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An Interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis Print E-mail
Interviews - Herschell Gordon Lewis
Written by Elaine Lamkin   
Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Herschell Gordon Lewis, one of the earliest groundbreaking directors of exploitation horror, is also one of the nicest, most gentlemanly men one could ever hope to meet.  Soon to be seen on the other side of the camera as the mild-mannered hardware storeowner, Mr. Gordon, in JimmyO’s movie, “Chainsaw Sally”, Herschell Gordon Lewis, at the age of 79, refuses to quit doing what he loves best, making movies.  He is currently at work on the first film he has both written and directed in over 30 years, “Uh-Oh!: Grim Fairy Tales”.  Severed Cinema wanted to know a bit more about his participation in the growing “Chainsaw Sally” franchise as well as Herschell Gordon Lewis’ colorful and fascinating history.

Thank you very much for taking time to do this interview, Mr. Lewis.  Horror movie fans have been bombarding me with questions they would like to ask you themselves, but I’ll start with my first question.  How did you come to be involved with “Chainsaw Sally”?

I had met Jimmy and April and was impressed with their sincerity and integrity – rare commodities in filmmaking. When Jimmy asked me to appear in the film, I was convinced he was joking. He wasn’t.

Did you have an opportunity to meet fellow horror icon Gunnar Hansen during the time you were shooting your scenes?

Our paths didn’t cross.

I have heard that Mr. Gordon will be back in the sequel to “Chainsaw Sally”.  Will he have more screen time in the next film?

That’s up to the producer and screenwriter. I’d like to see a slightly more crafty characterization … one in which the hardware store proprietor slyly massages the implements of death, for example.

Who came up with that little interplay Mr. Gordon and Sally have, about “Who’d believe me?”  Was there any ad-libbing on your part?

It was entirely scripted.

For you, as a director, how was it to be directed by someone else?  And how is JimmyO as a director?

Jimmy is an easy director, confident and audience-aware. I had no negative reaction whatever. Nor was I diffident about having someone else in the director’s chair.  In fact, on a set it’s quite a relief to have someone else making the decisions.

Your biography is fascinating!  How does someone with a Masters in journalism and a PhD in English become arguably the first sexploitation director?  And at a time when the Hays Code was so strictly enforced?

You seem frighteningly educated on my education. So you probably know I began my “career” teaching English literature at a university. Gradually, reality hit: If I wanted to enjoy the lifestyle I envisioned, it had to be outside the cloistered walls of academia. Describing how I descended into the purgatory of advertising, marketing, and film would eat up page after page, so I’ll condense the history. When I began making movies, I recognized the penalty faced by independent film-makers: The chance of success one could anticipate, mirroring the plots and scenes of major company films, was close to zero. Zilch. Nada. That reality led me to ask, “What kind of movies are the major companies not making … but a kind that some theatres will play? The answer to that question has become a mini-point of history.

How is your former partner, David Friedman, doing these days?  I saw that he was one of the producers of the new “remake” of “Two Thousand Maniacs!” – Raw Nerve’s “2001 Maniacs”.  And what do you think about this new film?

Dave Friedman is living in pleasant retirement in Alabama. His wife died a few years ago, and we all mourn her calm wisdom. I know nothing about “2001 Maniacs” other than they were supposed to have negotiated with me to use the theme music from the original (which I wrote). As of today, such a negotiation hasn’t been completed.

It has been written that the reason your partnership with David Friedman dissolved after “Color Me Blood Red” in 1965 was “problems with profit compensation, editing, and production conflicts.”  After all this time, would you like to comment on this?

We had no such conflicts. The two of us were suing a third partner, Stanford Kohlberg. Dave Friedman settled unilaterally without telling me and moved to California. For several years we were estranged. Then, friendship and mutual respect overcame the estrangement, and we now are the close friends we should be.

When your films were coming out, back in the 60s and early 70s, did you receive a lot of backlash from the public for the content of them?  And are you surprised that so many played at drive-ins, given their “controversial” nature?

They were intended for drive-ins. Breaking new (and startling) ground, I wasn’t surprised that the industry in general and the various censoring organizations jumped on us. But theatre owners, like everyone else, are greed-driven, and once theatres saw how powerful word-of-mouth was, they opted for box-office receipts over the less-rewarding acceptance of controversy.

How did you respond to your films being banned or any backlash from the public or the Hays Office, if there was any backlash?

We ignored such situations. The Hays Office was long gone. Individual censor boards were replaced by the rating system even as we ground out our gory product. Until the major companies began to realize what a gold-mine we had discovered, we and the rating system were strangers. 

When the major studios saw how well your films were doing, were you ever approached to join the “studio system”?  And if so, why did you choose to remain an indie director/producer?

Any invitations were either (a) phony, just to get a mention in the trade publications, or (b) phony, requiring a cash investment on my part. No sincere nor genuine approach ever surfaced.

Do you still have the 35-mm prints of your old films?  So many are considered “lost” – is that true?

Some, such as “Moonshine Mountain,” one of my favorites, are lost. Jim Maslon, in California, has most of the originals, and Mike Vraney, of Something Weird Videos in Seattle, has issued a number of my old films I thought were lost, on videocassette and/ or DVD.

