A gutsy legacy

Filmmakers don't get more violently influential than Herschell Gordon Lewis

Have you ever had ... an Egyptian feast?: a new doc celebrates the career of the director of 1963's Blood Feast

Movies today might be a gutless affair if not for the industry of Herschell Gordon Lewis a half-century ago. Literally gutless — you have Lewis to thank for every splattersome moment of exposed entrails and explicit gougings since.

Oh sure, the restrictions against graphic violence in U.S. cinema would have lapsed eventually, degree by degree. But who else would have had the nerve to do it all in one swoop with a movie as early, and thoroughly tasteless, as 1963's Blood Feast? Nothing like it had existed before, and those few who noticed it outside rural drive-in and urban grindhouse viewers surely wished it never would again. (The L.A. Times called it "a blot on the American film industry," Variety "an insult to even the most puerile and salacious audiences.") A futile wish, that.

Next week sees the DVD release of, incredibly, 82-year-old Lewis' latest feature: The Uh-Oh! Show, a reality TV spoof whose game contestants win fabulous prizes for getting answers right — and suffer grisly body-part losses if they don't. A month later Image Entertainment and Something Weird will spring both a "Blood Trilogy" Blu-ray set of his first three horror "classics," as well as Jimmy Maslon and Basket Case (1982) director Frank Henenlotter's documentary portrait Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore. The latter features such fans as Joe Bob Briggs and John Waters, surviving collaborators, and of course Lewis himself tracing his infamous influential cinematic path amidst myriad original clips.

This was not begun as a personal mission of rebellion, perversity, or artistic aspiration, but for sheer profit pursuit. After checking out possible careers from radio to teaching English Lit, he found a Chicago berth in advertising, which eventually led to making commercials and buying out a small production company. Figuring there was more moolah in features, Lewis partnered with producer Dave Friedman and found some success via pre-porn "nudie cuties" with titles like Boin-n-g and Goldilocks and the Three Bares (both 1963).

Just as they'd imitated Russ Meyer, however, others soon imitated them, overcrowding the field with topless frolics. What other naughty but inexpensive concept could they exploit that others hadn't milked dry yet? The answer was Blood Feast, shot in nine days for $20,000, wherein an alleged caterer (the wildly hammy Mal Arnold as "Fuad Ramses") gathering ingredients for a socialite's "Egyptian feast" rips limbs and whatnot from comely young women to revive an ancient goddess.

The acting was atrocious (especially by Playboy centerfold star Connie Mason), the script was laughable, and the craftsmanship primitive at best. When Blood premiered at a Peoria, Ill. drive-in, viewers howled with laughter — then hurled, as on-screen victims had brains, tongues, etc. separated from their person, then dangled in front of the camera at length. (These local butcher-shop bits often grew rather ripe by shooting time; pity the poor actress who had to stuff a rank cow tongue in her mouth.) Friedman and Lewis duly provided souvenir vomit bags at future venues. They had a hit.

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