Updated: Apr 26, 2019
If Blood Feast (1963) was a watershed moment for the splatter film, as its director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, states, then The Gruesome Twosome (1967) shows that you can successfully add humor to the formula. Again, that statement comes from Lewis, although I believe he exaggerates the point. While it may have been lucrative for him to produce, I’m not sure how successful it is at retaining much entertainment value.
Like Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of Blood Feast last October, their current release of The Gruesome Twosome appears to be extracted from their previous "The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast" box set, making it more economical to add the title to your library if you don’t want to own (or can’t afford to own) the “Godfather of Gore’s” entire oeuvre. If Arrow keeps the pattern, though, it may be cheaper in the long run to invest in the set.
The Gruesome Twosome seems like an odd choice to headline a release. At only 72 minutes, the disc’s “bonus feature,” A Taste of Blood (1967) runs longer at nearly two hours… more about that later. Plus, the quality of the print is not very good. Yes, the movie is preceded with a disclaimer about this, but it seems better suited to be the bonus feature with the other movie as the headliner. A Taste of Blood has some quality flaws, too, though… more about that later.
Now I’m going to contradict myself. The Gruesome Twosome may be the rare movie that is actually enhanced by out of focus shots, green lines through almost all its scenes, and abrupt cuts here and there. These flaws add to the charm. In its day, you would have wanted to see this in a seedy movie theater or drive-in where there were worse things than what you saw onscreen to distract you.
As with the few other Lewis films I’ve seen, there’s a clever idea hidden within The Gruesome Twosome. It’s the execution that will either please or displease you. As college coeds disappear from campus, an elderly woman, Mrs. Pringle (Elizabeth Davis) and her mentally challenged son, Rodney (Chris Martell), lure them into a trap by advertising an apartment for rent. They scalp these women and use their hair to make wigs, which they sell in Mrs. Pringle’s shop.
The two signs in front of the Pringle house might have been a clue when investigating the disappearances. One reads, “Rooms for Rent,” and the other reads, “100% Human Hair Wigs for Sale.” But only one student, Kathy Baker (Gretchen Wells) seems to notice that something fishy is happening. She’s ridiculed, though, for always wanting to solve a mystery. Perhaps there have been some false alarms in her past.
The Gruesome Twosome is somewhat of an evolution from Blood Feast. In my review of that Arrow release, I said, “we never see actual violence being inflicted. We see only its aftermath.” Here, we see it all. In one of the early scenes, the shirtless Rodney painstakingly saws his victim’s forehead and pulls off her scalp. There’s nothing left to the imagination here. Later, he “machetes” another’s stomach and pulls out her entrails, with close-ups of his bloody hands.
As for the humor, I didn’t find the movie very funny, although you could interpret it to be so from two viewpoints. Obviously, one would be that it’s a dark comedy. For example, Rodney’s favorite bedtime story is "Rapunzel." Also, for being a good boy, his mother gives him an electric knife. However, it could also be seen as a spoof of Lewis’s own splatter movies. The problem with this viewpoint is that you’re not starting with very serious subject matter in the first place.
The funniest, yet also most bizarre, moments occur during an introduction featuring two Styrofoam wig heads that exchange comical banter. One of them brags about her nerves because she’s been through bloody murder. She also says she flipped her wig to become what she is today. This scene at first feels like filler, but it also sets the tone for what Lewis says he was attempting to achieve.
In one of the disc’s bonus features, underground drag performer Peaches Christ reveals an understanding of Lewis that, if you’re like me, you don’t automatically discern on your own. She sees his movies as fantasies about dealing with bullies. They provide a way to confront your own fears. There is innocence to his films in their simplicity; and, they’re “wonderful camp” because they’re honest. (Peaches Christ Flips Her Wig, 9:54)
Written by Allison Louise Downe Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis Starring Elizabeth Davis, Gretches Wells, Chris Martell, Rodney Bedell, Ronnie Cass Released August 28, 1967 RT 72 min. Home Video Arrow Video
As with The Gruesome Twosome, Lewis provides a video introduction to A Taste of Blood. He says it was the longest movie he ever made (117 min.) and this fact held the film industry aghast. Less factual may be the claim that the acting and technique was a cut above that for which he usually settled. As Peaches Christ says, he was a showman and “a brilliant marketing genius.” He apparently remained so through the end.
