Charm is so often the lure that leads doe-eyed victims into the hands of their captors, and Herschell Gordon Lewis is indeed charming. His voice is rich and riveting like a news anchor's; he is a spellbinding storyteller and makes me feel like I am the most brilliant interviewer he's ever encountered. He enjoys a reputation as an internationally admired sales expert, a marketing-guru author of 26 books and columnist for Direct magazine (as well as contributor to several others), the sum of which makes him sound as normal as socks.
Most ad men, though, will never say, "We had to send to Tampa for the entrails. If I want to pull a tongue out of somebody's mouth I don't want just a tongue you get from the butcher's shop."
In addition to his marketing career, Herschell Gordon Lewis is revered by a whole different segment of the population as the inventor of the gore film. Almost 40 years after the debut of "Blood Feast," the innovator will entertain a Q&A session following the midnight Friday, June 14, screening at Enzian Theater of his brand-new sequel, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat.
He'll tell you, though, that his start in the business was just a matter of following his instincts. Like a good entrepreneur, he saw a need and filled it, in this case with intestines, red paint and fake eyes removed from ingenues with a melon baller.
"Most people's motivation for making movies is ego," Lewis says in a phone interview from his South Florida home. "I wanted to make the kind of motion picture that major companies either could not make or would not make."
In the early '60s, most small independent filmmakers were just trying to get around local blue laws to be able to book their nudie movies. Lewis had made some of these teasers ("Boin-n-g," "The Adventures of Lucky Pierre"), but one night he saw something on television that would eventually spawn a genre. He was watching a gangster film and noticed that despite being riddled with bullets, no one bled. No one onscreen ever bled.
He'd fix that.
There were obscenity laws, but "no laws against gore because no one had ever done it before," he says. In this bloody virgin territory, Lewis and partner David Friedman had a whole new world unto themselves. What they made with it was "Blood Feast," released in 1963, a gruesome tale about an Egyptian who falls psycho-slave to a dead goddess and must kill human beings and serve them as food for her pleasure. The film was to be shot in Miami and, with those entrails -- specifically a sheep's tongue -- secured as props, an actress with a certain je n'est ce quoi was needed to pull off the role of victim.
"We found a girl whose mouth was as big as all outdoors," Lewis says with satisfaction, "and she could take this [sheep's tongue] in her mouth and still have her own." The tongue was refrigerated, but "they had a power failure. It was a hot day and you could smell that tongue from two blocks away. We were supposed to shoot the scene the next day so we doused it in Pine Sol. We didn't tell the actress that. As far as I know she survived."
"Blood Feast" was eviscerated by critics, banned in Sarasota and sales figures skyrocketed. "When we saw the kind of grosses this picture was doing, it was stupefying to everybody," Lewis says. "Theaters were yelling and screaming and saying, 'I can't understand this, but we're going to hold it over.' I knew we made the kind of movie nobody had made before."
The blood continued to pour: Cult smash "Two Thousand Maniacs!" (1964), "The Gruesome Twosome" (1967) and "The Gore-Gore Girls" (1972) followed up "Blood Feast" and made Lewis a legend. Having spawned the genre that would eventually give us everything from "Halloween" to "Hellraiser," Lewis sold off his rights to his movies and eventually returned to marketing full time, which he'd always loved.
"Any idiot can aim a camera," he says, "but getting some bodies in a theater, that's a different story altogether."
Filmmaking is glamorous, but "marketing is in many ways more satisfying," he says. "You're matching wits with a great number of people and trying to get them to spend their money. Anybody can open a movie. Look at the "Blair Witch Project." It was a triumph of promotion -- that's what it was. That's certainly a worthwhile proposition. The film itself made my stuff look like "Star Wars," so I really have to compliment them on the way they foisted that thing on the public."
And speaking of impact, film technology has advanced since 1963 but most of Lewis' techniques have not. In the just-released "Blood Feast 2" (well, not "released" exactly; Lewis prefers to call the process "excretion"), it's still gelatinous innards and buckets of red, though time and status have improved a few other things.
"When I shot the original "Blood Feast," I had very little time to instruct what we laughingly called 'actors.' On "Blood Feast 2," here I am sitting watching a TV monitor -- in a director's chair, no less. And there was a sound man and a guy on a boom instead of just aiming a shotgun microphone, saying, 'Talk loud.'"
The only reason the movie was made -- 39 years have elapsed, after all -- was because someone who wanted it done, Jacky Lee Morgan, finally brought him a script, which he liberally embellished with something new: "constant black humor. The whole intention is to have people off balance. They don't know whether to laugh or close their eyes."
Lewis does plan on making another movie, and in fact is the only director who could probably get away with naming his next opus Uh-oh! It doesn't bother him about no longer having the rights to some of the other flicks, like "Two Thousand Maniacs!," a sequel to which he says is being made right now, with Gene Simmons. He doesn't see it as a loss.
"I had a great time then and I have a great time now," he says. "It's all history. And history tends to legitimize everybody. Look at me."