Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Herschell Gordon Lewis

Whilst I can’t really claim to be a die-hard fan (I haven’t actually sat down and watched one of his pictures in years), Herschell Gordon Lewis is such a cornerstone of horror cinema and ‘outsider’ culture in general, his work such an inevitable rite of passage for fans of weird movies, that it is impossible not to give him his dues, and I was sad to hear yesterday morning that he has passed away at the age of 87.

Although I find his stuff a bit too… I dunno, damaged… to want to revisit it on a regular basis, there are elements of his films that I absolutely love. Certainly, when the naïve technical clumsiness of a guy who was a businessman first, a carnival huckster second and a “filmmaker” probably about eighth or ninth meets an MO that resembles somebody’s big-mouthed, hard-drinking uncle taking every “why don’t you ever see that in a movie? I’d pay to see that!” type idea he can think of and just MAKING IT HAPPEN with zero concern for the conventions of taste, legality or logic…. well, the sparks that fly are quite something, with the results occasionally hitting a level of high weirdness that even the most unglued of self-consciously ‘provocative’ auteurs would have trouble matching.

My own introduction to HGL occurred under more or less perfect circumstances when, many years ago, as a keen season ticket holder to my local art cinema’s “Fantastic Film Fest” (an admirably programmed occasion that pretty much kick-started the process of discovery that eventually led me to set up this weblog, incidentally), I found myself sitting in an 1pm screening of ‘Blood Feast’ (an actual 35mm print, no less) with very little idea what to expect.

Noting that the five other patrons in the auditorium were all lone men seated as far away from each other as possible, I was a bit worried about what I might be in for, but, despite the film’s notorious reputation, I needn’t have worried – by the time things were underway, myself and my fellow loners were roaring with laughter more or less continuously. I mean, say what you like about ‘Blood Feast’, but it sure plays well to a crowd. Amateurish, deranged and (by 1963 standards) entirely unprecedented though it may be, you’ve also got Lewis’s ruthless business sense high in mix, ensuring that (barring a few publicity-generating offended walk-outs) nobody is ever likely to leave demanding their money back.

So simple, so garish, so purely strange are the events unfolding on screen that, for years after that screening, I felt I could recall the entire film in perfect detail - like a brightly crayoned, one-picture-per-page storybook assembled by an insane child. The audacious gore sequences – shamelessly prurient, yet mercifully unconvincing – may serve to make the film historically noteworthy, but they pale in comparison to the entertainment value that can be extracted from the stuff Lewis came up with to fill the gaps in-between.

From the exquisitely quotable dialogue and magnificently off-message acting, the garish photography and “bare living room redressed as police station” interiors, the sinister “caveman death march” vibes of HGL’s kettle drum & hornpipe jams on the soundtrack, and most of all, the extraordinary presence of Mal Arnold…. well, again, what can you say – love it or hate it, it certainly makes an impression. A classic of its kind that inadvertently succeeds in both defining and perfecting its own peculiar aesthetic, ‘Blood Feast’ is a real charmer within the ‘gore’ canon, irrespective of it’s much ballyhooed status as “the first one”.

After that, his other films popped up as and when over the next few years – ‘Two Thousand Maniacs’ (just as charming as ‘Blood Feast’) at a Halloween party, ‘The Gruesome Twosome’ (OMG, that intro thing with the puppets) on late night TV, ‘She Devils on Wheels’ (not a classic, but a keen bit of ‘60s trash culture nonetheless) on TV, and subsequently some DVDs. ‘Something Weird’ is… aptly named, if not necessarily in a good way, and similarly ‘The Wizard of Gore’ – probably his most quote-unquote “sophisticated” production – remains a pretty bamboozling bunch of hoo-hah.

I must admit though that when we get to the start of the ‘70s (what I think I recall Stephen Thrower referring to as HGL’s “decadent” phase), he loses my good will quite significantly. With ‘Wizard..’, and more particularly ‘The Gore Gore Girls’, he seems to have developed a more self-aware approach that negates the backwoods charm of his earlier work, as if he’d suddenly realised he could gain some traction by aiming his product toward an early camp/cult midnight movie audience, rather than his usual rural drive-in crowd, which negates most of the fun for me, I’m afraid.

I mean, despite its subject matter, you can’t really accuse ‘Blood Feast’ of being misogynistic – it’s just too far off the cultural map, outside of the realm in which such concepts have any relevance; it would be like criticizing Attila The Hun for religious intolerance.

By the time we get to ‘The Gore Gore Girls’ though, with its warped counter-culture influences and R. Crumb style anti-PC humour, the violence has taken on an undertone of ugly, black-hearted nastiness that I find really hard to take, with bungled attempts at irony only serving to highlight the brutish stupidity at the core of such an enterprise, even as the film’s excesses push it into ‘Thundercrack!’/John Waters style assaultive bad taste territory. So - not really my bag, man, although individual tastes may vary.

And…. I don’t really know where this off-the-top-of-my-head diatribe is going really, but let’s just conclude by saying that, despite my reservations outlined above, HGL was a true original, and will be missed. Like many of the best horror/exploitation directors, he managed to establish his own strange world right from the get-go and proceeded to spend the rest of his career rampaging around it in a thoroughly edifying fashion. Despite operating on a level of cynical chicanery that rivalled any of his more unsavoury peers in the “sizzle not the steak” regional exploitation market, his imagination and respect for his audience allowed him to effortlessly rise above them, creating a cohesive body of work that still provokes discussion, fascination, bafflement, and, most importantly, happiness to this day.

I should really get around to watching his films again.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

Besides his moniker as a gore film pioneer along with his partner in crime DF Friedman, HG was a direct marketing maven with many books and columns on the subject of mail order and web marketing and direct response. I have several of his books and they're brilliant.