Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Blu-ray Collection Review (originally published 2016)
Herschell Gordon Lewis, aka: The Godfather of Gore, who just died on September 26th, 2016, is perhaps the most important bad filmmaker in the history of the medium. He was best-known for his groundbreaking gore films, which bent censorship laws and laid the groundwork for hyper-violent movies of all genres. He was also a one-time advertising executive, author, English professor, and studio director who has compared his movies Walt Whitman poems – “They’re no good, but they were the first of their kind.”
In honor of the man, Arrow Video has produced the limited edition Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack collection, featuring 14 of the director’s ‘best’ and most ‘beloved’ films. Based on the sheer size of this collection, I’m keeping my personal thoughts to a minimum. Anyone that finds themselves interested in Lewis’ unique cinematic world after reading what I’ve had to say should check out The Godfather of Gore Speaks: Herschell Gordon Lewis Discusses His Films by Lewis and Andrew J. Rausch and/or Jeffrey Sconce’s Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Financing.
Blood Feast (1963) and Scum of the Earth (1963)
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) Moonshine Mountain (1964)
Color Me Blood Red (1965)
A tortured artist named Adam Sorge (Gordon Oas-Heim) struggles to sell his paintings until, one day, his girlfriend accidentally bleeds onto one of his canvasses. Inspired, Sorge begins murdering local beach bums and using their blood for paint.
The final movie in the loosely-knit Blood Trilogy and the last movie that Lewis made with Friedman for some time, Color Me Blood Red is a comedic tragedy with a clever self-conscious streak. While it is probably the weakest of the three films in terms of pure entertainment value, it’s also the most smartly made, including a neatly constructed screenplay (comparatively speaking – always comparatively speaking), clever jokes at the expense of the filmmakers and their audience, and easily some of the best performances in any of Lewis’ films. The jazzy score gives it a unique flavor as well – one that would become a more prominent feature in future gore opuses. Color Me Blood Red appears to have been made in reaction to Roger Corman’s super-popular A Bucket of Blood (1959), in which a struggling artist begins murdering people, encasing their bodies in plaster, and pawning them off as original sculptures. Even if the similarities are coincidental, the two movies make a fun double-feature.
Something Weird (1967)
Following a freak electrical accident, a man named Cronin Mitchell (Tony McCabe) develops psychic and telekinetic powers. Unfortunately, his face is also horribly scarred, leaving him bitter and alone. One day, a hideous witch (Elizabeth Lee) offers to use her powers to make him handsome again...if he agrees to be her lover. Meanwhile, Cronin also decides to lend his talents to the police to solve a string of murders.
During his break from Friedman, Lewis hooked up with a college professor named James F. Hurley, who approached him with a vague outline of a movie based around a ‘psychic’ guru named Peter Hurkos. He took the phenomenon of ESP very seriously and wanted to make a film that respected it. A bemused Lewis struggled to develop a narratively-driven picture from his new producer’s concepts, but took the project as an excuse to dabble in optical effects work. The results are an uneven, but never bland pairing of public education documentaries (concerning ESP, seances, ninjutsu, powerline safety, witchcraft, recreational LSD use, and more) and just about every ‘60s-friendly exploitation subgenre imaginable (roughie, horror, cheesecake, psychedelia, et cetera). It is the ‘kitchen sink’ of Lewis’ catalogue. Such wacky subject matter, super-exaggerated performances, dumb dialogue, and cardboard production values make it perhaps the ultimate midnight movie. It is, at least, more consistently entertaining than Plan Nine from Outer Space or The Room. Apparently, Hurley hated the final product and made his own movie entitled The Psychic (1968, not to be confused with the Lucio Fulci movie of the same name).
Newly recorded director intros (1:17, 0:58, HD)
Commentaries for both films with director H.G. Lewis and producer David F. Friedman, moderated by Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney (from the SWV DVDs)
Art of Madness (5:35, HD) – A visual essay concerning the recurring motif of killer artists in horror movies.
