Bright Lights Film Journal

The Wizard of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis Speaks

Wit and wisdom from the man who created one of cinema’s most enduring genres

JOHN WISNIEWSKI: Your background in academics was quite different from that of your partner David Friedman. Was this difference an advantage in that it allowed for two widely differing viewpoints, as far as how to market or sell a film?

HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: The disparity of backgrounds was a heavy asset. I brought a sophisticated knowledge of advertising and communications; Dave Friedman brought a carnival barker knowledge of how to motivate people. The combination worked, and we learned from each other.

Did you ever think when you were making the now classic Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs that future filmmakers, not only those in the exploitation market, would cite your films as being influential?

I hadn’t anticipated being a footnote to motion picture history. I did realize we were producing a film of a type no one had produced before. The question was: Would anteater play it?

Was there a particular film or even a particular scene in one of your films that really outraged the public and incurred the wrath of decency groups?

The infamous tongue scene in Blood Feast was the watershed gore scene.

What made you and David Friedman get out of the nudie picture business and get involved with the gore films?

We weren’t really in the nudie business, although we were closer to that category than any other. That field was becoming crowded and the subject matter mundane. We needed a fresh subject.

Did it surprise you or does it surprise you when certain films, novels, or artworks come under fire from decency groups for containing what they consider to be extreme violence?

Decency groups don’t bother me as long as they proselytize their own followers. When they try strong-arm tactics in the mainstream, I’m very much opposed.

What did you think of the gore films of the mid-1970s and 1980s that came after Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs?

Most of the follow-up films were formulaic. I don’t sense a great deal of difference among the various Halloweens and Amityvilles and Screams, although certainly their effects far transcend any I was able to include.

You continued with films in the horror genre while David Friedman decided to stay in the exploitation market. Did you have a preference for the horror genre or did you feel that this market was more profitable?

I think Dave felt more comfortable with conventional exploitation films. He may not have anticipated how powerful the gore explosion could be.

You directed a children’s film (Magic Land of Mother Goose). Did you want to direct a film that was completely different from your other work? Did you consider this film all that much different from your other work?

I didn’t own the Magic Land of Mother Goose. I was hired to direct a stage show so the show could be presented on many platforms instead of just one.

Was the dialogue in your films improvised or was there always a complete script that you adhered to?

After Blood Feast the films were scripted. This was self-protection to assure minimal film wastage.

When looking back to your films, are you ever surprised that you were able to get so much from relatively small budgets?

I’m not at all surprised that I could get so much from a small budget. My rules were absolute: 1. Don’t shoot a rehearsal. 2. Make do. 3. Don’t quit for the day until you’ve shot every scheduled scene.

Did the small budgets inspire you to become more creative in the setting up of scenes, camerawork, special effects, etc.?

Yes, small budgets were the driver, forcing us to substitute imagination for dollar expenditure.

Does it surprise you when serious, or if you want to use the word “highbrow,” film journals such as Cahiers du Cinema discuss or profile your career and your films?

I once was nonplussed that serious publications took my work seriously. I no longer am, because I see the profound effect our early films had on film production.

Do you see filmmaking as an artform, as something to be taken seriously?

I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an artform and spends money based on that immature philosophy.

Do you think that all works of art must contain exploitation elements?

Art is in the eye of the beholder. It isn’t necessary for all art to include exploitation materials, but certainly it’s necessary to include devices that seize and control attention from the target-group the artist is trying to reach.

How do you think the independent film market has changed since the days when you were an independent? Has it changed for the better?

The independent film market no longer exists. The industry is an Arabian bazaar, with nonaffiliated producers clamoring for attention along with the major studios. The successful independent invariably sells his/her product to a major company or direct to cable.

Just For the Hell of It (1968) is considered to be one of the most disturbing and violent juvenile delinquent films ever made, two years before A Clockwork Orange was released. Were comparisons ever made between the two, and what did you think of A Clockwork Orange?

I never have drawn a parallel between Just For the Hell of It and A Clockwork Orange. Many feel A Clockwork Orange is pompous and obscure; I don’t … and I love Beethoven’s music.

A number of your films contain the theme or subject of psychic phenomena as well as witchcraft and magic or what you might term occult subjects. Are these subjects that are of interest to you?

I’m mildly interested in psychic phenomena but am no fanatic. I’d be delighted if some sort of proof ever came to light.

Who are some of your favorite directors? And what are some of your favorite films?

I admire the Coen Brothers and like just about every film they’ve made.

In films like Color Me Blood Red(1965) and even The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), you poke fun at the pretensions of art and the world of art. Are you suspicious of the intentions of filmmakers who try to package exploitation as art?

I think I’ve answered that question. Yes, I’m suspicious of filmmakers who regard themselves as artists and auteurs.

How did you respond to critics who viewed your films as bizarre, either in content or style?

I don’t regard having a film called “bizarre” as an insult. If a critic offers that comment, I’d thank him for it.

The magician in The Wizard of Gore (1972) delivers a speech before his performance in which he states that the violence committed in the arenas of ancient Rome for bloodthirsty spectators has been replaced in the twentieth century by television. Do you feel that there is an endless need for this type of violence whether it is contained in television news programs or television dramas?

I think bloodlust is ingrained in the human psyche, and one benefit these films bring to the psychological arena is providing a passive outlet.

Why did you decide to direct Blood Feast II?

Jacky L. Morgan is producing Blood Feast II. I didn’t decide to make the film; he did. I’m going to direct it and have one terrific good time!