In 1963, American moviegoers got a glimpse of something they had never seen before: a madman pulling out a screaming woman’s tongue, in bright-red detail.
Not to mention the scalping of a sandy beach babe.
For damn good reason did its trailer’s titles cry, “NOTHING SO APPALLING IN THE ANNALS OF HORROR!” The film was “Blood Feast,” now considered the birth of the “splatter” subgenre. Made for a paltry $24,500 and infinite ingenuity, it grossed out untold audience members on its way to grossing $4 million, kick-starting a lucrative career for its independent and unknown director, Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Certainly, more than one uptight viewer had to wonder from what depths of hell could such a person emerge. The answer: Oklahoma City.
Well, at least in part.
Born in 1929 in Pittsburgh, Lewis’ (pictured) post-collegiate career began as a literature professor until he was hired to handle the more vibrant medium of radio. As the manager of an AM/ FM station in Racine, Wis., part of his duties included monitoring the competition.
“I was criticizing the local programming for TV stations whose signals we could pick up — Chicago and Milwaukee,” said Lewis, now 82 and living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And I was asked repeatedly, ‘Then why aren’t you in television?’” The seed was planted. “Possessed with the thought, I sent a communication to every one of the 108 TV stations then on the air,” he said. “I had two responses, one of which was WKY. Even though the salary was about half what I was making at WRAC, I grabbed the opportunity.”
And so, at the start of the 1950s, Lewis became a resident of Oklahoma City. WKY-TV was the city’s first television station — and the only, during Lewis’ two-year stint there as a studio director and producer. Most of the daytime programming was local, so he was not wanting for work.
“What an exhilarating time it was! I’d call the shots, then press a button, and whammo! The picture changed in thousands of homes,” he said.
While his time in OKC was short, the experience changed his life, giving him the mental tools he required to change the face of American cinema as well.
“I absorbed the techniques of grabbing and holding attention without having the automatic benefits attending star names and budgets. That was a major element in my ongoing decision to value showman ship above star names,” Lewis said. “And because WKY was owned by The Daily Oklahoman, I developed a knowledge and respect for equipment, too. I had great familiarity with camera lenses, positioning and lighting.”
Fleeing OKC with this fresh knowledge in 1953 for the Chicago advertising biz, he would spend the rest of the decade cutting his teeth on TV commercials before feature films became too great of a lure to resist.
But what to shoot? Naked ladies.
Second only to Russ Meyer (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”), Lewis popularized what is known as the “nudie cutie,” broadly comic fantasies that relied on topless women as both narrative drive and selling point — harmless by today’s standards, but controversial for their time in the early 1960s, getting censors’ proverbial panties in a wad.
So what if his scripts for “The Adventures of Lucky Pierre” and the onomatopoeic “Boin-n-g” were mere outlines? All Lewis and his partner, producer David F. Friedman, cared about was making a buck. That’s why — according to “The Godfather of Gore,” a new documentary on Lewis’ somewhat-unheralded groundbreaking career — when the nudie-cutie market grew glutted, he and Friedman dropped the babes for blood, and buckets of it.
The duo achieved notoriety — but more important to them, box-office riches — with the aforementioned “Blood Feast,” followed by 1964’s “Two Thousand Maniacs!” and 1965’s “Color Me Blood Red,” which collectively are referred to as “The Blood Trilogy.” (The new Blu-ray of the tasteless trio bares this title.) These exploitation works were cartoony, even amateurish, but they showed audiences something new — something weird — and carried a strange charm.
continued cranking out horror, but experimented in other genres all the
while, such as the supernatural, rock ’n’ roll, the biker film and even
kiddie matinees. When it came time to play in the sandbox of redneck
crime, he returned to his old stomping grounds for the only feature he
would shoot in the Sooner State: 1971’s “This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!”
While plotting “Stuff’ll,” about a renegade church that fronts a moonshine ring, Lewis was reminded of one of the series he directed at WKY, “The Chuck Wagon Boys,” and its actors, Jack Beasley, Willie Wells and Julian Akins.
“‘This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!’ was a natural for Oklahoma City, and Beasley had bought a radio station — KJAK, I think it was,” said Lewis. (Today, KJAK is known as KATT- FM.) “He had a good-size studio and a welcoming attitude, and those elements became integral to that movie.
The cooperation I had for the movie literally made the production possible, because this was a period in which a divorce and attendant problems had almost driven me out of the business.”
Most of the interiors were shot in Beasley’s studio, despite being designed for radio, not visuals. But that’s the nature of low-budget motion pictures: You take what you can get.
“We’d shoot exteriors anywhere — on streets and highways, a front yard,” Lewis said. “As I recall, we shot something or other in a large room in the Black Hotel,” known today as the One North Hudson downtown office complex.
John Wooley, author of this year’s book “Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema,” said Lewis snatched shots wherever he could, whether in OKC or Checotah, where the crew blew up a car for the flick’s big special effect.
of course, didn’t go through any government channels, so he wouldn’t
have had occasion to deal with the state bureaucracy,” Wooley said.
In fact, Lewis told him, “In most cases, we just went out and shot. And nobody gave us any trouble at all.”
While the end result may be a blip on Lewis’ filmography — by the next year, he retired from movies for three decades — it remains notable for being the debut of one award-winning actor and the swan song of another.
Tulsa’s Larry Drake won his first part as the mentally challenged Bubba, a role not far removed from his Emmy-winning work on TV’s “L.A. Law,” or as Bubba (again) in the 1981 made-for- TV horror film “Dark Night of the Scarecrow.”
Alas, it was the last film for Tim Holt. Once a busy actor in such classics as John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the Purple Heart-winning World War II hero left Hollywood’s hills for Oklahoma’s ranches around 1952.
Holt was a KJAK ad salesman when “Stuff’ll” cast him in the good-guy role as federal agent. According to deleted scenes from “The Godfather of Gore” documentary, Holt struggled with reciting dialogue, but Lewis was pleased nonetheless: “You talk about a professional actor. He had lessons to teach anybody else on that set.”
Diagnosed with bone cancer the following year, the 54-year-old Holt passed away in 1973 in Shawnee.
too, had Lewis’ moviemaking aspirations. He returned to advertising to
make another fortune, this time as a direct-marketing expert.
BACK TO BLEEDING
Still sharp as ever, and encouraged by an ever-growing cult, Lewis has returned to the director’s chair, starting with 2002’s “Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat,” followed by 2009’s “The Uh-Oh! Show” and maybe — paging local Oscar-winning producer Gray Frederickson! — another film shot in Oklahoma City.
“I love the city and the people, and felt personally betrayed when those morons blew up the federal building there. I’ve had no reason to return, but the proper invitation will get me there,” Lewis said, noting he’s considering a feature project titled “Mr. Bruce and the Gore Machine.”
have nibbles from Tampa and, for some insane reason, from Sweden,” he
said. “If a producer in Oklahoma City leaps up, I’d shoot the movie
there in a minute. OK?”
Read Rod Lott's review of the documentary "Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore."
Read Rod Lott's review of "The Blood Trilogy."