By Patrick Crain
For a filmmaker whose work barely showed up in my life, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s influence and the memory of his films loom extremely large. I can’t be for certain what I actually saw back in the nascent days of mom and pop video stores nor can I be sure what was even available to me. I know that Two Thousand Maniacs! was readily available because I rented it and watched it many times over. I specifically rented the Comet Video release which came in the bulky, oversized box, the cover of which was emblazoned with the “2000 Maniacs” title and the inflammatory ” far more entertaining than anything John Carpenter or John Landis has directed” quote from somebody who was paid to be incorrect by Heavy Metal Magazine in 1984. I also know that Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red were available as was The Wizard of Gore. Around the same time, I also remember renting Wizard of Gore and Color Me Blood Red but don’t remember much about seeing them other than I remember them being gory. I also remember them being awful.
And I was right. They were awful. They all were. Even the good ones. Just terrible from top to bottom. Nothing much worth recommending to someone coming in cold. But that said, I will never be able to hate the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Like the independents that would come after him (George A. Romero, Charles B. Pierce), Lewis thankfully captured a great deal of local color without permits or releases. Insignificant details such a familiar signs on the windows of five and dimes or retro logos that have been long since reshaped become wonderful pieces of memory grout when they innocuously pop up in the background or on the margins of the frame. However, Lewis doesn’t capture product as much as he captures an entire atmosphere specific to a particular time and place in America.
By the time he made Blood Feast in 1963, Lewis had already made a number of exploitation movies but had wanted to get into the horror game. Nothing more or less than a huckster who got into the moving pictures business to make a dollar and a cent off of the rubes and pieces of American driftwood he could hustle, Lewis embodied the type of guy you see in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994); a tent show sleaze ball who would make the poster and book the film before the cameras even rolled. Blood Feast was a natural step for him and producer-partner Dave Friedman (who would not only produce the three films in Lewis’s Blood Trilogy but would also go on to produce the Naziploitation classic, Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S. in 1974).
Blood Feast occupies a very interesting place in American horror in that it almost accidentally captures idyllic America mere months before the Kennedy assassination. Sure, the film is bloody and horrific, but there’s something very light about everything. Despite the mayhem, we can’t help but be drawn to the interior of the homes; powder blue tile and the end-run of mid-century décor which can be found alongside small transistor radios and Philco television sets. Outside, the homes sit on curbless streets and all the pools have screened-in, anti-gator canopies. These little touches, along with the gore, make Blood Feast worth watching on an un-ironic level. Otherwise, the movie is barely better than any one of Ed Wood’s worst efforts.
Blood Feast is the story of Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), a local caterer who also worships the Egyptian goddess Isis. He prepares a blood feast to Isis by butchering local women and putting using their entrails and severed extremities as ingredients. When Ramses is asked to cater Suzette Fremont’s (Connie Mason) party which will make the blood feast complete, threads begin to come together in the head of Pete Thornton (William Kerwin), Suzette’s boyfriend (ish) and ace cop!
From the sheer phoniness of Arnold’s grey hair and eyebrows to the horrible day-for-night, the production is as low-rent as it could possibly be. Amid this, Lewis lazily cobbles together awkwardly performed scenes of dialogue which vaguely propel the plot from one showy gore scene to the next. Actors read lines off of their hands and off of scripts that are plainly visible within the frame. Poor Connie Mason can’t keep her eyes off the idiot board to get her cues. And with all the technical crudeness of a stag film, Blood Feast wallows in its amateurishness; harshly and indifferently lit, shadows bounce every which way and the foreheads of the actors sparkle in what must be a searing heat.
But, regardless of all of that, it still goes for the gusto; it scarcely cares about its lack of skill and plunges ahead to rip a woman’s tongue out of her face which, while ridiculous and hardly convincing, remains an impressively audacious (and effectively wet) effect half a century later. The isolated, nighttime beach scene feels decidedly pre-Manaic (1980) and there is something to be said for the notion of feeding a bunch of uptight suburbanites the dismembered body parts of their neighbors. It’s also helped by a 67 minute running time (which is not as breezy as it sounds).
