Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore

The Wizard of Gore (1970)
When I first read about the screening of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ film The Wizard of Gore (1970) at the Mayfair Theatre, I was full with fan-girl glee. As an avid Herschell Gordon Lewis fan, I was eager to expose my friends and students to the “Godfather of Gore”. However, after describing my favourite Gordon Lewis film, my partner snorted in disgust and stated, “I cannot stand gore for the sake of gore”. My first instinct was to defend dear Gordon Lewis, until I realized that I too despised gore for the sake of gore. In fact, as a horror film aficionado, I hardly consider the “torture porn” genre of films, such as Hostel (2005) and the later Saw films, to be “horror” films at all. That is not to say that I do not enjoy this specific sub-genre, but my filmic preferences tend to gravitate towards psychological horror films, as well as monster movies and campy slasher flicks.
Given all this, why then do the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis thrill me so? I think that it is of the utmost importance to understand the historical and cultural context of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ films. Gordon Lewis began as an exploitation film director, infamous for nudie pictures and vulgar, unsophisticated fare. However, when the nudie film industry proved to be less than lucrative, Gordon Lewis jumped ship… in a manner of speaking. He would never ignore nor completely abandon his foundation in exploitation films, but he wanted to break ground. To shock, to arouse, to horrify, to incite questions… So came Bloodfeast (1963) and the beginning of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy!
In 1963, Gordon Lewis released the quasi-racist and entirely campy film Blood Feast. It tells the story of Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses who caters bourgeois parties by day and performs ancient sacrificial rituals by night. At the request of his most decadent and affluent client, Ramses is asked to prepare a rare delicacy. The only trouble is; the secret ingredient is blood. Despite its title, the film is deceptively tame and uses blood and gore minimally, placing more emphasis on the implication of violence, rather than its graphic depiction. The film ends on  a happy note; Ramses is caught, the blood feast is cancelled and the remaining cast lives on. 
2000 Maniacs (1964)
While Blood Feast was a mild success, it was not until 1964 when Gordon Lewis makes 2000 Maniacs that he begins to construct his signature style of gore, guts and girls. 2000 Maniacs is Gordon Lewis’ masterpiece; the film tells the story of the murderous, confederate town “Pleasant Valley” and how the inhabitants lure in Northern tourists for their centennial celebration. The inhabitants force the Northerners to play sadistic, carnival games, which ultimately lead to their grisly deaths. Unlike Blood Feast, the gore is abundant. Not only does Gordon Lewis use gore to captivate the audience, but he also experiments with tension and suspense in a manner not yet seen in his work. He is able to construct an anticipation of brutality that many gore films lack. By far his most disturbing, and most serious film, 2000 Maniacs forgoes the standardized “happy ending” in favour of an ambivalent conclusion which spares two of the six tourists but denies closure to the narrative. The guilty are not brought to justice and it is implied that they will continue in their murderous ways.
Finally, the end chapter of Gordon Lewis’ Blood Trilogy was Colour Me Blood Red (1965). As the title would suggest, this campy flick does not take itself seriously. It tells the story of unsuccessful painter Adam Sorg, who accidentally discovers that human blood is the perfect substitute for red paint! After producing a new painting utilizing his material of choice, he finds the success of which he has always dreamed. But alas; in order to keep up, he needs more blood… The film itself becomes an allegory for Gordon Lewis’ career. Gordon Lewis found his niche; blood and gore would become his signature trademark, his medium of choice, the element for which he was to become famous. Colour Me Blood Red may be an allegory for Gordon Lewis’ career, but the film was far from perfect, especially in Gordon Lewis’ eyes. After the success of 2000 Maniacs, Gordon Lewis had a clearer impression of what was required to construct the ideal “horror” film. However, Colour Me Blood Red is self-reflexive in that it is aware of its campy quality, aware of its participation in the genre of cheesy horror films. Gordon Lewis takes a step back from 2000 Maniacs and abandons his solemnity in favour of humorous, over-the-top artifice. Also, he concludes Colour Me Blood Red with the stereotypical “happy ending”, where the murderer is caught and the beautiful heroine escapes. In many ways, Colour Me Blood Red was an unfortunate setback in Gordon Lewis’ career and a sub-par finale to his Blood Trilogy.
A Poster for The Wizard of Gore (1970)
After two more gory entries in his film career, A Taste of Blood and Gruesome Twosome (both 1967), Gordon Lewis made The Wizard of Gore (1970). By this time, Gordon Lewis had a near-flawless formula for constructing the perfect gore film. Importantly, Gordon Lewis realized he would have to move away from typical Hollywood conventions (likeable characters, happy endings, rewarding the good and punishing the evil). The Wizard of Gore screens like an informed film that was constructed by a true artist. Gordon Lewis combines some of his favourite elements such as the occult (reminiscent of, but more sophisticated than Blood Feast), exploitative depictions of women (held over from his first films), illusion, showmanship and, of course, blood. The film is unique in that it shows each grisly murder twice; first on stage after which is the victim is shown to be unharmed, and again, when the victim re-suffers and perishes from the wounds earlier inflicted on stage.
The Wizard of Gore (1970) makes some very grand statements of the nature of cinema, both as subtle and intrusive. Obviously, Gordon Lewis is the Wizard of Gore and we, the viewer, are the victims. What he chooses to inflict upon us may have an initial impact, but the true effect would not be realized until afterward, upon leaving the theatre, upon returning to the “real world”. The wizard’s impact happens after his involvement with the victim; his effect is done without laying a finger on the victim. Gordon Lewis is able to evoke fear, disgust and horror on us, his victims, his fans, his audience with little more than a disturbing image and a twisted tale. However, The Wizard of Gore (1970) does have one giant drawback; the conclusion. After a two fake-ends to the film, the film closes with the illusionist being called a phoney and the suggestion that his magic was never real. It feels entirely possible that this ending was tacked onto the film for the benefit or at the request of someone other than Gordon Lewis. That being said, it is entirely possible he is making yet another reference to his own work, suggesting that his “magic” may not have the most desirable impact while simultaneously foreshadowing his imminent retirement from the genre in 1973. 
Herschell Gordon Lewis truly is the Godfather of Gore. In a gleeful moment, I wrote to Gordon Lewis and rambled on about my love for and interest in his body of work. Much to my surprise, he wrote back and confirmed a Hollywood suspicion that he had hung the plaque from Pleasant Valley (the murderous town in 2000 Maniacs) in his living room for years. Indeed, he had done so before selling it, which he deeply regrets as he would have preferred to auction it off on eBay for a new generation of fans. Having grown up on gore, I can easily trace Gordon Lewis’ impact following his retirement.

The psychological slasher films of the 1970s, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Halloween (1978), owe much to Gordon Lewis. He opened a forum for films about murderers who were neither monster nor alien-creature, but merely “regular” people. He allowed for the utilization of realism in horror films. Now, to say that campy, over-the-top gore films incorporate realism may seem like a stretch, but one must acknowledge that his stories were told with respect to “it’s scary because it could happen to you” urban legends. This paved the way for the future and evolution of the horror genre. While Gordon Lewis may have gotten his start in exploitation films and harboured  a thinly veiled passion for depicting beautiful women in grotesque ways, he would never succumb to the vulgarity of creating “torture porn”. He was just a man who loved his blood; and knew how to use it.

~ Researched and Written by A. J. Von Purr, 2012