‘Won’t you come into my parlor? I want you to meet…’
The Gruesome Twosome is a 1967 American horror feature film produced and directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis and written and co-directed by his then wife, Allison Louise ‘Bunny’ Downe. The movie stars Elizabeth Davis, Gretchen Wells and Chris Martell (Flesh Feast, Scream Baby Scream; assistant director on Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things).
In Florida, dear old Mrs Pringle (Davis) runs The Little Wig shop, a small boutique which is doing a roaring trade amongst the local college students who are indulging in the latest craze for fake hair-dos. Handily, Mrs Pringle lives in the house adjoining the shop, along with her retarded son, Rodney (Martell) and her stuffed wildcat, Napoleon. Ever benevolent, Mrs Pringle rents out a room in her home to homeless students, welcoming the prospective tenants with a friendly chat and usually a helpful saying to live your life by (“I always say…don’t I, Napoleon?”).
Alas, when the guided tour of the dwelling commences, the unlucky girl (it’s always a girl) is shoved into a side-room in the wig shop, whereby they are quickly dispatched by the lurking Rodney who is a dab hand at scalping – the resulting mop of hair becoming part of the steady supply of incredibly realistic hair-pieces Mrs Pringle is selling.
Despite three girls going missing in quick succession, there is surprisingly little fuss on campus where the girls spend seemingly all their time listening to ropey jazz on the radio. In between jives, wig shop recommendations and boyfriend squabbles, one girl, amateur sleuth, Kathy (Wells), is sufficiently concerned about yet another missing friend that she sets off to investigate the wig shop for herself.
After being treated to a tea and Napoleon welcome, Kathy too gets to meet Rodney but even dotty Mrs Pringle realises that she has attracted rather too much attention. Will Kathy’s boyfriend and the police get there in time?
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The real challenge to enjoying The Gruesome Twosome is to get beyond the first five minutes – like a bad skit on an album, there is a truly awful intro involving two talking bewigged heads, neither funny nor contributing anything to the story. This was the result of a post-production blunder that meant the film was several minutes short of the usual running time required by distributors. Thus, the makeshift intro was quickly added to bolster the film’s length.
It is also interesting to consider other horror films made in 1967 – Quatermass and the Pit, Corruption and The Fearless Vampire Killers to name but three – H.G. Lewis seems utterly oblivious to the rest of the world, even with a raft of horror films already under his belt, he has effectively ploughed a completely unique furrow and has picked up no influences on the way. Rather like the work of Andy Milligan, this is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your tolerance of trash cinema.
The acting is of a uniformly outrageous standard, Davis having rather an Edith Massey quality, something so far beyond acting that it becomes a unique art-form. The best performer, apart from the static Napoleon, is Martell, a gurning mute who survives several silent sequences of him playing with wool or his new toy, an electric carving knife, with a surprisingly satisfying degree of accomplishment. Martell is the only ‘breakout’; star from the film, with several more acting roles, a spot of assistant directing (Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things) and also a couple of stints as a production manager (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things) under his belt.
There appears to be some confusion by the filmmakers over when the film is set – it seems peculiar that during the Summer of Love, the college girls would sit in their rooms listening to beige jazz, then frolic to surf guitar on the beach, all the time competing with a slightly flatulent orchestral score. Of course, a parade of luxuriously-coiffeured youths being desperate to put even more hair on their heads requires a little bit of forgiveness from the audience too. The fact that not even the basics make any sense is part of the charm, you need to approach H.G. Lewis fare with an utterly empty brain.
On the subject of brains, not a drop of red is spared in the film, the scalping, disembowellings and stabbings being of the lingering kind, just long enough for the unlucky actress to blink whilst playing dead. The effects are a real treat, though naysayers are keen to point out the lack of realism that presumably they detect in the rest of the film – that’s not to say that they’ve had any more money spent on them since Blood Feast, four years earlier. The 74 minute film is not without genuine problems – it stutters from the wig-chat beginning, through unnecessary girl gossip to an odd caper involving the school caretaker being mistaken for the killer because he buries bones for his pet dog to find.
The Gruesome Twosome is not in the Two Thousand Maniacs! league, the narrative, though fun, ultimately has nowhere to go and the padding only highlights this. Rodney features far too infrequently, being both fun and engagingly menacing, his mum grabbing most of the limelight.
The film was made towards the end of Lewis’ series of splatter films, the previous being Color Me Blood Red, indeed only The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls followed, before his return to the subgenre, thirty-some years later.
As an example of trash cinema, this is a required watch, rated as one of H.G.’s own films, it deserves a far better reputation and is perhaps the most overlooked of his horror films.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
“Nearly as good as Two Thousand Maniacs, this fine little exploitation flick achieves a perfect balance between comedy and gore. The comedy comes from the crazy bespectacled old lady who talks to her stuffed cat and who spouts proverbs such as “if things go wrong, don’t go with them.” The gore comes from an extended scalping sequence and more. It’s Lewis’s funniest film, and even has a bit of characterization in its heroine…” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
“Without question, The Gruesome Twosome is definitive black comedy. Except for the unnerving gore, the film plays out rather lightly. This dark levity was to continue for Lewis…” Christopher Wayne Curry, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis
Buy A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis book from Amazon.co.uk
“None of it makes much sense, even the relatively straight forward stuff, but then again, it’s not really supposed to. It’s a nonsense brew made of mystery thriller tropes, proto-slasher psychobabble and soft nudie-cutie moments. It delivers the splatter and a few chuckles, and that’s about it.” You Have Died of Dysentery
The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast: 17-Disc Limited Edition Box Set – Arrow Video Blu-ray + DVD (US and UK)
Cast and characters:
- Elizabeth Davis … Mrs Pringle
- Gretchen Wells … Kathy Baker
- Chris Martell … Rodney Pringle
- Rodney Bedell … Dave Hall
- Ronnie Cass … Nancy Harris
- Karl Stoeber … Mr Spinsen
- Dianne Wilhite … Janet
- Andrea Barr … Susan
- Dianne Raymond … Dawn Farrell
- Sherry Robinson … Lisa
- Barrie Walton … Neighbor Lady
- Marcelle Bichette … Jane
- Tom Brent … Neighbor Man
- Mike Todd … Mike
Herschell Gordon Lewis on MOVIES & MANIA: