An interview with Frank Henenlotter about HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE

Photo: Blood Feast

Co-directed by BLOOD DINER producer Jimmy Maslon and BASKETCASE director Frank Henenlotter (the latter of whom also edited) and exec produced by Mike Vraney of Something Weird Film and Video, this loving doc looks at the exciting and often hilarious evolution of one of Exploitation Cinema’s pre-eminent pioneers. While many fans are intimately familiar with Lewis’ staple films BLOOD FEAST, THE WIZARD OF GORE and 2000 MANIACS, the doc delves deep into the more obscure offerings in Lewis’ oeuvre, from nudie cuties to biker chick flicks, and shows just how prolific and trend-setting Lewis really was. His initial meeting with carnival barker and soon-to-be longtime partner Dave Friedman while trying to sell early sex film THE PRIME TIME in 1959 illustrates how their work ethic (and most importantly, their mutual sense of humour) fit together like two pieces of a magic puzzle: as Friedman says of THE PRIME TIME, “It wasn’t the greatest film in the world, but it had sprocket holes and it could run through the machine.” What emerges is a portrait of a no-nonsense moviemaker and businessman who has never taken himself nearly as seriously as we do. Fantasia spoke with Co-director Frank Henenlotter about why HG Lewis remains such a vital influence on the genre films of today.

HG Lewis is very self-deprecating when it comes to discussing his films. Did you get the sense that he was proud of his work or that he thought all us fans were crazy for giving them so much attention?

A little bit of the former, a lot of the latter. Once Herschell established himself as one of the leaders in the field of direct-market advertising, I think he was fairly embarrassed by his former filmmaking career. But as time when on he seems to have mellowed to the point of actually embracing his strange place in cinema history. But I still believe he thinks all of his fans are collectively out of their minds.

How would you describe the personal dynamic between Lewis and Dave Friedman?

Since they have two very different personalities, their partnership clicked perfectly. The films they did together are still the ones I would consider the best of Herschell’s film career.

Do you think the Lewis/Friedman dream-team have a contemporary counterpart? Are there any filmmakers or exhibitors that you feel embody their mix of gonzo publicity and business acumen?

Herschell and Dave thrived in a far more innocent time when mild nudity was seen as outrageous and borderline pornographic, and when a bit of blood and gore was able to cause full-scale pandemonium. How do you shock a world these days when people are numb to terrorism and pornography is available at the fingertips of everyone with access to the Internet? Part of the charm of BLOOD FEAST was the era it assaulted.

A dumb question, but: There’s a clip in the film from a trailer for Color Me Blood Red where they use the tagline “it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…” etc. That tagline has always been credited to the Last House on the Left campaign – so was this an original CMBR trailer or a re-release trailer that might have been post-LHOTL?

The trailer for COLOR ME BLOOD RED used in the documentary is the original theatrical trailer shown in 1965. And the copy was written (and narrated onscreen) by Dave Friedman. So yeah, Dave came up with that “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…” tagline years before LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Another reason why Dave was called the Mighty Monarch of Exploitation.

Can you describe the relationship between the HG Lewis back-catalogue and Something Weird films?

Something Weird, in partnership with Jimmy Maslon, owns the rights to all but three (still missing) of Lewis’ films 1959 thru 1972.

What is your own relationship with HG Lewis? I ask because the film feels very much like it was put together by a group of friends.

The film WAS put together by a group of friends, all of whom have known Herschell and Dave for years. Jimmy Maslon saw BLOOD FEAST at a drive-in and loved it so much he decided to buy the film – along with Herschell’s others. Mike Vraney got involved with Herschell when Something Weird started selling Herschell’s films. And I was part of Herschell’s resurgence when he was brought to New York to appear at Club 57 in the early 1980’s which was then his first public appearance in front of fans. I picked him up at the airport, showed my personal 16mm print of WIZARD OF GORE at Club 57 and, afterwards, he sat up most of the evening talking to a smaller group of hardcore fans in my living room.

Can you talk about certain editing choices, such as leaving in casual, fourth-wall-breaking comments like Herschell addressing the interviewer directly, addressing the interview process etc?

Most documentaries are so formal, I thought it would be fun to shake things up a bit. Besides, it was fun to catch Herschell “off-camera” in a couple of moments.

If Herschell was self-consciously making exploitation pictures, what’s the difference between the camp of an HG Lewis film and the camp of films today? What is the magic ingredient that is missing in contemporary counterparts?

Well, being self-conscious isn’t the same as camp. Herschell was self-conscious about making gutter-level exploitation, not about being camp about it. Besides, Herschell’s films are funniest when they’re not trying to be. His comedies are often rather painful (HOW TO MAKE A DOLL, anyone?) and he seems to lack a deliberate camp sensibility which makes them so much fun. Too many of today’s films try for a camp sensibility which usually dooms them. The best camp films aren’t trying to be.

In talking to Lewis did there appear to be anything he would find too distasteful to put into one of his own films?

I get the sense his sex films always made him somewhat uncomfortable. If he had continued making films into the 70’s, I think he would have drawn the line at going into hardcore.

Can you describe the impact HG Lewis has had on your own work? What was your first or most memorable recollection of watching an HG Lewis film?

The first Herschell film I saw was WIZARD OF GORE. I was shocked at both the amount of gore in the film, and how amazingly shoddy the technical quality of the film was. It was like some kind of horror movie from Mars. But long before I saw his others, I was well aware of their reputation and was so fascinated by their sheer audacity, that I happily dedicated my first film, BASKET CASE, to Herschell.

- Kier-La Janisse


HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: THE GODFATHER OF GORE plays Friday July 9th at 10:00pm in the Hall Theatre – followed by a free 35mm screening of BLOOD FEAST!

More details on the film page HERE.

One Response

  1. Hey – cool interview, Kier-la.

    I love the question about the comparison to today’s camp.

    John Waters was always offended by the camp label; saying it inferred that he had deliberately set out to make a Camp Film. Which, of course, he didn’t.

    I wish I could catch the screening 2nite, but unfortuantely I’m neck-deep preparing for this Egyptian Dinner Party I’ve got coming up.

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