To most, September 26th is the date when, in 1680, the Dutch city Gorinchem suffered a citizen’s revolt due to an imposed tax on cereal. From now on, though, that will change, as any right-thinking person will remember that date in 2016 as the day The Godfather Of Gore, the great Herschell Gordon Lewis, died.
The brain behind a range of vintage cult classics, spanning the gamut of exploitation cinema, from splatter movies to comedy erotica and supernatural witchcraft thriller (niche!), Lewis’ influential sixties and seventies productions paved the way for the video nasties of the eighties and the gory likes of David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson and stand up today as camp, gawdy historical documents of a bygone era. As such, to coincide with an impeccably timed release of the Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, Arrow’s fourteen-film epic Bluray and DVD box set, we look at four of his best.
So, obviously, we have to start with 1963’s Blood Feast, Lewis’ signature film, wherein a strange shopkeeper decides to branch out from his normal list of sundries, to prepare a meal made of human body parts. Initial screenings involved the great promo gimmick of issuing vomit bags to the audience: think Heston Blumenthal’s next experimental menu, though with slightly less psychopathic fervour.
Considered to be the first splatter film and the oldest of the controversial video nasties, Blood Feast’s focus, unlike most previous Hollywood horror films, was more on the graphic images of dismemberment and bloody chaos, rather than suspense, here, given the full Blu-ray visual combover. So, this translates to our Ishtar-worshipping Egyptian nutter (Mal Arnold) going on a drawn-out killing spree to collect the requisite ingredients to resurrect his ancient queen. This involves Lewis’ ripping a sheep’s tongue out of the mouth of one victim (in place of a human one), substituting other body parts from local butchers and ensuring everything’s covered in lashings of claret. All in the best possible taste.
Mal Arnold’s Ramses shouldn’t really have been able to convince anyone that he was anything other than a monster raving loony (surely only a cold-blooded killer would spray his hair with that obviously fake grey shade), though this makes for one of the great slasher wrong’uns, rendered complete by Lewis’ own omnipresent creepy organ score (John Carpenter must have been a fan) lurking around every corner.
William Kerwin, Blood Feast’s relentless cop tracking down the killer, turns up again in the next year’s Two Thousand Maniacs, which laid both the groundwork for the whole Texas Chainsaw hillbillies-gon’-getcha genre and the 2016 US presidential election (chortle) in one fell swoop, replete with violent redneck simpletons, slack-jawed yokels and various other offensive Southern stereotypes. Kerwin plays an equally stoic teacher this time round, whom, on his way to a big teaching convention in Atlanta, stumbles across the small town of Pleasant Valley, celebrating the sacrifice of a number of their townsfolk, massacred in the Civil War 100 years back.
It turns out Pleasant Valley is about as pleasant as TV’s Happy Valley is happy, though, as it turns out they’re planning on going all Wicker Man on the various unfortunate interlopers just passing through. This entails elaborate fairground attractions designed to maim and kill the tourists, horses doing that quaintly old country thing of ripping people apart, limb by limb, and all to the tune of a Lewis-sung version of Robert E. Lee’s subtle bluegrass ditty, The South Is Gonna Rise Again. Our buck-toothed hosts’ malevolent glee is contagious, as the outsiders learn why you should never accept the kindness of strangers.
1967’s Something Weird, sharing its name to the exploitation DVD distributor, is, well, something weird, as we witness the survivor of a near-fatal electrocution (Tony McCabe, who would himself die prematurely the following year) developing ESP, horribly scarred features and, frankly, a bad attitude/poor work ethic. Sensing the burgeoning psychic powers held behind our troubled hero Mitch’s Jeremy Clarkson visage, it turns out there’s a local witch (Mudite Arums having a ball as a grey-faced cackling hippy), who’s up for making Clarkson appear more like the youthful Richard Hammond in return for sexual favours.
Making time to briefly clarify that there is no insinuation here about the Top Gear team’s continued popularity being down to black magic or some kind of carnal pact, we move on with the plot as our psychic hero shags his way to being pretty (admittedly his witchy fuck-buddy scrubs up well too) and becomes something of a celebrity, like a sixties Derek Acorah actually able to communicate with the dead.
Anyway, aside from the cheap parlour tricks and swinging brainiac seduction techniques, Mitch soon puts his powers to good use to simultaneously track down a Schizophrenic serial killer and insult those living with the condition (“98% normal person, 2% psychotic maniac”), with his LSD-amplified powers turning out to be a useful tool suitable for most modern policing procedures. Dated attitudes to mental health, gender politics and, well, everything really, aside, Something Weird’s oddball premise and psychedelic execution emerges as an endearingly strange thriller.
