I remember exactly the moment I first heard of the great Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was way back in 1983. I was browsing through a Roses department store, and I saw some oversized boxes of movies on tape. I can't tell you what format it was, and in fact this was the first I had even heard of movies on tape. I saw a bunch of them and they were around sixty dollars each. A pretty penny in those days. Prominent among the boxes were eye-gouging titles like Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red. Movies I now know as the infamous "Blood Trilogy".
I wanted to see these movies so badly, but there was no way. I didn't even know anyone who had a player to watch them on. I filed the names away in my mind.
Jump a few years later, and I started reading about Herschell Gordon Lewis in Fangoria. Again, I was desperate to see them, but it would be a while before I had a VCR, and while I knew a few people who did, I don't think I would have had much luck trying to convince them to rent The Wizard of Gore.
The day finally came when I was able to buy my own player. It was a cut-rate job made by Goldstar. I put that son of a bitch to good use, though, before the thing blew up. The first night of rentals were George Romero's The Crazies, Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps, and Two Thousand Maniacs.
The Romero was a bit of a disappointment, but I loved the other two. I was off and on a roll, and I rented God knows how many movies over the next couple of decades. In the first few years the majority of the ones I got from the video store were horror movies.
It wasn't so easy in those days. No Amazon. No specialty companies doing deluxe prints of genre movies. It was hit or miss when looking for Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, and I usually missed. But I gradually managed to see a lot of them.
I was also rabidly watching everything I could find by Roger Corman. A few fools considered Rog to be a nothing but a schlockmeister, despite so many smart and important films to his credit, but most people could see how influential Corman was. I was discovering the work of Dario Argento, and while many find his movies to be incomprehensible, few could deny the technical precision and artistic merits of his movies.
But if you liked the movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis, there was obviously something wrong with you. The term, amateurish, doesn't even begin to describe these pictures. The actors rarely demonstrated even a shred of talent or credibility. Yet many of us, tried and true gorehounds, cherish them.
How amazing must it have been to have seen one of Hersch's movies when they were first released in the 1960's! Lurid titles were commonplace, but the Lewis movies delivered the groceries. In spades.
Part of the allure of the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis was the man himself. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I felt that I knew him a little, at least, from watching the profile of him on that great old Incredibly Strange Film Show program. Herschell Gordon Lewis was obviously intelligent, admirably self-deprecating, and equally sheepish and gleeful about his place in movie history.
That gleeful presence he possessed found its way into the movies. I always pictured that laughing face as I watched them. I pictured old HGL shaking his head at the thought of an audience for the crap he made, and laughing all the way to the bank.
I can't say that I liked all of the movies. A Taste of Blood bored me to tears. Suburban Roulette is hideously atrocious even by Lewis standards. I never saw the children's movies, and by all counts I should consider myself lucky for that.
I liked most of them, though. Not despite their whopping shortcomings, but because of them. My favorite? The best of them all is almost certainly Two-Thousand Maniacs, but I might have to go with She-Devils on Wheels for sheer depravity.
We mourn when people whose work we love die. Whether it's Bowie or Prince, Harold Ramis or Robin Williams, Arnold Palmer or Muhammad Ali, their lives brightened ours, and sometimes it is even more poignant--and heartbreaking--than when people in our real lives pass. Real life is often dull and colorless.
Herschell Gordon Lewis took his viewers to places most wouldn't want to go, but his fans always liked the ride.
RIP Herschell. You were the first, and while no one could call you the best, you made your mark. Horror would not be the same without you.