A conversation with the Godfather of gore
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. But they don't lose money, and that's how you keep score. I was grinding these things out like so much hamburger.
SFBG What's been the most surprising moment of your film career?
HGL As you may or may not know, I have a totally different career these days. In the film business I was a schmuck with a camera, and in the world of direct marketing I'm regarded as something of an expert, and I'm in the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. I was writing a piece of copy this is [in the middle 1980s] and the phone rang. The fellow on the phone said, "Mr. Lewis, we are having a screening of The Wizard of Gore on Halloween night, and we would like you to put in a personal appearance." And I said, "Come on, who is this?" Because it had been years since I had heard from anyone about movies. I accepted the invitation, fully expecting the whole thing to be a big joke. It was not a joke at all. I was treated with the reverence I certainly don't deserve. I couldn't understand it at the time. I said, "What's wrong with these people?" I no longer ask dumb questions like that. I figure if they invite me, and I accept, if there's something wrong, it's wrong with both of us.
SFBG What's the best part about meeting your fans?
HGL What's amazing to me about meeting my fans today is that they remember things from these movies that I don't. It astounds me that people who weren't alive when I made these movies still regard them as entertaining. That has to be the ultimate compliment to a film director. After all the time has passed, here are movies that cost nothing to make, with casts of nobodies, and totally primitive effects, and people still go to see them. It's not surprising to me anymore, but I can tell you, it's quite gratifying.
SFBG Are you excited to come to San Francisco?
HGL San Francisco is one of my favorite towns in all the world, and I am just very pleased to have been invited to come there. I tell you, somebody there is insane to invite me in the first place, but I admire insanity on that level, and I shall show up with great enthusiasm.
THE WIZARD OF GORE
Fri/2Sat/3, midnight, $9.75
2261 Fillmore, SF
HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS IN-STORE APPEARANCE
Sat/3, 2 p.m., free
1855 Haight, SF