The Godfather of Gore: Talking With The Man Who Started It All, Herschell Gordon Lewis by Owen Keehnen

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a bona fide legend and demigod to all fans of the horror/gore genre. In the early 60s this man broke all the rules for what was shown in films with the release of his two timeless classics ‘Blood Feast’ (1963) and ‘Two Thousand Maniacs!’ (1964). Before that time there was Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (60) with black and white blood flowing down a shower drain, but with Lewis came buckets and buckets of bright red blood, innards, and graphic gore galore. The man literally revolutionized the genre and a great debt is owed him for his groundbreaking work. There would be no ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘Halloween’ if audiences hadn’t first been mortified by scenes like the tongue severing sequence in ‘Blood Feast’ or the nail studded barrel roll in ‘Two Thousand Maniacs’. Some of his other noteworthy titles include ‘The Gore Gore Girls’, ‘Color Me Blood Red’, ‘A Taste of Blood’, and ‘The Wizard of Gore’.

In 2002 Lewis came out of a thirty year directing hiatus (during which time he was a market analyst!) to helm ‘Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat’ and has plans for more directing work. Recently he has done some work in front of the camera as well, most notably as the hardware store owner who sells the naughty title heroine her death tools in ‘Chainsaw Sally’.

  Owen: Happy belated birthday Mr. Lewis! How does it feel to be known as “The Godfather of Gore”?

Gordon: I think it’s an absolute hoot, and I have no intention of abandoning that honor, ever.

Owen: When you made the groundbreaking blood drenched classics ‘Blood Feast’ and ‘Two Thousand Maniacs’ did you purposely set out to break taboos or push the limits of film?

Gordon: Partially yes and partially no. I set out to produce a film the major companies either couldn’t make or wouldn’t make. But at the same time, I had to realize that the project would be an exercise in futility if no theatres would play the pictures. So what resulted was an exquisite amalgam of showmanship, icon busting, and budget-awareness.

Owen: You went so beyond the limits of the time. What was before that --- ‘Psycho’? And that was black and white blood swirling down a drain and clever editing. So when you did something like that tongue scene (from ‘Blood Feast’) did you realize it would cause such a sensation?

Gordon: Even when cutting that scene, I had qualms that we’d gone too far. This many years later, I still am amazed that we were able to show that scene at a time when so many censor boards and critics were aghast at our brassiness.

Owen: At the time (1963) did any censorship or right-wing groups try to block the release of the films? Did you get much flack on that end?

Gordon: We actually originated some of the censorship, which hadn’t pre-existed because no one had dared to film such scenes. To this day, I’m a target of right-wing bluenose flak.

Owen: Somewhat going along with the censorship issue, did you have any problems finding a venue to show the movies?

Gordon: Once the word was out that “Blood Feast” was breaking box office records, we had no trouble booking the picture. I never had any illusion about cracking the “movie palace” barrier but aimed distribution at smaller theatres and drive-ins.

Owen: Your films were also noteworthy for turning out the production on a minimal budget. For example ‘Blood Feast’ cost $24,000 (and made 4 million). Any cost tips for those guerilla filmmakers out there that are looking to follow in your footsteps?

Gordon: Plan every shot. Don’t shoot rehearsals. Be sure every cast and crewmember is dedicated to the project. And however you shoot, don’t hand-hold the camera.

Owen: Do you have an overriding memory from filming those classics?

Gordon: Many, but recounting would be book-length. We had a good time, and I pity filmmakers who don’t.

Owen: ‘Color Me Blood Red’ is another favorite of mine. Since you also wrote the screenplay, was the fact of having an artist who painted with blood a commentary on high art or was it just a cool gore tactic?

Gordon: A penetrating question! Both. It was my way of getting even with the phony art-poseurs.

Owen: You wear so many hats in your films – you usually produce, direct, write, do the cinematography, compose, do sound, production design, narrate, even sing! Was the decision one of budget or control or a little of both?

Gordon: Budget was the determinant. I never considered myself an auteur.

Owen: So what films in the past decade or so, which fall into the gore/horror/slasher genre, have impressed you?

Gordon: Very few. Attention seems to be to devices and electronic effects, not to having the audience gasp.

Owen: In 2002 the time came for ‘Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat’. What was the hardest thing about being back in the driver’s seat after transitioning from directing in 1972 after ‘The Gore Gore Girls’?

Gordon: Nothing was hard – nothing. I had a crew. I didn’t have to load the camera. The equipment wasn’t obsolete. I watched the action on a TV monitor. Altogether, I had a wonderful time!

Owen: John Waters also makes a cameo appearance in the movie. I knew he was a fan of the original when he included a clip in ‘Serial Mom’. How did his appearance in the movie come about?

Gordon: John had invited me to a film festival in Baltimore a few years before. At the time, he said, “I owe you.” For “Blood Feast 2” I collected. He is a gentleman and a true friend.

Owen: So can we expect a “second flowering” of HGL the director? Do you have more projects pending?

Gordon: I’d like to make “Grim Fairy Tale” … and the first legitimate producer who pops to the surface will get it.

Owen: Thanks so much for your time. Great talking to you Mr. Lewis.