Blood Feast is the movie that put Herschell Gordon Lewis on the map but I don’t think I saw it until it could no longer be much of anything but a bad historical footnote that, nonetheless, still retained a charming sense of place and time that connected well with what I DID remember about Two Thousand Maniacs!.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I was bound to have family that lived beyond the city limits and in one or more of the tiny towns that dot the landscape. I felt lucky that my Aunt Eva and Uncle Earl lived in Prague, a small town an hour to the east of the metro that is home to a heavy Czech foundation. Each Kentucky Derby weekend, Prague hosts their Kolache Festival which, at least at one time, was replete with a main street parade, a rickety carnival, and a joyous feeling of an entire community coming together for one large event in the main square. There was something refreshingly retro about the entire event; perhaps it was Prague itself which, in the 70’s and 80’s, languidly began a slow slide into the sad inevitable demise that would creep across the landscape and put the lights out in many Oklahoma burgs that looked just like it. I know that when I watch reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry has an unironic, sweet familiarity that completely reminds me of Prague which makes me glad that Prague was a part of my life. And it is also Prague that helps me nostalgia-ize Two Thousand Maniacs!
Pleasant Valley (more accurately, shooting-location St.Cloud, Florida) in Two Thousand Maniacs! resembles Prague. It’s a town with a grand Main Street that houses the broad enterprises of small town economies such as the barber shop, the general store, and the hotel all of which contain a sad, worn, and fantastically anachronistic look. On the street, young kids roam around in buzz cuts and white t-shirts, their last all-American look before rock music, free love, and pot caused the lion’s share of them to look for pastures greener than St. Cloud and Prague, Oklahoma. The young adults, too old for the counterculture that was on its way, shuffle about in checkered pants, drink pull-tab beers, and begin to allow their bodies to prematurely soften into a bitter middle-age. The older folks look completely discombobulated, waving the Confederate flag and singing “The South Will Rise Again” without the slightest hint of shame as some of these people likely lost a grandfather or a great-uncle in the Civil War.
In the businesses, the walls are adorned by prints of oil rendered pastoral settings and the cheap calendars the local bank or insurance companies give out for opening an account. On the streets, wooden frame houses are tucked into overgrown foliage. Long, slender black cars snake through the gravel roads to the fishing tank while others push past the outskirts of the small town city limits to a neighboring town, eventually creating a slow-moving, reverberating echo where slivers of cosmopolitan and uptown living begin to fester back into the town.
The sad history of these towns was that the city lights didn’t impress the older folks who continued to operate in the only way they knew how but it created enough of a talent drain that towns like Prague and St. Cloud became husks of their former selves; the remnants of a million small towns across America that eventually all resemble Anarene, Texas at the end of the Last Picture Show (1971).
And it was in a town with that broken history that Lewis set Two Thousand Maniacs! which was envisioned as a cockeyed rehash of Brigadoon, set it in a mythical, cornpone utopia that was wiped out by terrible Yankees 100 years prior in the “War Between The States.” And now, 100 years later, the ghosts of the defeated town materialize to exact bloody revenge on the unsuspecting travelers that are lured there.
Viewed at age 13, the film was a riot. It was stupid, easy to get through, and was shockingly gory (my favorite moment then and now was the dismemberment scene which still looks almost upsettingly real). I could take it to friends’ houses and show it off and yuck it up with them as the film seemed to be one big guffaw. Watched now, it’s definitely a mixed bag. Possibly Lewis’s finest film, that accolade doesn’t add up to much when you realize that the lion’s share of the movie is absolutely worthless. Two Thousand Maniacs! suffers from a painfully long set-up and opening that seems to go on forever, quite possibly due to the Pleasant Valley Boys’s wholly shrill title song. It then settles into an extremely slow-moving series of sequences that, like Blood Feast before it, only exist to get the train to the next gory set-piece. The performances are slightly better than they are in Blood Feast with Kerwin and Mason returning and putting a bit more effort into it. But it’s Jeffery Allen who really makes the movie work. As Mayor Buckman, Allen’s performance is like the unholy union of Huey Long and Foghorn Leghorn. A man whose voice oscillates between bellowing and yelling, Allen’s wide smile, full cheeks, and portly frame give him some authenticity which rubs off on some of those cast as Pleasant Valley townsfolk.