Weirdsville (10:31, HD) – Northwestern University associate professor of Screen Cultures and author of the aforementioned Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Financing Jeffrey Sconce discusses the combined cultural influences of Something Weird.
H.G. Lewis on Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (2:10, HD) – The director briefly describes the children’s musical he made around the same time as Color Me Blood Red.
A Hot Night at the Go Go Lounge! (10:07, HD) – Lewis’ 1966 dance short.
Color Me Blood Red outtake reel (9:36, HD)
Color Me Blood Red, Something Weird, and Jimmy, the Boy Wonder trailers
The Gruesome Twosome (1967) and A Taste of Blood (1967)
She-Devils on Wheels (1968)
The Man-Eaters all-girl biker gang has a good time – they race for the top pick in sexual conquests, host orgies, read dirty limericks, tease cops, and roughing up the competition. But the fun & games come to an end when a rival male gang kidnaps, rapes, and nearly murders their youngest pledge, so the Man-Eaters plot their revenge.
As I mentioned, it’s not a stretch to refer to Lewis’ most popular movies as misogynistic. It would be nice to say that they were products of their time, but the truth is that most exploitation filmmaking thrives on images of abused women and movies like Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth bear some responsibility for this formula. Gruesome Twosome may have been an attempt to make amends, as its protagonists and antagonists are women, but the bigger diversion from type is She-Devils on Wheels. Possibly inspired by the far less violent, but better-made Girl Power cult flicks of Russ Meyer (specifically Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, 1965), this killer biker chick flick became Lewis’ second most financially successful movie, after Blood Feast, proving that audiences were just as happy to watch women mangle men. It’s not what I’d call a gore movie, but there are some juicy moments, including a show-stopping beheading when a male biker drives neck-first into a length of wire. Unfortunately, an awful lot of the movie is just footage of the girls riding their hogs set to rockabilly music, so your mileage (pun intended) may vary.
Just for the Hell of It (1968)
A gang of unruly teenagers goes on a rampage.
The juvenile delinquency subgenre was not one that Lewis invented and, in fact, it had already mostly run its course by the time he made Just for the Hell of It. Fortunately for him, hippies were still a concern for older audiences who wanted to stand back and judge these youthful radicals as destructive animals. Just for the Hell of It is one part Warhol Factory art film (the property destruction scenes are like violent performance art), one part dark comedy, one part teen-bait, and one part heavy-handed morality tale. It also may have the least plot of any movie in this collection (it really is just 81 minutes of kids misbehaving). Some fans may gravitate toward Just for the Hell of It for its nihilistic streak (the rape scenes are definitely upsetting), while others will find plenty of giggles in the laughable rampage, which includes a scene where the gang gently places a baby in a trash. For the vastly superior JD-exploitation experience, watch the Japanese equivalent.
Newly recorded director intros (1:24, 1.59, HD)
She-Devils on Wheels commentary with director H.G. Lewis moderated by Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney (from the SWV DVD)
The Shocking Truth (10:25, HD) – Sam Raimi editor/Grindhouse Releasing CEO Bob Murawski talks about his introduction to Lewis, what make his films special, and the art of exploitation advertising. It includes footage of the director signing autographs at a horror convention.
Garage Punk Gore (9:24, HD) – Filmmaker/musician/Shock Till You Drop managing editor Chris Alexander discusses Lewis’ movies with an emphasis on their music.
H.G. Lewis on The Alley Tramp (2:58, HD) – Lewis briefly recalls another of his 1968 releases that didn’t make the Blu-ray collection. He claims he was basically only acting as a cameraman for screenwriter/producer Paul Gordon.
She-Devils on Wheels trailer and radio spot
The Alley Tramp trailer
How to Make a Doll (1968)
An awkward, nerdy college professor who lives with his mother and can’t understand the ways of women. With the help of a mad scientist, he builds sexy lady robots to ‘practice’ with.
