The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Blu-ray Review: Extensive, Exhausting Exploitation Experience

Enormous multi-movie box sets (especially expensive ones) have two real audiences: already devoted fans, and movie buffs who want to get into a director, so they take the plunge all at once. There is, to my mind, no one who will casually purchase a 17-disc, 14-movie set with copious (almost endless) extras, particularly one that retails for a couple hundred bucks. The question, then, for Arrow Video’s extensive (if not entirely exhaustive) Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast is, what is in it, and will it satisfy both the dedicated and the curious?

Being curious myself, and not a follower of the Lewis movies, I can’t say whether people already in the cult will think this box-set release is all they could ever want. But as someone who came to it with an open mind, I can’t imagine what more anyone could put into a box set dedicated to a cult figure.

Herschell Gordon Lewis had a multi-faceted life and career, about 14 years of which were spent in the movie business. He came in making so-called “Nudie Cuties” – movies that took advantage of whatever the latest court rulings were about nudity in films. Most of these movies were set and shot in nudist colonies, and Lewis and his eventual partner David Friedman made them quick (a few days to maybe a week on each picture), super cheap, and with a sense of humor.

When that ship began to sail, the two tried to figure out what could be the next trend they could jump on to make their names. Gore was the answer they came up with, and while in Florida shooting something else they took four days to make a movie with explicit violence: Blood Feast. It’s a movie still famous today for its unrelenting nastiness, and perhaps just as famous for its slapdash production values.

As becomes clear in the numerous commentary tracks on these movies (all of which are sourced from previous Something Weird releases and not original to this set) Lewis was concerned that his picture was in focus, that there was something on the soundtrack, and not much else. Doing more than a single take on any scene was a waste – he’d bought enough film to make his movie, and not a foot more.

Blood Feast is about a last surviving member of an ancient Egyptian cult carving up women in Miami to make a special sacrificial feast. Graphic scalpings and limb severings abound, with the most infamous scene involved the bad guy Fuad Ramses, forcibly ripping the tongue out of a woman in a motel room. From this foundation was a little empire of sleaze built.

I’ll cover the individual movies toward the bottom of this review, but I think it’s important to note what you’ll be seeing in this boxset. Lewis was (by his own insistence) no auteur, and in the early 70s had no notion that his pictures would be anything to anyone but throwaway items. Very few negatives have survived, and since several of these movies were popular the existing prints have been played over and over. Ironically, some of the lesser movies on this set have better surviving materials than the much more famous movies, since their prints weren’t run through projectors for weeks on end at late night drive-in shows.

Before each movie is a title card with notes as to the quality of the extant prints, with specific information as to why certain parts look like they’ve been through the ringer. For instance, the hillbilly movie Moonshine Mountain has some parts that were sourced from VHS, so they necessarily look and sound worse than the movie that surrounds it. Missing footage also leads to some incoherence in the plots, though that’s as often as not an artifact of the original production.

Also available before each movie is a video introduction by the man himself, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Each running about two minutes long, the director briefly tells us what we’re about to see, maybe gives a little anecdote from the production, and in general creates the right atmosphere for what we’re about to screen: don’t take it all too seriously, and remember the man behind the camera has a grin on his face, however horrible and weird the thing on screen is.

More, I think, than any of his movies, this enormous box set serves as a memorial to the man, who died this September. Between the commentaries, the on-screen interviews in many, many video extras and the two-hour documentary on the final Blu-ray (mistakenly called a bonus DVD in the press notes) we get a real sense of who Lewis was, and what he was trying to do – or at least as much a sense as he’s willing to publicly show. Lewis is not embarrassed by his movies, nor is he defensive about them. You can tell that, even if he may not be overly proud of the product, he was proud of the work. (His line on Blood Feast: “It’s like a Walt Whitman poem: no damn good, but the first of its kind.” It should be noted he had a Master’s degree in Journalism and a PhD in Psychology.) Everybody worked on a Lewis set. The noted gore effects were not the arena of any one particular make-up person, but everyone would pitch in to make them as disgusting and hideous as possible.

