What better occasion than a global pandemic to look back on the halcyon days of sleaze, when a button-down businessman with $23,000 and a camera could unleash bloody havoc on an unsuspecting public. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 70s, legendary shlock director Herschell Gordon Lewis delivered a continuous supply of slapdash trash cinema to drive-ins across the US, inventing entire subgenres as he went along, blazing trails for so many who came later. He’ll forever be known to fans of cult horror as the Godfather of Gore, for 1963’s seminal splatterfest Blood Feast and several later examples of gruesome depravity. But he also directed nudie cuties, nudist camp films, roughies, hicksploitation flicks, biker films, broad comedies, so on and so forth. Whatever he felt would turn him a quick buck. Although he left filmmaking in 1972 to become the undisputed king of junk mail copywriting, he turned in a body of work that makes up the foundation of what we know as exploitation, and his influence is still felt today. Yes, the acting in his films is mostly amateurish at best, the writing is dodgy, the dirtbag minimalist Florida locales are ugly, the direction is static, the editing is choppy, and the special effects are at once primitive and grisly. But these very imperfections are a huge part of what makes HGL movies so appealing to the initiated. It’s really fun to see what he accomplishes with his limited budgets, talent pool, and time frames.
In 2016, Arrow Films released a gargantuan box set called The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, which contains 14 complete movies in HD and a shit ton of extras. Several key titles in his oeuvre are left out (The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Blast-Off Girls, The Girl, The Body and The Pill, and Suburban Roulette spring to mind) but all the gore epics are included, as well as plenty of interesting oddities and side tracks. I decided to watch every one of them in a row over the course of several days. My brain is now rotten, but I’m gonna attempt to rank them all anyway, because why the hell not?
14. How to Make a Doll
This ranking likely won’t receive any gripes from longtime fans. It’s a lightweight goofy-ass comedy about an ultra-nerdy mama’s boy professor whose mad scientist pal creates a machine that conjures gorgeous women out of thin air. Made during a fecund creative period in 1968, HGL sort of writes it off in his introduction on the box set as something he made as a favor for a friend. It should be noted that virtually all of Lewis’s movies contain a good deal of intentional humor, some of which even comes off as self-deprecating. This one’s just too all-in on the zaniness and never stops for a second to get you to really care about anything. It does have a couple moments: for example, I really like the awkward, primitive scene near the end when the professor meets his new girlfriend’s strait-laced parents at their home. Everyone seems to be totally winging it in a long take, and they eventually just break down laughing. No take twos on this one.
13. Moonshine Mountain
I could see some fans being upset at this one receiving a low ranking, especially since I’m putting This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! higher. More on that later. This is one of Lewis’s stabs at hicksploitation, a genre he always seemed to throw himself into with gusto. It follows a famous city-slicker folk singer into the Carolina hills in search of some genuine hillbilly songs, so it begins as a pretty fun send-up of slick Peter, Paul & Mary types pasteurizing authentic folk music for the masses. He soon falls in with a backward musical family of moonshiners headed by HGL’s go-to character actor in his hick films, the always gregarious Jeffrey Allen. The first half is all fun and games and features several great musical numbers, including a hoedown that comes across as outright documentary-like in its presentation. The second half brings in a plot concerning an evil sheriff, murder, rape, etc. in between moonshine swillin’, hootin’ and hollerin’. So it does get a bit heavy, although not much of the carnage ends up on-screen. It’s also notable for featuring the biggest illegal still ever.
12. Scum of the Earth
This is a tough one to rank. It oozes sleaziness and has that seedy Florida vibe I love so much in these movies, but it also comes across as a bit marginal in the overall catalog. HGL’s final feature shot in black and white, and supposedly filmed just a few short weeks after Blood Feast in 1963, it concerns a teenage girl tricked into posing nude for a porno racket that rakes in cash selling illegal pictures to high school kids(!). The poor exploited girl in question is played by a one Allison Louise Downe, who you could consider the unsung hero in the story of HGL’s filmmaking career. In addition to appearing in quite a few of his movies, she also has sole screenwriting credit on several of them (it’s disputed how much she wrote herself and how much she was taking dictation), and acted as production assistant, which often involved crafting many of the famous gore effects. Some argue that without Downe there would be no Herschell Gordon Lewis, and nothing is known about her after Lewis stopped making films in 1972. Her contributions seem strangely downplayed, if not outright dismissed. Anyway, Scum of the Earth is considered the first “roughie,” a subgenre of sexploitation films that add violence and sadism to the usual softcore cheesecake. For the record, it contains one of HGL’s finest scenes: a moment when the porn boss absolutely loses it on Downe in an endlessly quotable tirade, the camera cutting closer and closer to his mouth as he harangues her about how she’s a sick, perverted hypocrite. Then after he spews all this ugly vitriol and completely belittles her, he wipes his brow and apologizes.
