Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Director Report Card: Frank Henenlotter (2010)

7. Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore
Co-directed with Jimmy Maslon

After making his proud return to trash-filmaking with “Bad Biology,” Frank Henenlotter seemingly returned to what he had been doing for a while: Acting as an archivist and tireless proponent of the exploitation genre. From this position, he’s turned toward making documentaries about his favorite subjects. The first of these docs, which he co-directed with Jimmy Maslon, was released on DVD in 2010. The film concerns the life and career of Herschell Gordon Lewis, a cult icon and fiercely independent innovator in his chosen genre. Obviously someone Henenlotter looks up to, Lewis is the inventor of the splatter movie.

If you’re reading a retrospective about Frank Henenlotter, odds are very good that you already know who Herschell Gordon Lewis is. But let’s, just for a moment, pretend that you don’t know that. Lewis, generally referred to by fans as H.G.L., is a Florida based exploitation filmmaker. Lewis began his career as an advertising exec. After acquiring part of a small filmmaking company, Herschell became interested in making movies. After chasing popular trends, Lewis would gain notoriety by making gory horror movies. In the 1960s, years before the term “slasher movie” had entered the vernacular. Though low budget affairs made with little care for technique or art, his movies have attracted a devoted cult following.

By tracking H.G.L.’s career throughout the decades, “The Godfather of Gore” shows how exploitation filmmaking has evolved since the 1960s. Lewis got his start making “Nudie cuties,” a form of pornography that seems incredibly quint by modern standards. In the sixties, censors deemed nudity non-obscene as long as it was presented in a non-sexual manner. This lead to an entire genre of films devoted to women doing casual things while in the nude. Eventually, the “nudist camp” film, which were set in a location where casual nudity was expected, arose as well. Herschell and his closest associate, former carnival barker David Friedman, tell stories about having to stripe nude in order to enter such camps. Or about how surprisingly un-titilating such a location was, with nasty naked bodies eating gross food in unsanitary places.

You probably wouldn’t expect a guy who made such cheap, careless films to be considered an innovator. But H.G.L. fits the definition in the truest meaning of the word. After his nudie cuties found success, he started to look for the next big thing in exploitation filmmaking. This lead to the creation of “Blood Feast,” generally considered the first splatter movie. As in, the first movie constructed solely around gory set pieces and sold on that evidence. The origin behind “Blood Feast” provides some amusing stories. The inspiration for the film’s Egyptian villain came from a small sphinx statue outside a local hotel. Lewis did not get along with the lead actress, Playboy Bunny Connie Mason. The leading man claims the film was based on a true story. The money for the film came in suddenly, leading to the script being written in the course of a car drive down to Florida. Which explains a lot about “Blood Feast,” a classic of unintentional camp and trash-as-art filmmaking.

“The Godfather of Gore” also, as you’d expect, covers the making of the other two films in the Blood Trilogy. Herschell happily considers “Two Thousand Maniacs!” his masterpiece. We’re told stories about H.G.L. nearly getting crushed by a fake rock, all in service of getting a shot. One of the child actors in the film talks about faking a Southern accent, his crush on Mason, and the time he looked at the camera, which stayed in the final film. “Color Me Blood Red,” the final film in the trilogy, produces comparatively fewer stories of note. Though a scene devoted to an actor who appeared in both films, interviewing Herschell and Friedman in a hotel, produces a few chuckles.

Lewis will forever be known as the Godfather of Gore, a title he happily embraces. However, if an exploitation genre proved popular, he was willing to work in it. At one point, the guy was asking for scripts through magazines ads. “Blast-Off Girls,” a rock n’ roll picture meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Beatles, features a cameo from Colonel Sanders. Lewis, amusingly, characterizes Harland as difficult to work with. He also paid his crew in fried chicken. “Moonshine Mountain” was a hillbilly comedy. “The Girl, The Body, and the Pill” cashed in on the controversy surrounding the birth control pill. “Something Weird” was Lewis’ acid trip movie, which was apparently written by a college professor. “She-Devils on Wheels” and “Just for the Hell of It” were Lewis’ stabs at the biker and juvenile delinquent genres. He even directed a couple of kiddie movies, one of which features a witch being burned to death.