This lends an artlessness to the movies that, weirdly, works in their favor. When the brutal stuff comes, it isn’t artful built up to. It thuds into place like any other scene, gawked at. Lewis tends to hold his shots for a bit longer than feels right, of both the normal scenes and the gore ones, so you get a good long look at deeply unpleasant scenes. There’s a sequence in the accompanying documentary, Godfather of Gore that includes some scenes edited together from an unfinished Lewis movie. Seeing his work in the hands of another editor, it was strange – it was faster paced, more normal, and didn’t actually look that much like a Lewis movie. You cannot fake his expert inexpertise.

Roughly six of these 14 movies can properly be called gore movies. Lewis was strictly in exploitation, and that comes in a number of favors. There’s also hillbilly movies (three of those, with one of the gore movies counting partway), a so-called “roughie” – movies about pornography with nudity and violence, two juvenile delinquent movies, a weirdly tasteful vampire pic, a completely unfunny comedy, and an out and out weird ESP movie called “Something Weird”. Eleven of the movies have commentary tracks, most of which are Herschell Gordon Lewis being interviewed by Something Weird’s Mike Vraney. Sometimes the commentaries are directly related to what’s going on on-screen, sometimes they cover anecdotes from the time. Lewis is professorial throughout, and the only times he sounds the least bit heated (and it’s still a mild heat) is when he’s talking about somebody not doing their job right – someone screwing up on the electricity or blowing a line so he had to do a dreaded second take.

On top of these extras, each disc contains short video essays or interviews thematically related to each discs content. Filmmakers, musicians, drag acts, film scholars (including one of my old professors from USC) talk about Lewis, about his influence and his character and the character of his films. There’s some left-field extras, too: a short about carving meet that stars one of Lewis’ regular, an episode of a British TV show from the 80s about weird cinema. It’s probably as thorough a documentation as is possible of the man’s work and life, at least as it relates to the movies. It’s an impressive monument, and with his recent passing, memorial, to a genuine character in the film world.

For a new initiate (as I was, coming in) I can find a lot to admire in the audacity of Lewis’ brash commercialism, and his almost proto-punk attitude about making the movies Hollywood wouldn’t. Which doesn’t mean I loved the films. There was an awful lot of slogging to go through, and at least two of these movies that I watched and can barely remember a single thing from. This is a set for Lewis devotees, or people really interested in American cinema as a field of study. The best praise I can give this lavish boxset is that I can think of a good half dozen favorite directors of my own that I wish had something so lavish and lovingly put together to honor their careers.

Blood Feast
Lewis’ most famous movie, almost entirely by virtue of being first. The story involves a mysterious murderer of woman, who bludgeons them to death, then removes various limbs and organs from the bodies. The police are baffled, since no physical clues are left at the crime scenes. How exactly the criminal, whom we watch commit these terrible crimes, performs these miracles of non-detection is a mystery, since all he does is wander up to his victim, hit them with something, then saw out the various parts he needs.

In movies like this, it’s rarely worthwhile to look for coherence or an overall quality – it’s the parts that count. And Blood Feast has plenty of parts worth talking about afterwards. The most infamous scene is the tongue removal, where the murder (a worshipper of Ishtar who wants to recreate ancient religious rites) just reaches into a woman’s mouth and, after a longue struggle, tears out her tongue. It’s actually a lamb’s tongue, but it looks pretty freaky – though the most alarming part of the scene is the actor reaching forward and jamming his fingers into the actress’s mouth. That looked uncomfortable.

Blood Feast’s virtue is its gore – everything else about it is pretty dull. Barely a story, terrible acting, though thankfully often of the so bad it’s good variety – in once scene an actress is clearly reading her lines from a script that’s not quite hidden by the pillow she’s sitting next to. All of the acting is of the one take is good enough school, with slightly more professional actors being bowled over by the wide-eyed nearly shouting performances of the amateurs.

