There are myriad reasons why the term “torture porn” never made sense and one of the most important is the irrevocable impact Herschell Gordon Lewis’s schlocky gore cinema had on American movies. After all, torture porn filmmakers like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth didn’t invent the concept of replacing cum shots with images of mutilated bodies for the sake of making money—Lewis did. In Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore, directors Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) and Jimmy Masion have made a sloppy but vital case for Lewis’s influence on the horror genre, whether he likes to think of it that way or not. Lewis is notorious for having declared, “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form.” Even he doesn’t think his films are that good.
Lewis may have been a pioneer of the genre but he knows his movies are terrible and holds no illusions about his craft. Yes, he coined the phrase “gore” in reference to horror films, but he also still talks about his movies using the most excoriating terms. When talking about Two Thousand Maniacs!, he says, “Of all the movies I have made, of all the movies I have excreted onto the screen, to this day, Two Thousand Maniacs! is my personal favorite.” Faint praise, but he’s at least being honest: Lewis’s movies suck. They’re important, yes, but they’re also dreadful. Which raises the question: Why didn’t Henenlotter and Masion work that much harder to establish Lewis’s reputation as the first guy through the door?
The short answer is that legitimizing Lewis’s work is an uphill and largely fruitless struggle. Henlotter and Masion chart his career through a series of talking-head interviews, relying heavily on Lewis and his collaborators to provide a production history of his more important films. From cranking out hour-long “nudie cuties” like The Adventures of Lucky Pierre to films like Blood Feast, a Z-grade camp classic that’s now largely recognized as the first “gore” film, Lewis did it all and he did it with an Ed Wood-level of proficiency. Lewis happily talks about how, during production, he would get mad at his cast and crew if they even tried to slow down his indomitable production schedule. No scene was worth more than two or three takes. As a result, his movies are soaked in blood and rank as shit.
If Masion and Henenlotter can be faulted for one thing, it’s their major lack of ambition. Stuffed with amiably goofy clips of Lewis’s films and funny clips of Lewis disparaging his own work, Godfather of Gore does nothing but provide a skimpy context within which fans might want to rally around their hero and buy more films from Something Weird Video, the DVD distribution company that’s distributing Godfather of Gore and has released most of Lewis’s filmography.
Interview footage from guys like John Waters and Joe Bob Briggs are wonderful for their salacious details of what drive-in culture and Lewis’s films look like from the point of view of people that don’t actually know Lewis. But their segments also speak to the film’s lack of interest in doing anything but speak to what it was like to both make and watch Lewis’s schlocky movies. While there’s something to be said about a movie that knows the limitations of its own central argument, Henenlotter and Masion really ought to have done more to chart Lewis’s influence. He is the quintessential grindhouse hustler, a real American independent filmmaker and yeah, a creator of totally soulless dreck. Focusing on that last part of Lewis’s scuzzy legend will only get you so far.
Herschell Gordon Lewis: Godfather of Gore will play on March 10, 11, 12, and 13 at Anthology Film Archives. For more information, click here.