Herschell Gordon Lewis, “the godfather of (direct marketing and) gore,” died today at age 87. As the director of Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), The Wizard of Gore (1970), The Gore Gore Girls (1972), and countless others, his place in film history is secure. In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview HGL for an article I wrote for NPR. The occasion was the rediscovery of three long-lost sexploitation films he directed pseudonymously: The Ecstasies of Women (1969), Linda and Abilene (1969), and Black Love (1971), which were restored and re-released by Vinegar Syndrome. These were decidedly minor works, and HGL was less-than-pleased by their resurrection, but he graciously agreed to be interviewed (“I’m just happy NPR knows who I am!” he said, which floored me).
Here is a transcript of that interview:
WS: It says something about the intensity of your fan following that they were able to raise the money to restore impersonal movies like these.
HGL: Good heavens. But it also shows the gradual decline of intellect in this country!
WS: I guess that’s what people have been saying about your films for years, right?
HGL: They certainly have. Well no, they claim that I am the principal cause of the decline of intellect.
WS: Does it surprise you that people want to see even movies like these?
HGL: The only thing that surprises me, Will, is that after all these years that not just interest still exists, but that the pictures themselves still exist. There never have been movies more primitive than the ones that I originated and other people jumped onto. And that applies not just to that type of movie — we called them just ‘gory movies,’ they’re now called ‘splatter films,’ which has given them some cachet, which I’m not averse to accepting whether they deserve it or not.
WS: I was surprised to learn that for a number of years, many of your films were thought lost, apparently because your secretary threw out a lot of your prints.
HGL: She did. That was dear old Charlotte who stored the negatives in her basement, and when I found she’d thrown them, she said — and this is typical of the intellectual decline — she said, ‘You should be thanking me for having saved them all these years.’ A total tribute to non sequitur! Some of them, of course, have survived in beat-up form. Example: Moonshine Mountain. Our principal distributor of that motion picture was in Charlotte, North Carolina — a company called Dominant Pictures of the Carolinas — and he controlled not just the Charlotte exchange, but also Atlanta and Jacksonville, which meant all the South, really, from Virginia all the way to Florida. And I had given up on that, because that negative was one of the ones that had disappeared in the great throwaway. About… it must be five years ago I had a phone call from him, and he said, ‘Great news!’ — and I don’t know how he even tracked me down — he says, ‘I’m retiring, and you know what I found in our vault? A good print of Moonshine Mountain!’ I said, ‘That is spectacular! Send it at once to Jimmy Maslin!’
Now, the name Jimmy Maslin may be of no consequence to you, but Jimmy Maslin really is the reason these movies still exist. For some reason he made a career out of buying up my old movies, and he is the current owner of not just Moonshine Mountain, but some of the better-known pictures such as Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs. So, Harry sent this movie, his print, to Jimmy Maslin, and about a week later Jimmy called me laughing his head off. He said, ‘What am I, your private junk pile?!’ I said, ‘Whaddya mean?’ He said, ‘I have just received a print of Moonshine Mountain in the worst condition I have ever seen any movie to be! It is really almost one hundred percent splices!’ But gentleman that he was, and knowing that this was a venerable movie that has some personal history for me, he had as much restoration done as he possibly could and sent me a DVD. And I guess now he’s released what’s left of it in some sort of a commercial venture.
What’s really puzzling: if you go to a legitimate distributor such as Netflix, Netflix has a number of my movies. And again, that’s a very sad commentary on what’s going on in the world of motion pictures — but I’m not about to object to it!
WS: What’s the story with The Gore-Gore Girls? I was surprised that you lost that one.
HGL: Well The Gore-Gore Girls, which was I thought going to be the last movie I ever made — which shows how cloudy the crystal ball can be — I made that movie, and then almost immediately transferred my interest in it to other people, saying that I could not turn down the deal that was made. I said, ‘Okay, farewell, so long, it’s been good to know you.’ Then, subsequently, I kept hearing that the movie had disappeared forever, and I couldn’t track it down beyond a laboratory which claimed that they had turned it over to somebody else and they didn’t know quite who, or maybe they just were disinclined to move their records at any great distance.