If any aspect of Blood Feast still shocks, it’s the matter of factness of the gore. Nastier things can be seen on The Walking Dead (though Blood Feast doesn’t take its goddamn time giving you something to see like that show) but it also revels in its exploitative nature. When it cuts off a woman’s leg, you watch that sucker being cut off. It doesn’t look the least bit real, but there merest human empathy still makes it sting (of course, the first murder inadvertently bares the victim’s breasts – we’re not killing people for charity here, we’re putting on a show.)

Scum of the Earth
Maybe more classically exploitative than Blood Feast (which, at the time, was one of a kind) Scum of the Earth is the sort of movie that tells you how horrible pornography is while showing you as many naked girls as the standards of the time allowed. Starring half the cast of Blood Feast, Scum was made just a few days later (or maybe earlier – the chronology is fuzzy with some of these movies), shot in black and white over six days.

And, to my mind, it’s the more accomplished, entertaining movie. It’s nasty as all get out, but it has a screenplay by the director that is sharper than Blood Feast, with more of a story. And the performances are by and large better. HGL’s regular William Kerwin (credited as Thomas Sweetwood) actually has a decent turn as a self-loathing photographer, so cynical he photographs his semi-girlfriend being raped by a muscle bound goon with barely a raised eyebrow. It’s the business, see.

The business is dirty pictures, being sold to the insatiable high school audience (I learned all about the 50s/60s porn industry from Ed Wood’s 1960 social drama The Sinister Urge, which has a similar plot to this movie, but less nudity.) The story is deplorable (intentionally) but has some interestingly weird scenes, and some fun dialogue. At one point, when talking to the porn distributor, the photographers says, “There’s only one person in the world more disgusting that you. Me.”

2000 Maniacs
This follow-up to Blood Feast was founded in that film’s success – Lewis said, after the returns from Blood Feast: “What if we made a good one?” So it is the attempt of the Lewis company to make a quality product – something that took longer than four days to make.

An epic relative to Blood Feast‘s almost claustrophobic austereness, 2000 Maniacs opens with a pair of hillbillies pulling shenanigans on a highway road – when the spotter sees a car with Yankee plates, he signals his partner, who puts up a fake detour sign. It’s a trap to lure northerners into a centennial celebration, where the residents of Pleasant Valley capture, torture and brutally murder their six guests in revenge for the civil war.

This is the first of Lewis’ movies obsessed with country life, and by far the most effective and brutal. After half an hour of preliminaries, when a loose Yankee woman wanders off with one of the local boys, he promptly cuts off her thumb. Then she’s dismembered and barbecued, and the games are afoot. There’s a horse race in which a Yankee is quartered by horses, a barrel roll where a man is put in a spiked barrel and rolled down a hill. Bill Kerwin and Connie Wilson from Blood Feast star here as the two who try to run away.

Sound on this picture is spotty and occasionally really bad, but the overall effect is something more interesting that Blood Feast. 2000 Maniacs occasionally feels like a real movie.

Moonshine Mountain
Real movieness isn’t something this other hillbilly picture ever achieves. Meant to be a low-rent Thunder Road, Moonshine Mountain doesn’t feature much of anything. It stars a guitar player who wrote the screenplay, telling the story of a singing star who wants to get back to his roots so he goes into high Appalachia. There, he meets a bunch of cornpone locals, a crooked sheriff, and very little resembling a plot. Scenes go on and on in HGL movies, and in Moonshine Mountain the centerpiece is a lengthy barn sing-along where the guitar player has to play for his life, so the sheriff doesn’t think he’s a Federal. The singing sequences, and there are several, are the best parts of this mostly snoozy affair. It contains a few little details of interest, things that feel like real-life country life even if they are made up: when he first gets to town, the guitar player (played by Charles Glore) is konked on the head by a local for his clothes, which he promptly swaps with the knocked-out man. But when the local goes to steal his fancy car, he realizes: “I don’t have no car to trade.” And so he leaves it.

