Herschell Gordon Lewis – Splatter Master
In the annals of cinema history, there exists none other than a man of infamous character and grisly notoriety. This same man invented a niche genre that some may find disturbing, while others consider it an art form in its own right. This genre is none other than exploitation cinema, and at the forefront of its grisly, blood-soaked revolution was the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis. As a master of his trade, Herschell Gordon Lewis deserves to have his life and career put on full display. H.G. Lewis, as he would be known, changed the face of cinema forever.
Early Life and Beginnings
Herschell Gordon Lewis was born on June 15, 1926, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He spent his early years developing a fascination with storytelling and marketing. His academic pursuits led him to a Master’s degree in Journalism and a Ph.D. in Psychology, both of which would prove invaluable in his future career. Lewis’ foray into the world of filmmaking began in the late 1950s when he partnered with producer David F. Friedman. Their first collaboration, The Prime Time (1960), marked the beginning of a career that would leave an indelible mark on cinema history.
The Birth of a New Genre
It was in the early 1960s that Herschell Gordon Lewis embarked on a journey that would forever alter the course of filmmaking. He and Friedman recognized an untapped market in the film industry. This market catered to audiences hungry for something different. This market yearned for something that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on screen. Thus, the era of splatter exploitation cinema was born.
In 1960, Lewis released Blood Feast, a film that would become a landmark in cinematic history. It was not just a horror film; it was a blood-soaked, gruesome spectacle that shocked and titillated audiences in equal measure. Lewis’ innovative use of special effects and his willingness to break traditional taboos propelled him to cult status.
Set in Miami, Florida, where a series of brutal and ritualistic murders shock the community. Fuad Ramses (played by Mal Arnold), the owner of a catering company, is revealed to be the murderer. Fuad is secretly an Egyptian cultist who worships the goddess Ishtar. He believes that he must perform a blood feast ritual to resurrect the goddess. Fuad’s modus operandi involves dismembering and mutilating his victims in horrific ways. He collects body parts to use in the ritual, which includes a sacrificial feast of body parts and blood.
These gruesome activities eventually attract the attention of the police, who begin investigating the string of murders. Ridiculous, right? Ridiculously awesome!
Blood Feast played a significant role in shaping the horror genre and inspiring subsequent filmmakers to explore more extreme and graphic elements in their work. It helped pave the way for the development of the slasher subgenre and influenced later directors like Tobe Hooper and his The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven with The Last House on the Left (1972).
Blood Feast would become the tip of the spear for what would later be referred to as his “Blood Trilogy”. This trio of films includes Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1965). Color Me Blood Red serves as a gory retort to Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959). These films established Lewis as the godfather of the “splatter” subgenre, characterized by extreme violence and gore. Despite their low budgets, these movies were groundbreaking and garnered a devoted following.
A Prolific Career and an Impact on Pop Culture
Lewis wasn’t limited to just gore. He dabbled in various genres, including nudie-cuties, sexploitation, and even children’s films. While his exploitation work gained him notoriety. He never shied away from experimentation and innovation in his craft. Lewis was also known for his innovative and often controversial marketing strategies. He understood the importance of creating buzz and attracting audiences through provocative advertising, such as the use of taglines and posters. His marketing techniques influenced how other exploitation filmmakers promoted their work.
Herschell Gordon Lewis’ work didn’t just influence the film industry; it left an indelible mark on pop culture as well. His penchant for shock value and boundary-pushing storytelling can be seen in the works of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Eli Roth. The over-the-top violence and exploitation elements that Lewis championed are now celebrated as essential components of the horror genre.
Legacy and Later Career
As the 1960s transitioned into the 1970s, Lewis gradually stepped away from filmmaking. He shifted his focus to marketing and advertising, utilizing his background in psychology to great success. Despite this, his films continued to captivate and shock audiences, securing his place as an icon of exploitation cinema. One often overlooked aspect of his legacy is his prominence in the age of video cassette rental stores. His films so prominently dominated in their hand drawn art gracing the covers of oversized boxes; an elegant marketing scheme for a more civilized age.
After a decades long hiatus, H.G. Lewis returned to directing splatter films in the 2000s. In 2002 he directed the long-awaited sequel titled Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat. In what would be his last directorial effort, H.G. Lewis also directed the horror comedy, The Uh-Oh Show in 2009. It detailed the events of popular T.V. reality show that becomes the target of a madman’s plot. In traditional H.G. Lewis fashion, the situation devolves into gruesome and absurdly violent scenarios.
Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away on September 26, 2016, leaving behind a legacy that continues to thrive. His films remain a testament to the power of bold storytelling and the impact of pushing cinematic boundaries. Herschell Gordon Lewis will forever be remembered as a trailblazer, a maverick, and an artist who dared to venture where few others would tread, carving out a unique niche in the world of cinema. His contributions to the world of filmmaking are nothing short of legendary, and his influence will endure for generations to come.