• The Gruesome Twosome/A Taste of Blood

    Released by: Arrow Video
    Released on: February 6, 2018
    Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
    Cast: Elizabeth Davis, Gretchen Wells, Chris Martell, Bill Rogers, Elizabeth Wilkinson, William Kerwin
    Year: 1967
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    The Movie:

    I was never really fan of the late pioneering exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis (1926-2016). Though I enjoyed some of his earlier low-budget horror flicks like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, my appreciation of the man was not for his body of work but for the huge influence it had on generations of fright fans who went on to make their own celebrated entries in the genre, and for the role his movies played in opening up the market for movies that weren’t afraid to ladle on the blood and gore.

    Last year, Arrow Video paid homage to Lewis by releasing a massive Blu-ray/DVD box set collection of his films with new HD transfers and hours of archival and newly-created supplements. Not long after, they began distributing individual releases, each typically containing two Lewis features for the price of one. The latest gives us 1967’s double shot of The Gruesome Twosome and A Taste of Blood, movies that aren’t regarded among Lewis’ finest as a director but contain some virtues that make them watchable, if not exactly memorable.

    The Gruesome Twosome follows comely college coed Kathy Baker (Gretchen Wells) as she conducts an amateur investigation into the disappearance of some of her fellow female students. In the process she stumbles across the diabolical Mrs. Pringle (Elizabeth Davis), who runs the town’s finest wig store, and her slobbering man-child son Rodney (Chris Martell), who has been murdering the missing women and scalping them so his dear old mum can make her famous wigs from the hair of the dead.

    This is more of a broad comedy with scant overtones of intense horror. Lewis didn’t have enough of a script to get Twosome to a feature length, so he went back during post-production to shoot a weird opening sequence in his Chicago office in which two bewigged mannequin heads converse like dotty southern belles for about the disturbing things we’re about to witness. This scene runs nearly four minutes and it’s only one example of the excessive padding Lewis employed to get his threadbare story to a 72-minute running time.

    The film’s scant semblance of a narrative never gets to build the slightest momentum. Lewis quickly falls backward into a repetitive structure that alternates between the Pringles’ murder spree and Kathy’s sideline sleuthing with the two threads not crossing once until the last few minutes. Then the movie just stops. I can’t even call it an ending. The killing scenes, though generous with squeamish cut-rate gore effects (you can see the bald caps on the scalping victims), also suffer from tedious, unintentionally mirthful set-ups that are barely redeemed by the nasty pay-offs. But we do get to see a rather gnarly electric carving knife throat slashing, prolonged disembowelment, and a climatic eye gouging. This is what we come to Lewis’ movies for anyway, so thankfully they’re mostly worth the wait, and he really gets his camera in there so the audience can soak up every trace of the practical carnage (sometimes for too long – those seams really show). It’s just that you still must wade through a lot of filler to get to the gory business.

    When I say “filler”, I’m talking about dancing in dorm rooms, dancing on the beach, and dates at the drive-in and auto race that go nowhere and add nothing to the story. Which is fine, I guess. Who doesn’t love watching coeds in nighties boogie down to the mind-infecting sounds of the generic jazz and rock Lewis cobbled together out of cheap library tracks? I certainly don’t mind the director wasting precious celluloid on his dullard characters spending a few nights on the town. It just gets boring almost immediately. Kathy isn’t an interesting lead either; she seems to exist for the purpose of making her vacuous boyfriend flustered with her investigation into the disappearance of the missing students. One extended sequence has her following a potential lead that turns out to be nothing, and the insipid “wacky” music with which Lewis scores it only makes the movie seems more like a live-action cartoon.

    The best acting is delivered by Elizabeth Davis and Chris Martell as the psychotic Pringles. Davis’ embodiment of the bloodthirsty biddy Mrs. Pringle is a camp hoot, while Martell lends the proceedings a deranged, unsettling intensity as her scalp-happy son. The rest of the cast is a wash. Lewis didn’t always hire his players based on the strength of their acting, but on the strength of their looking good on camera and working cheap. They get the job Lewis employed them for done without generating too much embarrassment. A good alternate title for The Gruesome Twosome would have been Blood & Bouffant, but that’s why I’m not in film marketing.

    In A Taste of Blood, average business John Stone (Bill Rogers) receives a parcel (from a deliveryman who looks like odious Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz) of two exquisite bottles of brandy and a message that he has inherited an estate in England. When he decides to toast his new fortune with a drink of the gifted brandy, he finds himself transforming into a vampire who sleeps most of his days away and develops a paranoid mistrust of his supportive wife Helene (Elizabeth Wilkinson). As it turns out, John is a descendant of none other than Count Dracula, and the only people who can stop him before he can claim more victims are Helene, his friend Hank (Lewis regular William Kerwin), and Van Helsing descendant Howard Helsing (Otto Schlessinger). Keep an eye out for the director himself in a cameo as “The Limey Seaman”.