Have you done many commentaries for the DVD release of your classics – the “Blood Feast” trilogy in particular – and how does it feel to watch those movies again after all this time has passed?

It’s like welcoming home a lost child. As I recall, I recorded commentaries for four or five films. I certainly am available for others.

What is your opinion on the state of horror movies nowadays?  Are you a proponent of all these PG-13 horror movies or do you think that just “dumbs” the genre down?

I think the majority of contemporary “horror” films are either derivative or un-horrifying.


How did it feel to be compared to Ed Wood Jr. when “Monster-A-Go-Go” came out?  And did you ever meet that notorious director?

I met him once. The idea that I produced “Monster-a-Go-Go” is ludicrous. Anyone who knows my history also knows I bought an unfinished film titled “Terror at Half-Day” and retitled it, so I’d have a second film to pair as a double feature with “Moonshine Mountain.”

You have said that “Two Thousand Maniacs!” is your personal favorite of all your films and critics seem to think it was your best.  How did you come up with the idea of taking the musical “Brigadoon” and turning it into this horror classic?

I hadn’t even seen “Brigadoon” when we made that film. But anniversary events related to the Civil War were popping up, and it seemed a natural hook. Yes, the hundred-year parallels are there, but the story lines aren’t at all similar.

Did your time as a Professor of English at Mississippi State have any influence on using the South as your setting for “Two Thousand Maniacs!” and having the Yankees be the victims?

I can’t answer that. I developed a fondness for country music and a knowledge of the various attitudes and prejudices that then existed.

How did it feel to get back behind the camera for “Blood Feast 2” and also be working with your old partner, David Friedman, again 

In one word: Exhilarating. I enjoyed every minute of directing that movie, even though I was just a hired hand.

Are you EVER going to retire and just take it easy?  Or is that just not in your nature?

The crystal ball is murky, but I don’t see any pleasure nor benefit in retiring. I’m negotiating with anyone who’s interested in “Grim Fairy Tale,” which if produced certainly will rival “2000 Maniacs” in personal satisfaction.

How does it feel to be known, and possibly forever remembered, as “The Godfather of Gore” 

I suspect that title won’t appear on my tombstone, but certainly it’s preferable to “Anonymous.” Who can object to being forever remembered as anything at all?

Everyone I’ve spoken with who worked with you on “Chainsaw Sally” has commented on how “courtly” and “old-world gracious” you are.  And I can see that in your performance.  Is this the way the Herschell Gordon Lewis of the 60s was as well or would you say you have “mellowed”?

I’d like to think I’m civilized. That always has been a personal benchmark by which I gauge individuals and choose friends.

Who working in the horror genre today has caught your attention?  Director?  Producer? Actor?

That’s one I prefer not to answer, because any answer would seem competitive or prejudiced.

Compared to the movie world back in the 60s, when there were still drive-ins and people went more often to movie theaters, is it your opinion that the problems Hollywood is having today with its box office is because of the quality of the films or something else entirely?

Hollywood seems to have focused entirely on an audience-fragment. Such a decision isn’t fatal if budgets coincide. But when budgets get out of hand and that fragment isn’t responsive, you have a disaster such as “The Island.” One benefit of low-budget horror films is that the very nature of such entertainment, coupled with the multiplicity of available outlets, prevents taking a multimillion-dollar bath.

What is your opinion on the state of current independent horror films?  Especially when compared with what the studios are churning out.

I object to what seems to be a current syndrome: Anyone and everyone who has a video camera regards himself, herself, or too often itself as a film producer, assuming that rounding up some friends and relatives as cast and investors will result in a product that can be released directly to DVD. That’s a lot of mud in the water. These people, too, have no clue about proper exploitation. In moviemaking as in any other business, superimposing one’s ego onto business judgment can result in failure.

Would you consider yourself a fan of horror movies and if so, besides your own films, which ones are favorites of yours?

I’m no fan of any particular type of movie. My wife and I watch a Netflix movie three or four times a week. Sometimes we’ll give up after half an hour of boredom.

Do you have time to read any horror authors and if so, whom do you enjoy?

I read a great deal. Even after half a century, Ray Bradbury, whose output is more science-fiction than horror, has my admiration. Formulaic vampire stories are paperbacks I leave on airplanes. (I enjoyed Lloyd Kaufman’s book, “Make Your Own Damn Movie.”)

How would you define the label “exploitation” as it was back in the 60s and as it is today with regard to film?

Exploitation is far more sophisticated now than it was then because so many more outlets exist. For the independent, the road is rocky because a simultaneous national release just isn’t possible. I prefer the word “showmanship” to “exploitation” as a key to success in the twenty-first century.

What advice would you give new horror directors today?

Leave your ego at the door and don’t hand-hold your camera.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Pretend you’re watching the movie, not shooting it.

Just out of curiosity, since you do hail from Pittsburgh, do you know or have you ever met George Romero?

I’ve never met him, but I admire his ability to maximize that word you use – exploitation.

Is there anything you would care to add that I haven’t asked?

Great heavens, this is the longest interview I’ve ever acknowledged since childhood.

What is one thing you would like people to know about Herschell Gordon Lewis that they probably don’t know?

After this interview, they already know more than they should. I’ll add only that education is an asset nobody ever can take away from you and always is the most valuable of all lifetime experiences.

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