H. G. Lewis Invents the Splatter Genre!
Herschell Gordon Lewis, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and former English professor at Mississippi State College, was a director of “Nudie-Cuties,” who decided to take a different tack than the follow-up form of Sexploitation, a misogynistic sub-genre known as the “Roughie.” Lewis, who working with Dave Friedman produced such films as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Scum of the Earth, and Boin-n-g! in the early ‘60s, was now determined to make Horror films.
Horror was something of a schizophrenic genre in the early 1960s. The Sci-Fi driven Mad Scientist craze of the 1950s wasn’t completely finished, the Classic Horrors of Hammer Films were hugely popular, and a new strain of more adult horror, characterized by films such as Psycho and Cape Fear had begun to grow in popularity. Into this already chaotic mix Lewis was set to add yet another style of horror: “The Splatter Film.”
As related by David F. Friedman in his book A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King, he and Herschell Lewis were tossing around ideas for a new direction for their films when they chanced upon the concept of using excessive blood and gore in Horror films. They first had to film Bell, Bare and Beautiful for Eli Jackson, who had contracted them to produce the film with his financing. It was to star burlesque dancer Virginia Bell, Jackson’s wife. Filming was to be in Miami, Florida, and the filmmakers were under a tight time constraint—Bell was three months pregnant, and would soon be showing. According to Friedman, they arrived in Miami in early February, were taken immediately to the rented studio, and were told to start shooting. After demanding that scripts be provided to the key people involved in the production, they spent that entire night filming the interiors, then went to Spartan’s Tropical Gardens, a Miami-area Nudist-colony, the next day to film the exteriors, and the all-important nude scenes. The movie was completed in three days’ time—if not a record, then a noteworthy accomplishment, nonetheless.
When Lewis and Friedman left Chicago for the sunny shores of Miami, they took with them $24,500 from their financier, Stanford Kohlberg , with which to make the first of what would become known as their “Blood” trilogy—Blood Feast. Starring Lewis and Friedman regular Bill Kerwin (billed as “Thomas Wood”), Mal Arnold, and former Playboy Playmate Connie Mason, Blood Feast tells the story of an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses, an Ishtar-worshipper who wants to stage a cannibalistic feast in her honor. He goes about gathering the necessary ingredients—all contributed quite unwillingly by nubile young women—as police detectives investigate the rash of mutilation murders plaguing the city. As he nears the completion of his preparations, he needs only one thing to bring his plans to fruition—unsuspecting diners to ‘enjoy’ the feast.
Though critics were harsh in their critiques of the film, it was hugely successful, playing long engagements in Times Square grindhouses as well as Southern ozoners. According to the Internet Movie Database, for the less-than $25,000 initial investment, the movie eventually earned over $4 million.
With the new formula a proven success, Lewis and Friedman did what came naturally—they exploited the hell out of it. They returned to Florida the next year, filming Two Thousand Maniacs in and around St. Cloud, reportedly on land that would soon become the site of Walt Disney World. Connie Mason and Bill Kerwin (once again as “Thomas Wood”) returned as two Northern tourists who, along with other Yankees, are trapped in a bizarre Southern town celebrating an unusual anniversary. The assorted hillbillies, rednecks, and yokels in the town subject the Northerners to a variety of sadistic torments.
Based upon the hit Broadway play “Brigadoon,” Two Thousand Maniacs had a much larger budget than Blood Feast, nearly three times as much—$65,000. And, truthfully speaking, Lewis and Friedman did get their money’s worth. Instead of one lunatic with a machete, you get an entire town full of crazies. Crazies equipped with such death-dealing devices as a barrel studded with nails on the inside, for putting someone in then rolling downhill, or a boulder perched on top of a hellish carnival apparatus—hit the bull’s-eye and the boulder drops on the young lovely secured beneath it. It was the most ambitious, as well as the best-executed, of the Blood trilogy, and played the Southern Drive-In circuit for some time .
The third of the trilogy was Color Me Blood Red, and by this point both Lewis and Friedman were losing interest in continuing the series, as well as their professional association. Others were getting into the splatter film game, and Friedman feared the market would soon be saturated. Also, the financial arrangement with Kohlberg, while very advantageous for him, meant that the filmmakers saw very little of their promised back-end of the films he produced, and they had long waits even for that portion of it. In the summer of 1964, Friedman sold his rights to most of the Kohlberg-produced films, including the Blood trilogy, back to Kohlberg. He sold his two-thirds ownership of two other Lewis-Friedman collaborations—the nudie-cuties The Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Daughter of the Sun—to Lewis. He then headed west to Los Angeles to partner with the last of the ‘forty thieves’, Dan Sonney. It would be a highly successful arrangement that would last twenty-five years .
Herschell Lewis, the former professor, continued to make Horror Films for another ten years, producing such Exploitation greats as The Gruesome Twosome, Blood Orgy, and The Wizard of Gore. Others would continue the traditions started by his and Friedman’s Blood trilogy, and take fans on ever more gruesome cinematic trips, trips that continue to this day with films such as the Saw franchise, or the movies of Rob Zombie.
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