And it is here that, gore moments aside, the movie works the best for there is a true uncomfortableness at play. First and foremost, the sheer amount of Confederate flags in the film is staggering. Not only do I think this may contain the most Confederate flags of any movie ever made but it may contain more Confederate flags than have been put in all of the movies throughout the entire history of motion pictures altogether. And the constant waving and jamming up the frame with them becomes comically nauseating because, again, these weren’t extras from central casting. These are folks to whom that flag meant something very real and very troubling. When the people of Pleasant Valley all stop to sing “Dixie” in the middle of a pasture after they’ve used four horses to gruesomely tear apart a Yankee traveller, it gives the viewer a bit of pause and the movie, in retrospect, becomes something of a hybrid of A Birth of a Nation and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
So the movie skates by on a specific nostalgia, overt gore, unsettling regional politics, and its ability to come off more like a loud, cartoonish, semi-version of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) than the static Blood Feast. But it’s impossible to call it good due to the absolute technical ineptitude and sluggish pacing (it should be noted that Lewis has a horrible time landing this movie and that the wordy, action-free ending stretches over a ten minute canvas that could have easily been cut in half).
For his final splatter film (for a while, at least), Lewis directed Color Me Blood Red (1965), a movie that also marked the end of the Lewis and Friedman productions. This one was blessed with another porn-size Caballero-esque box from Comet and the box art was adorned with some extremely graphic stills from the film. To this day, I’m shocked that it was allowed onto the shelves of TV World and Appliance or Bob’s Video, the two mom and pop stores that served my hometown of Del City, Oklahoma.
Watching it today, it can be seen as something as a precursor to Abel Ferrera’s The Driller Killer (1979) in that it deals, rather terribly, with the artistic failure of its protagonist, painter Adam Sorg (the intense Gordon Oas-Heim). Unable to impress the local critics or sell his work, Sorg accidentally finds that human blood makes for an amazing burst of color on the canvas when his girlfriend/assistant Gigi (Elyn Warner) pricks her finger on a damaged frame. When Sorg realizes he can’t paint an entire portrait with just his blood and the little bit she’s spilled, he lashes out at Gigi, killing her and giving him a virtual bucket from which to dip his brush. The painting is a hit. Rinse, wash, repeat.
While the regional atmosphere that was apparent in the previous films is still here (especially in those ridiculous paddle bikes and that groovy-looking ranch-style seaside pad Sorg lives in), Color Me Blood Red seems to have a heavier ambition. Aside from some criminally unfunny hep cat kids who, unfortunately, are not murder victims and whose collective stabs at humor reveal just how clueless Lewis was when it came to writing, directing, capturing, or even really understanding comedy, there’s not much here that’s very light. Even with all the terrible goings on in Two Thousand Maniacs!, there was so much hootin’ and hollerin’ that everyone SEEMED to be having a good time.
Color Me Blood Red is a dull, drab, and boring movie with a few excellent gore moments (quite especially the blood being squeezed from the bowels which is wonderfully nauseating). It’s got a lumpy, sluggish pace and mostly unexciting set-pieces (most everything worth seeing happens within the gross living room of Sorg’s house). The cinematography is sometimes blurry, the framing is frequently puzzling, and the movie is inappropriately scored throughout.
I’m sure that there are some who feel that they almost have to begrudgingly give Herschell Gordon Lewis his due. He’s such a terrible filmmaker yet his influence on the horror genre is as far and wide as John Cassavetes’s influence on independent cinema. Maybe people hate him because, due to his complete ineptness, he revealed the basic, Barnum-like pitch for the horror film. Give them something to see and they’ll pay money to do so. Don’t worry about the rest. I can understand the anger at this cynicism.
I also see his point of view, though. After all, is this not show business? And, if not for him, it’s hard to tell just how long it would have taken for that level of gore to appear on the scene. It took a specific time and a specific place and a person like Herschell Gordon Lewis, a sub par nobody who just wanted to make a buck, to blindly push the envelope. And while his legacy is secure (if flimsily so) as the “Godfather of Gore,” I’ll always see him as an accidental documentarian; a man who ended up capturing an America in transition and the remnants of which were still alive and well in my younger days.