Thursday, November 06, 2008

Herschell Gordon Lewis double feature

Late Halloween night Turner Classic Movies ran the two earliest "gore" films from Herschell Gordon Lewis, which I TiVoed. I've seen a couple of Lewis's films, but never these: Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!. I finally got around to watching them yesterday. Well, not watching so much as fast forwarding to the gruesome parts.

Blood Feast, the first and most infamous of Lewis's gorefests, is about an Egyptian caterer who hacks off an assortment of body parts from various women so that he can eat them and make sacrifice to his Egyptian goddess... well, something like that. The script doesn't make a damn bit of sense. It's completely incompetent, as are the acting and directing; the whole film is difficult to enjoy, or even sit through, even from a campy, ironic POV. But the gore: oh my!

The brutal, explicit violence in this film is every bit as shocking and disturbing as what you might see in one of the so-called "torture porn" releases of the past few years, such as the Saw or Hostel franchises. In fact, it's more disturbing, for a couple of reasons. For one, it was released in 1963, a full forty-five years ago, and has the look of its era, a look which I associate with a more innocent brand of filmmaking, a look similar to, for example, early color episodes of Dragnet, a look in which it is jarringly incongruous to see a man rip a woman's tongue out by the root. And two, due to the incompetence of the script and direction, there is next to no suspense, characterization, or any other attempt to disguise the fact that the film exists purely for the exploitation of grisly violence perpetrated against women. The movie opens with a woman coming home and getting ready to take a bath. She has no dialogue; she interacts with no one. A radio report warns of a criminal on the loose in the area, which suffices entirely for the build-up. And then all of a sudden a dude is cutting out her eyeball and chopping off her leg in the bathtub. The blood is copious; bone and gristle are luridly on display. And it is on display purely for the sake of being on display, serving no purpose other than to titillate, as did the nudity in Lewis's earlier "nudie-cuties."

Now, don't think I'm complaining or judging. At least, I'm not judging the violence or titillation. More titillating violence, that's what I always say! It's the overwhelming ineptitude of the entire film's production that is more offensive to me. If you're a fan of horror, this is a milestone you'll probably want to see at some point. But you might want to see it the way I did: finger on the fast forward button, skipping long stretches of static and poorly-framed shots, painfuly bad acting, and agonizingly dull and ludicrous writing.

Two Thousand Maniacs! at least has going for it a clever story: the Southern town of Pleasant Valley (pop. 2,000, of course) was destroyed by Union soldiers during the Civil War. On the centennial of that massacre, the locals divert unsuspecting Northerners into town, and the entire population exacts their gruesome revenge. At the end, the town disappears, with the promise that it will return to do the same in another 100 years.

The violence is once again copious and explicit, but this time there is a modicum of character development and set-up before the blood begins flowing. The acting and directing, sadly, both remain atrocious. Also, there's an acoustic folk trio, for some reason. I kept my thumb on fast forward through most of this film, too.

Were these films worth seeing? No. They're very bad, of interest only for their place in horror history. As a horror buff, I had that interest. If you don't: man oh man, avoid these movies.

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