How to Make a Doll is probably the most obscure movie in this particular collection. It’s sort of a shoestring, cheesecake variation of Norman Taurog’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) that presupposes concepts from Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (published in 1972) and college sex comedies, like the Porky’s series – all proof that Lewis was ahead of the trends even when he wasn’t dabbling in gore. Its biggest influence appears to have been on John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985), whether Hughes knows it or not. How to Make a Doll is pokey and way too long, but the Z-grade mad scientist equipment is colorful, the sound effects are hilariously nonsensical, and the jazzy score (credited to no one) is pretty groovy.
The Wizard of Gore (1970)
Montag the Magnificent’s (Ray Sager) magic show is a stomach-churning parade of mutilation. After hypnotising female volunteers, he performs grotesquely violent ‘tricks’ on their bodies, which then return to normal when the spell is broken. Then, hours later, each volunteer drops dead from the same grisly affliction they suffered onstage.
The Wizard of Gore most closely resembles the grand guignol theatre traditions that inspired Blood Feast. Its effects aren’t particularly convincing, but, thanks to the director’s commitment to shoving his camera into the viscera, this might actually be the grossest movie in his entire oeuvre, though, Gore Gore Girls gives it a run for its money. The production values and performances are slightly above average for type and the twist ending is good fun, despite making zero sense. Lewis’ camerawork and editing remain as loopy as ever, though. Wizard of Gore represents a break in the director’s rip-off formula, as it was, itself, the victim of theft, when Joel M. Reed “borrowed” its concept for his sleazy garbage-fest, Bloodsucking Freaks (aka: The Incredible Torture Show, 1976). It was officially remade in 2007 by Jeremy Kasten with Crispen Glover in the title role and made an appearance in Jason Reitman’s Oscar-winning Juno (also 2007).
Newly recorded director intros (1:48, 1:56, HD)
Commentary with director H.G. Lewis, moderated by Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney (from the SWV DVD)
Montag Speaks! (19:33, HD) – Lead actor/long-time Lewis collaborator Ray Sager talks about his contributions to the Godfather of Gore’s legacy; often as a performer, but sometimes as a production assistant.
Stephen Thrower on The Wizard of Gore (10:20, HD) – The author of Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007, FAB Press) discusses Wizard of Gore.
The Gore the Merrier (9:05, HD) – An interview with director Jeremy Kasten about his 2007 Wizard of Gore remake.
The Incredibly Strange Film Show (SD) – An episode of Jonathan Ross’ wonderful cult documentary series revolving around Lewis and his films. It includes interviews with Lewis, Friedman, Lewis super-fan John Waters, and others. The Incredibly Strange Film Show is a treasure that is responsible for me personally discovering the works of Sam Raimi and Tsui Hark, among others. I highly recommend people seek it out (some episodes seem to be on YouTube).
Wizard of Gore trailer
The Gore Gore Girls (1972)
Eccentric private detective Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) and reporter Nancy Weston (Amy Farrell) team-up to solve the mysterious murders of local strippers.
The Gore Gore Girls was Lewis’ final film for 30 years, until he made a brief comeback for Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002), The Uh-Oh! Show (2009), and the incomplete Herschell Gordon Lewis' BloodMania (he died during post-production). By 1972, extreme gore on film was more common – Umberto Lenzi premiered the first Italian cannibal movie, Man From Deep River (1972), Mario Bava jumpstarted the stalk & slash giallo genre, and Hammer Studios attempted to court younger audiences with far bloodier franchise pictures. Special makeup effects had made huge technical leaps since Blood Feast and the Godfather of Gore was caught playing catch-up. The Gore Gore Girls can’t quite compete with its more vicious and expertly-crafted ‘70s counterparts, but, separated from the expectations of the period, it is still pretty charming, because Lewis sticks so strictly to his original model. This is definitely a comedy first, a gore extravaganza second, and a horror/thriller last. Dry-witted comedian Henny Youngman manages to score intentional laughs than any of Lewis’ other leading men, making the periods between over-the-top violence infinitely more tolerable. On the other hand, he clearly learned some lessons from Bava & Company. Not only are his production values more lush and contemporary, but his killer is clad in a black leather coat and gloves.
