We're living in a grand era of horror and genre documentaries. Three of the big horror franchises from the 80s and 90s have been given the documentary treatment (Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy). There are documentaries covering horror authors (Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown), horror sub-genres (Zombiemania and Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film) and horror conventions (Monster Bash - Origins). We even have multiple documentaries covering horror hosts (Every Other Day Is Halloween, American Scary and Virginia Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominion).
Image Entertainment and Something Weird Video dip their toes into the genre documentary pool with Godfather of Gore: The Herschell Gordon Lewis Documentary on September 27, 2011. However, horror fans may want to brace themselves. While H. G. Lewis is perhaps most well-known for his, for better or worse, groundbreaking horror films, nearly the first third of the documentary spends its screen time exploring the pre-bloody history of Lewis-the-filmmaker. We're given his background, how it intersects with the history of the exploitation film and the "nudie cuties" and what ultimately led him to break the bloody ground of Blood Feast. While I certainly find the non-Hollywood-side of filmmaking history fascinating, it does get a bit drawn out in this documentary. I didn't need to see as many clips from the nudie cuties; I didn't need the sound effects whenever someone's genitalia accidentally appeared in any of those film clips; I didn't need to hear everyone bragging about producer David Friedman's ability to talk women out of their clothes for his collaborations with Lewis.
Having Joe Bob Briggs and Frank Henenlotter pop up to express how awful the nudie cuties were (not just Lewis' contributions but the entire subgenre) certainly helped. I laughed out loud when Henenlotter appeared on screen to tell us how "stupid" these films were.
When the documentary gets to the gore-portion of Lewis' career, it doesn't hold back (not that it held back when referencing all the nudie cuties!). The footage is bloody, exploitive, graphic and gruesome. Surviving and available cast and crew reflect on their time working with Lewis and company, and we get a near film-by-film chronology of the films Lewis and Friedman worked on together. There's a short mention made of a falling out between the two, and then we're back to the filmography, sans Friedman. Friedman and Lewis definitely have current chemistry on screen, however; if there was any serious bad blood between the two, it must have long mellowed by now.
The documentary is interesting, and takes us to the sticky floors of film history. It moves along at a quick pace, sometimes to a fault. For a documentary called Godfather of Gore, I was surprised to come away from it feeling as if we rushed through some of the gore films. Perhaps this is indicative of my own film interests, but I didn't need as much time spent on Lewis' nudie cutie filmography.
Perhaps it was because of this quick pace that some elements of Lewis' career were glossed over or skipped all together. There's no reference made to the film Monster A-Go-Go, which Lewis kinda-sorta co-directed with Bill Rebane. The movie Something Weird is covered, but, despite this documentary being released by Something Weird Video, no connection is drawn between the film and its influence on the founder of SWV. Mention is made of Lewis' adversarial relationship with Connie Mason which apparently began when she first appeared in Blood Feast, but this is never discussed further (it's implied that Mason had a very diva-like attitude, and since Lewis is portrayed as a efficient quick-and-dirty movie maker, I would have liked to have learned how he dealt with this "diva" and why he decided to cast her again in his next film Two Thousand Maniacs!).
Mason doesn't appear in the documentary (except for an end credits sequence in which she appears on stage with Lewis and company at a horror convention singing the Two Tousand Maniacs! title song). There is a distinct lack of women overall, and most of the horror film clips showcase women getting killed (granted, most of Lewis' film victims were women, but there were some men killed in ...Maniacs!), which does give Godfather of Gore: The Herschell Gordon Lewis Documentary an odd, albeit slight, sexist edge. Of course, considering what kinds of films Lewis made, what the market was, etc., this may have been the intent of director Henenlotter.
There is a nice spotlight shone on regular Lewis performer actor William Kerwin. It quickly became obvious that everyone who ever worked with Kerwin remembers the late actor fondly, and it was nice to hear stories about how he not only performed in front of the camera, but helped whenever and wherever he could behind the camera. Additionally, footage from an unfinished H. G. Lewis film called An Eye for an Eye has been restored and cobbeled together for this DVD release, and I think it's a real shame this particular film was never completed. It definitely has a broader feel than most of Lewis' genre output at the time, and would have perhaps made an interesting eventual double-feature pic to play against X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes at some point.
John Waters appears in the documentary and makes an interesting point: there's no such thing as exploitation cinema anymore. Everything that was shocking - nudity, gore, etc. - has all been co-opted by Hollywood and appears in mainstream films now. Perhaps this is why Lewis got out of film industry when he did, but, again, this documentary doesn't explore this stage of Lewis' career too deeply either. He just kind of . . . stopped making movies. He went on to have a successful career in marketing, and that's that. The DVD ends. No mention of the Blood Feast sequel or the Two Thousand Maniacs! remake. We see some footage of Lewis at a business conference, Waters, Briggs and company reflect on Lewis' place in film history, and the end credits role.
While I certainly wish the documentary had been less love letter and more historical document, I still enjoyed the Godfather of Gore: The Herschell Gordon Lewis Documentary. Briggs doesn't say much more than he's already written in his book Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History and Waters certainly doesn't dive into anything new from him, either. I don't think it's something I'll go back to again, but it did give me some ideas of some movies to add to my To-Watch list.
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