MONDO DIGITAL: You were really the first American horror director with an academic background as an English teacher, and it's odd that the second one with that history, Wes Craven, also wound up making self-reflexive gore films. Did you feel any influence from this experience?
H.G. LEWIS: Maybe a negative influence! I was teaching English and the humanities at Mississippi State, and then for twenty years I taught mass communications, or advertising, at Roosevelt in Chicago. I've always maintained that academicians can't sell anything; they become analysts. They tend to become introverted, too. The good fortune I had in that strange business was developing a command of language. My current circumstance is such that I am regarded as the guru of direct response marketing; I've written 24 books, primarily about copyrighting. To analyze words and use them effectively was part of the films I made. Most people in that academic posture look down on the movies I made.
But when you look at a movie like Wizard of Gore, there's obviously much more going on than what appears on the surface.
Hear, hear! I'm glad to hear that.
You don't normally
find that hall of mirrors approach in what's regarded as
That's true, and it was even more true at the time we made it.
Now that attitude
has come into vogue, but you were doing it twenty years
That's a difficult thing to bring off. When we made Gore Gore Girls, I was concerned we had gone too far. We were beginning to parody our own procedures. And what do you do for an encore? You look at the Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream films, and they're playing the same one-string fiddle over and over again. Nobody could ever accuse us of that! They could accuse us of underproducing, which is generic for low budget movies. But I don't apologize for that; people who do are making a tactical error. I've talked to some people making low budget movies who say of course it's not much, it didn't cost anything to make. I say wait a minute-- the people going in the theater are paying admission, and you can't put a title on the screen saying "Gee, we're sorry folks, this was a cheap movie so don't expect to see anything that compares with the impact of an expensive movie like Alien." Even to this day, someone who goes to see Two Thousand Maniacs, my personal favorite, will sit in the theater and not feel cheated, even though they paid as much to see that as any Hollywood epic. To me that justifies the history of these schlocky movies. That they've existed for all these years is stupefying, and people are still interested. That delights me.
You can safely say you never committed the cardinal sin of moviemaking - you never let the audience become bored.
I agree with that! That is the cardinal sin.
Now how did you
decide exactly how much humor to inject in a film? A Taste
Well, when we made Blood Feast I didn't want humor in that movie, for a number of reasons. One was the caliber of cast we had couldn't carry it off. Second, we were experimenting in a medium that had not been tested before. It was almost like a scientist looking for a cure for cancer - to which my movies are often compared. The cancer, that is. We didn't want to dilute the effectiveness. With Two Thousand Maniacs, we had a sardonic kind of humor, and it seemed to work. A Taste of Blood was a script I bought, written by a guy named Doc Stanford. I simply followed his script, written as a straightforward Dracula story. As we progressed with Gruesome Twosome and Wizard of Gore, I tempered the gore with humor so the audience would understand this was camp. I didn't want someone taking this seriously. Some of the latter day slasher movies don't have any humor at all, just an even shade of dark gray from beginning to end. I've had Blood Feast 2 sitting around for years, along with Herschell Gordon Lewis' Grimm Fairly Tales. They're shot through with humor because I think the audience is sophisticated enough to accept it at this point, and gratefully. To me that heightens the gore when it's thrown in.
That's what makes Two Thousand Maniacs such a scary film; it's really the most frightening thing you've ever made. Everyone's smiling and carrying on, and then bam! You never know.
That's right; you can't tell when they'll break loose in that one. Another benefit is you're well into the picture before the first gore effect occurs. I've sat anonymously watching audiences with that film, and when that thumb comes off, people jump out of their seats! And this is an old movie with totally primitive effects.
It's because it
doesn't play by the rules. That movie has its own sense of
Yes, we had our own rules so no one could say we were breaking them!
Massacre follows a very similar pattern as that movie, so in a
I guess we pushed the envelope, as they say.
Were there any actors during that period that you can recall in particular?
We almost had a stock company. Bill Kerwin's screen name was Thomas Wood because he didn't want to fall afoul of the Screen Actors Guild. I found him originally for a little movie called Living Venus, and he did an exceptional job. He was my kind of person; he would help us pick up the cables and clean up the set at the end of the day. He had no ego. I like people with no ego! Then there was Cocky Black, who used the name Jeffrey Allen. He was the mayor in Two Thousand Maniacs, and he was in This Stuff'll Kill Ya and Year of the Yahoo, which seems to have vanished into the air. He was a consummate actor. He could put his hands on a part and be that part. I revered and treasured people like that because they were team players. One position I took in cast and crew was looking for cooperation more than talent. That might be considered a mistake, but it's not to me with a low budget movie. We could not have a situation in which Ms. Taylor is sulking in her dressing room. That never happened on our set at all.
The acting does seem to get better in your films, though. You have straight, wooden line readings in Blood Feast, and it gets more polished as it goes along.
I think that's because we'd built up a minor reputation, and it raised the level all the way down the line. The actors - using that term as a euphemism in some cases - would put out more. People were willing to work for us for less money. Some people who had turned me down on Living Venus, which was union all the way with the IA and SAG, came back after Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red, asking if we had parts for them. It shows that others want the screen credit. Sometimes when I couldn't give more money to an actor I'd offer full screen credit, and they'd say that was fine. You have two kinds of income: the dollar income and the psychological income. We offered a lot of psychological income!
