These days Herschell Gordon Lewis has made a pretty penny for himself as a direct communicator—one might say a "shining light"—in the sophisticated world of general advertising and direct marketing. He is without peer. Nobody has written more books (20+ and counting). Nobody has written more articles (he writes monthly columns for a number of trade journals). Certainly nobody is more respected.
As former chairman of Communicomp, a full-service direct marketing agency with clients throughout the world, now renamed as a division of the advertising holding company Interpublic, Herschell Gordon Lewis now heads Lewis Enterprises, through which he writes and consults individually. Some of his clients include Barnes & Noble, Lens Express, and CNA Insurance. He is arguably the best-known direct response writer and consultant in the United States, with a background that includes more than 20 years as adjunct lecturer to graduate classes in Mass Communications at Roosevelt University, Chicago.
Incidentally—though hardly—Lewis is also the Godfather of Gore. Ever respectful of his key role in the vanguard of exploitation cinema in the '60s, he embraces his past with vigor and enthusiastically spoke with me by phone about film projects past and future.
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Michael Guillén: I appreciate your taking the time to wander down memory lane with me a little bit.
Herschell Gordon Lewis: More like stagger….
Guillén: First and foremost, I want to be clear that I'm aware that your current genius is in direct marketing, but I do appreciate that—as you say—you're willing to "stagger" down memory lane with me today. I was wondering if you have exchanged any meaningful glances with motel sphinxes lately?
Lewis: [Laughs.] The Suez Motel, sadly, was torn down two years ago so the little sphinx there is long gone. Somebody graciously—I think!—sent me some pieces of cement from the Suez Motel. Now what am I supposed to do which a chunk of cement from an ex-motel?
Guillén: You could probably get good money for it on EBay!
Lewis: It's probably floating down some river somewhere or sitting at the bottom. I'm not sure what your question means. Do you mean am I currently at anything or what?
Guillén: I was just joking. No filmmaker has probably attracted more alliterative appellatives than you. You're the Guru of Gore, the Godfather of Gore, the Dean of Direct Marketing, and so on and so forth. Are there any particular nicknames that you like?
Lewis: Well, I'm usually referred to as "Hey, You!" [Laughs.] That's a strange question. People have asked me whether I object to being called the Godfather of Gore. No, I don't! Good heavens. I don't want it on my epitaph but I certainly don't object to it being there.
John Wisniewski for Bright Lights Film Journal: "I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an artform and spends money based on that immature philosophy." Clearly, your psychological motivations for filming these gore fantasies was the box office, where you did much better than anyone might have expected at the time. Though you were aiming for the immediate payoff, did you ever imagine your films would achieve the cult status they have achieved? Or the influence they've had on the horror genre itself?
Lewis: No. If I had known that, I might have spent more time making them. But, you see, that's the chimera; that's the dilemma on whose horns I might have been impaled. If I had spent more money making them, then chances are that I would not have made as many as I did, and whether or not the additional money poured into it would have reflected itself in additional interest, either by gorehounds seeing them in movie theaters or by the critics attacking them—which has always been a very nice thing to have happen—that's questionable. To me the concept was simply one of trying to make the kind of motion picture that someone would want to see and that some theater might show. You see, that's part of it too.
One reason that today we have so much stuff, the things that are shot on digital that are being sent directly to video, is that these pieces are made on an ego basis rather than on a business-like basis. Of course I've become a firm believer in serendipity. I found a niche that had not been occupied. I jumped into that niche with both feet and yet with great caution because what if I had made a movie of this type and nobody ever would play it? Then this would be another movie at the time—and there were plenty of them—that would be sitting rotting away in some film laboratory vault waiting for somebody to pay for it. That was a risk I didn't care to take. So, obviously, the combination of trying to make a movie no one had made before and trying to make a movie that would minimize the risk—those two things were not at all at odds in my mind.
My opinion is firm that no one has ever walked out of a movie because of a ragged pan. People have walked out of movies or sent them back to Netflix after looking at 10 seconds of them, saying "This is pretty doggone dull; I don't want to see any more of this." Word of mouth can break you in half or word of mouth can make you a giant. It depends on the entertainment value. It doesn't depend on the critics saying, "Gee. Look at the miserable level of acting in this movie."
Guillén: I'm fascinated that you're in a position to criticize auteurship as well as to criticize those who have followed you thinking making a low-budget movie guarantees anything. You have said that auteurship damages communication. Can you expand on what you mean by that?