This Stuff'll Kill Ya! (1971)
A conman poses as a Baptist preacher and sets up a moonshine distillery in a small Southern town, to the chagrin of local and federal law enforcement entities.
Lewis revisited hicksploitation for this pseudo-sequel to Moonshine Mountain, which recycles the same basic formula of knee-slapping music and drunken redneck antics. This time, the director built his rickety plot around the boisterous talents of actor Jeffrey Allen (who also appeared in Two Thousand Maniacs and Moonshine Mountain), rather than the singing talents of Chuck Scott, though there are still a number of rowdy musical performances. These, along with the occasional car chase and gory insert, break-up the tedium of never-ending discussions between giggling hillbillies. L.A. Law and Darkman fans should keep an eye out for a very young Larry Drake in his first film role.
Newly recorded director intros (1:43, 2:08, HD)
The Gore Gore Girls commentary with director H.G. Lewis, moderated by Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney (from the SWV DVD)
Arrow exclusive This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! commentary with camera operator Daniel Krogh
Stephen Thrower on The Gore Gore Girls (16:25, HD) – The author/critic returns to discuss this, his personal favourite among Lewis’ films, which he also compares to early giallo.
Regional Bloodshed (12:06, HD) – Fellow Midwestern filmmakers Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, 2013) and Spencer Parsons (Bite Radius, 2016) talk about “regional filmmakers,” the business of indie filmmaking, and outsider art.
Herschell Spills His Guts (4:02, HD) – The director recalls his retirement from film, post-Gore Gore Girls and his successful career in copywriting.
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! trailer
For a long time, Something Weird Video was H.G. Lewis’ home on North American home video. In fact, it appears that most of their releases are still in print (and the ones that aren’t are available for download from SWV’s site). Over the years, SWV only issued five Lewis flicks on Blu-ray (with help from Image Entertainment). These include a triple-feature Blood Trilogy release of Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red, and a double-feature containing Wizard of Gore and Gore Gore Girls. Nine of the fourteen movies in Arrow’s collection are making their worldwide Blu-ray/HD debut here. According to their notes, Arrow scanned most of the source materials in 2K and the completed film grading and digital restoration in house with the exception of at least Two Thousand Maniacs, which, according to the title card, was sourced from SWV’s original restoration.
Arrow issued the following statement in along with this collection:
Although the best existing elements were sourced for this project and every attempt was made to present the films in this collection in the highest quality possible, some of the films still exhibit varying degrees of damage that could not be digitally repaired to our satisfaction....Throughout the restoration workflow process, our priority was to retain the original photochemical look of the films rather than create unwanted digital artifacts by heavy handed picture cleanup. Therefore, many of the films in this collection exhibit "warts and all" appearance, in keeping with their distribution history and physical condition.
Basically, the transfers in this set break down into two categories – One, genuinely great transfers that defy expectations, despite featuring some notable print damage; and two, “artifacty” prints that are still reasonably detailed (with a couple of exceptions).
Category one includes most of the Heavy Hitters – Blood Feast (1.85:1), Two Thousand Maniacs (1.78:1), Color Me Blood Red (1.85:1), She Devils on Wheels (1.33:1), and Just for the Hell of It (1.33:1). These HD images are more detailed than their DVD counterparts, including tighter element separation (the use of soft focus and zoom techniques mean that patterns are usually somewhat fuzzy), though it’s the more vivid color quality that makes the upgrade really worthwhile. This is important, since the almost Technicolor-esque hues set the earlier movies apart from their grimy grindhouse counterparts. Grain levels vary from movie to movie and scene to scene, but tend to appear natural, rather than noisy/snowy and, while flecks and scratches shimmy over every one of the transfers, there’s very little compression noise. Two Thousand Maniacs is the most uneven of the good transfers, because it contains some standard-definition inserts (ranging in length from a handful of frames to several seconds).
