[Our thanks to Lauren Baggett for the following review.]
Near the end of Friday night's screening of Herschell Gordon Lewis - The Godfather of Gore, right at the point where the villain of The Gore Gore Girls takes a meat tenderizer and a salt shaker to a woman's behind, my viewing companion turned to me and said that she had to wait outside until the film was over. This is someone who had sat with me through Fantasia film after Fantasia film for years, through the most disgusting blood and guts epics, and now she had reached her limit in the celebration of the entrepreneurial gorehound. I can't say that I blame her. The work of Herschell Gordon Lewis is a strange and often overlooked chapter in the history of American horror, and there's something that still grabs the viewer in his depictions of mayhem inflicted upon the female body. Seeing the unconvincing violence in the context of such dubious masterpieces as Blood Fest or Color Me Blood Red is one thing. To thread every such scene together in a nearly nonstop tour of putrid animal guts and glassy-eyed blondes, as this documentary does, is another experience altogether. There is nothing realistic about Lewis' gore scenes - the red is too red, the dismembered limbs stiff and shiny. In a constant barrage, however, the technique begins to gain an air of surreality that becomes in turn nauseating and hyper-disgusting. Watching the mayhem unfold still provokes a visceral response, even to the eye jaded by torture porn and CGI. It may not be one of fear, or even disgust, but the ability for these films to still garner such a reaction after all these years is admirable.
As for the documentary in question, Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore is a rollicking tribute to the enterprising director who introduced the term 'gore' to theatergoers everywhere, whether they liked it or not. An all star production team, including Mike Vraney and Frank Henenlotter of Basket Case fame, cover the career trajectory of Herschell Gordon Lewis with a verve and joy borne of their admiration and excitement for the man and his work. Lewis, along with his right hand man David Friedman, is a driving force here, as energetic and charismatic onscreen as any leading man. John Waters leads an impressive array of commentators to testify on how Lewis' crazy films changed their lives. On top of all this, we're treated to liberal samplings of the bloodiest scenes from virtually every movie Lewis ever made. My favorite clips were those from Lewis' 'nudie cutie' days. These strangely sexless (but still sexy) tales, set in real life Florida nudist camps, carry an odd mixture of innocence and glorification of the naked form that seems somehow novel to my twenty-first century mind.
A notable absence in these talking heads is any of the actresses involved in these films. While several of the actors from the gore films are featured, the actresses are given little attention (an odd decision considering how integral their victimhoods were to the films). The ever entertaining Bunny Yeager is interviewed during the nudie cutie segment, but it doesn't seem like enough. For a documentary covering the birth of a genre that both glorified and putrefied female flesh, it would have been nice to get the scoop from the women who were actually draped in spoiled animal guts for Lewis' pictures. Another hiccup is the length. It was mentioned before the film started that the original cut was three and a half hours long. It definitely shows, as Godfather of Gore could certainly benefit from some tightening up. The team behind the wheel are all obviously in love with their subject, and that is where some of the trouble lies. A less biased eye could have shaped the material into something sleeker, though then again much of the charm lies from its homegrown feel. An attempt to place these films in the larger context of 60's and 70's horror film would have benefited in order to show both how unique Lewis' approach was and how he helped pave the way for the shape of American horror to come.
Ultimately, Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore is a must see for gore aficionados, appreciators of gonzo cinema, and those with a weakness for documentaries filled with affection and nostalgia for the cheeseball good old days where bright red paint and decaying sheep's tongues were the height of horror.
Review by Lauren Baggett
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