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Saturday, September 10, 2011

HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE -- DVD review by porfle


An irresistible treasure trove of blood red Lewis-abilia, Image Entertainment and Something Weird Video's HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE is just about the most absorbing and utterly delightful documentary that fans of the pioneering filmmaker could hope for.  Covering his entire career in exhaustive detail, we're treated to first-hand insider accounts along with a wealth of film clips, outtakes, press materials, and other goodies. 

"Part filmmaker, part carny" describes both Lewis and his longtime partner, producer/distributor David Friedman, who take an active part in the production and supply us with most of the behind-the-scenes information.  A teacher of English and Humanities, Lewis drifted into advertising before buying half interest in a film studio and making his first erotic exploitation film, "The Primetime" in the late 50s.  ("It wasn't the greatest film in the world," says Friedman, "but it had sprocket holes and could run through the machine.")  For his next one, "Living Venus", he discovered frequent star William Kerwin and a young Harvey Korman in a home economics film called "Carving Magic." 

Self-distribution led to screenings in burlesque houses, which then got Lewis and Friedman started making "nudie cuties" (which the documentary's co-director Frank "Basket Case" Henenlotter calls "the stupidest movies ever made.")  Russ Meyer's "The Immoral Mr. Teas" inspired them to expand these short films into nudist-camp features such as "The Adventures of Lucky Pierre" (shot for $8,000) with Lewis and Friedman serving as the entire film crew.



Just about any film or individual mentioned during the narrative is accompanied by clips and/or photos--even "Carving Magic" is briefly seen.  The first part of the film is a concise history of nudie cuties and nudist camp features in the 50s and early 60s, with generous feature clips and behind-the-scenes footage.  Even a nude and surprisingly fit Mal Arnold, who would later play villain Fuad Ramses in "Blood Feast", can be spotted in shots from "Goldilocks and the Three Bares." 

As the novelty value of these films began to wear off, Lewis and Friedman moved on to the next logical frontier of exploitation--gore.  Here we get into the real meat, so to speak, of the documentary, with detailed accounts of the making of "Blood Feast" (1963), "Two Thousand Maniacs" (1964), "Color Me Blood Red" (1965), and other horrors that were extremely shocking at the time and brought the ire of local censor boards down upon anyone connected with them.  Again, this segment is packed with highlights and outtakes from each film, with an enthusiastic Lewis speaking at length about what went on during production and Mal Arnold adding his own recollections about "Blood Feast"--which was shot in four-and-a-half days for $24,500.

Lewis non-gore efforts are covered as well, including the ripped-from-the-headlines "The Girl, the Body, and the Pill" and a delightfully lame rock'n'roll comedy called "Blast-off Girls" (both from 1967), which featured, of all people, Colonel Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame (who supplied the cast and crew with free chicken in return for some product placement).  We also see scenes from Lewis' director-for-hire film "The Magic Land of Mother Goose" and the outrageous bad-girl biker flick "She-Devils on Wheels."



Briefly flirting with a more mainstream appeal, Lewis made the less violent "A Taste of Blood" in 1967 before delving back into gore with a vengeance.  As is demonstrated by the numerous clips, films such as "The Wizard of Gore", "The Gruesome Twosome", and 1972's horrendous "The Gore-Gore Girls" (his final film, which featured legendary comedian Henny Youngman) are some of the most cheerfully depraved forays into graphic violence Lewis ever directed.

Despite his reputation, however, Lewis comes off as an earnest and personable guy whose excitement and sense of fun are infectious.  In addition to the talking head stuff (which in no way dominates the film) we see him at the home he shares with wife Margo and addressing a direct-market advertising conference, which is his current passion.  We also follow him and Friedman to St. Cloud, Florida, the location for "Two Thousand Maniacs", where they're warmly received by the town's current citizens (in a funny re-enactment of the film's opening scenes) and reunited with longtime junior partner Jerome Eden. 

Best of all, the film ends with Lewis appearing along with "Blood Feast"'s Mal Arnold and Connie Mason at the 2005 Chiller Theater Expo, where he performs a rousing rendition of his "Two Thousand Maniacs" theme. "Ya-HOOO!  The South will rise again!" he croons with boyish glee as the crowd goes wild.

Also appearing in the film are Lewis devotees Joe Bob Briggs, John Waters, and Frank Henenlotter, whose insights into the maverick filmmaker's career are invaluable, and a host of Lewis associates with extensive personal experience in the making of these films.  Lewis' son Robert gives us the lowdown on the fine art of squeezing an eyeball for the camera.  Actor Ray Sager enhances his comments with a spot-on Lewis impersonation, while cinematographer Steven Poster admits, "I don't know if I've ever actually seen one of his movies."  Andy Romanoff, who accurately opines that these films are memorable "for their lack of craft" and "because they're so terribly made", inspires this exasperated remark from Lewis: "The problem I had with Andy Romanoff was that he wanted to make a good movie!"



Fans of the great Bill Kerwin (probably best known as the star of "Blood Feast" along with the non-Lewis trash classic "Playgirl Killer aka Decoy For Terror") will be happy to discover much behind-the-scenes footage and information about this legendary actor.  In addition to "Carving Magic", we also get to see a scene from an industrial short which actually shows Kerwin involved in a happy, shiny song-and-dance routine.  Described as a hard-working, hard-drinking go-to guy who proved invaluable to Lewis on the set, Kerwin is showcased in footage from the unfinished "An Eye for an Eye", which was unearthed and partially assembled by Something Weird to give us an idea of what this lost film might have been like.

The DVD from Image Entertainment and Something Weird Video is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby stereo.  No subtitles.  Extras include H.G. Lewis trailers (with taglines such as "It's tantalizing, titillating, and tantamount to tremendous!"), a Lewis nudie short entitled "Hot Night at the Go-Go Lounge!", and a photo gallery.  Best of all is a full hour of deleted material from the documentary, which is practically a whole extra feature in itself.  One of the highlights is the sight of Bill Kerwin punching out a plate glass window with his bare hands.

H.G. Lewis fans can't go wrong with HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE, which captures the excitement of making underground films about forbidden subjects which shocked and horrified contemporary sensibilities.  As Lewis tells us, "That was the entire intent, to make something outrageous.  And in that respect, yes, we did succeed."  To which Friedman adds: "We had fun."


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