Lewis: The difference between auteurship and showmanship, in my opinion, is light years because it's the difference between making a movie for yourself or making a movie for people you've never heard of and who have never heard of you before. I see this all the time. I see people who don't make movies, they give birth, and that their words are inviolate. Not at all. That simply is not my position and everyone is obviously free to criticize—and certainly I've been criticized, probably more than anybody else, even comparatively with Ed Wood, who I consider something of an auteur—not because of the movie but the intention behind it. The intention behind what one produces, whether it's a movie or a book, is not necessarily dependent on what the individual who creates it wants to say about it.
Blood Feast (1963) audiences?
Lewis: Barf bags. We had ambulances sitting outside the theater. On the barf bags we printed: "You may need this when you see Blood Feast." What was funny was we also had paperback books, which we passed out to theater owners at theater owner conventions and they would look and say, "What's this? Who are these people?" John Waters told me last week—I happened to be in Baltimore on another matter and we had a very pleasant reunion getting together—that he had tracked down the original Blood Feast paperback book!
My point would be that, if you live long enough, you become legitimate. Some of the comments that I hear today are totally out of sync with the comments I heard when we first made these movies. At the time, I suppose I was regarded as an outlaw in the movie business. "Who is this screwball who isn't even in California? And who's grinding out this stuff like so much hamburger?" Which is fairly apt, I guess, for that kind of movie. But it reached a point at which other producers were sending me their films to do the campaigns and I felt that was, perhaps, in showbiz the ultimate compliment; that somebody else would say, "Hey. You know how to campaign a picture."
Guillén: What redeems your exploitive gore films—if redemption is even necessary—is their abiding sense of humor. Can you speak some about the strategic blend of horror and humor?
Lewis: I can, and I'd be delighted to because—if we get to make Grim's Fairy Tales, and I've been in negotiation for months and months with somebody to produce this thing—it is in my opinion, at least for the time being, the ultimate blend between gore and humor. You see, we've come through future shock and rocketed out the other end of it. The day of just raw—what should I call it?—bloodletting is about to go into eclipse. We have movies that are unrelentingly unpleasant. For my stuff, I want the audience to sit there and realize that we didn't take any of it seriously and that they don't take any of it seriously.
The Gore Gore Girls (1972), which was—I felt at the time (which shows how cloudy the crystal ball can be)—I felt it would be my last movie. I opened the spigot all the way. I had some things in there that I couldn't imagine anyone taking seriously. Well, as it turned out—and I'll make a sweeping, generic statement—anyone under age 40 thought it was hilarious; anyone over age 55 thought it was impossible, that I should be arrested, that I had spent my life in a Georgia chain gang, or whatever. That was the gap that existed then.
Today the people who were 40 then are now on MediCare and another generation has come up behind them. I will occasionally be invited to a horror film festival and the demographic there is really surprising because the average individual who attends these horror conventions was not alive when I made Blood Feast and 2,000 Maniacs (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) and The Gore Gore Girls and Wizard of Gore (1970), and so on. They weren't alive. So I am there, supposedly, not as emeritus but as sort of a historical icon. That's funny too because here were movies that cost absolutely nothing to make, with casts of nobodies, and certainly no production value worth anything, and they still live, they still breathe, they are still selling dvds at a time in which some major companies' productions that were made six months ago have simply vanished into oblivion. I think the rationale behind that is that today's audiences know the difference between a producer or a director who's having a good time and saying, "Hey, c'mon, join me" and a producer or a director who is so enamored of what he is doing that he loses sight of the person on the other end of the camera, on the screen looking at it, saying, "Eh, so what?" Today, with the gap having narrowed so much between independent and major company product, it becomes more significant than ever.
Lewis: I desperately miss the drive-in theaters. One of the problems that exists today—we see it in two directions—is what you might call the "mass response syndrome". You go to a theater and people talk because they're used to watching movies at home. They either rent the movie from Blockbuster or they got it from Netflix or they bought the DVD somewhere, maybe from Amazon or someplace, and they're used to being on a more intimate level than these movies were made to be. So that's another reason why in today's marketplace a gore movie or splatter film or whatever terminology one wants to use should—in order to compete effectively—recognize that it's more one-to-one than it's been in the past. It should entertain as well as surprise.
Guillén: You have frequently been quoted as saying that you specifically set out to create films that the major studios couldn't or wouldn't make. You are the symbol of the true independent filmmaker. With the proliferation of so-called "independent cinema"—we just had Sundance—any ideas on what might be exploitable nowadays?
Lewis: In today's marketplace?
Lewis: On an independent level?