Category two includes Scum of the Earth (1.85:1), A Taste of Blood (1.85:1), Something Weird (1.33:1, taken from a 35mm printed source), How to Make a Doll (which was taken from a 35mm printed source and starts really rough, but evens out, 1.33:1), Wizard of Gore (1.85:1, taken from a 35mm printed source), Gore Gore Girls (1.78:1), and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya (1.33:1, taken from a 35mm printed source). Scum of the Earth is the only black-and-white film (with the exception of a single frame during a gunshot, inspired by Victor Fleming’s Red Dust, 1932) and displays considerable grain upticks as a result. A Taste of Blood looks fabulous for most of its runtime, but, since it was sourced from both negative and printed elements, the clarity drops considerably here and there. I suppose that the bottom of the barrel would be Gruesome Twosome (1.33:1, taken from a 35mm printed source) and Moonshine Mountain (1.33:1). Gruesome Twosome is plagued by bright green vertical lines and skews purple, but still manages to come out ahead, because it is so much sharper than SWV’s DVD. While Gore Gore Girls is among the most consistent and damage-free transfers, it’s also the only one to feature DNR and edge enhancement artifacts. Moonshine Mountain is the all-around weakest of the transfers, due to its constantly washed-out appearance. Apparently there was no original negative, so Arrow was forced to draw from prints and SD video sources.
The bulk of all of the original mono soundtracks were transferred from directly from the 35mm prints and are presented in uncompressed 1.0 LPCM. In some cases, missing audio has been filled in from other sources, for instance, How to Make a Doll and Just for the Hell of It. These movies are incapable of sounding particularly good, but the LPCM audio gives the Category 1 movies a bit more depth than the DVD versions. The earliest movies are particularly patchy, because so much of the footage was shot without production sound. On top of this inherent aural inconsistency, the fact that the movies were taken from multiple prints/sources means that the sound quality can dip suddenly from shot to shot (in the case of Two Thousand Maniacs and the tone of the vocals drop about two octaves during the barrel-roll stunt, but this was an error on Lewis’ part, not damaged film). Distortion effects are largely corrected, though there are still buzzes and pops sprinkled throughout every movie (Gruesome Twosome has some particularly ‘buzzy’ moments). I’m reasonably positive that nothing could be done to make the vocal performances less tinny, so we’re just gonna have to live with it. The music, much of it supplied by Lewis himself, tends to have decent depth and bass accompaniment (except for Just for the Hell of It, because Lewis seems to have blown out his mic while recording the live musical moments), even when the audio has been culled from multiple sources (I suppose there were clean soundtrack albums lying around somewhere?).
Bonus discs one and two feature 1.33:1, 1080p versions of Blood Feast, Scum of the Earth, Color Me Blood Red, A Taste of Blood, and Wizard of Gore for all of the purists in the house that don’t like their H.G. Lewis movies cropped to theatrical-friendly framing. Each includes an LPCM mono soundtrack, but none of the commentaries.
Bonus disc three features Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore documentary (1:46:18, HD), directed by Frank Henenlotter (director of the Basket Case series) and Jimmy Maslon (co-producer of Blood Diner). This all-encompassing retrospective features loads of footage/outtakes from Lewis’ movies and interviews with the man himself, Friedman, famed photographer Bunny Yeager, other co-conspirators, critics from the era, and fans Joe Bob Briggs, John Waters, and co-director Henenlotter (much of his interview footage was reused for That’s Sexploitation. The filmmakers also managed to find and cobble together footage from one of Lewis’ unfinished films, An Eye for an Eye.
Disc three extras include:
Deleted scenes (1:04:18, SD) – A load of extra interviews, outtake footage, and scenes from lost gore films that pre-date Blood Feast. There’s enough stuff here to support another whole documentary.
Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore trailer
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.