2016 has been an incredibly shitty year. Pick any aspect of what you would call “Western Society” and I’ll show you a cirque du merde, as the French might say (but probably wouldn’t). In sports, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Denver Broncos, and Cleveland Cavaliers won their respective championships, each with a very hate-able team leader in Sidney Crosby, Peyton Manning, and Lebron James. Politics? Don’t ask. It’s pretty sad when you’re looking at immigration options, regardless of who ends up winning our presidency. Science? Well, it seems like for every advance that we make, half the country thinks it’s the work of the devil. Climate change is a hoax, vaccinations cause autism, and GMOs are killing us all.
Entertainment has been marked by a string of deaths of universally beloved figures (also, Zooey Deschanel continues to still be on television). David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, even Prince all passed away this year, leaving our world with decidedly fewer artists that don’t suck. I was particularly devastated to hear that HG Lewis had passed away just three weeks ago.
Wait a second, Wally. Who the fuck is HG Lewis?
I have to admit, I had never heard of him either, at least until about 10 years ago. A couple of friends of mine had just moved into a house in Plymouth, MA and well, let’s say the place was a work in progress. There was definitely electricity, I’m not sure about running water, and there definitely wasn’t a working bathroom (had to go in the woods). We spent that first weekend there drinking cheap beer and the kind of vodka that comes in a plastic bottle. We watched horror movies on a 16 inch TV using a VCR the size of a bookcase on ancient, decrepit, barely playable VHS tapes.
Yes, it was heaven.
One of those movies was 2000 Maniacs, written and directed by HG Lewis, and I gotta say, even now, that movie freaks me the fuck out. There isn’t really much of a plot there – 6 Northerners run afoul of a haunted town of Confederates, who lust for Civil War revenge is so great it causes them to rise from the grave (yes, they sing the south shall rise again). 4 of the Yanks are dispensed with in spectacular fashion, including a ‘horse race’, the southern version of being drawn and quartered; a modified version of a carnival dunk tank in which a boulder is dropped onto a woman, and a barrel roll, where another of the victims is jammed into a barrel struck through with nails:
There’s a wishy-washy resolution, two of them get away, and Bob’s your Uncle. But what makes this movie, or the movies of HG Lewis so special?
Well, the movie itself isn’t so much as special, nor were the other movies that HG Lewis produced in that stage of his career as an auteur. Highbrow titles such as Color Me Blood Red, A Taste of Blood, The Gruesome Twosome, The Wizard of Gore, and The Gore Gore Girls represent the body of work (harty-har-har) that HG Lewis is most known for. None of them carry any meaningful value in terms of production, acting, or special effects.
What made HG Lewis’ work so special was that the level of visible violence and gore in these films, the idea of exploitation cinema as horror, and most importantly, the marketing of this type of movie to an all-too-eager audience. American horror up through the fifties and very beginning of the sixties had consisted largely of monster movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon, science gone amok The Fly, aliens Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Vincent Price-fronted paranormal features House on Haunted Hill.
But, like everything else that is ‘Murica, the time would eventually come when the definitely tame-by-our-standards movies of the fifties ceased to slake our bloodthirsty national heritage. It is, however, one thing to make a graphic, disgusting feature film that appeals to the lowest common denominator in us all, but it is truly another to market in such a way that it becomes profitable to do so, as well as a somewhat socially acceptable activity to engage in.
Herschell Gordon Lewis began working for an advertising agency in 1953, as well as directing television commercial advertisements in Chicago, Illinois. He eventually bought out the company, renamed it, and began directing and producing their own films. Because the company was well outside of Hollywood, HG Lewis didn’t feel the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code as directors and films there did – to wit, no movies had been produced in the Chicago area in forty years, and those were silent movies. HG Lewis had the freedom, and moreover, the tools to do whatever he wanted with movies. His partner secured an order for their first film, just so as long as there were boobies in it (I’m not making that up – they got the money based on a breast stimulation, er, nipulation, uh, titillation, I MEAN stipulation).
Lewis took advantage of this fact, and put out probably the most extensive and prolific collection of exploitation films in American cinema by a single person. His work was not limited to gore films – Lewis’ work stretched from juvenile delinquency films to cautionary tales about birth control. But, none of those films came even remotely close to the profitability that his gore fests had. To wit: Blood Feast, the very first American splatter film (1963), cost a little under $25,000 to produce. It made 4 million dollars at the box office. Whoopdie-doo Wally. But, adjusted for inflation to 2016, that’s 31 million dollars. HG Lewis never made a movie that wasn’t profitable, and that, is what put him on the radar for the MPAA.
You see, the funny thing about American society is that we seem to freak out sex and nudity, or profanity, but when it comes to violence, eh, you have to really push the button to get us squeamish. When Herschell Gordon Lewis released Blood Feast to select drive-in theatres around the U.S., the MPAA had regulations against nudity and obscenity, but there were no regulations against gore in movies. Period. So, when the film was released, it was not only shocking (and totally gross), but it was something American audiences truly had never seen before.
HG Lewis, truly an American innovator, and pioneer. We in the horror community salute you:
Wally Quigley is biochemist, writer, husband, father, and horror aficionado. His first horror novel, “Burial”, is set to be published in summer of 2017.