OK, I’m concluding my rankings of all the movies from Arrow Films’ exhaustive Herschell Gordon Lewis box set.
7. Something Weird
This should’ve won some kind of award for having the most accurate title of all time. This shit is just off the rails. When a ridiculous and cartoonish witch shows up near the beginning, I was ready to throw up my hands and say, “Fuck it, this is too much.” Before that, there are several seemingly unrelated scenes in a row: an unseen figure murders a girl in an alley; two dudes are practicing martial arts in a dojo; two people are making out on a couch; a kid gets his face burned up in a horrible electrical accident and now has ESP. When the kid is shown eking out a living telling fortunes and this wacky witch pays him a visit, the film nears the breaking point of non sequitur insanity. But then it settles into a plot of sorts. The ugly witch makes a deal with the kid wherein she’ll make his face normal again if he agrees to be her lover. He accepts. He then gets involved with helping federal agents track down a serial killer in small-town Wisconsin. He takes LSD and has a crazy hallucination, the killer burns off a woman’s face with a flamethrower, there’s a weird seance and all kinds of other happy horseshit. The whole thing is basically a mishmash of disparate ideas that kinda works despite itself. It has an oddball, dreamlike charm.
6. Color Me Blood Red
We’re in the shit now. The last of the so-called Blood Trilogy that also includes Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!, this one is often considered the least consequential of the three. But man does it have its charms. Gordon Oas-Heim plays a demented artist who needs human blood to get the correct shade of red for his abstract paintings. So it’s a take on A Bucket of Blood for sure. Oas-Heim is one of the better HGL regulars and he really leans into the role here. One of the great gore scenes in the canon involves Oas-Heim squeezing blood from the entrails of a young woman tied to the wall of some barren, nondescript room. It’s one of those indelible sleazoid images of exploitation. This movie also has a couple of ridiculously bizarre comic relief characters: a wisecracking beatnik couple who look discordantly like refugees from Horror At Party Beach. When they discover a dead body on a beach one of them exclaims, “Dig that crazy driftwood, man!”
5. Two Thousand Maniacs!
This one’s often cited as HGL’s finest work, a sentiment echoed by the man himself. It’s a successful amalgamation of hicksploitation and gory horror, with a plot lifted from Brigadoon, of all things. Once every hundred years, in the backwoods of the deep South, a town decimated by Northern forces during the Civil War magically reappears and lures road tripping Yankees into its clutches using detours and promises of a big “celebration” put on by its overly-polite townsfolk. Of course, the celebration consists of murdering the shit out of Yankee sonsofbitches in creative and elaborate ways. Jeffrey Allen always holds things together in the hick pictures, and this time he plays the town’s convivial-but-sadistic mayor. As the leads, Bill Kerwin and Connie Mason acquit themselves better here than in Blood Feast, and the bloodthirsty hillbilly townies are having a grand old time. This also contains one of the greatest theme songs of all time, an ebullient-but-somehow-menacing little bluegrass number called “The South’s Gonna Rise Again.” As ever, HGL wrote it himself so he didn’t have to pay anyone else to do it.
4. The Wizard of Gore
This seems like an attempt at making the definitive statement on gore. There’s something self-mythologizing going on: It’s about an over-the-top stage magician named Montag the Magnificent whose act consists of brutally torturing female volunteers and sending them on their merry way, seemingly unharmed. But then they die a short time later of wounds that seem inflicted by the very tortures they endured on stage. A television journalist and her boyfriend enlist the aid of some dipshit cops to figure out what the hell is going on, but the plot is superfluous here, and you might not be surprised to know that there’s no pat answer given, and the ending is one of the most bonkers you’ll ever see. It’s just a big shrug. The real point of this are the prolonged, exceedingly graphic torture sequences, and HGL pulls out all the stops for them. All the ingredients you’ve come to know and love are present and accounted for: butcher-shop entrails, red dye, chicken skin, whatever else they put in that stuff. There’s sword-swallowing, bisection by chainsaw, a giant hole punch, eyeball fondling, etc. Ray Sager as Montag just hams it up as hard as possible in shoddy old-guy makeup, and as a result he gives one of the most memorable of all Herschell Gordon Lewis performances.
