More proof that the American movie industry is a big tent and its far corners almost always shady, Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore is the documentary story of two hucksters who kept themselves in cheap cigars by making exploitation films in the 1960s.
The men, Herschell Gordon Lewis, from Chicago, and David F. Friedman, a Southern-fried carnie, started in what were called nudie cuties, making films with titles like The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961) and Goldilocks and the Three Bares (1963). Not even Pierre got lucky in these movies, however. There was no sex in Lewis-Friedman films, just healthy women enjoying the cleansing sun, playing volleyball and bouncing on trampolines – everyone naked as a tomato.
Bored and likely more than a little embarrassed (to enter nudist camps, the filmmakers had to strip down to their cigars), Lewis and Friedman turned to making, some say inventing, the modern splatter film – genre exercises that, in the words of critic Michael Arnzen, “self-consciously revel in the special effects of gore as an art form.”
Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) would lead to walking dead and revving Texas chainsaws, contend the documentary’s makers, Frank Henenlotter and Jimmy Maslon. Interview subjects, filmmaker John Waters and drive-in movie aficionado, Joe Bob Briggs, concur.
Others may suggest splatter started with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Hammer Films in Britain – Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee harvesting body parts in Transylvania. Really though, only cult enthusiasts will appreciate The Godfather of Gore as cinema history.
The rest of us are left with a bunch of great stories about cheerfully unsavoury characters. When Blood Feast had its world premiere at the Bel-Air Drive-In in Peoria, Ill., Lewis and Friedman brought their dolled-up wives, who sat silently, arms folded, through the picture.
On the way home, Lewis finally spoke:
“Tell me honey, what do you think of the film?”
“In one word, vomitous,” she replied.
That’s brilliant, thought Lewis, all but snapping his fingers. And when the film opened elsewhere, he had a ready publicity stunt: free airline barf bags given out to customers with five dollars to prove their brave stomachs.
Partner Friedland had a way to reduce costs on four-day Florida shoots – product placement. The producer loved Kentucky Fried Chicken and cooked up a deal with a local distributor, receiving 100 free pieces a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner for the crew!) with the understanding that a few legs and breasts showed up on screen.
KFC founder Colonel Sanders, wearing his trademark white suit and black string tie, even appeared in Blast-Off Girls (1967), serving juvenile delinquents Kentucky-fried poultry parts.
Friedland and Lewis are interviewed, both apart and together in the film. (Friedland died earlier this year.) And we get the impression that Lewis, who taught English at Mississippi State, fell under fast-talking, Alabama-born Friedland’s spell, almost like a little boy running off to join the circus.
Clearly, that’s where Friedland thought he was. A cameraman remembers driving with the producer back in the day, wheeling down Miami in a big convertible, their stomachs warm and full of free fried chicken.
“You’re spoilt now,” Friedland told the youngster, a college boy. “How are you going to go back to a regular life once you’ve lived the carnie?”
Special to The Globe and Mail
Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore
- Directed by Frank Henenlotter and Jimmy Maslon
- Featuring Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman, John Waters, Joe Bob Briggs and Colonel Sanders