This stuff'll kill ya!

A conversation with the Godfather of gore
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CULT FILM GOD Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, and The Gore Gore Girls — between 1960 and 1972, Herschell Gordon Lewis ruled the drive-in with a steady stream of exploitation movies, made on the cheap for crowds unafraid to experience the kind of special effects that earned Lewis the nickname "the Godfather of Gore." Nowadays, the 81-year-old is a highly respected authority on direct marketing (check out his column, Curmudgeon at Large, at directmag.com), but he's proud (if bemused) that his films continue to thrill audiences today. As part of the Clay Theatre's Late Night Picture Show, Lewis will appear in person with his 1970 surreal magician splatterfest The Wizard of Gore (remade this year, by another director, as a Crispin Glover vehicle). He'll also appear at Amoeba Music with — saddle up, Two Thousand Maniacs! fans — a jug band. Naturally, I seized on the chance to talk to one of my personal heroes prior to his visit.

SFBG I'm so excited to see The Wizard of Gore on the big screen.

HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS [Laughs] That's a way to start a conversation.

SFBG Back when you were making your films, did you have any idea that they would still be popular so many years later?

HGL Good heavens, no. All we were trying to do was to stay alive in the film business by making the kind of movies the major companies either couldn't make or wouldn't make. I had expected [my films] would simply disappear the way so many major-company pictures do. It's like Hamlet: they strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. It is astounding to me that this strange ... I'll call it a movement, which we didn't even think was a movement, has survived all this time.

SFBG What is the lasting impact of your films?

HGL One benefit that we brought to the arena was that a motion picture that attracts attention can be totally outside the orbit of (1) star name value and (2) great production values. I've seen critical comments on these movies, and they weren't critics' pictures. Good heavens. They were made simply to startle people. This renaissance that's taken place in the last few years, first with videocassettes and then with DVDs, it astounds me.

SFBG It proves your theory that reaching the audience is the most important thing.

HGL Yes, and in fact, when I was making these things, I reached a point at which other schlock film producers were sending me their movies to do the [advertising] campaigns. They began to recognize that the campaign not only caused people to come into the theater, but it caused theaters to book these pictures all together. Today I see major-company product — they don't know how to title a movie. It stupefies me. And the campaign is stultifying. It's bewildering. It's exasperating. It's obfuscatory. I'm using all kinds of adjectives here.

SFBG A film's title is important. Obviously The Wizard of Gore is a brilliant title.

HGL She-Devils on Wheels was [originally] called Man-Eaters on Motorbikes. And in fact, the theme song in She-Devils on Wheels is called "Man-Eaters on Motorbikes." As we were developing the campaign, it occurred to me that She-Devils on Wheels was a more dynamic title, and we switched. If you think in terms of somebody who is looking through a newspaper or a listing of titles, [if you don't have] your own ego superimposed on everything you do, the response goes up. I'm no auteur, never claimed to be. Somebody said to me, "Did any of your movies ever get two thumbs up?" And my answer was "No, but we got two middle fingers up."

SFBG It depends on who's reviewing them, I guess.

HGL Critics' pictures? Not ever.

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