An interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis
A legitimate cult icon, Herschell Gordon Lewis was a pioneer of the cult horror genre, taking violence and gore to an extreme that cinema (at least Hollywood) had never seen.
His “Blood Trilogy” is comprised of three of his famed underground films: “Blood Feast,” about a serial killer who is targeting women and plans to serve them as meat to his catering clients, “Two Thousand Maniacs,” where residents of a southern town kill Yankees as retribution for the Civil War , and “Color Me Blood Red,” where an artist finds his paintings sell much better when he’s working in blood.
The Yap: So how are things going?
HGL: Very well, thank you. And you?
The Yap: Very well. I understand you have a new movie coming out.
HGL: Yes, it’s called “Grim Fairy Tale.” I actually just watched the rough cut on it. I think it’s very promising. Certainly a 21<sup>st</sup> century approach to this kind of movie.
The Yap: How are the gore effects in this? Are they done in a more modern way, or did you stick with your tried and true?
HGL: (laughs) Yes, state of the art gore effects in this one. Burying a radial saw in someone’s head…man I have a headache. (laughs). Just as, or so I’m told, “Blood Feast” established a different genre of motion picture despite the fact that we had almost no budget, my feeling has been that splatter films have been more derivative over the years. They’re the same film over and over and over again. Ominous followed by gore, more ominous followed by gore. The question of who is responsible for it is never a problem. And people I feel are no longer entertained by this thing, and we’ve reached the saturation point. So what I tried to do with “Grim Fairy Tale” is try to move obliquely into another direction which will start another trend. That is outrageous gore tied in with outrageous comedy, so the audience will know the whole thing’s a gag. They won’t feel put upon by the hyperrealistic effects, though the effects aren’t quite realistic. Hopefully they’ll get a chuckle. You know, we get so caught up in movie titles today that say “Based on a True Story.” So the closing title of this movie is “No animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture, only actors.”
The Yap: Well, and that’s something that more recent horror movies have exploited is this notion of “based on” or “inspired by” a true story, and in most cases it’s at best very loosely associated with what happened if at all. I’m not sure that you guys, or did you, go after that sort of thing? Most of what I’ve seen of your stuff has just been outrageous rather than realistic.
HGL: Well I’ve always taken that positon. If you look the early pictures, “Two Thousand Maniacs” or “The Gore Gore Girls,” or even “The Wizard of Gore,” certainly you can’t say this is to be taken seriously. Today, we have girls cowering, and they’re standing in front of the window, and there’s no shade on the window, which I always found funny, and waiting for the phone to ring saying they’re going to be murdered, and then they’re murdered. That to me is not entertainment.
The Yap: So your personal preference is more fantasy-based, as opposed to than making someone say these situations can happen or does or will happen.
HGL: That’s exactly right. I want the audience to be entertained. I want the audience to leave saying “God, I had a good time.” But you don’t say that, even in the best produced splatter movie, and I certainly can’t ever to claim to make a well-produced splatter movie because I don’t have the budget. I sincerely believe when people see “Grim Fairy Tale,” they will walk out of the theater or leave the DVD store chuckling. That’s the intention.
The Yap: I got the sense in the movies of yours I’ve seen…I saw “She-Devils on Wheels,” and “Blood Feast,” and I just watched “Color Me Blood Red,”…
HGL: Have you seen “Two Thousand Maniacs?”
The Yap: Not yet. I think my Netflix queue is now “The Wizard of Gore” first, then “Two Thousand Maniacs.” When you responded to me so quickly I kind of frantically reordered my queue, so the first 5 or 6 movies are films of yours, and “Maniacs” is one of the top two or three.
HGL: Even today, “Two Thousand Maniacs” is my personal favorite of my movies.
<p class=”MsoNormal”>The Yap: That’s certainly one of the ones people tell me about, and I’m anxious to see it. But the one thing that really hit me about the ones I’ve seen so far, you’ve done a lot of gore and movies with lots of nudity, but “She-Devils” and “Blood Feast” and really seem to go out of their way to not have nudity or even bad language in them. That’s kind of odd in the exploitation genre, where they have as much of all of that as they can cram in.</p>
<p class=”MsoNormal”>HGL: That was deliberate. I wanted to center on the theme that we had. In a lot of contemporary films they throw that f-word in there repeatedly and repeatedly for no good reason. What it does in my opinion, it lowers…I won’t say the intellectual component, because there’s nothing intellectual about these movies, but what it does is it overly dumbs-down the concept. I see no purpose in it. Even in “Grim Fairy Tales” we have a lot of salty language, but that’s adapted to today because movies are not organizers of society, they’re simple mirrors of society. That’s how far down the grove we’ve come. But yes, we did that intentionally, and a few times actors would blurt that out, and we had to re-shoot the take because I didn’t want it in there. It’s a personal prejudice, or call it an idiocyncracy if you will.
The Yap: I actually just read an interview with you too that it really befuddled the ratings board too.
HGL: Yes. I didn’t want to give them any more ammunition than I had to. If I’d had a bad word in “Blood Feast” we’d have been banned in twice as many places as we had, or one nude frame in “Blood Feast” it would have been an excuse to kick it out. As it was we were the progenitors of regulations that hadn’t existed before. We got lucky there. The attacks on “Blood Feast” were obviously centered around the effects, primitive as they were, had never been shown before, and that element alone was a justification.