Color Me Blood Red
For me, probably the most entertaining of the movies on this set, Color Me Blood Red takes a familiar trope of American horror pictures (the artist who murders for his art) and gives it the blatant, tasteless Lewis touch. Gordon Oas-Heim (who also played the sheriff in Moonshine Mountain) is Adam Sorg, a villainous painter who is mean to his girlfriend, dismissive of his public, yet weirdly subservient to the local critic, who hates his work… until he reveals his masterpiece, a painting made with human blood.

The blood was his girlfriend’s, who yelled at him one too many times, so he jams a knife in her face. It’s a bit of violence that makes these movies arresting – there’s no setup, not much art to it, no clever angles. The artist just shoves a knife into a woman’s face and she starts to scream. A scene later, he’s using her entire body as a brush, slapping her corpse down on the canvas, smearing her blood. Of course, one masterpiece of murder isn’t enough, so Sorg needs to kill more, and more.

Showing his mastery of not caring that much about tone, Lewis mixes this with a silly little romance picture – the daughter of one of Sorg’s collectors likes to go to the beach with her boyfriend and their hipster beatnik buddies. That’s about the extent of their “plotline” – they’re buddies, and go to the beach. Sorg decides the girl needs to be in his next painting when he spots her near his beach house. The obvious ensues.

Something Weird
The namesake of the video company who made so many of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ movies widely available in the ’90s and beyond, I had hoped that this movie would have a lot to offer. On the commentary we find out Mike Vraney named his company based on seeing the title and the logo, which makes sense. Something Weird is Weird, but not terribly memorable. After being disfigured by a downed electrical wire, Mitch develops psychic powers, but has to wear a mask to cover his face. So, of course, a hideous crone of a witch offers to fix his face with magic, of course. So then they go hunting serial killers, take LSD, and a fed Karate expert falls in love with the witch. Then his blanket attacks him. It sounds more interesting than it is.

The Gruesome Twosome
The first of Lewis’ deliberate attempts to connect gore and comedy, the Gruesome Twosome follows a pretty typical pattern for these flicks: interesting gore and boring everything else. It also has some genuine weirdness to the proceedings, which is another thing Lewis was good at. The premise here is that a crazy old woman, Mrs. Pringle, who addresses most of her lines to her stuffed cat Napoleon, has her mentally retarded son Rodney scalp women to supply her wig shop with real human hair. The three or four gore sequences are the star of this picture, particularly after Mrs. Pringle rewards her son with a new-fangled electric carving knife. The b-story, about a local girl detective who sees murder everywhere, is dull, but it does lead to a friggin’ crazy sequence at a drive-in movie theater, which consists of kids necking in a car, and what was apparently the movie they were watching, which included only a long shot of a man smashing fruit with his bare hands while his woman professes her love to him.

The Taste of Blood
A Lewis bid for respectability? Taste of Blood is Lewis’ most conventional horror flick, being a pretty straightforward modern Dracula tale. John Stone discovers he’s the inheritor of a title in the old country, and with the lands and title comes some instructions: he’s to drink the 100-year-old Brandy sent to him in toast to his ancestors. That brandy turns him into Dracula, and he proceeds to get ancient revenge for his forefather’s murder.

