lots and lots of gore. Tired of the nudie film genre that he had been toiling in for several years, Lewis looked for something new, something that had never been done before. He found it. Among Blood Feast's many gory scenes were a hacked-off leg, a cut-out heart and a ripped-out tongue, all presented in living color (or, according to the advertising, "blood color"). Graphic gore had been seen in films prior to Blood Feast; Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) shocked audiences with their graphic surgery and staking scenes, and Mario Bava's La Maschera del Demonio (aka Black Sunday, 1960) had some pretty potent violence for its time, but while those films used their violence sparingly, in only a few scenes, Blood Feast wallowed in it. The presentation of graphic gore was Blood Feast's raison d'être.
Lewis had found his niche, and his next gore film, Two Thousand Maniacs, was released in 1964. Miles ahead of Blood Feast in terms of acting and production values, Two Thousand Maniacs still delivered the gory goods with its story of a town of Southerners who take revenge for the Civil War on a carload of Yankees who stumble into their hamlet. The Yanks are cut up, barbecued, crushed by a giant rock, and rolled down a hill in a spiked barrel. In an eerie twist, the sole survivors discover that the town was completely wiped out by Northern soldiers a hundred years earlier.
Lewis went on to make Color Me Blood Red (1965), about an artist who finds an unusual source for that perfect shade of red; A Taste of Blood (1967), about a man who inherits his family's ancient curse of vampirism; Something Weird (1967), about a man who gains psychic powers after an electrical accident; The Gruesome Twosome (1967), about a sweet little old lady who gets the raw materials for her wig shop the easy way, with the help of her demented son; The Wizard of Gore (1970), about a magician whose bloody stage illusions happen for real after his performances; and The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), about a psychopath who murders and mutilates strippers.
The Gore-Gore Girls was Lewis' last film [at the time of this interview - MG], and for several years, he and his films faded into temporary obscurity. Then, in the late 1970's, his films experienced a renaissance, and Lewis was hailed and recognized as "The Godfather of Gore." Since then, he's been seen in countless genre publications, he's been the subject of several film festivals around the country, and he's even been interviewed for The Incredibly Strange Film Show in the U.K., where, ironically, all of his films are banned. Lewis' films are certainly an acquired taste, but like 'em or not, there's no denying the influence they've had on the modern horror film. Seen today, they're amusing, often still quite shocking, and, in the case of Two Thousand Maniacs and A Taste of Blood, they're genuinely well made films.
I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Lewis in May, 1991, and it was a very pleasant experience. He is a funny, intelligent, and articulate man, and unlike a lot of other people who got their start in exploitation films, he is more than willing to talk about his colorful past. Mr. Lewis has been interviewed many times in the last several years, and being aware of this, I tried to ask him some questions that he hasn't been asked a hundred times. (The set-up that I used to tape our conversation was far from the world's greatest, so I apologize to Mr. Lewis if I've screwed up a word here or there.)
MICHAEL GROVER: When did you first realize that your films were attaining a cult status?
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: About seven or eight years ago, I guess [At the time of this interview, that would have been the early 1980s. - MG]. I had completely forgotten - I shouldn't say forgotten - I had begun to think that I would pass unnoticed into the limbo of motion picture would-be's, and I had paid no attention at all to any of the many comments that I had seen on occasion. People might send me something that appeared in Fangoria, or some little reference here and there. But seven or eight years ago, I don't even know what year it was, I had a phone call from New York which really startled me. It was a fellow named Rick Sullivan [Editor of the legendary Gore Gazette zine. - MG], who was an accountant at Exxon at the time, and who was sponsoring "gore film night" at a little theater in Greenwich Village, and he invited me and my wife up there. I figured the whole thing would be like a Harvard lampoon, where people would throw tomatoes but miss, but it wasn't that at all, and I began to wonder "How long has this been going on?"
MG: Had you seen many horror films before you made Blood Feast?
HGL: No. Well, of course I had seen things like the original Dracula, and some of the mystery films, but the horror films were always people like Bela Lugosi posturing around, looking fierce. Blood flowing, no. There wasn't anything of that sort.
MG: Except maybe Hammer films.
HGL: Hammer came after me.
MG: Actually, their first horror film was The Curse of Frankenstein, which came out in 1957.
HGL: Then that's before me, but was that a gore film?
MG: When you look at it nowadays, it wouldn't really be considered one, but back then, I guess it had people fainting in the aisles. But then again, so did the original Dracula.
HGL: Yeah, well put.
MG: Did the shower scene in Psycho at all inspire you to have Blood Feast's first murder take place in a bathtub?
HGL: Interesting point. I think that's neater than having it in the shower, it was more contained. But bear in mind that in Psycho, two things were true that weren't true of Blood Feast. Number one, the picture was in black and white. Number two, it was a series of quick cuts in which suggestion took the place of specificity. I would never call Psycho explicit gore. Certainly, it set a tone, and there's no question that that picture did have a tremendous effect on the future of horror films, just as Blood Feast did.
MG: Was John Waters the first filmmaker to acknowledge you as an influence, or were there any others before him?
HGL: Oh, I think Frank Henenlotter. I don't know, I shouldn't say that. It may have been John. A very decent fellow, he has a mixed reputation, I'm sure as I do, but yes, that may have been. In fact, I was a little surprised. About a dozen years ago, we had just moved to Florida, and John Waters called and asked it he could interview me or talk with me about some book or another he as writing, and I figured "Why did he want to talk to me?" But yes, I think he may have been the catalyst. Good thinking.
