Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book Review: A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis

To be honest, for the longest time I pussy-footed around the B-movie cinema of Herschell Gordon Lewis, maestro of such cinematic creations as Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and The Wizard of Gore. Don't ask me why I did it. I'm a horror lover since pre-adolescence, since my baptism by fire watching Tobe Hooper's 1981 grueling flick The Funhouse at a friend's eighth grade party. Yet for years throughout my adulthood - even as I wrote books with titles like Terror Television or Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, some deep-seated part of me feared the fringe world of Lewis. His efforts (what I had seen of 'em...) seemed so raw; so bare; so unrefined and therefore totally and utterly dangerous.

Of course, a feeling of endangerment is precisely the mood one desires to achieve while watching a horror film, so my feelings about Mr. Lewis's films were paradoxical and confusing, to say the least, and I'm glad I got over my own moral cowardice and watched a few of his crimson-stained pics in recent years. They're important historically, and they certainly resonate with a kind of low-budget energy that can't easily be dismissed. Seeing them also helped me understand horror of the 1960s, a world I needed to understand to write some of my later books for McFarland, including Horror Films of the 1970s and Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper.

But even watching a few of his films, I always felt I was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle, and it is for that reason that I recently picked up a film book co-authored by Christopher Wayne Curry and John W. Curry, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Creating Cinema Collection, volume 14, 1998).

First off, I must establish that this is a beautifully designed and illustrated work, and even a valuable time-capsule after a fashion - featuring pages upon pages of original newspaper artwork and advertising copy ("Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!" shouts an advert for Blood Feast). The book also boasts a color insert (dripping with blood...), and a great selection of rare photographs, virtually all of which I've never seen before.

But that's just icing on the cake, or blood spraying off the corpse, so-to-speak. When I began reading the text, I immediately felt comfortable with the prose of the authors. They explain in their easy-going but succinct introduction how (Christopher Curry in particular...) came to intersect with world of Monsieur Lewis in 1985...and from there an obsession grew. This is, perhaps, a universal theme for the hard-core horror aficionado. We've all been there - checking out the racks of mom and pop video stores in the late eighties and early nineties for buried treasures that have somehow escaped the notice of the genre press - but that common experience, re-told well in these pages, let me sigh a breath of relief. I understood immediately that the Currys are my peeps. This is a world and a journey I could understand and appreciate - even if the subject matter somehow frightened me - and so I knew I wasn't going to be scandalized, or subjected to any weird analysis or hardcore claims for Gordon's pure artistry.

The authors maintain their friendly, highly-readable tone throughout the book, and the style really keeps the reader at ease. Perhaps understanding that their subject matter is a bit - well, controversial - in these politically correct days of PG-13 horror films, the authors don't attempt to articulate some kind of grand case for Gordon's genius. They merely appreciate his work, and escort us on a guided tour of his long and remarkably successful career. I found this straightforward approach refreshing, and the book is simultaneously unpretentious and infectiously enthusiastic in its presentation. The authors are smart - and they present copious amounts of information - but they don't make you feel like you should be taking notes because there's going to be a test later.

While reading, I found the details of Gordon's career compelling. I knew something about Gordon's ethos from the horror films I had watched, but I learned about another whole world here - particularly his work outside the genre. As the authors insightfully and knowledgeably enumerate in their prologue:

"Herschell Gordon Lewis is unsurpassed in the number of subjects he exploited in his films. In keeping with 'making pictures that either the majors (in Hollywood) couldn't or wouldn't make,' Lewis took taboos and ran with them. Whether it be rock'n'roll, birth control, juvenile delinquency, wife swapping, or extreme violence, a Lewis picture was sure to be an unpredictable, unpretentious treat."

Therefore, Gordon made films like Suburban Roulette, The Girl, The Body And The Pill and She-Devils on Wheels. I haven't seen any of these, but boy would I like to. They sound intriguing, and rife with the Zeitgeist of the era from which they sprang. In reading about these works, I felt like a new avenue in film history had opened up to me, and I devoured these chapters with special interest.

The second part of the book is equally illuminating, devoted to several interviews with key players, and the first one is with H.G. Lewis himself. The director comes off particularly well here, waxing philosophical about everything from his childhood (and favorite films), to reflections on his career and the actors who appeared in the movies. One senses that he's really a decent guy, and that those horrorific, bloody images are just part of his work; part of presenting the best "horror package" he could imagine.

In toto, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordo n Lewis is filled with energy, valuable primary sources (both photographic and textual), and therefore an endearing addition to my reference film library. Since I began writing film books myself back in 1996, I have found it harder and harder to enjoy many horror film books - for reasons too numerous to count. But that simply wasn't the case here. I was enlightened, intrigued and immersed in a world of independent filmmaking that doesn't really exist anymore. So, If you're interested in this director, or just what it was like to make so-called "exploitation" films in the decade of Kennedy, the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King Jr., I wholeheartedly recommend the work of Christopher and Wayne Curry. They've done their homework and presented a refreshing, behind-the-scenes glimpse of a so-called "fringe" filmmaker.

Now, if they can just be persuaded to do a book on my latest obsession, Basket Case and Brain Damage director Frank Henenlotter...


  1. Hi John,

    Basket case and Brain damage are two of my favorite films! You cover just about every subject that interests me! I am always both surprised and impressed.

    Please write something about Frank Henenlotter. Did you ever see Basket case 2? I was not a fan of that one though.

    James Jajac

  2. Hey James!

    Thanks for commenting on the blog! Welcome! I've become a huge Henenlotter fan. Brain Damage is a fantastic film, and so is Basket Case. Haven't seen the sequel yet, but the director's work fascinates me. Have you seen Frankenhooker? I'm still waiting to see that one.

    I'll be interviewing Christopher Curry (author of Taste of Blood) here soon about Herschell Gordon Lewis, and see if I can get him to write a Henenlotter book!