I was no Herschell Gordon Lewis aficionado before sitting down to watch Jimmy Maslon's and cult filmmaker extraordinaire Frank Henenlotter's (Basket Case, Brain Damage) documentary tribute to the Godfather of Gore, who both invented and ruled the splatter genre from the 1960s to the early 70s. I had seen his seminal 1963 classic Blood Feast, and while I enjoyed it as a cinematic oddity, I never really understood what all the fuss was about for HGL. Thanks to Jimmy Maslon and Frank Henenlotter, I am now drinking the proverbial blood red kool-aid.
(In fact, I enjoyed the film so much that it induced a fever dream last night about HG Lewis time-traveling to defeat the Zodiac Killer who has escaped to the 21st century - wait... did I just type that...)
Through dozens of interviews, including Herschell himself, an endearing and engaging personality, his longtime producing partner David Friedman, his cast members, his cameramen and some of his biggest fans (Joe Bob Briggs and John Waters), HGL's career is candidly explored and celebrated alongside a bevy of entertaining and rare archival footage. We see his first nudie-cutie pictures (naked lady on turtle alert!), his gory classics, his children's films (!). Maslon and Hellenlotter even unearthed and cut together footage from the film An Eye for an Eye, which Herschell never completed. In fact, a great deal of the footage shown throughout the film are from outtakes taken from the original negatives of Herschell's films, footage that has never been seen until now, making the doc a must-see for any self-proclaimed cult film scholar.
Much of the documentary assumes a typical talking head vs. archival footage structure, but Hellenlotter and Maslon do change it up from time to time, intermittently using the archival footage much like the Robert Evan's documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, visualizing various anecdotes from Herschell's career to great comic effect. They get even more creative in the doc's most inspired sequence, where the opening of Two Thousand Maniacs is re-shot in the present day with Herschell and his producing partner David Friedman cast as the unlucky tourists tricked into driving though Pleasant Valley. Footage from the original film is humorously intercut with the two reuniting with cast members and the contagious enthusiasm for Herschell and his catalogue that pervades the entire film reaches its zenith in this episode.
None of this is very polished I should acknowledge. The wealth of archival footage provided is terrific, but don't expect the flair or style of Not Quite Hollywood. There are sound hiccups, image distortion/pixelation and some sloppy transitions, but this is a modest production, and the filmmakers have not tried to hide it. During the Q&A after the Fantasia screening (which included a rousing sing-a-long of the theme song from Two Thousand Maniacs lead by Herschell Gordon Lewis himself), the film's producer Mike Vraney (founder of Something Weird Video) admitted that the documentary may not be critic proof, but at the very least it is an earnest work by three individuals passionate about championing Herschell and his movies. Though it wasn't shot in four days like an HGL film (four years rather), Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore does overcome its lo-fi production value through its palpable earnestness and good-humor, ultimately embodying the same spirit behind each of Herschell's own films. I laughed, I gasped, and I did what every good documentary should incite from its audience: I learned.
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