He recently passed away, but in his 90 years on earth Herschell Gordon Lewis claims that he had been approached on two occasions to direct a snuff film. The idea didn’t amuse him. During an interview with Alexandra West from Diabolique Magazine, he said such a thing wasn’t “worthy of a thought.”
“I regard that as too far back in organized society,” said Lewis in his genuinely golden voice, which narrates some of his films. He expressed that even seeing bodies on the evening news was tested his sensibilities. To Herschell Gordon Lewis, death did not appear entertaining. It would be an uncontroversial statement coming from anyone who isn’t better known as the “Godfather of Gore.”
The Lewis filmography is made of especially mindless meanders through bloody murder. Blood Feast (1963), not Lewis’ first picture but considered the first “splatter film,” is an hour of a history buff murdering women and disemboweling them as part of an Egyptian ritual, leaving them in a blank stare in hollow rooms and slathered in red paint.
The Wizard of Gore (1970) is 95 minutes of Montag the Magnificent chewing the scenery and gutting victims, sawing them in half or drilling holes in their abdomen, fiddling in their guts in half-second handfuls like a prospector sifting for gold. The killings don’t merely happen out of maliciousness, but moreover because the film doesn’t seem to have any idea where else to go. An original ending involving a goat carcass was ditched due to an electrical fire that got them kicked out of the location. Instead it turns out the entire film was a dream.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) is a very literal interpretation of “the south will rise again.” Again around 90 minutes long, wild hillbilly ghosts chase city kids while the city kids run around trying not to get gored. The apex of the film, if there is one, is that the southern ghosts are very intent on dropping a boulder on at least one of them.
I won’t pretend that Lewis made good films, but he made debauch, entertaining ones. They were important ones too, along with Jack Hill and Russ Meyer, crystallizing what it looked like to abandon good taste as the American film production code was losing its grip on Hollywood. Since that era, filmmakers, successfully and unsuccessfully, sincere and insincerely, have tried to replicate that moment. The careers of John Waters, Tobe Hooper, Rob Zombie, Peter Jackson, Eli Roth, Lloyd Kaufman, and even Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have the magnetic north to their compass otherwise.
Lewis’ films are the patient zero of horror comedies. More disturbed than scary. Funny despite a dearth of jokes. Horror comedies are a huge chunk of the cinema, and top lists of the genre include dozens of the type: Evil Dead (1981), Creepshow (1982), Shaun of the Dead (2004), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Fright Night (1986). The comic and the tragic seem hopelessly intertwined, and there’s nothing new about wondering if there’s even a line separating the two as much as a point when you stop screaming and start laughing.
It’s a dated analogy, but Umberto Eco illustrated the rift by saying that a Chinese cannibal is not funny, unless the cannibal is using chopsticks, in which case it is funny, unless you are Chinese. To modernize that definition to something a little more tasteful by comparison, I would nominate The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), where Southern degenerates deep fry their victims and serve pieces along the highway. Hooper would return to that theorem with The Funhouse (1981): teenagers being killed by a mutant isn’t funny, but it is ironic that it’s happening in a dark ride meant to give thrillseekers goosebumps.
For videogames, the tradition of straddling the comic and the tragic with gore is rooted just as it has been for film. Mortal Kombat scared parents witless in the early ‘90s, the “Fatalities” where spines are ripped out by throat were usually the focal point of such controversies. But the same finishing blows included getting a smooch from Kitana so nice the opponent exploded, or Liu Kang dropping an arcade cabinet on someone, and were quickly complimented by “Friendships” and “Babalities,” where players could opt to exchange gifts or turn each other into toddlers respectively.
It’s worth mentioning that the hearings overseen by Joseph Lieberman that led to the ESRB rating system were also fixated on Night Trap (1992), a game better remembered for its teen pop theme than any dismemberment.
But those are just the origins. How games play with gore has become more interesting than the shock value, and players and creators are subject to how flexible this hyperviolence can resonate. Similar blood effects from Dead Rising’s (2006) slapstick zombie adventure can be seen in Shadow of the Colossus (2005) in a deeper hue. In the latter case, the image creates a haunting sense of regret, even if the black substance sprays like your thumb is on the hose.
The rule of thumb seems to be that irony is the only difference between the comic and the tragic, but even that can be used to rubberband the audience. It’s harder to say where in the nauseating Hotline Miami series the massacre comes off as humorous, compared to other killing spree games like Postal (1997), but both the horror and hilarity of your actions seem to occupy the same memory. In fact, the sheer enjoyment of your destruction only adds to the horror, like all it takes to become the monster is a subversive presentation. I expect some similar thrills when the player-versus-player Friday the 13th game launches next year, and that chord appears to be getting a perhaps less effective workout in Suda51’s upcoming Let It Die.
Herschell Gordon Lewis had perilously few pretenses about his directorial work. While he never fully retired as a filmmaker, he spent the large interims in advertising, a field he supposedly earned respect in. He claims he used those skills to get his films into theaters, and the original trailers have him and surrogates directly address the audience. It’s hard not to smile that his official site, which is dedicated to writing copy, refers to him as “The Godfather of Direct Marketing and Gore.” He made movies to put butts in seats, and in doing so crafted a legacy, while also opening up a conundrum about entertainment. It’s easy to say when something horrific becomes funny, because by that point you’re drenched in it. The alternative—a horror that didn’t entertain—didn’t amuse Lewis, not one bit.