The guru of gore flicks, Herschell Gordon Lewis chats about the film biz, his direct-marketing career, and his soft spot for Norman Rockwell
There is a scene in Gore Gore Girls, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1972 bloodfest about a series of murders involving strippers at a Chicago nightclub, in which a woman stands at a stove fixing french fries and the killer sneaks up behind her and dunks her face in hot grease.
“That was a lucky accident — a marvelous element called mortician’s wax,” Lewis says, explaining the secret behind the woman’s face peeling away. “Chicken skin was the key ingredient.”
Lewis, now in his late 70s, is famous for his camped-up, over-the-top goreathons: 1963’s Blood Feast, which contains the infamous tongue scene (we won’t reveal the details here; rent it and see for yourself), was banned in several parts of the U.S., and most recently in Australia. Color Me Blood Red depicts a killer-slash-artist who uses his victims’ blood as paint; and in the Wizard of Gore a TV talk-show hostess and her boyfriend investigate a magician who hypnotizes and controls the thoughts of people in order to stage gory on-stage illusions.
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“Gore: That marvelous word leaped out of me,” says Lewis, who now consults on direct-marketing and fund-raising campaigns. “In those days, for an independent filmmaker to succeed — this was prior to DVD, cable, and satellite — you had to make it in the theaters or not at all. I was going head-to-head with major companies and I thought, ‘What kind of motion picture will film companies not make or cannot make because of their own social mores?’”
While he started his film career with soft-core sexploitation films such as 1961’s Living Venus, Lewis also touched on the sexual revolution in The Girl, the Body, the Pill, and cast women not as kittens, but vixens in 1968’s She-Devils on Wheels. (“I would like to think I’m feminist,” he says.) And in the midst of his gore films, in 1972, eight years before actor Ronald Reagan was elected president, Lewis explored the dark side of political handlers and entertainers as politicians in Year of the Yahoo — a flick that casts a Country & Western singer as a senatorial hopeful.
Lewis has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, taught English at Mississippi State College, and capitalized on his talent for tapping into audience’s motivations by becoming a well-known expert and author of 30 books on direct-marketing mail campaigns. And he’s not finished making movies; he recently finished a script, The Grim Fairy Tales. He will visit San Antonio Saturday, January 7, as part of Grotesque Fest.
Lewis spoke with the Current by phone from his direct-marketing firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Certain genres, such as the outer-space movies of the ’50s, tapped into a national psyche of fear. Your movies tapped into an even darker side of human nature.
The timing was exceptional. I had no idea it would be a strange and exotic movement that made me infamous. We were the progenitors of gore. Take Blood Feast: No one had ever made a movie of this type; we were outlaws. This is before the rating system had organized a reaction to movies, so each county, state, or town had its own standards. When we excreted these movies, people who were on a different level of what they regarded as entertainment reacted negatively. But gradually these kinds of movies became mainstream. If you live long enough, you become legitimate.
A lot of bloody, violent films have entered the mainstream. Networks broadcast reality shows featuring people eating cockroaches and other grotesque acts, and cable has Trauma: Life in the ER. Do these programs desensitize people to gore?
Overexposure to anything desensitizes people. When we first brought Gore Gore Girls out, the generation gap could not have been more profound. Everybody under 40 screamed with laughter. Those over 50 thought it was the most outrageous thing they’d seen on screen and that the people who put it out should be burned.
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly used chocolate syrup to replicate blood in black-and-white films. Your movies were in color, so what was your formula?
We didn’t tell the actresses, but the key element was Kaopectate. In Blood Feast, there’s a key scene with a tongue and we used Kaopectate and gelatin. We were lucky to find somebody with a mouth that big.
Were your movies profitable?
Oh yes. It’s hard to take a bath on a movie if you don’t put anything into it. The Adventures of Lucky Pierre runs 70 minutes, which meant it could run as the first half of a double feature. Seventy minutes is 6,300 feet of 35 mm film and we bought only 8,000 feet. When you make a movie with that kind of hand-to-mouth budget, you have to make money, assuming you have a playable picture. I see movies coming out today, and the attention is now on effects. They’re taking the place of actors. That’s going in the wrong direction. I was watching the new Batman movies, and they’re not keeping in the nature of when it was originated. They’re trying to walk this third rail of realism. But no, people want to be entertained. The industry is going in the wrong direction and it’s time for my triumphant return.
|“The trick is not to shock people but to intersperse black humor with outrageous, off-the-wall gore,” says Herschell Gordon Lewis, seen here on a movie set. “People are shocked by gore itself, but the combination keeps it off-balance.”|
Have your worlds as a filmmaker and a direct-marketing expert ever intertwined?
I had never gone out of film totally; I moved back into advertising and now I’m regarded as the great guru of direct response. Blue-chip clients know of my past, but for years my worlds did not collide. Sometimes people would come up to me with a poster to sign. And at a direct-marketing conference, they had a hole in the schedule and they showed 2000 Maniacs. It’s the best movie I made; it has a certain amount of tension to it and is not just about having limbs chopped off.
An abridged filmography
Make Your Own Damn Movie! (2005)
Horror Business (2005)
Hunting for Herschell (2003)
Bits and Pieces: Bringing Death to Life (2003)
Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat (2002)
Gore Gore Girls (1972)
Year of the Yahoo! (1972)
The Wizard of Gore (1970)
Just for the Hell of It (1968)
She-Devils on Wheels (1968)
The Girl, the Body, and the Pill (1967)
A Taste of Blood (1967)
Color Me Blood Red (1965)
Moonshine Mountain (1964)
Blood Feast (1963)
Living Venus (1961)
You co-authored a book, Symbol of America: Norman Rockwell. What is it about Rockwell that fascinates you?
During the early part of my advertising career I was a copywriter and I developed a specialty for collectors’ plates. Linnell marketing had a young man, Scott Ingram, who was then in his early 30s, but he was the boy on the Rockwell plates. Linnell made a deal to write a book about Norman Rockwell and hired me to ghostwrite the book with Scott. Well, Scott came to Florida — he’s supposed to dictate his information — and after an hour-and-a-half, Scott had exhausted his memories, and this was supposed to be 320-page book. So I went to Massachusetts where Rockwell spent his last year and I interviewed his barber — a nice wonderful windbag — and his doctor, and I visited the Rockwell Museum and found archives in the basement of the local newspaper and wrote the book.
Do you have any direct-mail secrets that you could share?
The clarity commandment: When you choose words and phrases for force communication, clarity is paramount. Don’t let any other facet of communications interfere with it. •