The last dish of our Herschell Gordon Lewis smorgasbord comes in the form of 1970’s The Wizard Of Gore, which returns to the director’s trademark body-ripping splatter, organ accompaniment proving camper than a matinee show at Eastbourne’s Winter Garden, and elaborately put-together death machines. Ray Sager is a kind of cheap Vincent Price as the titular magician, Montag The Magnificent, whose skill lies in pretending to kill people on stage with chainsaws, axes, guillotines or whatever he can lay hands on, only for them to actually die later that day through the self-same injuries.
By now, you know the score: people’s guts are dropped everywhere (disembowelling, not last night’s curry); intrepid/stoic/dull cops try and track down a nefarious killer; all sorts of mind games are played out. Sager’s good fun as Montag, whilst the creepy atmosphere and messy set pieces are perhaps the perfect testament to Lewis’ bizarre brand of lo-fi genius.
No stranger to the type of splatter Lewis embraced is Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs, who must have been drenched in a veritable gunge tank of gore in his long and (not always so) illustrious career. The eternal darling of Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures, and ever-present for that company’s continual fascination with the works of H.P Lovecraft, this month sees his sadly mostly-lowered eyebrows grace 88 Films’ otherwise unasked-for Bluray release of 1994’s The Lurking Fear.
As is often the case when you throw the names Band and Lovecraft into a hat, the end results are only tenuously Lovecraftian, with niceties such as a faithful plot or subtle build-up of tension deemed secondary to cool animatronics (to be fair, cool animatronics are one of life’s essentials) and lashings of death, as Hellraiser’s Ashley Laurence teams up with Band regular Blake Adams to end a family curse and save a town from marauding undead buggers. Notable for some agreeably Tales From The Cryptian monsters and an entirely gratuitous women’s graveyard mudwrestling scene, Trancers III director (yes!) C. Courtney Joyner’s relatively inoffensive adaptation is far too easily forgotten for a film about the vengeful dead.
A far more interesting bout of hellspawnery simultaneously comes to DVD in the form of Michele Soavi’s The Sect, A.K.A The Devil’s Daughter, which also happens to be the third of those seemingly hundreds of sequels – in name only – to Lamberto Bava’s cult favourite Demons, the only link being that both films feature, well, demons. Forget all that though- The Sect’s sinister tale of a Manson Family style satanic cult’s modern-day tomfoolery in Frankfurt of all places is far superior to its status as technically a cash-in sequel.
Kelly Curtis (Jamie Leigh’s sister) plays a teacher who takes in a shaky old man (a never-more creepy Herbert Lom) who carries a box with definitely nothing dodgy inside, only to find out that, hey, that crepuscular geezer has some iffy friends and a predilection for removing people’s faces. Who knew? Soavi and producer Dario Argento’s 1991 film, with its memorably weird imagery (those big bastard marabou storks really should be featured in more horrors) and creepy pre-Ring evil well setting, emerges as something of a minor classic.
Less creative, but nonetheless agreeable enough, is this month’s final helping of nastiness, coming in the form of arguably not Sir Christopher Lee’s best work (ahem), Howling 2: Your Sister Is A Werewolf, out on crisp Arrow Bluray. Sadly not followed up with Howling 3: Your Mum’s The Cicada In The Beast Within (no-one?), though at least directed by Philippe Mora, the man responsible for that classic in the human-sized-insect-rapist sub-genre, Howling 2 is sadly lacking in the hinted-at comedy-horror laughs. Still, what Mora’s film lacks in chuckles, it more than makes up for in mid-eighties cheese, British TV-themed trivia and, well, Jimmy Nail.
Opening with the funeral of our hero from the first Howling excursion, stoic old werewolf hunter Stefan Crosscoe (an apparently miserable Lee) encourages the survivors to join him in Transylvania to take on the large-breasted lupine queen Stirba, played by Roger Corman favourite Sybil Danning, in a fight to the death. This involves a nice holiday to Czechoslavakia, substituting for Romania, with only marginally more sex and bloodshed than a British stag party in Prague (arf!), and an excursion to the real-life creepy church made of human bones, the Melnik Ossuary.
So a few neat shots of the Ossuary aside, this setting is largely wasted in favour of indoor fight scenes, repeated mid-credits shots of Danning getting her puppies out and general high concept tomfoolery. Throw in sub-Cramps punks Babel’s performances and the fact the keyboard player wrote the theme to TV’s Catchphrase, and you’ve got the makings of that rarest of treats: the paranormal romp/Roy Walker crossover. At last.