Yesterday, at the age of 87, Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away.
This man remains an adorable, unique paradox. Clumsy director yet a crafty old devil, completely foreign to the elegance of images, who only ever made movies to scrape out a living. A man who unwillingly changed the history of cinema.
His intuition — even slightly accidental, according to the legend — was to understand B-movies had the task of filling, unveiling mainstream cinema’s ellipses: the key was to try and put inside the frame everything that, for moral or conventional reasons, was usually left off-screen.
A first example were nudies, those little flicks featuring ridiculous plots (if any), only meant to show some buttocks and breasts; a kind of rudimental sexploitation, not even aiming to be erotic. H. G. Lewis was the first to realize there was a second taboo besides nudity that was never being shown in “serious” movies, and on which he could try to cash in: violence, or better, its effects. The obscene view of blood, torn flesh, exposed guts.
In 1960 Hitchcock, in order to get Psycho through censorship, had to promise he would change the editing of the shower scene, because someone in the examination board thought he had seen a frame where the knife blade penetrated Janet Leigh’s skin. It doesn’t matter that Hitch never really re-edited the sequence, but presented it again a month later with no actual modification (and this time nobody saw anything outrageous): the story is nonetheless emblematic of Hays Code‘s impositions at the time.
Three years later, Lewis’ Blood Feast came out. An awfully bad movie, poorly directed and even more awkwardly acted. But its opening sequence was a bomb by itself: on the scene, a woman was stabbed in the eye, then the killer proceeded to dismember her in full details… all this, in a bathtub.
In your face, Sir Alfred.
Of course today even Lewis’ most hardcore scenes, heirs to the butcheries of Grand Guignol, seem laughable on the account of their naivety. It’s even hard to imagine splatter films were once a true genre, before they became a language.
Explicit violence is today no more than an additional color in the director’s palette, an available option to knowingly choose among others: we find it anywhere, from crime stories to sci-fi, even in comedies. As blood has entered the cinematic lexicon, it is now a well-thought-out element, pondered and carefully weighed, sometimes aestheticised to the extremes of mannerism (I’m looking at you, Quentin).
But in order to get to this freedom, the gore genre had to be relegated for a long time to second and third-rank movies. To those bad, dirty, ugly films which couldn’t show less concern for the sociology of violence, or its symbolic meanings. Which, for that very same reason, were damn exciting in their own right.
“Blood Feast is like a Walt Whitman poem“, Lewis loved to repeat. “It’s no good, but it was the first of its type“.
Today, with the death of its godfather, we may declare the splatter genre finally filed and historicized.
But still, any time we are shocked by some brutal killing in the latest Game of Thrones episode, we should spare a thankful thought to this man, and that bucket of cheap offal he purchased just to make a bloody film.