    Despite being one of the more ambitious and narratively coherent films Lewis ever made, Taste has more working against it than for it. Far too long for a feature of its type at 118 minutes, the director packed on the padding where it wasn’t even necessary to begin with. We don’t even leave John’s apartment for the first twenty minutes! Lewis tosses in several cocktail parties, a golf outing that feels longer than an actual game (seriously, golf is a boring and asinine sport), and many scenes were men in impeccable suits sit around talking about subjects rarely relevant to the story. Once John starts to embrace his murderous new persona, the movie picks up a bit. Bill Rogers looks suitably menacing in pale blue, scaly makeup that is made even more creepy using deep blue gels in the lighting. But that moment doesn’t come until the 46-minute mark, and even from that point on there are far too many boring stretches where only one of John’s killings livens things up.

    Lewis goes easy on the body count and gore effects this time around but still soaks the screen in beautifully bright red blood (most apparent during a chunky throat gnawing kill) and uses distorted camera angles to add feverish ferocity to the money shots. Rogers is menacingly mannered as a vampire for the Mad Men era, but William Kerwin merely smokes and smarms his way through another routine H.G. Lewis endeavor. Elizabeth Wilkinson’s heroine is sympathetic and lovely. The direction is solid and professional work. When he wanted to, Lewis could make a real movie. That’s not the case here (though tighter editing would have helped greatly), but he gave it the old college regardless.


    The new 1080p high-definition transfers for these films are encoded with MPEG-4 AVC video and were assembled from 2K scans of the best surviving elements, and each is presented in their original aspect ratio. English LPCM 1.0 mono audio tracks were created using sound transferred from 35mm prints. English subtitles have been provided for both films.

    Since no original film elements could be located for The Gruesome Twosome, the source used for the transfer was a combination of 35mm prints. Presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, the picture suffers from excessive print damage inherent in the elements, including green scratches, missing frames, emulsion, water stains, and chunky grain. Some scenes appear worse than others, and an imbalance in brightness often make interior scenes look like they were filmed on the surface of the sun, but at least the digitally-repaired color timing is warm and consistent and image stability is as good as it can possibly be. The audio isn’t much better, with dialogue that can sometimes come through muffled and inaudible (one scene features a radio announcer who sounds like he’s speaking through a bullhorn off-camera), but for the most part it does an okay job and the schizophrenic canned music selection is mixed well with balanced volume and little distortion.

    The Taste of Blood transfer, which is presented in the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, fares better as most of the original 35mm camera negative managed to survive the years and was dug up for the new scan, with sections of a 35mm print used to fill in the sizable gaps. For the first 74 minutes, the negative-sourced transfer boasts a bright and crisp picture with a vibrant color scheme that favors blazing reds and cool blues for the death scenes and muted browns for the interiors. Grain is balanced and consistent, and detail and texture look better than ever before. The remainder of the transfer is taken up by the scan of the 35mm print and a noticeable drop in quality results in duller colors and an onslaught of scratches and other instances of damage that couldn’t be repaired in the restoration process. Until the last ten minutes, brief portions of the negative scan pop up, and the finale was taken from the negative so at least the transfer ends strongly.

    Once again, the audio isn’t anything to get excited about. Dialogue sounds better than it did in The Gruesome Twosome since it was mostly recorded on the set with decent clarity, but it often comes through at such a low volume that manual adjustment or switching on the subtitles are the only ways you can understand what is being said. The music side of the sound mix is somewhat better as the library-sourced score complimenting the action at a respectable volume without becoming a distorting nuisance and only getting bumped higher during the more intense moments.

    Extra features commence with archival audio commentary tracks on both features by director Lewis, as always, an honest and colorful raconteur discussing their production and promotional histories with a consummate insider’s candor and warmth. His stories are alternately fascinating and hilarious. He also appears in “H.G. Lewis vs. the Censors” (8 minutes), a new interview filmed before his death in which he talks about dealing with the local censorships boards in regions where his movies played and using the public outrage to generate free publicity. Lewis also shares his comments on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter and gets in a little dig at Keanu Reeves (oh come on now). Arrow also gives you the option of watching each movie with an introduction from the director.

    “Peaches Christ Flips Her Wig!” (10 minutes) finds the prolific San Francisco drag performer and horror filmmaker (All About Evil) sharing her love for The Gruesome Twosome and discussing the influence the movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis and the modern contemporaries he inspired – from John Waters to Sam Raimi – on her own cinematic work. Finally, exploitation directing great Fred Olen Ray (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) takes center stage to wax nostalgic on regional filmmaking in the Sunshine State and tax shelter features shot there that were never released in the enjoyable featurette “It Came from Florida” (11 minutes). Concluding the bonus features are theatrical trailers for The Gruesome Twosome (3 minutes) and A Taste of Blood (1 minute) of varying conditions, and a radio spot for Twosome (1 minute).

    The Final Word:

    Arrow put a lot of love and effort in restoring the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis for a new generation to enjoy in high-definition. The Gruesome Twosome and A Taste of Blood, though neither particularly good entries in the Lewis legacy, have moments that horror and exploitation fans will eat up like stale buttered popcorn. They each look and sound about as good as they likely ever will, and Arrow has provided some nice bonus features to go with the movies for a solid evening’s worth of Z-grade, gore-soaked schlock.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!