FILM PHONICS: “COLOR ME BLOOD RED”

Color Me Blood Red

* * *

Director & Writer: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Producer: David F. Friedman

Starring: Don Joseph, Candi Conder, Elyn Warner, Patricia Lee, Jerome Eden, and Scott H. Hall et al.

1965

Keep Outside the Lines: Color Me Blood Red

For Week 8 of Film Phonics, I had contemplated watching “Color of Night,” the 1994 Richard Rush mystery-drama starring Bruce Willis and Jane March. Though not especially fond of Mr. Die Hard, I seldom ignore the impulse to see his films. But I didn’t see “Color of Night;” and rather than pick “The Color Purple,” “Color of Paradise,” or “Color Me Badd”—wait, this one was a terrible 90s pop group, not a film—I decided to see Herschell Gordon Lewis’ exploitation dish “Color Me Blood Red” (1965). Alternatively known as “Model Massacre,” Lewis’ film satirizes the making, the patronage, and the criticism of art.

Prompted by the comments of an art critic who saw his paintings at Farnsworth’s (Scott H. Hall) gallery, Adam Sorg (Don Joseph) frustratingly tries to improve his technique in color application so that his pieces will be artistic as opposed to just commercially viable. After destroying one of his canvases in a fit of discontent and his girlfriend Gigi (Elyn Warner) accidentally pricking her finger on an exposed nail, Adam discovers that blood captures red in the most glorious way, which no amount of paint-combining could replicate. An episode of self blood-letting escalates into murder as Adam realizes he needs more blood to make his masterpiece complete.

Up until a month ago, I had never heard of Herschell Gordon Lewis or his films. A graduate seminar on cult and exploitation cinema introduced me to his work. In the space of a few days, in addition to “Color Me Blood Red,” I saw “Blood Feast” (1963), “2,000 Maniacs” (1964), and “The Gore-Gore Girls” (1972). Non-scholarly articles that I’ve read suggest that Lewis’ violent visions live up to the slogans on the films’ posters. Excepting “The Gore-Gore Girls,” anticipation and expectation to see “nothing so appalling in the annals of horror” and “brutal…evil…ghastly beyond belief” were not completely fulfilled.

In an interview with Xavier Mendik*, Lewis talks about the importance of being able to “disturb an audience, without outraging the audience.” Thinking about the blood and the gore with these wise words in mind, perhaps I was mildly disappointed in the gross factor of Lewis’ films because the images did not outrage me. From a mode-of-production perspective, “Color Me Blood Red,” “Blood Feast,” and “2,000 Maniacs” adhered to technical and economic characteristics of the exploitation genre, but from an ideological slant, the corny acting, the theatrical and cartoonish aesthetics, and the awkward camera angles serve to offset the brutality of depicted or suggested violence. In other words, calling attention to how “bad” one set of production elements are in turn dilute the capacity for the blood-and-guts to anger me.

I can’t, however, forget to consider time periods, and that I saw “Color Me Blood Red” in the 21st Century, where commerce has bestowed upon me not only the opportunities to watch films that are technically and artistically more disturbing (and potentially outraging), but that has also allowed or tolerated the mainstream and indie production of these cinematic objects. Would “Color Me Blood Red” have shocked me if I had seen it in an earlier decade? Maybe, maybe not. If I were to place Lewis’ brightly colored film next to its black-and-white, older “cousin” “A Bucket of Blood” (Roger Corman, 1959), I’d be more acutely aware that Lewis’ film is indeed viscerally unsettling. The violent imagery in Corman’s film is not as graphic as that of Lewis’ film. In fact, there’s only one scene where you see any blood—after a killing has taken place—in “A Bucket of Blood,” which was probably a result of production code imperatives. Corman’s film may possess a comparable amount of cheese, but it’s more suspenseful than “Color Me Blood Red.”

In his article Blood Feast Revisited Or H.G. Lewis, Keeper of the Key to All Erotic Mystery, Andrew Grossman writes that “Lewis understands nothing about sustaining tension, and unlike popular American horror directors who later exploited gore — Romero, Carpenter, and early, overpraised Craven — he was never a childhood student of horror films.” “Color Me Blood Red” supports this claim. The absence of spectacle (blood and violence) balanced with narrative (conflict) makes it conspicuously clear that Lewis is more interested in getting people to see his movie period than to present a titillating and well-developed story. Instead of incorporating a plot thread about the uncovering of the painter’s methods, as Corman does in “A Bucket of Blood,” Lewis focuses on addressing the relationship between people and art. Appropriately too.

As Lewis mentions in an interview with John Wisniewski, he sees “filmmaking as a business and” pities “anyone who regards it as an artform and spends money based on that immature philosophy.” For the characters in “Color Me Blood Red,” attempting to master painting for art’s sake leads to death, and talking about art as though it were a key to a painter’s soul is preposterously pedantic. When it ends, I get the impression that, since it lacks anything I would perceive to be psychological scares, Lewis’ film can only be regarded as frightening when taking into account the films that were and were not being made in the US (or the world) in the early to mid 60s. By no means am I insinuating that Lewis’ work is insignificant. On the contrary, their contributions to exploitation, horror, gore, B-movie—however you want to categorize them—films outweigh any shortcomings that resulted from intention, improvisation, or compromise.

* “‘Gouts of Blood’: The Colorful Underground Universe of Herschell Gordon Lewis” published in Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Cannon, 2002.

Every week, Stina Chyn puts her viewing habits in your hands. Readers vote on five random words posted at Back Talk every Tuesday. The winning word dictates what she will have to watch and review the following week as that word must appear in the title of the movie. Choose wisely!




Posted on October 11, 2005 in Features by
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