They are immortal, though. These movies have survived, so they got the good end of the deal.
Sure! Mal Arnold,
who played Fuad Ramses in Blood Feast, is in the real
When you get to
movies like Wizard of Gore and Gore Gore Girls, they're
That's a marvelous thought; it hadn't even occurred to me!
How did you wind up with Harvey Korman, who was some of your early films?
We were casting Living Venus, and before that we'd only done a terrible film called The Prime Time, which was terrible. A fellow named Fred Miles had talked me into it, but nothing worked right on that one. I was like the wedding guest in "Ancient Mariner" on that one, a "sadder and a wiser man." When it came time for the second movie, we had a company called Big Continent Films contracted to make two films. These were the first movies made by a Chicago company in Chicago in many years. We sent out a casting call, and Harvey Korman was one of the people who answered the call. The level of acting in that film is really pretty good. Shortly thereafter I got a phone call from Harvey, who had moved to California and was desperate to get some footage from Living Venus. It wasn't easy, since I didn't have a laboratory like big studios. Somehow I found a dump print or something and sent Harvey his footage, so I guess that's how he manipulated his way on The Carol Burnett Show. I never heard a word from him since. That's the California syndrome, anyway. As far as I'm concerned, he was a fine actor, he knew his lines, that's how you keep score.
Where did that "Carving Magic" short fall, with Korman and Kerwin?
That had to be right after Living Venus, since I took the people I knew.
Did you ever approach
your non-horror films like Blast Off Girls as a running
It was just what came at the moment. Blast Off Girls was about a rock group, and it was kind of ahead of its time.
It's almost like a Russ Meyer film.
But there's no nudity in it.
The tone is similar, though, that frantic atmosphere and faster editing.
Yeah, the pace was
totally different for that one. Around then I also did Something
Weird, which came from a guy named Jim Hurley. He didn't like
what I did to that movie. He wanted it to be a paean to extrasensory
perception, and I felt that wasn't box office. Later Hurley made
this movie called The Sensitive, a godawful title. Now Hurley
was an academician, a dean on the faculty at Triton near Chicago.
He was an afficionado of ESP, so you see people become the slave of their
own perceptions. "If I feel this way, everybody's gonna feel this
way." In three words, it ain't box office.
When these films came to video, you were one of the few directors whose work was almost entirely available at the beginning. Did you ever get a cut?
The only proprietary interest I retained was the music, which I wrote. I didn't write it to be an auteur; I hate that term. I did it because I didn't want to pay anybody! To this day I get music royalties. My buddy John Waters made a movie called Serial Mom, with a scene from Blood Feast in that movie, and I got a check for $500! The movies themselves disappeared from my control long ago. I look at them as children who have left home and not forgotten me.
Do you know where some of your "vanished' films have gone?
I've asked Mike Vraney to find a print of Year of the Yahoo, and he said nope, he can only find the trailer. It came out just at the same time as a Robert Redford movie called The Candidate. I really thought ours was a better picture; the main reason I miss it is a bunch of original country and western tracks I had in there.
Do you still have any original music tracks? Blood Feast amd Two Thousand Maniacs were on vinyl a long time ago.
That's disappeared, too. When the inventory went, everything went with it. I have some videos people have sent me, but no materials.
At the very least, Two Thousand Maniacs should be on CD someday.
I won't argue that point!
What about those
outtakes for the Blood Trilogy? Did you ever plan to use
I don't know where those came from! Very seldom would you hear these words on our set: "Take Two." We never planned any nudity in Blood Feast. There's a scene with the girl in the bathtub, so we may have cut a little. Somebody shot something, apparently, but it was never intended for the finished film. We had enough trouble with censor boards in those days. One thing Blood Feast did was catch censor boards unaware. Each area had its own peculiar censorship with regulations against nudity, but no one had regulations about gore. They didn't know what to do with us, and I wasn't about to give them the ammunition: "Oh, there's nudity in that picture, so we won't let you play it."
You didn't introduce nudity in gore until Gore Gore Girls.
Yes, and there's very little in that one. The industry had gone further by then. Everybody and his brother was making these movies, and the walls were coming down. Joseph Strick had put the "f word" in a movie for the first time, and people would sit there afraid to breathe!
In Ulysses, yeah.
Now you look at a TV show like The Sopranos, and my God, you could use a macro on a computer for that word, it's in there so much! So as the industry evolved - or devolved, if you will - we simply kept pace.
A lot of movies at that time broke down every wall you could think of.
Now there are no regulations at all.
But if you tried
to open a new movie like Blood Feast nationwide, it wouldn't
Maybe, but back then it was pretty tight.
The amount of gore you can get away with seems to be going backwards.
Years ago if you tried to play a movie unrated, you would only get playdates in strange little theaters, but now it's no big deal.
Blood Feast is still so extreme -- it's one of those rare films that gets away with it and catches people off guard, like Re-Animator or Evil Dead. The clothes may have dated or become part of pop culture, but the movie itself hasn't dated much at all. It's still pretty ferocious.
That's the word for
films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are available on VHS from Something
Weird Video and on DVD from Image