But once again, Jimmy Maslin wound up with The Gore Gore Girls. And one benefit I guess that brings into the arena: that movie, which is the first of that type to combine outrageous gore and outrageous humor, was simply ahead of its time. And to this day — and I’m talking about this day in the middle of the year 2012 — the gender gap has never been so profoundly displayed as it has been when The Gore Gore Girls shows anywhere. I remember when I had a first screening of it, anybody under age 40 thought it was the biggest hoot that he or she had ever seen; anybody over age 50 thought I should be strung up by my thumbs. And that really, even know, represents the difference, I think, in attitudinal reactions that this type of movie tends to generate.
WS: Y’know, I think The Gore-Gore Girls is the one in particular that has some stuff in it that still is absolutely appalling, like, some stuff that you can still get a big shock out of.
HGL: Oh yes, absolutely. Oh, well, that nipple scene in that movie…
WS: Yeah, I’m thinking that in particular…
HGL: That was one that gave me great pause, because I was quite aware that we were going down a very, very peculiar road studded with spikes. And yet, you see, when you’re in a competitive situation — and remember when this was made, it was deep in the game — the movie business was and is incestuous. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing. In fact, if you watch the evening news on Sunday at seven o’clock at night, they will tell you then, of the movies that have opened the previous two days before on Friday, which are going to be a big success and which are going to be bombs.
Now, for us independents, we live on our wits — we have no massive distributional structure behind us. And so, I felt that with that movie, by pulling that particular string, I might open up an avenue that otherwise would have been closed because others were making movies of the type that I had made and they had three elements that I never had. One: they had budgets. I never did have a decent budget. Number two: they had production capability, including both semi-star names and a super-structure to make these movies. I never made a movie generally in a studio — we were shooting in apartments and on the street. And the third thing they had was implicit distribution — a major factor, which, again, had always escaped me. So this I felt might, might close part of that gap.
Anyway, here we are in this year and Netflix has at least a half a dozen of my old movies.
WS: And you’re active again…
HGL: Well yes, I was inactive in the movie business because I thought it was over. And over a period of years, every now and then somebody would say, ‘Let’s make Blood Feast 2.’ That kind of thing happened so often that I developed a kind of defense mechanism. I said, ‘Put your deal together and call me,’ which effectively got rid of them, because all they wanted was to get their names in Variety, or something of that sort… until somebody actually put a deal together and called me. You see, that again started a mild renaissance because when I made Blood Feast 2, it was not my script, it was not my cast, it was not anything I had anything to do with except sit in a chair because they wanted to use my name. But that was in itself frustrating, and I said, ‘Hey, it’s time for me to make one of my own.’ And that became the basis of The Uh-Oh Show, which is now, I’ll call it my most recent venture.
WS: Linda and Abilene and The Ecstasies of Women are produced by Thomas J. Dowd, who had credits on some of your other films. Who was he?
HGL: Thomas J. Dowd owned a theater in Chicago called the Capri, and the Capri Theater was on the corner of Van Buren St. and Wabash Ave. And the reason I’m so familiar with this is because at a time when our fortunes were ebbing rather severely, Dave Friedman, who was my partner on many of these pictures, came to me one day and said, for a movie we had just made called The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, and he said, ‘I can make a deal with Tom Dowd to play Lucky Pierre at the Capri. He’s willing to play the picture. Now the problem we had with Lucky Pierre is we were totally out of money. The laboratory, in a moment of insanity, had given us a deal in which they said no money would be due until 90 days after they had deliver the answer print. An answer print is the first print. In today’s computer-driven situation, the answer print is usually pretty good, but then it was all done by eye. The answer print for Lucky Pierre, to be gracious, was dreadful. That’s all we had, and we could not even make another print, so I said, ‘Dave, we have to give Tom Dowd the answer print!’ He said, ‘He’ll play it.’ So Tom Dowd, who got the answer print to The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, opened it at the Capri Theater.
The story of Lucky Pierre: the story runs exactly 70 minutes, which is 6,300 feet of 35mm film. We only bought 8,000 feet of film! Cut the slates off, there was nothing left! It was as home-made a project as anybody ever put together — I should say, cobbled together! Lucky Pierre ran nine weeks at the Capri and broke the house record and suddenly we were back in business, so I owed Tom Dowd for that one.