Nevertheless, Lewis often returned to his blood soaked gore movies. “A Taste of Blood,” a nearly two hour long vampire opus, was his attempt at mainstream success. The director shares a funny anecdote about having to play a sailor himself, complete with an absurd Cockney accent. He talks about having to pad “The Gruesome Twosome” to feature length with a framing device involving talking wig heads. Lewis’ response to a fan, years later, praising these scenes is priceless. During production on “The Gore Gore Girls,” Lewis’ stripper/splatter mash-up and his last gore film for years, Lewis’ own son was recruited to squish animal eyeballs. As a medical student, he was the only person on set willing to do so.

A reoccurring statement through the documentary concerns the real animal entrails Lewis often employed during the gore sequences. During “The Wizard of Gore,” the cow guts started to go bad, the rank smell making them almost impossible to work with. “The Wizard of Gore” actually proves to be a rich source for anecdotes. The actor originally cast as Montag the Magician proved unable to work. Eventually, a camera assistant won the part. While filming a chainsaw evisceration, a piece of gruel bounced into the actress’ mouth, a memorable but accidental shot. While filming a scene in a graveyard, involving the villain raising the dead, a by-stander mistook the movie shoot for a real act of necromancy.

I’m a H.G.L. dabbler, mostly enjoying the handful of his trash masterpieces that I’ve seen. The film pads its run time out with old trailers and promotional reel, which are often more entertaining then their corresponding films. For hardcore fans of the director, I suspect “The Godfather of Gore” is most valuable for its behind the scene shots. We see actors preparing and working behind scenes are committed to film. Most fascinating, “The Godfather of Gore” features a peak at a lost Lewis film. “An Eye for an Eye” appears to be the director’s riff on Roger Corman’s “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes.” We get glimpses at dummies getting run over by cars, the decapitated head cracking the windshield. Or actors with weird goggles on running through hospital hallways. If nothing else, it certainly looks like a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie.

The documentary naturally interviews many of the director’s associates and colleagues. A cameraman discusses how he fell in lust, and would eventually marry, one of the top-heavy models Lewis hired. This is an entertaining interview in general, as the guy is more then happy to play to the camera. Another one of Herschell’s associates outright admits to never watching any of his movies. “The Godfather of Gore” also interviews one of the movie critics who saw “Blood Feast” on opening night, who happily reads his extremely negative review. The film even tracks down a theater owner who explained to the director how disgusted he was by his sheep intestine strewn films.

“The Godfather of Gore” also features testimonials from H.G.L. disciples. John Waters shows off his collection of rare paperbacks based on Lewis’ films. He compares the director’s gore movies to hardcore pornography, pointing out how the murder scenes stood in for sex. He recalls seeing “Blood Feast” in a drive-in theater, expounding on the details of the appropriately seedy location. Joe Bob Briggs, another huge proponent of Lewis, waxes poetic about the filmmaker’s work. Frank Henenlotter himself appears on-screen, his extensive collection of schlock VHS and DVDs behind him. Hearing the sleaze expert dismiss the nudie cutie genre as “dumb” is worth the price of admission by itself.

So what of Herschell Gordon Lewis himself? The director is a compelling interview subject. He has no illusions about the quality of his work. He was a business minded guy, churning out cheap product for maximum profit. Simultaneously, he seems pleasantly surprised by his status among horror nerds and his place in movie history. He happily refers to “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Halloween,” and every other slasher flick as offsprings of his work. Towards the film’s end, we get a peak at H.G.L. at home. He decorates his spacious house with statues and passes his time by playing piano. He makes constant references to his wife Margot, who is oddly always kept off-screen by the documentarian. The image that emerges of the titular Godfather of Gore is of affable, good-humored guy pleased to have had so much success.

“The Godfather of Gore” is not a comprehensive study of the director’s career. His brief tenure making hardcore pornography under various pseudonyms in the early seventies is glossed over. Oddly, his late in life return to gore movies, which includes making a sequel to “Blood Feast” in 2002, is left out of the documentary. You’d think that would’ve made for a triumphant coda to Lewis’ story. Henenlotter’s documentary is ultimately only slightly more substantial then a puff piece. It’s a fan's love letter to a unique auteur he admires. However, Lewis and his various compatriots are entertaining to watch. The stories that unfurl on film are lots of fun to listen to. “The Godfather of Gore” is also probably a good starting point for people unfamiliar with Lewis’ flicks. If you still want to see them afterwards, this kind of weird shit is probably up your alley. [Grade: B]

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