3. Blood Feast
I don’t care what anyone says, this movie is amazing. Everything about it is legendary: The opening bathtub murder which plays like a “fuck you” to Hitchcock; the girl’s tongue getting pulled out; the one guy’s ridiculous histrionics when cops are asking questions about his murdered girlfriend; the delirious line about hamburgers. Mal Arnold is way beyond his capabilities playing Fuad Ramses, a batty Egyptian caterer gathering body parts off of young women for a ritual aimed at resurrecting the ancient goddess Ishtar. Moronic cops are in hot pursuit. This is the one that started it all, and any film that features graphic gore effects owes it a massive debt. It’s crazy to think that it came out in 1963. There was just nothing else like it yet. The Italians had started pushing the envelope somewhat: Blood and Black Lace came out that same year, and the mondo documentaries that eventually begot the cannibal genre in the 70s had been around for a few years by that point. But no one had gone anywhere near this far at that time. That this ugly, cheaply produced little regional gross-out movie made so much money seems like such a middle finger to establishment values, but the funny thing is that Lewis’s goals were always mercenary and nothing more. He’s as much of a square as anyone.
2. The Gruesome Twosome
This seems to get dismissed by fans as one of the minor HGL gore movies, and some even call it outright tedious. Those people are dead wrong. Its idiosyncrasies are its strengths, its narrative compromises are what lift it into its own stratosphere of camp glory. By the way, I usually don’t like to use the word “camp” when describing Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, because it implies that I view them through a lens of irony and speak of them in so-bad-it’s-good terms. In my opinion, the galaxy brain way of experiencing low budget exploitation cinema is to appreciate it on a deeper, more genuine level, where you respect what the filmmakers are able to accomplish with meager resources and very little time at their disposal. The warts-and-all finished products tend to be marvels of ingenuity and imagination when looked at in proper context. The Gruesome Twosome strains this approach. It’s about Mrs. Pringle, a little old lady who runs a wig shop and commands her hulking halfwit son Rodney to scalp and murder young women to procure fresh product. As Mrs. Pringle, Elizabeth Davis is playing to the nosebleeds, gleefully shouting all her lines and constantly asking for approval from Napoleon, her taxidermied bobcat. The protagonist is this dimbulb blonde coed who sleuths around looking for her missing roommate like Nancy Drew if she were dumb as shit. She’s kinda endearing though. It all comes to a head, blah blah. Who cares? Even the gore scenes, which are great, take a back seat to several truly inspired, surreal sections of padding that were edited in when HGL realized he hadn’t shot quite enough footage for a feature length film. So you get an intro where two mannequin heads are talking to each other in exaggerated southern accents until one of them gets stabbed and bleeds. And a shameless product placement scene in which college girls are dancing in their dorm room waving pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And a beach scene with a band playing some kind of subterranean mutant rock. And greatest of all: a truly bizarre short film-within-a-film concerning a guy who eats potato chips, smashes fruit, and drinks Michelob beer while his girlfriend keeps telling him how much she loves him and he just grunts and says stuff like, “More beer!” I can’t do it justice here. It’s so great.
1. The Gore Gore Girls
This was HGL’s final film for 30 years, and he made it count. Someone’s murdering strippers in grotesque and often humorous fashion, and it’s up to celebrated private investigator and effeminate asshole Abraham Gentry and his comely journalist sidekick to crack the case. With its mysterious black-gloved killer and unexpected final reveal with attendant nonsensical explanation, Gore Gore Girls plays like a funhouse mirror version of a traditional giallo. The kills are all kinds of whacked out: one woman has her ass beaten with a tenderizer until it’s pretty much hamburger meat, one has each of her nipples sliced, with one of them dispensing regular milk, the other chocolate milk. Just dumb, gross, and (I guess it has to be said somewhere in this article) misogynistic humor. To paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs in the extra features, it’s a gore film set in strip clubs, what’s not to like? The sleaze is palpable here. Frank Kress, in his only film role, really nails the part of dapper, cane-wielding borderline sociopath Gentry. You’ll find yourself both rooting for him to solve the case and repulsed by his utter lack of sympathy for the victims or anyone else. In the end the whole thing is played for laughs and finishes on a fitting title card for HGL’s career: “We announce with pride: This movie is over!”
Editor’s note: Want to know what made the first half of the Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast list? Check it out.