But beyond that, Tom, who was quite an astute businessman, said to himself, ‘Hey, wait a minute — if these guys, who have zero talent and no money behind them can make a movie like that that does this kind of business, how about me? I own a theater. And since some of the people making this kind of movie are in the theater business, I’ll say to them that I’ll play your picture if you play mine.’ So Tom decided to make movies. Now, gentleman that he was, he never took a competitive attitude towards it. I had an ancient Volkswagon bus crammed with obsolete equipment, so Tom and I made a deal where I would direct his movies. He had a rather peculiar idiosyncrasy — he wanted to use French names for everybody. I’ve forgotten what some of my French names were, but nobody had his actual name on a Tom Down movie. So, The Ecstasies of Women and Linda & Abilene were two of Tom Dowd’s movies.
Now, one aspect of Linda & Abilene that is really worthy of some sort of an asterisk: we shot that movie at the Spahn Ranch in California… which is where this lunatic Manson and his gang were hanging around. Later on, I was pleased that nobody got knifed or shot or strangled. We just knew they were very odd people
WS: Did you ever see them?
HGL: Oh yes, they were all over the place! In fact, we came close to having an altercation. They had a little dog, and they had put a little bell around the dog’s neck, and every time the dog moved, the bell rang. It was driving this dog crazy. So someone on our team took that bell off the dog and was approached quickly by one of his people, who said, ‘Next time that happens, you’re not going to wake up the next morning.’ We just laughed it off, but later on I thought, holy smokes!
Of course, the ‘ranch’ itself, that’s a euphemism – it was a totally beat-up piece of property, and one problem in trying to shoot something in the old west is, there were telephone wires and electrical wires all over the place. Which they didn’t have in the middle-1800s.
WS: These films would have been very deep into the sexploitation boom, wouldn’t they? These would have been a little bit before hardcore.
HGL: Oh yes. At no time did any of us ever consider hardcore. First of all, I, for example, had small children at the time, and it was embarrassing enough… some of them would say, ‘What kind of movies do you make?’ I couldn’t even go so far as to say ‘erotic movies.’ That was one reason when I saw the thing becoming crowded, and I saw the direction it was taking — because how many times are you going to show people playing volleyball, or jumping on a trampoline — before you say, ‘Wait, what can we do next?’ And that’s when really I began to say to myself, ‘What kind of motion picture might there be the major companies either cannot make or will not make, but some brave theater might show and some brave theatergoer might pay to watch?’
But you see, Tom had that edge, and he had discovered this pretty young girl out there, her name was Sharon Matt, and he wanted to star her in these movies. But these were the only kind of movies he could make safely and he knew it, because above all else Tom was a businessman. Now, shortly thereafter he sold the Capri Theater — I think the building was torn down to build up some sort of a Hughes Insurance empire, or whatever — and Tom moved to Clearwater, Florida, and that was really the end of his career.
And what was strange is, some years later his widow called me to ask if I had any prints to any of his movies. I said, ‘No, I certainly don’t, there’s no reason for me to have them.’ She said, ‘I’m just making sure,’ because in Tom’s final instructions when he died, he asked that his son Kevin take any old projects or any cans or whatever and throw them in the town dump. He simply was saying, ‘I never existed in that business’! But of course he did, and his name is revered because no matter what kind of movie he made, he was a gentleman, and that kind of characteristic is rare in the motion picture business.
WS: Now, Black Love is by Bob Smith…
HGL: Bob Smith — Bob was a black guy, by the way, who owned a Baskin and Robbins franchise on the south side of Chicago. And he simply wandered into my office one day and said, ‘I wanna make one of these things’ — he had friends or whatever who had the cash. The one addition that Black Love made to the arsenal: he had some fellow in there who had a huge hole in his shoulder! It was very strange! Whether he had been shot or whatever, I don’t know — he was well built, but he had a hole in his shoulder. And that’s where we learned to use mortician’s wax — to fill that hole. That was a major discovery on our kind of movie.
WS: Was he one of the leading men?
HGL: I guess, yes. All I did was photograph it. That was my total capability.
WS: So much for the auteur theory.
HGL: Well, I think Bob Smith regarded himself as an auteur. One negative there: he made a deal with a fellow named Stan Colberg who owned somme theaters around Chicago, and Stan had been our partner on a couple of movies, including Two Thousand Maniacs. And we all wound up… the other partners wound up suing Stan Colberg. To this day, I regard him — and I say this editorially, please be gentle, don’t get me involved in some sort of a slander suit with his heirs — he made a deal to open Black Love together with one of my movies, which was Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In, and I thought those pictures should absolutely not have been paired together. That was absolutely typical of him. He said to Bob Smith, ‘Your picture’s in second position, so we’ll get the position, so you don’t get a percentage.’ He said to us, ‘Your picture’s in second position you don’t get a percentage — it’s strictly a flat fee,’ which was a way of avoiding paying the kind of film rentals he should have paid. But that was how Black Love first went into release.
