It would be easy to simply write off the works of schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis as exercises in the ironic so-bad-they’re-good aesthetics of camp. But that would be selling their cracked charms considerably short. Instead, we should perhaps “learn to see the worst films,” as Ado Kyrou writes in Surrealism in the Cinema, because “they are sometimes sublime.” Consumed in sufficient quantities (a delectable prospect now afforded by Arrow Video’s gargantuan Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast box set), these films can induce a state of cinematic delirium, with familiar faces and themes bleeding from one film to the next, as though they were only installments in one sprawling, mind-melting serial. What’s more, taken together in synoptic overview, Lewis’s work constitutes a secret history of the 1960s and early ’70s, holding up a funhouse mirror to an increasingly turbulent era.
In 1963, Lewis unleashed Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth!, inaugurating two of the sturdiest genres in exploitation cinema: the gore film and the “roughie.” Slapdash primitivism by even Lewis’s standards, Blood Feast at least delivers on its title by serving up severed limbs and squishy innards aplenty, courtesy of “exotic caterer” Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold). One could instructively juxtapose, in suitably surrealist fashion, the film’s patently ridiculous gore effects and a very different sort of splatter film: Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm Kodachrome footage of the JFK assassination. Unlike Hitchcock’s restrained and icily removed Psycho, these films bring you death in living color.
A cautionary tale replete with finger-wagging voiceover from Lewis, Scum of the Earth! sees a smut peddler, Lang (Lawrence Aberwood), and a louche shutterbug, Harmon (William Kerwin), pressuring an underage wannabe model, Kim (Allison Louise Downe), into doing risqué photo ops. What unites both these films (seemingly dissimilar in form and tone) is a fixation with the set piece, as Lewis’s camera lingers on their respective money shots of graphic violence or fleetingly bared flesh. They also dispense a conventional, conservative morality that ensures evildoers are tidily disposed with in the end: Fuad Ramses gets compacted “like the garbage he was,” while Lang goes out with a bang; his seaside suicide is made even more dramatic by the insertion of hand-colored red frames into the black-and-white film stock.
Coeval with the burgeoning counterculture, a sense of cynicism and distrust of authority crept into Lewis’s films. In stark contrast to the upstanding cop who finally fingers Fuad Ramses, the government agent, Alex Jordan (William Brooker), in the aptly titled Something Weird proves perfectly willing to assassinate his romantic rival for the love of a shape-shifting, LSD-dispensing witch, Ellen (Elizabeth Lee). And Lewis fixture Jeffrey Allen constitutes a one-man band when it comes to histrionic hypocrites: He plays murderous Mayor Buckman in Lewis’s bloody Brigadoon riff Two Thousand Maniacs!, a White Lightnin’-swilling patriarch in Moonshine Mountain, and ’shine-shilling Reverend Boone in This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! This last title features some of Lewis’s most outrageously antisocial imagery: an accidental shotgun blast to the face (in unexpected anticipation of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart), two crudely crucified coeds, and a fully-clothed gangbang meant to initiate an unlucky bride to be into Rev. Boone’s rather peculiar concept of communal love.
As the Summer of Love curdled into election-year riots and open season on social crusaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Lewis brought out two of his most nihilistic broadsides. A biker-chick riposte to Corman’s The Wild Angels, She-Devils on Wheels spotlights the Man-eaters, a pack of proud Harpies on Harleys whose daily qualifying round gives the winner first pick at that night’s orgy. The story hinges on squeaky-clean Ted’s (Rodney Bedell) efforts to entice new pledge Karen (Christie Wagner) out of her sense of sisterly solidarity, but it doesn’t end up where you’d imagine. Bantering in tone, and full of devil-may-care raucousness (not to mention the ladies busting some rhymes), She-Devils on Wheels ultimately rejects romantic love as Squaresville, man, and quite literally lets the gals get away with murder.
Where Lewis’s gore films dwell on gallons of goop and stage blood, the filmmaker’s Just for the Hell of It lavishes its attention on gratuitous acts of destruction. Needless to say, the film is full of protracted scenes in which a youth gang—calling themselves Destruction Inc., natch—just tear shit up. Budding sociopath Dexter (Ray Sager) presides over this frantic free-for-fall with a frightening absence of affect. Consider him a portrait of Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth as a young man. The film plays like a blown-raspberry parody of earlier JD films, down to the ripped-from-the-headlines montage decrying the gang’s escalating antics. Where She-Devils on Wheels acknowledges its own gleeful amorality with one last taunt, Just for the Hell of It shrugs it off with Dexter’s final referendum on mayhem and murder: “Who cares, man?”
The early ’70s saw Lewis descend into the realm of self-parody. The times, they were a-changin’, and Hollywood had caught up to him with its newly permissive depictions of nudity and ultra-violence. The Wizard of Gore literalizes the spectacle of Lewis’s films as gore delivery systems into the stage routine of Montag the Magnificent (Sager), then turns it into an oddball diatribe against the mind-numbing properties of television with a bit that presages Halloween III: Season of the Witch, before totally flipping (out) the script with one bizarro finale. The Gore Gore Girls plays like a mash-up of TV’s The Avengers and a particularly seedy Italian giallo: There’s a cane-carrying gentleman detective and a black-gloved killer who turns out to be a sexually tormented woman—as in all the early Dario Argento films.
Lewis passed away in September at the age of 90, not long after finalizing his considerable contributions to this collection. If nothing else, The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast should provide ample evidence that Lewis—who produced, directed, wrote, shot, edited, and/or scored his own films—truly deserves the epithet of auteur usually accorded to far more hifalutin filmmakers.
Eight of the films are presented in 2K transfers scanned from extant 35mm prints, where original elements were lost; the others have been transferred from original camera negatives. Five are presented in both widescreen and full-screen transfers. As a result, image quality fluctuates (sometimes wildly) within any given film—and sometimes within any given scene. Moonshine Mountain fares the worst, having been stitched together like some cornpone Frankenstein monster, while The Gruesome Twosome runs a close second with its extremely faded and consistently splotchy print. There’s an abundance of damage on display in every film: speckles, vertical scratches, hair in the gate, and other blemishes. Nevertheless, most of the transfers look pretty decent, and colors (especially those ubiquitous blood reds) are sometimes even vibrant. On the sonic side, there are lossless PCM mono tracks across the board. Once again, sound quality varies according to the vicissitudes of filmmaking. Fortunately, there are subtitles to fill in the frequent dropouts.
All of the films come with a brief intro from Herschell Gordon Lewis, and almost all sport a commentary track. Each disc heaps on a generous helping of featurettes, the odd short subject, hours of outtakes, and piles of promo materials. While there are the usual gushing talking-head testimonials, the best of the featurettes consider Lewis as a regional filmmaker, discuss the inadvertent documentary value of his films, or assess his contributions to horror cinema (especially useful here are those with Stephen Thrower). There’s also priceless archival material focusing on Lewis’s partnership with David F. Friedman. Frank Henenlotter’s documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore occupies its own Blu-ray disc, along with over an hour of deleted scenes. The 17-disc set (10 Blu-rays and seven DVDs) comes in two oversized hardcover volumes housed in a massive slipcase with a Lewis cut-out mask emblazoned on the back. As if that weren’t already surfeit enough, a 28-page hardcover "annual" stuffed full with Lewis-themed activities and archive promo materials is also tucked into the slipcase.
Arrow Video serves up a 14-course Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast in one of the most impressively packaged box sets in recent memory.