In Canada today, Home Depot announced that it was pulling a Halloween decoration called “Scary Peeper Creeper” from its shelves. Shoppers were deeply perturbed by the Peeper’s pockmarked, rubbery visage, and for good reason—he’s designed to scare the living shit out of people. “Realistic face looks just like a real man is peering through the window at you,” boasted the description on Home Depot’s website; all that’s missing is the labored mouth-breathing. The manufacturer advises sticking him “on the passenger side of a car window, in a bedroom window, basement window, kitchen window, bathroom window, or garage window … We’d love to hear where you’ve gotten good results with your Scary Peeper!”
The debacle brought to mind Herschell Gordon Lewis, cinema’s very own Scary Peeper, who got very good results with his pictures. He died yesterday at ninety. (It’s been a bad week for voyeurs.) In his forty-one turns as a director, he did more to popularize gore, splatter, and willful puerility than a Peeper in every window could do. His films range from the out-and-out depraved (Blood Feast, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In) to the merely lascivious (Boin-n-g!, Living Venus, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre), but—per the Peeper Code of Conduct—they were always, always in poor taste.
And they always made money, too—the New York Times obit noted, seemingly with surprise, that every one of Lewis’s films was in the black. The Times also quotes John Waters, whom Lewis counted among his most ardent fans: “He invented a genre of movies, and made fun of himself from the very beginning, which I thought was endearing.”
Endearing wasn’t often the first word that came to mind for Lewis’s critics. As James Kendrick writes in Hollywood Bloodshed, the filmmaker “treated the dismemberment of the human body with the same exploitative, voyeuristic glee that he treated the naked female form”:
Much like traditional pornography, Lewis’s movies were constructed around flimsy narrative structures that existed primarily to create situations in which people could be dismembered, gutted, beheaded, crushed, or otherwise killed in some imaginatively grisly manner; in effect, graphic gore replaced nudity as the movie’s illicit promise to see something you couldn’t see elsewhere.
“Imaginatively grisly” is, if anything, an understatement—it’s hard to describe the churlish panache that animates Lewis’s “blood-soaked cheapies.” In 1970’s The Wizard of Gore, for example, a couple goes to see a magician named Montag the Magnificent, prone to long disquisitions about the nature of reality. The couple goes home and has a nice drink, until, as Wikipedia describes it,
Suddenly, Jack laughs and begins peeling his own skin from his face to reveal that he is actually Montag. “What makes you think you know what reality is?” he asks Sherry before disemboweling her with his bare hands.
That takes moxie, if you ask me. And then there’s Blood Feast, which, for its part, is remembered largely for a scene involving a brutal tongue removal, which Simon Abrams and Matt Zoller Seitz remember fondly at RogerEbert.com, pulling back the curtain a little bit:
The feast of blood that is Blood Feast may not seem sophisticated by twenty-first-century torture-porn standards. But it got a rise out of early audiences, particularly the scene where Arnold’s character pulls the tongue out of Olsen’s head—actually a sheep’s tongue.
In the film, Olsen gags, and crosses her eyes as her character’s tongue is yanked out. The sheep’s tongue that Arnold laboriously pulled from his costar’s mouth was rotting and had to be sprayed with Pine-Sol to prevent Olsen from throwing up. So when Olsen greets Arnold’s advances with horror and disgust, she’s not acting, she’s reacting … When Olsen’s tongue disappeared during the Peoria premiere, the crowd swallowed theirs. “Here are all these fellows sitting on their fenders, yelling and laughing and screaming,” Lewis remembered. “‘Hey, wotta lousy movie!’ Then comes the tongue scene, and suddenly everything goes dead quiet. And all you can see are these white eyeballs staring up at the screen. That one brought ’em up short!”
You can see part of that Magic Cinema Moment™ in the trailer for Blood Feast, below, which is prefaced with a lively series of disclaimers of the sort usually found at the entrance to amusement parks. Times being what they are, I advise against watching it within a hundred yards of the nearest Home Depot. You never know, after all, who’s spying on you.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.