The running time is nothing about which to brag. It’s too long. On paper, the scope is larger, with a boat trip (stock footage, of course) to London. However, onscreen time isn’t spent on this action; it’s spent on tedious scenes of conversation between actors, who, with the exception of Lewis regular William Kerwin, are definitely not “a cut above” anything. That’s typical of these films. There’s no need to claim anything else.
Again, there’s a clever story within A Taste of Blood, which is basically a modern day Dracula tale. I will concede that it is “a cut above” in its complexity, if not its execution. John Stone (Bill Rogers) is apparently the last descendant of European Baron Khron. He learns this fact when he receives a package with two bottles of brandy wine. After drinking from them, he becomes Dracula. All right, I said, “complex;” I didn’t say it made much sense.
Stone then goes about avenging the name of Dracula by killing the descendants of those who killed him. The descendants have familiar names like Helsing, Holmwood, and… Morris?!? As he gets deeper into it, Stone becomes cruel to his wife, Helene (Elizabeth Lee), causing her to rely on old flame Dr. Hank Tyson (William Kerwin). This, in turn, sparks some faux jealously from Stone. See, I told you it was “complex.”
As Dracula, Rogers is a poor man’s Christopher Lee. He’s tall, thin and, if you squint while looking at the screen sideways, sort of resembles the horror legend. It’s his deep voice, though, that evokes Lee. However, Lee never sported makeup on his face that resembled flaking flesh, except, of course, when he was exposed to sunlight. He also never had the power to summon blue lighting for any scene in which he bared his fangs.
Perhaps oddly, A Taste of Blood offers very little gore. There are one or two scenes in which we glimpse an exposed wound, but none of the extended, almost slow motion, splatter for which Lewis is famous. After watching his films, I don’t recall saying, “That needed more gore.” Here, though, I’d gladly trade one or two scenes of Helene and Hank talking over coffee for some with the red stuff flying.
Lewis said that you could show A Taste of Blood to people “not of our world” and they would say, “That wasn’t so terrible.” He states in his introduction that this is “the ultimate compliment for a splatter film.” I don’t want to disagree with the godfather, but I think the ultimate compliment would be for people “of our world,” to call one of his films a masterpiece. I don’t consider this one to be a splatter film… and it is pretty terrible.
As much as I struggle getting through a two-hour movie over the course of three evenings, I really enjoyed the 7:43 bonus feature, Herschell vs. the Censors. Lewis remained as vital as ever as he approached 90-years old, completely in tune with the times. He mainly talks about how censorship issues come from “people at whom you’re not aiming.” Therefore, “They don’t harm the movies any more than Keanu Reeves does.” (Sense of humor fully intact, he then says, “I don’t use Keanu Reeves. I use actors.”)
In the world of social media, he says “hate mail” comes from people who don’t even care about the things they hate. It’s a “mechanization of information” that represents the medium rather than the idea, and it “shows how organized a negative group can be.” In the end, he reminds us of one important fact: “I’m not writing for aficionados. I’m writing to entertain.” He laments what he calls a lost phrase, “Hey, I enjoyed that!
The Gruesome Twosome Bonus Materials:
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Bonus Feature! 1967’s A Taste of Blood
Introductions to the films by HG Lewis
Archive audio commentaries for both films by HG Lewis
Peaches Christ Flips Her Wig! – San Francisco performer Peaches Christ on The Gruesome Twosome
It Came from Florida – filmmaker Fred Olen Ray (Scalps, The Alien Dead) on Florida Filmmaking
HG Lewis vs. the Censors – HG Lewis discusses some of the pitfalls of the blood-and-guts business including local censorship and angry moviegoers
Trailers and radio spot
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil