Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather Of Gore
Long before the advent of the internet and broadband streaming content as readily available as fast food joints teens had more limited selection when it came to entertainment to fill those school free hours. For Saturday afternoons there was always the afternoon matinee which was typically targeted at the pre-teen set but still campy fun for the older kids. Teens primarily gravitated to the Friday or Saturday night horror flicks in the same movie houses or pretty much the same fair found either in the downtown grind house or the nearby drive-in. the commonality here was the viewing of what has come to be labeled exploitation flick. They were crass, rude and definitely socially unacceptable. These movies were quickly made on shoestring budgets relying more on gore, blood and gratuitous nudity than anything that might resemble a coherent plot. They were universally condemned by churches, denounced by teachers and parents and considered beneath the contempt of the mainstream Hollywood. In other words these films had everything a bunch of teenage boys could want in off hour entertainment. Even though we were not exactly there to study the credits as they rolled by the names of several filmmakers were seen on such a regular basis that we came to known them and seek out their films. Grind house Auteurs such as Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, William Castle and the man who is was the subject of the documentary under consideration here, Herschell Gordon Lewis, created the films that did more than fill the time between classes, in many cases they were among the first movies that shaped a lifelong love of cinema. Hopefully, our tastes and appreciation has matured and become more refined over the years but for me, and many of my contemporaries, those flicks will always hold a significant nostalgic factor. This simple fact came rushing back to my consciousness as I viewed ‘Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore’. This documentary readily captures the modus operandi employed by Lewis to create some of the goriest movies of his day. Castle was known for his campy gimmicks, Corman for training some of the most notable names in movies but Lewis was the man who defined a sub genre of horror movies commonly hailed as ‘splatter flicks’ for reasons that are abundantly clear to any who has watch one of his films.
This documentary was obviously created by a fan. Co-directors Frank Henenlotter and Jimmy Maslon have captured the underlying elements of Lewis’ style that made his flicks so much fun to watch. This is an initial effort for Maslon as director although he did produce a few more comical horror movies. Henenlotter helmed a few horror- comedies with Lewis inspired titles as ‘Frankenhooker’, ‘Brain Damage and three ‘Basket Case’ franchise movies. It should be noted that this film was never intended to be a scholarly treatise on exploitative cinema. This is more a celebration of Hershell Lewis and his long time partner, David F. Friedman as they threw caution to the wind and made films that they knew would openly denounced but the establishment. Besides the obvious puerile appeal of nudity and gross violence to the target demographic of teenage boys, their movies tapped into on the most vital components of adolescent development, challenging authority. In a fashion similar to the old ‘EC comics’ whose condemnation rose all the way to the floor of the United States Senate, these movies where an entertaining and relatively harmless way for boys to blow off some steam and defy the adults that regularly controlled their lives. ‘Godfather of Gore’ relishes in the unabashed lewdness of these films and brought fans like those of the boomer generation back to a much different time. It should be put in a little historical context to fully understand the appeal of these films. The golden age of these movies ranged from the late fifties through the seventies. This was the era of the cold war where school children were herded into basement bomb shelters in anticipation of a Communist induced nuclear war. As teens were remembered the fear exhibited by the adults and we were coming of age facing induction into the military and a trip to Vietnam. Our rebellion took many forms but movies like the ones these men made were basically flipping off the adult authorities we saw as the cause of the dire world predicament.
What Henenlotter and Maslon achieved here was to recreate the atmosphere generated by their subjects that it comes across as homage more than critical dissection. You might feel that a documentary should be more objective and normally I would agree. In this case the one sided approach is acceptable since the goal and viewpoint is stated up front; no deception inherent in this piece. They chronicle the evolution of Lewis and Friedman’s films from early movies shot in ‘nudist colonies’ where there was plenty of bouncing flesh but devoid of sexual content. These were little more than voyeur fetish flicks and tame especially by today’s standards. The directors here tend to skate over the details of how the cigar chomping pair moved the focus of their work from peeping tom movies to brutally slicing and dicing nubile young women. There was little to no finesse exhibited by these ‘spatter’ movies. It was painfully obvious that the vast majority of the special effects were crafted at the local butcher shop. In one infamous scene required a tongue being cut out the visit to the butcher was followed by a casting call for an attractive young woman who could fit a sheep tongue in her mouth. Reported the actress who got the gig could fit two.
One thing that will be of interest particularly to the aficionados of grind house flicks is how these films set the stage for what has been called torture porn horror movies. Filmmakers like Lewis and Friedman paved the way for the lamentable popular horror films that dominate the market like the ‘Saw’ and ‘Tourista’ franchises. It might be worth considering that the kids that enjoy this new generation of blood and gore flicks are growing up in an environment where the standard authority figures cannot be trusted and terror dominates the public Geist. In any case this documentary will bring you back to those dark, broken down theaters we spent so much time in.