Herschell Gordon Lewis is cheerfully ambivalent about his place in film history. "What's really puzzling: if you go to a legitimate distributor such as Netflix, Netflix has a number of my movies," says Lewis from his home in Florida. "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."
Whether or not Lewis' Blood Feast (1963) was "a blot on the American film industry" (as the LA Times proclaimed) is, of course, debatable, but its instantly iconic scene of a tongue being torn out earned Lewis as devoted a cult following as any American exploitation filmmaker. He would be the first to tell you that the low-budget horror film was technically crude, but for its pioneering work in exhibiting gory violence, it helped make the slasher genre possible. "His films are impossible to defend," wrote John Waters in his book Shock Value. "Thus, he automatically becomes one of the all-time great directors in film history."
Now, less than a month since announcing the discovery of three of long-unseen soft-core sexploitation movies Lewis directed, the Connecticut film restoration company Process Blue has raised more than $10,000 of crowd-sourced money on Kickstarter for restoration and distribution. But one person who sees little value in the rediscovery is Lewis himself. "These are not my pictures ... I directed those movies, but I had neither any ownership nor any say in the content. I was just a hired hand."
Joe Rubin, one of the founders of Process Blue, still hopes that Lewis will come on board. "The vibe that I've sort of got from some friends of mine who tried to reach out to him is, because he's not terribly happy with these films, didn't really care for them when he made them, in a sense, he was sort of content with the fact that they had remained unseen for forty years."
Certainly Lewis is a filmmaker whose body of work deserves some scholarly interest. An adman-turned-filmmaker whose commercial instincts rendered the line between those categories irrelevant, Lewis turned to gore as an exploitable element after being squeezed out of the 1960s sexploitation boom (early credits include 1961's The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961) and 1962's Nature's Playmates). After Blood Feast, he returned with increasingly ambitious variations on the theme: Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), The Wizard of Gore (1970) (which was seen in Juno), and The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), and others.
Between the gore movies, Lewis remained prolific in other genres — comedies, biker movies, family films, and the occasional sexploitation film as a director-for-hire. As the sexploitation progressed, films moved away from simple depictions of nudity and more towards simulated sex. The soft-core Linda and Abilene (an incest-themed story set in the old west) and The Ecstasies of Women (about a groom's sexual fantasies during his bachelor party) were released just as hard-core pornography began receiving nationwide distribution. Black Love (1972), a pseudo-educational "white coater" about black male sexuality, ventures into hard-core territory according to Rubin (though Lewis denies having shot any explicit material). Ecstasies and Linda were produced by Thomas J. Dowd, a Chicago theater owner; Black Love was financed — and perhaps directed — by Robert Smith, a Baskin-Robbins franchise owner, and Lewis contends these men were the true authors.
"I know he's always been uncomfortable with Black Love, but that one I don't think he ever even directed," says Frank Henenlotter, who made the documentary Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore. "He's pretty consistent with that, he says, 'No, no, I didn't direct that, I shot it.' But the thing is, when you're working on zero money, and Herschell Gordon Lewis is the cinematographer, well, then it looks like one of his films."
Still, Rubin says they stack up well next to Lewis' early sexploitation work. "The nudie films were really nothing more than a series of glorified vignettes with a naked punchline, and Ecstasies of Women and Linda & Abilene both have fully-developed narratives and characters. Ecstasies of Women is sort of a vignette film, but it has recurring characters and it does have a storyline. And Linda & Abilene has a very well-developed storyline — as sexploitation films go, I think it's arguably his most accomplished."
And, if nothing else, Linda and Abilene boasts the distinction of having been shot on the Spahn Ranch not far from the Manson family. "They had a little dog, and they had put a bell around this dog's neck, and every time the dog moved the bell rang," says Lewis. "So somebody on our team took that bell off the dog and was approached quickly by one of Manson's people, who said, 'Next time that happens you're not gonna wake up the next morning.' We just laughed it off. Later on I said, 'Holy smokes, this is how close we came.'"
After The Gore-Gore Girls (1972), his last and most outrageous gore film, Lewis collapsed into bankruptcy. In the decades since, he has re-emerged as a marketing guru with over 20 books in print. His web site, in fact, refers to him as "the Godfather of Direct Marketing and Gore."
"He's not uncomfortable with the 'nudie cuties,' but I think he's uncomfortable with some of the more sexually-oriented later films," says Henenlotter. "Y'know, he's a very successful businessman now, he's the dominant force in direct market advertising ... People have a tendency to look at a film like Alley Tramp and describe it as pornography. It's not pornography, it's light years away from pornography, but I think he's afraid of being colored with the same brush. If he was less successful, he probably wouldn't care, y'know what I mean?"
After Thomas Dowd died in 2002, Lewis recalls receiving a phone call from his widow, asking if he owned prints of any of their collaborations. "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." And soon, Dowd's work with Lewis will live again.