Flip your wig
As old as the gothic novel itself is the cliche of the demented relative who is kept hidden from the outside world, usually locked up in a tower room or basement dungeon. Almost as old is the idea that the rest of the family is none too stable themselves. Check out James Whale’s The Old Dark House some time for a prime example of this type of story.
It was probably inevitable that Herschell Gordon Lewis, the “Godfather of Gore”, would get around to this type of plot, applying to it his own mix of black humor and outrageous bloodshed. Though the traditional gothic is usually set in a European castle — or at least a New England mansion — Lewis decided to stick to the newer American Gothic tradition exploited so successfully by Psycho and Lewis’ own Two Thousand Maniacs. The American Gothic nests its little terrors in the backroads and small towns of rural America, usually in the South or Midwest. In so doing, he furthered a subgenre that would produce The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Gruesome Twosome begins with a famous, and totally stupid pre-credits scene that features two wigs having a little chat. The story is that an unnamed assistant failed to keep proper track of the timing on the picture, and finding himself about 10 minutes short of the minimum 70 minute running time — and with no budget, cast or crew left — a few extraneous scenes had to be shoehorned in. Lewis is thoroughly embarrassed by this scene, and feels that it ruined the picture. But for fans, it’s just another twisted delight from the world of psychotronic films.
Cut to the Little Wig Shop of Mrs. Pringle (Elizabeth Davis), which advertises 100% human hair wigs. A freshman college co-ed arrives, intending to check out the advertised room for rent. The wig business is expensive to operate, especially when one has to support a mentally damaged son. But Mrs. Pringle is lucky enough to be crazy herself, and has come up with a solution: the room for rent is merely a ruse to attract lovely young girls. Upon arriving, the co-ed is immediately thrown in the basement, where she meets Rodney Pringle (Chris Martell). Rodney goes to work, scalping the girl with a big butcher knife. Lewis’ camera takes it all in, lingering on the gruesome details.
Kathy Baker (Gretchen Wells) is an irresponsible young college girl with beautiful long blonde hair. She discusses her desire to move out of her dorm, despite the fact that all the girls are afraid because of reports of disappearances recently. Note the appearance on screen of Kentucky Fried Chicken, official caterer to low budget exploitation filmmakers during the 1960s. Also note the music of the director’s son Robert Lewis’ band Rudy & the Rascals on the soundtrack.
The film seems thoroughly hair-obsessed sometimes, as somebody is brushing, combing, washing, talking about or playing with hair in almost every scene.
Kathy fancies herself a girl detective and causes a bit of trouble trying to track down clues. Though scolded by police and razzed by her friends, Kathy is undeterred in her passion to solve the mystery. She can’t think of anything besides mysteries, even when her befuddled boyfriend Dave Ford (Rodney Bedell) takes her to the drive-in.
The next morning, Kathy’s friend Dawn Farrell goes to the Little Wig Shop to rent the room, and falls victim to Rodney, who breaks in his brand new electric knife by cutting off Dawn’s head. One after another, young women tumble into the basement of horror beneath the Little Wig Shop. Before long, our heroine Kathy finds a clue that leads her there.
The image quality on The Gruesome Twosome is typical of Lewis’ films, and Something Weird supplies their usual fine transfer — fine enough that Lewis is visible for some time, reflected in a window in the Chinese Drive-In Restaurant scene. But the audio quality is unusually poor here, rendering much of the dialogue fuzzy. Subtitles would have been a welcome addition.
It wouldn’t do much to help the quality of the acting, which is particularly abominable. An exception is Chris Martell, who was a fixture in Florida exploitation, and can also be seen in Flesh Feast, The Hooked Generation, Scream Baby Scream, and others. His portrayal of the childlike maniac is strangely sympathetic, managing to look innocent even when performing the most heinous acts. Lewis regular Bill Kerwin served as production manager, but is absent from the cast. Since it’s a family affair, Barbara and Kim Kerwin show up, as do Lewis’ sons Michael and Robert. The Wizard of Gore, Ray Sager, can be glimpsed in the drive-in movie, munching on beer and potato chips in a weak parody of Tom Jones.
An audio commentrak is included with Herschell Gordon Lewis and Something Weird’s Mike Vraney and Jimmy Maslin. Lewis tells how the film was made, talks about the fact that this is his first attempt at broad black humor, what he loves about the medium of cinema, and why he returned to gore at the request of distributors.
The disc includes the same “Herschell Gordon Lewis Gallery of Exploitation Art” as other HGL DVDs. There’s also one of Something Weird’s loopy shorts, Wig-O-Rama, apparently clipped from a 1960s mondo picture.