MG: Do you recall who painted the paintings that were used in Color Me Blood Red?
HGL: Yes I do, it was a member of the Hall family out of Venice, Florida. There were some brothers named Hall - Scott Hall is the fellow who played the police captain in "Blood Feast" - and they were all old Ringling Brothers carny type people. In fact, Venice, Florida is where the winter home of the circus is, the Ringling Brothers, and there's a huge community of sideshow people there. But we had these things literally painted to order, and I hung on to 'em for years and years until finally, there was just no more room in the attic, and out they went.
MG: Those would be great collectibles today.
HGL: Do you really think so? Maybe I still have 'em! (laughs)
MG: How did you approach Henny Youngman to appear in The Gore-Gore Girls? Was he aware of what kind of a film it was?
HGL: I don't think he was. Henny Youngman was a friend of a man named Bob Dachman, whose son, Alan Dachman, wrote the screenplay for The Gore-Gore Girls. I wasn't ready to make a movie then, and Dachman and I were both members; in fact, we were both on the board of the Variety Club in Chicago, and he said that he'd make me an offer I can't refuse. He said "Look, if I put the money together, would you shoot the movie?" Well, who could say no to that? So he put the deal together, and one of the things he put together - he was quite a contact person; he was actually a professional fundraiser, and I will say he was as professional a fundraiser as I've ever met in my life. One of his cronies from Lord knows when was Henny Youngman, so he approached me one day and said "Can we fit Henny Youngman into this movie? I can get him for one solid Sunday. The only rule is we've got to shoot every one of his scenes that day." I said "sure." It cost next to nothing. Why Henny considered doing this for next to nothing I don't know.
MG: Maybe his career was in a slump at that time.
HGL: At that time? (laughs) Anyway, he was very cooperative, but he read his lines with a lightning-like speed, where I had the feeling that we had poured those lines in at 33 r.p.m., and he was regurgitating them out at 78 r.p.m. In fact, at one point, I said "Henny, what we're going to have to do is put English subtitles under your lines!" But once we slowed him down a little, he was certainly a pleasure to work with. I had no quarrel with him; he did not play big shot, nor did he show any sign of temperament at all.
MG: Have any of the cast or crew of any of your films ever objected to the gore?
HGL: You mean when we were shooting them?
HGL: Not that I can remember. Everybody knew what we were doing. On occasion, somebody would object afterwards, saying "I can't get it out of my hair." We had an actress in The Gore-Gore Girls named Hedda Lubin, and her role called for her to be the murderer, and to justify the plot line, she was supposed to have lost all her hair and be wearing a wig. Of course, she hadn't lost all her hair, and we weren't about to shave her head. So, we put this stuff on her with mortician's wax or whatever, and she was appearing in some stage play in Chicago, and she wasn't pleased with us, 'cause she couldn't get the stuff out of her hair for that night's performance, and she had to wear a wig. But in general, even people like Nancy Lee Noble, who was a very nice little actress, we smeared her up pretty thoroughly in She-Devils on Wheels, and never a peep. And originally, that stage blood was very hard to scrape off. Bear in mind we were shooting features here. Actors will give their left arm for a screen credit, and to be in a movie, in whatever kind of role, overrides anybody's initial revulsion at having a fake eyeball squeezed out.
MG: Of all the effects in your films, which one are you proudest of?
HGL: Well, I've got to give you a double answer here, Mike. The effect that changed the course of motion picture history was the tongue scene in Blood Feast. So, purely from a viewpoint of notoriety, that one has to rank first. But to me, my favorite scene is one that's little known, because that picture hasn't been released on video. That's in The Gore-Gore Girls where the lunatic shoves a girl's face into a bowl of French fries that are heating up on the stove. [The film had actually been released on VHS at the time, and has been re-released several times since. - MG]
MG: Why, after coming off of a string of nudie films, did you refrain from using [extensive] nudity in all but your last horror film?
HGL: Well, I didn't think it was pertinent. I also felt that we might be splitting the difference. In fact, sometimes when you try to be all things to all men, nothing happens at all, and I didn't want to be self-cancelling. As you are aware, Dave Friedman felt another way.
MG: If Blood Feast had been a tremendous bomb, which of course it wasn't, do you think you would have made another gore film?
HGL: Who knows? I thought we had made a specialty picture, not a bomb. But you see, it's impossible to be a tremendous bomb with the kind of budgets we had. But I suspect yes, I probably would have tried it again, because even as we were cutting Blood Feast, I had the notion for Two Thousand Maniacs.
MG: Do you see many horror films today?
HGL: Not many. We have total cable here; in four of the five bedrooms of this house we have about sixty channels, and if somebody doesn't want to watch what's on, every bedroom has it's own VCR. I prefer to be entertained; I like action, science fiction, and comedy more than I do horror. I think one reason is there's a sameness to the Friday the 13ths and the Amityville Horrors and the various kinds of Halloweens. It seems to me I'm watching the same picture over and over again. They've begun to become parodies of themselves. [Nothing has really changed in the intervening time. - MG]
MG: What does your family think of your films?
HGL: My son Bob was the sound man on half a dozen of these things. In fact, he's the only one who would squeeze the eyeballs; most of the actors would cringe at squeezing eyeballs. We had all forgotten this stuff long ago, but certainly nobody is going to disclaim it. I think I speak for the whole family in saying that we think it's funny. It's funny that people still remember us, it's funny that they still exist. Here are pictures which cost 100 to 200 times as much money, and they are in and out and forgotten, and these little old things still kind of chug along like the African Queen.