11. This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!
Another hicksploitation joint, I ranked this one higher than Moonshine Mountain because it’s more mean-spirited and violent, and includes one of HGL’s very best gore moments when a dude gets his head blown off with a shotgun. Jeffrey Allen plays a crooked, perverted moonshine running preacher in this one, and the film kinda lives and dies on his performance. He gives it his all as usual, but his endless bible (mis)quoting and hand-wringing starts to wear thin after a while. Beyond that we’re treated to a car explosion, the crucifixion of a couple young ladies, some down home singin’, lots of pulling from bottles of potent moonshine that’ll kill ya, etc. But it’s all a bit directionless. People always talk about how Henny Youngman’s appearance in Gore Gore Girls was the only time a true name actor (or comedian as the case may be) ended up in one of Lewis’s projects, but here there are two. Tim Holt had feature roles in three of the greatest films ever made: Stagecoach, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And he’s in a fucking Herschell Gordon Lewis movie! Sure he’s close to death and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, but there he is. The other one is Dr. Giggles himself, Larry Drake, playing a big dumb hick in his first-ever role. Several months ago I spotted him in a small part in Frederick R. Friedel’s Kidnapped Coed and thought, “Look at young-ass Larry Drake,” and here he is five years earlier working for HGL. Crazy. An interesting debut for a future Emmy winner and star of one the greatest slashers of the 90s.
10. A Taste of Blood
This fucking movie. It’s a victim of Lewis compromising to get wider distribution. Apparently a lot of the more respectable venues balked at screening graphic trash like Blood Feast, so Lewis turned in a toned down vampire movie with slightly higher production values. As the director himself says in a later interview, the result is “neither fish nor fowl”: in other words, it isn’t polished enough for a mainstream audience and it isn’t gory enough to satisfy the freaks. To make matters worse it’s nearly two hours long, an eternity for HGL. I believe it might be the first-ever vampire movie that takes place in a contemporary setting. I always thought that honor went to Count Yorga but this one predates it by three years, so that’s kinda cool. On the plus side, Bill Rogers is pretty fun as a descendant of Dracula who downs two bottles of brandy laced with human blood, which sets him on a course to exterminate family members of those responsible for his ancestor’s death. Other notable aspects: There are a lot of talky scenes that give you ample opportunity to appreciate kitschy 60s Florida decor and fashion; HGL regular Bill Kerwin has a sizable role as the de facto hero; there are a few relatively bloody and fun death scenes; a ridiculous comic relief character is introduced a few minutes before the film ends; Herschell himself has a bit part as a cockney(!) sailor with a ludicrous fake moustache; and Elizabeth Lee is one hell of a good-looking ingenue. Strangely, one of the best characters, Rogers’ spunky spinster assistant Hester, disappears halfway through the movie for no known reason.
9. She-Devils On Wheels
Maybe I’m ranking this a little low, I don’t know. I love old biker movies and this one’s great in its own grimy way for sure. It’s also Lewis’s second-biggest financial success. It’s about an all-girl biker gang called The Maneaters who get their kicks terrorizing people and racing each other to see who gets first pick in their “stud line,” a pack of male groupies who hang out at the girls’ headquarters waiting around to have orgies and do drugs and whatnot. There’s a rival male gang who encroach on the girls’ turf and get their asses whipped in a fair fight and then get peed on. They vow revenge and accomplish it by sneaking around in the night and kidnapping the Maneaters’ youngest and newest recruit. It’s hilarious to see these guys try to act all tough and mean after watching them get beat up by some girls and pissed on. Your credibility is completely gone forever after that. Anyway, the leader of the Maneaters is Queen, and she doesn’t take shit from anybody. Betty Connell practically carries the movie on her back in this role, she’s just so much fun to watch. Many of the rest of the gang members are played by actual female bikers for an extra dimension of amateur-hour sleaze. There’s also a fantastic garage punk theme song co-written by HGL called “Get Off The Road.” And be sure to stick around to the end for an excellent low budget decapitation. Just great trashy fun all around.
8. Just For the Hell of It
I was dead shocked at how much I liked this one. Everything about it screams “half-assed” and it seems positioned as the clear “B” picture on the same disc as She-Devils On Wheels. And the thing is, it is pretty half-assed but it’s all the better for it. It’s HGL’s 1968 concept of the type of juvenile delinquent movie that was popular in the 50s, but here he just goes for broke and has his gang of teenage jerkoffs destroying everything in sight, drugging and raping high school girls, torturing and murdering people, etc. They give absolutely no fucks about anything. It’s just mean and nasty stuff for the sake of being mean and nasty. The couple of speeches older squares give about the evils of rampant teenage violence are so limp-wristed and compunctory it’s laughable. You want destruction of property, you got it: the film stops dead a few times to focus on the gang destroying everything in sight for minutes on end. Some have called it “destruction porn” and cite it as an attempt by Lewis to start yet another trash cinema subgenre. Anyway, there’s kind of a plot in there somewhere about a square kid and his girlfriend rubbing the gang the wrong way, but it’s completely beside the point. Some highlights: the gang getting into a brawl with a group of children, and a legit club performance by an awesome heavy psych-rock band. On top of everything else, this one also has a great garage-punk theme song, “Destruction.”
Join us for the top seven films in the Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast next week.