Friday, November 20, 2009

‘Godfather of Gore’ Herschell Gordon Lewis unveils new horror flick at Orlando film festival

Herschell Gordon Lewis, aka, the 'godfather of gore''Godfather of Gore' H.G. Lewis

Legendary cult filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis unveiled his 37th feature film at October’s Freak Show Horror Film Festival at the Wyndham Orlando Resort.

Lewis' latest film, The Uh-Oh Show (formerly Grim Fairy Tale), was shown on Sunday, October 11th at 3:30 pm, and was introduced by Lewis himself, who was on hand afterward to answer questions and sign autographs. An awards presentation took place at 5:30 pm, during which Lewis received a Lifetime Achievement Award from festival director Robert J. Massetti.

The festival does not sell admissions to individual shows, so those who wanted to see the film were required to buy day pass ($25) or wait for the film to be released in theaters or on DVD, though there's no word on when that will be.

The Uh-Oh Show is a gruesome satire about a lethal quiz show whose contestants earn prizes or lose body parts depending on how well they answer the questions. True to form, the film was larded with tubs of gore and bad jokes.
The film was produced by Andrew Allan, Mark Ford, and Andy Lalino, and stars Brooke McCarter (The Lost Boys, Wired), Nevada Caldwell (Uploading to Angels), and Krista Grotte (Death on Demand), along with prolific character actor Joel Wynkoop (Dirty Cop No Donut, Day of the Axe, Body in a Dumpster). Gore and makeup effects were created by Marcus Koch.

It's not for nothing Lewis is known as the 'godfather of gore': he single-handedly invented the genre.

In the early sixties, Lewis was a former literature professor who had started his own advertising agency. He was also a filmmaker-for-hire who was capable of shooting everything from commercials to feature films for anybody willing to pay the freight. And he owned all of his own equipment. 

In 1963, Lewis and longtime friend and producer David F. Friedman were in Miami to shoot a grindhouse 'nudie cutie' for a burlesque house operator named Leroy Griffith. The film was Bell, Bare and Beautiful, and starred buxom stripper Virginia Bell. Lewis and Friedman had already lensed several such projects for various investors, but they were getting tired of cranking out silly nudist camp pictures. The money was good, but they were getting bored. They wanted to do something else. But what?

One evening, Lewis was watching an Edward G. Robinson gangster movie in his hotel room when he was struck by how unrealistic Robinson's death scene was. Despite having been raked with a hail of gunfire, the expiring Robinson had nary a scratch on him. His clothes weren't even ruffled. "That," says Lewis, "was when we came up with that marvelous four-letter word: gore."

Lewis called Friedman, who immediately warmed to the idea. An old carny from way back, Friedman instinctively sensed that the shock value of seeing some real Kensington gore on a movie screen--in vivid color--could be a potential bonanza at the box office. And nobody was doing it. 

'RecordSoundtrack LP featuring music from Lewis' films 'Blood Feast' (1963) and 'Two Thousand Maniacs' (1964)

At the time, the filmmakers were staying at the Suez Motel in Miami Beach, whose Egyptian theme was reflected in a pair of sphinx's heads near the hotel's entrance on Collins Avenue. Inspired by the setting, Lewis and Friedman brainstormed the idea of an ancient Egyptian 'blood cult' whose modern practitioners went around killing young women as sacrifices to the goddess 'Ishtar.' 

The result was Blood Feast, the first horror film ever to show blood and guts, and lots of it. More grisly than ever in blood color, said the poster. (See the original unedited trailer here)
Gruesome as the film was, it's hard to imagine anybody today actually being scared by it. With its low budget, crude makeup, inept acting, and absurd storyline about a murderous Egyptian caterer named 'Fuad Ramses,' Blood Feast is more hilarious than horrifying. Yet audiences in 1964 were genuinely freaked out by it. They were shocked, but they loved it, and the film became a huge hit at drive-in theaters. (Aside from grindhouses, most indoor theaters refused to exhibit the film on account of the gore.)

Over four decades later, Lewis' offbeat gem of cult horror cinema remains weirdly entertaining. It is the seminal exponent of the bizarre sensibilities that would come to distinguish Lewis' films from those of most other exploitation filmmakers. Truly, they were "so bad they were good."

Herschell Gordon Lewis' "Two Thousand Maniacs"Poster for 'Two Thousand Maniacs' was typical of Lewis and Friedmans' sensationalistic advertising campaigns: . the bound, scantily-clad blonde girl did not appear in the film, only on the poster.

Encouraged by the success of Blood Feast, Lewis
went on to make his most famous film, Two Thousand Maniacs, and over the next few years churned out a raft of sleazy, low-budget gore and exploitation flicks, all of which were suffused with his unique brand of tasteless crackpot humor. 

In 1972 Lewis made his most ferocious horror film, The Gore Gore Girls, a movie that many people still find almost unwatchably gruesome.  The film, which is still banned in Australia, was about a black-gloved killer who murders and mutilates several strippers. The gore effects were excruciatingly graphic. After killing one woman, the murderer cuts off her nipples with a pair of scissors. In what surely is one of the most jaw-dropping moments ever committed to film, regular milk pours out of one breast while chocolate milk pours from the other. One presumes from the lack of blood in the scene that it was meant as a joke. As Dave Friedman puts it, "In the world of exploitation you can do anything you want as long as it's in bad taste."

Incredibly, Lewis somehow persuaded legendary comedian Henny Youngman to appear in the film.

Censorship battles and a waning public appetite for such material eventually led Lewis to abandon filmmaking in favor of his advertising business, where he went on to make a fortune in direct sales marketing. (If you've ever received a junk mail letter with words underlined and faux handwriting in the margins, it was Herschell Gordon Lewis who invented that.)

Herschell Gordon Lewis' most infamous shocker, "The Gore Gore Girls"Lurid cover artwork for a VHS release of Lewis' most controversial film, 'The Gore Gore Girls' (1972) 

In the 80s and 90s, Lewis' films began to attract a cult following due to their popularity on the midnight movie circuit and late-night cable TV. Jimmy Maslon's Shock Films and Mike Vraney's Something Weird Video released the films on VHS and then DVD, attracting an even broader audience among baby boomers who harbored fond memories of having seen these insane movies at the drive-ins and grindhouses of their misspent youth.

John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, and Eli Roth are just a few of the filmmakers who were influenced by Lewis' films, and the films themselves have been turning up in some surprising places. In Jason Reitman's indie hit, Juno, Ellen Page and Jason Bateman are seen to be watching Lewis' 1970 film, The Wizard of Gore; and Michael Moore's new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, contains a clip from the original theatrical trailer for Blood Feast.

In 2002, Lewis was lured back into the director's chair for Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. His former partner Dave Friedman was on board as well, and director John Waters (Hairspray, Serial Mom) even appeared in an amusing cameo as a priest. That the film was a critical and commercial flop didn't seem to matter to Lewis' fans.

After Blood Feast 2, Lewis received other offers to direct. The Uh-Oh Show was one of the few that had some money behind it. The experience has only whetted Lewis' appetite. "It's been such a great joy to make this film," he said in a recent interview for Dread Central, "I'd love to get behind the camera again for a follow-up."

For more information about the Freak Show Horror Film Festival, click here.To read Dread Central's interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis and see the first publicity stills from The Uh-Oh Show, click here. Most all of Herschell Gordon Lewis' films are available on DVD or via direct download at Something Weird Video. Something Weird also has trailers and previews viewable via streaming video.

Related articles: Wizard of Gore (2007)

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