R.I.P. Herschell Gordon Lewis (on Political Symbolism in “2,000 Maniacs”)
Just got wind that the “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis has passed away. An interesting dilemma for his afterlife: shouldn’t his “heaven” be some sort of funhouse representation of “hell”? How would that work? It might confuse some folks up yonder.
Anyway, I’ve seen but one of Mr. Lewis’s movies, but I was so mesmerized by it that I considered doing a blogpost about it. Not sure why I didn’t. It may have been during October (Halloween month), which is normally a busy blogging time for me. At any rate, I’ll spill a few remarks about it now. A few red, dripping remarks.
The film was 1964’s 2,000 Maniacs. I’d long known of Lewis’s legend, mostly through John Waters’ enthusiasm for him (the title of Multiple Maniacs is an homage). And the title of the film was also the inspiration for the name of the band 10,000 Maniacs. I expected something bloody and probably boring. It turned out to be neither of those things. (Yeah, there’s blood, but the effects don’t look realistic by today’s standards, nor is their much of it by today’s standards, although there is plenty of torture and violence).
But more to the point: the film turned out to be surprisingly interesting, even thought-provoking. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of “hack, hack, hack”, “slash, slash, slash”, and “crush, crush, crush.” But Lewis, a former English professor invests the plot with all kinds of loaded symbolism that adds something like meaning to the film. Basically, a carload of big city Yankees get detoured to a remote Southern town which is in the midst of a Civil War centennial celebration. They get invited to take part in the festivities. Only too late do they discover that they are to be sacrificed in retribution for a Union victory over the town 100 years earlier. The kids are picked off, one by one, and served up as barbecue, until two of them manage to escape — and then the town disappears, Brigadoon style. The townfolk were apparently the ghosts of the original war victims.
Recall that this came out in 1964, the very time when civil rights workers, black and white, were being harassed, maimed and murdered throughout the South. It gives the film a political and social resonance it wouldn’t otherwise have had, and may well not have been particularly intended. But it’s there to be read: two different value systems clashing. If you’ve ever seen photographs of lynching or other KKK terror tactics (firebombings etc), you won’t regard it as the biggest leap to link a Confederate flag and “horror”.
Offended? Good. Looked at from a certain angle, 2,000 Maniacs just may be a more profound civil rights statement than The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Who better than a Gore King to remind us that history is written in blood?