Atmospherics and mood clash head to head with Lewis’ leaden sense of pace and deep need to do everything in one take. That means that while there are effective sequences and an interesting sense of escalation, as Stone gets stranger and his wife begins to suspect things, there’s also lots and lots of clunkiness. Good looking enough at times to hardly seem like a Lewis movie, this is also almost two hours long. At 70 minutes all his movies begin to feel long, so this one…

She-devils on Wheels
The world’s first all-girl biker gang movie (and the most financially successful Lewis movie after Blood Feast), She-Devils on Wheels follows the Man-eaters, a disparate group of girls who race in the day and pick out manwhores by night. They have some solid rules for their group, probably best said in their gang motto: “Sex, guts, blood, all men are mothers!” When one of the gang gets too close to one of their boy-toys, the Man-eaters force her to drag him behind her bag across the train tracks, just to prove she hasn’t (gasp) fallen in love. In another movie, that would signal the beginning of her disillusionment with the gang world.

But in HGL’s movie world, it’s just another episode of violence and mayhem. Entertaining, with plenty of fun shots of girls riding bikes on Florida freeways, it also includes a wild decapitation scene when the Man-eaters are getting revenge on some evil boy bikers.

For the Hell of It
An exercise in random chaos and destruction, where a band of hoodlums smashes up houses, throws whitewash on people at random, lights small fires, and in one scene beat a man on the beach unconscious, chop up his boat, throw him into the water and leave his girl in the sand, stripped and raped. Things get out of hand. But perhaps nothing better captures the zany nihilism as the scene, shown in the credits then repeated later in the movie, where the gang finds a man just out of the hospital, covered in bandages and walking on crutches. They steal his crutches, knock him down, and then beat him with them until the crutches are all broken up. There’s a plot in there somewhere about a good kid who tangles with the gang. It doesn’t work out well for him. But the best aspect of the movie is the theme song, written by Lewis and performed by some local band – “Destruction! Destruction!”

The Wizard of Gore
To some, the masterpiece, The Wizard of Gore is a weird bit of cinema – Lewis was near the height of his filmmaking powers and technical prowess here, and he’d taken away much of the pretense of story. In this film, there is a wizard who cruelly dismembers audience members on stage – but to the audience (and, weirdly, the victim) it all just seems like a normal trick… until a few hours later, when the grisly effects of his monstrous magic become real. One woman is sawed in half with a chainsaw (gore splattering into her mouth), another has a hole punched into her with a punch press. Two more swallow swords. Our heroes are a TV anchor and a newspaperman who connect the murders to the Wizard, but can’t figure out just quite what he’s doing. The climax is a bizarre bit of identity bending that does what is the customary Lewis trick: give you a hint that there’s a little more going on in his head than the movie you’re watching would indicate.

How to Make a Doll
An old man makes a computer that can print women, then gets transferred inside of it and demands his colleague go out and pick up chicks so he can live through him. And then when that plot gets resolved, there’s 20 minutes of movie left. Looking over the notes I kept while watching the movie, there were my thoughts while watching: “this scene goes on forever” a few lines later: “…on and on and on…” later; “goddamn this is boring”, finally: “STOP STOP STOP!” I did not like this movie.

That Stuff’ll Kill Ya
There’s a loud preacher. There’s booze. There’s some killings. There’s the guy from L.A. Law who was also in Darkman and Dr. Giggles. That’s about all I remember of this snoozer of a hillbilly movie.

The Gore Gore Girls
HGL’s final film, his most polished product, and finally a combination of his twin cinematic worlds: the nudie film with the gore film. The only one of these movies (besides Scum of the Earth) with significant nudity, it also has the most elaborate gore sequences of them all. There’s a killer who hates strippers, and who tears their faces to pieces after slitting their throats. There’s a weird private detective, who’s blasé about the murders, tailed around a nosy reporter who is passionate about two things: the detective, and getting very drunk. Arguably the sleaziest of Lewis’ films, there’s a lot of time spent in girl bars, watching girls take most of their clothes off, go home, and then get hideously butchered by the murderer. The gore goes wildly over the top in this picture but a buoyant sense of humor (particularly from the detective characters) and the ever present sense of weirdness (like the bartender who draws faces on melon and smashes them with his bare hands for therapy) keep it from being too grueling or nasty. A fitting end to a strange and fitful career.

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Kent Conrad

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