The Yap: What do you think about that concept in general? There’s this attitude that sex and language are these evils, but we can see people be hacked to pieces. But a naked woman on TV is going to bring down society.
HGL: Well, we’re getting to the point where there are no barriers at all. We already in network television, we allow words that even 2, 3 years ago that weren’t allowed, like the word “ass.” What’s the demographic for the audience of “Desperate Housewives?” I’d wager it’s well below 17. You see PG-13 rated films, and below it it says “sex, crude language.” So if sex and crude language rates a PG-13, what constitutes and R? Those barriers are being dropped. Is that a sociological advantage or disadvantage? Well, that’s not for a motion picture director to comment on. My opinion is that the dumbing-down of society is an ongoing procedure.
The Yap: You mentioned some of the gore movies of today, and just this morning I watched a few minutes of “Hostel 2” before work. What do you think of those movies, today’s movies that push the envelope.
HGL: My question is, are they pushing the envelope? What they’re doing is glorifying effects. That’s perfectly fine, because going back to the cave man era in which we made “Blood Feast,” so you look at “Blood Feast” today as a historical artifact. It’s not representative at all of what we’re capable today. In “Grim Fairy Tale” we have rubberized limbs that look hyperrealistic. That opens another door to what we can show and the audience saying “that’s real” as opposed to them saying “oh, that’s a cartoon,” and what I try to do is disabuse them of that notion and say “yes, this IS a cartoon.” But you get to the “Saw”s and the “Hostel”s and the “Scream”s and so on. I’ve heard this many, many times, they say they’re seeing the same things over and over and over. The change is a technological change. Is that good showbiz?
The Yap: Going off of that idea, one of the things that got me about a couple movies, is this underlying sense of humor, but it’s not delivered with a wink. It’s really earnest. When I was writing a review, just going off of that earnestness, my first thought was that the filmmakers didn’t know these lines were funny. But you obviously did.
HGL: Of course we did. Look at “Blood Feast,” when the guy was ground up into hamburger, the woman says “oh I guess we’ll have to have hamburger for dinner.” That was not accidental. You gotta take the steam out of it.
The Yap: (laughs) and I loved the line in “Color Me Blood Red” and the resulting visual when the teenagers discover the body in the sand. The girl sees just this tiny sliver of the woman’s leg, then screams, and the guy says “Holy Bananas! It’s a woman’s leg!” and the next shot is the entire leg popped out of the ground.
HGL: I’m glad to hear that. That escaped a lot of people. By the time we reached “The Gore Gore Girls,” I was convinced that was going to be my last feature, so I pulled out all the stops and made it a total caricature. The demographics that were coming out were really peculiar. People under the age of 35 thought it was absolutely hilarious. People over 55 thought I should be hanged off the nearest tree limb. That attitude still exists today, even though the people under 35 or 45 are now 75 or 80s. But people get more conservative as they age. Except me.
It’s really odd how that happens. Nowadays a lot of those people who are that age today, they were the people those movies were being made about, and they’ve now…I don’t know. Have they shunned that era, or have they forgotten?
HGL: You hit that on a couple of levels. People just become more conservative as they age. It’s human nature in people as they become more affluent. As they become exposed to a different kind of society where rebellion is now frowned on at their age. One of the reasons I structured “Grim Fairy Tale” the way I did was to cross that barrier regardless of age, so that everyone will recognize this as caricature.
The Yap: You mentioned you thought. “Gore Gore Girls” would be your last movie. Why did you decide to come back?
HGL: Every 2 or 3 years somebody would say “let’s make Blood Feast 2,” and I don’t know why that became a battle cry. But I developed a defense mechanism where I’d say “put your deal together and call me,” and that would drive them away because they’d actually have to do the work and finance it. So when Jackie Morgan called me and said “I want to make ‘Blood Feast 2,’” I said “put your deal together and call me.” Well, he put a deal together and called me (laughs). I was delighted of course. But that was not my script, and that was the reason I went ahead with “Grim Fairy Tale.” I was somewhat frustrated with “Blood Feast 2.” I was an outsider on that movie. They had the whole crew and cast put together and they called me. I think they just wanted to use my name, which was quite a compliment, but I had very little to do with the casting, and I had nothing whatever to do with cutting the picture. I directed and left and that was the last I saw until Jackie sent me a DVD. I thought if an independent opportunity arose using my name it was time for me to get back in the game.
The Yap: I wanted to ask you about “Juno.”
HGL: Oh yes. That was very funny. I don’t own these movies any more. I thought they were burned up, which goes to show what I know about that. So I got a call from somebody saying “We want to use some footage from ‘The Wizard of Gore,” and I referred them to the guy who owns the rights and forgot about it. So I don’t know, 8, 10 months later, someone said “have you seen ‘Juno’?” I said “no, what’s that, a new planet?” But I was very flattered, because this young lady Diablo Cody is much more intellectual than her tattoos would suggest. Believe me, the phone rang off the hook.