WS: What kind of a shooting schedule did these films have?
HGL: Typically, three to four days.
WS: And budgets would have been … twenty thousand, maybe?
HGL: Well, twenty thousand was a lot of money. I would say that in most cases, the budget was whatever we could get away with by paying actors and actresses typically fifty dollars a day each. Also, typically, the music would come from me. I had a little film studio in Chicago called United Film and Recording there in Chicago, and they had a piano, an organ and a celeste, so I was able to dink out most of the background music for these movies, which would cost us nothing. We would edit this stuff on the world’s oldest moviola. Someone once said to me regarding what I had as equipment, ‘That stuff oughta be in the Smithsonian,’ and my answer was, ‘Where do you think I got it?’
But you see, it was all done with high good humor. That’s something that seems to have disappeared over the years in filmmaking.
WS: Now that these are coming out – I know that Something Weird releases a lot of your deep-cut stuff – it might be that everything you’ve made will be available now. I think almost all of theme
HGL: Almost all of them are, yeah. Something Weird Video out of Seattle is owned by a man named Mike Vraney, and Mike Vraney is a very close associate of Jimmy Maslin, so anything that Jimmy owns, Mike Vraney will distribute, and Jimmy owns all the old movies, as far as I know.
WS: They’ve even found some of the ones like Monster A-Go-Go…
HGL: There again, Monster A-Go-Go was not my movie. Bill Rebane made Monster A-Go-Go — he called it Terror at Halfday. I bought it at the laboratory, they had taken it on a laboratory lien, and the reason I bought it, I knew nothing about the movie, I had shot as his cameraman, not his director, he was a self-director. But on one day under Wacker Drive there in Chicago he needed a crew desperately because he’d put this thing together somehow, and he hired me to operate the camera. Of course, I had a 35mm Mitchell camera, so I simply was his cameraman on one day, I had no idea what the plot was. But when I talked to the laboratory, which was pitching me on this movie because they knew I needed a second-half to go with Moonshine Mountain, they said, ‘There’s 80,000 feet of film here.’ Well, I don’t think all the movies I made put together had 80,000 feet! But it shows how wrong I could be, because when I got that in my hands, first of all, somebody had cut off all the slates, so I had to pick this thing up by eye. It was a dreadful chore. It made no sense at all, there were big holes in it, I shot a thousand feet of film of just feet walking and a close-up of a hand on a telephone just to make a movie out of it and gave it a title. Because I knew that the so-called ‘leading man’ was an old vaudeville guy named Henry Height, and many years before there’d been an act on the stage called ‘Low, Height and Stanley,’ and Low was a midget, and Height was billed as ‘the World’s Tallest Man,’ and Stanley was just a rich guy. From the story I heard, Stanley left the act — well, he was the most replaceable of the three, but that was the end of it. And her was Henry Height living in some old beat-up hotel on Rush Street in Chicago wondering where his next meal would come from, and he was in such terrible physical condition his ankles wouldn’t support him anymore. So, to get him to shoot even one more scene for this movie struck me as an impossibility.
But that’s the story of that movie. I am constantly being discredited with that movie! Hey baby, it ain’t mine!
WS: I’m sorry!
HGL: That’s okay, I did put it into release — I should say, into excretion, because I put together a campaign for it, and that’s what makes a difference for a movie of that sort.
WS: Just out of curiosity, do you have any ownership of any of the old movies?
HGL: No, none.
HGL: None. The only thing I own — I wouldn’t say I own, I have a percentage deal on the new movie, on The Uh-Oh Show. But there again, I made something of an error putting that together. I wrote it and I directed it, but in the agreements, the fellow who took the producer position… now, a producer, as you are aware, is the one that is in charge of the money, and so I can’t ever quarrel with anybody who puts up money. I could have financed the thing myself, but I would have gotten a divorce in the process and a divorce would cost me even more money. He took command of distribution, and I am very much unhappy with the distribution deal that he made on The Uh-Oh Show. But, I’m supposed to get 10 percent of gross revenue.