Whenever the history of horror/splatter movies comes under discussion, the name of Herschell Gordon Lewis is certain to come up, as one of the early exponents of gore, and a founding father of the video nasty. His films are hardly ever seen nowadays, however, which made the recent showing of four of his epics, at the Scala Cinema here in London, all the more welcome. For the benefit of those who haven’t had the good fortune [?] to see any of his movies we present the following descriptions:
SCUM OF THE EARTH (1961)
H.G.Lewis started work in the field of sex rather than violence, trying to sneak as much as he could past the censors all-seeing eye. This is an example of the ‘nudie cutie‘, where the plot is nothing more than an excuse to see pretty girls with few clothes on. It all seems terribly harmless now, with nothing that would be out of place in an average evening’s TV viewing – I think there is one nipple, and if you blink you miss it. No doubt in its day it was considered pretty hot stuff.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a girl who starts modelling to earn enough money to go to college – at first the assignments are totally harmless, but they gradually become ‘swimwear adverts‘ and before she knows where she is, they have become bad enough for her to be blackmailed by the photographers into doing ‘just one more photo session‘. In the end the photographer realises how evil he is being and kills the thug who is terrorising the girl — the ‘Mr Big‘ commits suicide when faced with capture by the police.
According to the voice-over at the end of the film, the ‘Scum of the Earth‘ in the title are those who prey upon young girls to get them to take part in such things. This seems a bit hypocritical, given the large number of camera shots in the film which languidly cruise up an actress from head to toe, or occasionally toe to head. The acting itself is fairly dire – well down to the usual standard…
2000 MANIACS (1964)
Eventually the censor got wise and started to crack down on nudity in films, but this didn’t bother Herschell; he just switched to violence and went right on making movies. His first such film, “Blood Feast”, is still on the banned list today, thanks to (among other things) a tongue being ripped out — “2000 Maniacs” was the follow up. As far as I know, it’s the only one of his films still commercially available in this country, albeit in a heavily out version.
In the Civil War, the Southern town of Pleasant Valley was attacked by a group of renegade Union soldiers, who slaughtered many of the inhabitants. Now, 100 years later, the town is out for revenge, and hi-jack two groups of Yankees, by pretending it is a nicer celebration. One is dismembered with an axe and barbecued, one is torn apart by horses, one is rolled down a hill in a spiked barrel and one is crushed under a boulder. The other two escape only to find out that the town ceased to exist a long time ago.
This is a gory film, again for the time. The effects are not bad, and there is a certain nasty air about the whole thing that is disturbing. Most of the actors playing the ‘maniacs’ are suitably O.T.T. and the entire film is pretty surreal, with some truly weird dialogue. However, there are only four gore scenes in it, which isn’t enough if you are used to the semi-continuous splatter we get now. No matter. It remains a charming period piece, although it isn’t frightening at all, and the hyper acting will keep you interested between the bloody bits. Be warned that very little of the gore is visible on the video version, with the axe murder and the ‘horse race’ being particularly heavily butchered.
SOMETHING WEIRD (1967)
Eventually, Lewis moved away from pure gore, though he still returned to it occasionally (see below). This is one of his excursions into non-sex ‘n’ violence film-making.
A man is nearly killed by an electric shock – when he recovers he gets some good news and some bad news. The good news is that he now has second sight and can foretell the future. The bad news is that he is horribly scarred, so he turns to making a living as a masked fortune teller. One day an old hag arrives and promises to cure his scarring if he will become her lover. He agrees — it turns out she is capable of looking quite pleasant if she wants to. The police then invite him in to use his psychic powers to help them solve a murder which has baffled them.
This is a DULL film. There is very little in it of interest to anyone, especially if they are looking for trash. It is just too BAD to qualify. The acting is dire, without the ham quality that made “2000 Maniacs” a far more memorable film, with the honourable exception of the hag (played by some actress whose name I forget, and can’t be bothered to look up, because as far as I know, she has never appeared in any other film) who deserves some sort of award for the worst impersonation of an old woman I think I have ever seen. There is no drama, tension or excitement in it whatsoever. It was recently back at the Scala on a double bill with “The Gruesome Twosome” (coming soon, patience my pretties), but I left before it came on, even though I’d already paid my three quid. Avoid.
THE GRUESOME TWOSOME (1967)
Ah, this is MUCH better. This is what they want! Made the same year as “Something Weird”, but while that was just a bad film, this one is sooo bad it becomes entertaining.
A little old lady, Mrs Pringle, and her mentally deficient son run a wig shop, which specializes in ‘lOO% real hair wigs‘. The also rent out rooms to female students. Especially ones with long hair. The film revolves around the gore set-pieces, three girls being slaughtered and the son having an eye gouged out, with the rest of the story being the attempt of a student to find her roommate, who vanished after going to rent a room from Mrs Pringle.
It initially came in at well under feature length, so extra scenes had to be bolted on to bring it up to the mark – half the fun is in trying to spot these scenes. There is a prologue involving two talking polystyrene heads, a beach party, and scenes at a stock-car meet and a drive-in which add absolutely nothing to the plot. There is one long section where the heroine is following a suspect, in which her attempts to conceal herself turn what was presumably supposed to be a masterpiece of tension into a classic of comedy. Overacting honours this time go to Gretchen Wells as Mrs. Pringle who acts the complete psycho, down to talking to a stuffed wildcat. Another wonderful moment is where she gives her son, Rodney, a lovely present of an electric carving knife…
The blood is copious. One killing is especially noteworthy — Rodney spends what seems like hours with his hands in a dismembered body, rooting about for some liver (for the stuffed wild-cat!). It just never seems to end. Overall, this is comfortably the best film of Lewis’s that I’ve seen, with the acting, plot and effects combining to produce a classic of its type that deserves as least as big a place in movie history as his earlier ones. Movie trivia — the house inhabited by the wig-makers is on Elm Street. Has Wes Craven seen this film?