Herschell Gordon Lewis began making his mark in the film industry in the late 1950s and 1960s. He produced low-budget pictures that focused on aspects of violence, blood and sex in order to attract the young male audience to the theaters. His films include Blood Feast (1963), Color Me Blood Red (1965), A Taste of Blood (1967), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), The Gore Gore Girls (1972), and Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2002), among many others. His most critically acclaimed film came with the likes of Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), which incorporated elements of American history, sexuality, and some of the most creative deaths ever viewed on screen. This piece will focus on this particular film by Herschell Gordon Lewis, examining it in the light of auteur analysis, audience reception, and narrative design, as well as analyzing how elements of mise-en-scene enhanced the meaning of the film.
Lewis began his film career by producing primarily sexploitation projects, but turned in another direction when loosened censorship allowed Hollywood to venture into sex-related territory. The result of Lewis’ new direction birthed a new genre to the industry, “splatter movies” (Grindhouse Cinema). This new genre grew fast, as Lewis directed numerous projects throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and even into the 2000s, showing that his impact on the film industry has still not died out. This is why it is important to recognize Lewis as an auteur, as he has affected many other filmmakers who have followed in his footsteps. With films like Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red, Lewis relied heavily upon sex, nudity, blood, gore and violence to carry them. However, Two Thousand Maniacs! did not embed these elements into itself as much as the typical Lewis film. While the film still did contain a substantial amount of graphic violence and notable hints of sexuality, it was not nearly as bloody as his other pictures and also did not contain any nudity whatsoever. It seems that in this instance, Lewis chose to change his direction just slightly in order to make a film that focused slightly more on aesthetic values rather than just a source to make money. With such grotesque films for the time, it is astounding that Lewis was able to market his films, but he was able to find tactics that drew audiences to see his violent masterpieces nonetheless. This is why Herschell Gordon Lewis has none only obtained the title of “godfather of gore” but “The Godfather of Direct Marketing and Gore” (Official HGL).
In terms of audience reception, Two Thousand Maniacs! was a success for Lewis. With new developments such as colored film and drive-in theaters, and through Lewis’ relentless marketing ability, the film found the needed financial success to allow Lewis to continue his film career. The loosened censorship regulations also helped Lewis in his production and marketing schemes, as he was able to create the types of films that he wanted without having to be concerned with cutting the film to shreds. Two Thousand Maniacs! inventive death scenes include a man torn apart by running horses, another man rolled down a hill in a barrel with nails hammered into it, and a woman being tied down while townspeople throw rocks at a target to drop a boulder on her. Scenes like these are what have influenced filmmakers today such as Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, Eli Roth and many others into creating their own violent on-screen depictions.
While there is not much plot to Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!, the narrative design of the film still offers particular points of view and meaning to the film. In terms of “voice” and “mood” of the film, it appears that the character of Tom White is the “voice” of the film, as he is the main character whom the story is told through. Meanwhile, the “mood” of the film seems to be set by the townspeople of Pleasant Valley, as they are all fighting for a cause from their history. However, in a film such as this, it seems that both the “voice” and “mood” of the film could be argued.
The viewpoint of Tom White shows the struggle of the six visitors from the North as they are lured in by the Southern townspeople and murdered one by one through ridiculous games. One could consider Tom the protagonist of the film, as he goes out of his way to help his woman companion and uncover the truth of the town. Meanwhile, the viewpoint of the townspeople shows that they are out for revenge for murders that happened during the Civil War a hundred years before. Although their revenge is uncalled for against the innocent Northern visitors, their cause can still be sympathized with and understood.
One scene that stands out in the film is when one of the characters is tied by his arms and legs to four different horses; he is then ripped apart as the townspeople send the horses running in different directions. The scene relies on low-key lighting to emphasize the darkness of the moment. Not many other scenes in the film are lit in this way, including other death scenes. I believe that this is because this is the one point in the film where the people of Pleasant Valley may have felt that what they were doing had gone too far. Therefore, the dark and gloomy mood of the scene needed low-key lighting to enhance its visual meaning.
Another scene in Two Thousand Maniacs! uses various camera angles to establish a chaotic environment. The scene in which the woman is crushed to death by a falling boulder shows various camera angles, including a view of the boulder up above which enhances the intimidation of the moment. The scene cuts back and forth between the townspeople throwing rocks at a target and the woman tied down, screaming. The camera angle looks down upon the woman, in order to allow the viewers to feel a sense of dominance from the perspective of the townspeople. Through this example and the lighting in the scene discussed previously, it is clear how Lewis used mise-en-scene to emphasize the moods of his films.
It is evident how Herschell Gordon Lewis changed the film industry greatly by essentially inventing a new genre in “splatter films.” His unique marketing ploys and combinations of violence, gore and sex have made him one of the most influential cult/camp filmmakers of all time. Audiences are fortunate to have viewed his films, especially what is considered to be his best movie in Two Thousand Maniacs!