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In 1963, American moviegoers got a glimpse of something they had never
seen before: a madman pulling out a screaming woman’s tongue, in
And a bathing beauty losing her legs to said serial killer.
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.
TUBE-TIED 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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
‘BLOOD’ LUST 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.
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
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!”
‘STUFF’ HAPPENS 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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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?”