All things have a beginning, and for the gore film that beginning was Blood Feast. It came out at a time when such films were not being made. The director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, is fond of saying the film is like a Walt Whitman poem: "It was no good, but it was the first of its kind". If Lewis and producer David F. Friedman hadn't thought of it first, someone else would have. The Curse of Frankenstein and Psycho pushed the boundaries of on-screen violence, and Blood Feast was the next logical step. It is, of course, a very tame and silly film these days, primarily because of the crude special effects and wretched acting, but it has a certain magic that, when viewed in the right frame of mind, can transport you back to a time of facile illusion. I'm still shocked that I showed the theatrical trailer during a presentation on Lewis in my high school speech class. I don't know how I got away with that one, even in today's desensitized climate.
Lewis is a difficult director to appreciate unless you, as a viewer, are willing to take everything that makes a movie good (competent acting, direction, sound, cinematography, and set design), as well as the entire notion of film as an art, and chuck them out the window. I never rate Lewis's films on the same level as so-called "normal" films, because they simply are not like other films. They are, along with all of the films released under the Something Weird Video label, entirely in a realm of their own.
There have been a couple of books written about Lewis, including the essential, albeit brief, Godfather of Gore by Randy Palmer, and Lewis graciously provided informative audio commentaries on nearly every DVD of his films, but never has a full-length documentary been attempted. Director Frank Henenlotter (world-famous for his cult classics such as Basket Case and Frankenhooker), in collaboration with producer/director Jimmy Maslon, has lovingly assembled this tribute to the man who inspired him to make films. Considering Henenlotter's work with Something Weird Video and his massive collection of obscure B-movies and loops that very few would have thought to save, there is no better man for the job.
Lewis himself is a warm, affable, extremely well-spoken fellow who never seems to run out of amusing stories from his filmmaking days. It's not surprising that the man who thinks film should be a purely financial endeavor would later make his fortune as the king of direct mail (a more polite term for "junk mail") after leaving the film business in the early 70s. The Gore Gore Girls, his last feature until he returned decades later to make Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, is perhaps his only "good" film, and it's my personal favorite. There is a low-rent competency at work in The Gore Gore Girls that his previous films lacked, most of the jokes are actually funny, and the acting from the leads is surprisingly decent.
Despite this end-of-career surge of production value, Lewis made many films that are downright painful to watch (see How to Make a Doll and Miss Nymphet's Zap-In -- or don't!), and Henenlotter's documentary tries to explain what it is about these movies that make them so damn appealing all these years later, even when they aren't any good. For the most part he succeeds, but I'm not sure you'll be won over if you aren't already a fan of H.G. Lewis. It turns out that the staying power of his films was purely an accident, and nobody involved thought these films would ever see the light of day after a couple of weeks at the drive-in. From "nudie cuties" and nudist camps to hardcore gore, feminist biker gangs, teenage destruction, and Colonel Sanders (!), nearly all of Lewis's career is covered, and many of the films that aren't -- another genre he and Friedman pioneered, the "roughie", is skipped over entirely in the actual documentary -- are included in over an hour's worth of deleted scenes.
The documentary features interviews with a number of the cast and crew of Lewis's films, including Mal Arnold (Fuad Ramses from Blood Feast), Ray Sager (The Wizard of Gore), and the late David F. Friedman; genre scholars and Lewis devotees Joe Bob Briggs and John Waters (who was among the first to champion Lewis and interviewed him for his classic book Shock Value); and it even contains a re-enactment of the opening scene of Two Thousand Maniacs in St. Cloud, Florida and a visit to the hotel they used as a location, both of which seem untouched by time. There are also scenes from an incomplete film called Eye for an Eye, and believe me, perhaps we're better off. The most charming thing about Lewis and pretty much everyone involved with his films is that they have a sense of humor about their product. Most of them readily admit that these films never aspired to be anything more than a fast buck. This documentary, however, is a stunning achievement. Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore stands out among all the genre documentaries that have been cropping up in the last few years, because it focuses on a compelling subject with a strong life story.
And while you're at it, pick up Lewis's The Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red) and Henenlotter's Basket Case, newly released on Blu-ray in stunning hi-def!
Top Ten Favorite H.G. Lewis Films:
1. The Gore Gore Girls
2. The Wizard of Gore
3. The Gruesome Twosome
4. Something Weird
5. Blood Feast
6. The Alley Tramp
7. She-Devils on Wheels
8. Color Me Blood Red
9. Two Thousand Maniacs
10. A Taste of Blood