Guillén: The verisimilitude of your films are for a specific audience. You're not aiming at the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Yet, even in your outreach, you have been equally specific about what you were not interested in depicting, just as you're indicating now. One was you drew the line at sadomasochism. Even though your victims died horribly, they died quickly. What do you think of the recent flare-up in so-called "torture horror"?
Guillén: I agree absolutely. I watched Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), and then I just lost interest because I didn't enjoy them. Not like I enjoyed your films where I would be grossed out but it was fun.
Lewis: I'm glad to hear you say that.
Guillén: Chicago's Bloodshed Theatre aka Cinema Bizarre was noteworthy for introducing enactments of gore live on stage. Here in San Francisco The Primitive Screwheads are direct descendants of that tradition. Are you familiar with them?
Lewis: I'm not but I'm delighted to hear it. [Chuckles.]
Guillén: They've performed on-stage renditions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Evil Dead (1981), and Re-Animator (1985) and will soon be mounting their adaptation of Halloween (1978). I have fantasized on your being pulled into a program with them.
Lewis: Invite me. I think it's a terrific idea. What we did at the Bloodshed, we would be showing the original Dracula (1931), for example, with Bela Lugosi and—between changing reels—two people would come out in front of the screen, one would slash the throat of the other, who would drop to the floor gushing blood. Then the audience—we hoped—applauded. Then the two would just get up and walk away and we'd continue the movie. What it did, obviously, was create word of mouth far beyond the value of two people coming out on the stage with a little rubber tubing that ran behind a knife so that some blood would gush. I found that to be fascinating. We had to close that down because of the political climate in that year. We were in a section of Chicago called Old Town and it was just, frankly, unsafe to be in that area at night. There was a terrible change of the demographic there.
She Devils on Wheels (1968) paved the way for Easy Rider (1969) one year after. Or Just For The Hell Of It (1968) preceded A Clockwork Orange (1971). I'm sure you didn't set out to be an influence on later generations of filmmakers, and yet that's exactly what's happened. Do folks step up and acknowledge that to you?
Lewis: They do, yes, and it pleases me because in a sense it's a peripheral aspect of what we tried to do. If I'm saying I want to make the kind of pictures that nobody else is making, and then it takes some years before someone else does make one, that means I have at least succeeded in my original intention.
Guillén: One young filmmaker who is being frequently referenced to you is Anna Biller, who openly pays homage to your dalliance with sexploitation films like The Girl, The Body and The Pill (1967) and Suburban Roulette (1968). Do you know Anna and her work?
Lewis: I'm sorry to tell you I don't.
Guillén: She's someone you might want to keep an eye out for because she's purposely playing with the sexploitation films of the '60s. They're nuanced differently than yours. Her recent film Viva (2007) is like a parody of a parody, twice-removed, but interesting work nonetheless.
Lewis: It's very nice to have people say that they felt that I was a positive influence. [Laughs.]
Guillén:The last film you directed was Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002), which other than the direct-to-video Blood Trilogy Outtakes (1996), was your first feature since The Gore Gore Girls 30 years previously. Why the interest in making a comeback and revisiting gore? Don't you have enough money? Or was it just for the fun of self-parody?
Jacky Morgan put the deal together and called me. There were two—I won't call them problems—there were two circumstances that made it less-than-perfect. One was it wasn't the script I would have liked to make and, second, I was a hired hand. I was hired to direct that movie. I think what they wanted really was the cachet of my name, which that didn't bother me at all because I had a rollicking good time.
Guillén: Dennis Harvey actually didn't give it a bad review in Variety. I mean, it wasn't a rave but it was respectful. So what's coming up for you now? You're doing this film Grim Fairy Tales? Dare I ask what it's about?
Lewis: It's total black humor. Yes, it's crawling with gore, but it's also crawling with a kind of lightheadedness that everybody—I don't care what age, what background, what education—everybody has to say, hey, this is fun. As it opens immediately with a gore shot, the audience knows immediately that the whole thing is phony.
Guillén: It'd be great if we could get San Francisco's Hole in the Head festival to premiere it!
Lewis: Well, I have to make it. We haven't started Grim's Fairy Tales. I thought I had an agreement with a producer who came down here to my home several times and we were hammering out a deal to make it, but if you know the movie business, you'll know what I mean when I say he simply disappeared. He vanished!
Guillén: Producers have a way of doing that. Well, Herschell, I really thank you for taking the time to talk with me. What a pleasure. I love your work and look forward to anything you do in the future.
Lewis: The pleasure was mine because these were intelligent questions, most of which haven't been asked before. That's rare. So I salute you, my friend.