At the time of his death last year, Herschell Gordon Lewis was credited with having directed 38 films. Though he’s best known for ground-breaking gore films like Blood Feast and The Gore Gore Girls, Lewis actually dabbled in several different genres. For instance, he made one of the first psychedelic drug films when he directed Something Weird. And, as a public service, he warned us all of the dangers of smut peddlers with Scum of the Earth.
And, of course, there was that political films he made…
WHAT!? A political film directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis!?
Yes, it’s true! The man who helped to give birth to modern horror also directed one of the most prophetic films ever made. The Year of the Yahoo! came out in 1972 but it feels even more relevant today. The Year of the Yahoo! not only predicted the rise of Donald Trump but also predicted the rise of Barack Obama as well, making it one of the few truly bipartisan satires ever made. That’s not bad for an obscure film directed by a man who was never given much respect from mainstream critics.
The Year of the Yahoo! opens in Texas. It’s an election year. The governor (Jeffrey Allen) would love to get rid of liberal U.S. Senator Fred Burwell (Robert Swain) and he thinks that he’s found the candidate to do it. The Governor wants to nominate an unimpressive congressman, someone who will be easy to control. However, the President disagrees. The President (who is obviously meant to be Richard Nixon, even if his name is never specifically mentioned) has decided that the man to defeat Sen. Burwell is a country singer named Hank Jackson (real-life country singer Claude King).
Hank Jackson has a television show, one that he hosts with his girlfriend, Tammy (Ronna Riddle). Hank sings songs about how America needs to return to traditional values and how people just need to come together and help each other out. He may be old-fashioned but he’s okay with the counter-culture. In fact, when we first meet him, he’s at a hippie party. He turns down an offer of marijuana but he does so with a hearty laugh. He’s a traditional guy but he’s got no issues with the long hairs. Not our Hank! It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Dallas oilman, an Austin hippie, an El Paso policeman, or a Galveston fisherman. Everyone in Texas loves Hank!
When Sid Angelo (Ray Sager, the star of Lewis’s Wizard of Gore), a political consultant with White House connections, approaches Hank about running against that lefty traitor, Sen. Burwell, Hank is skeptical but intrigued. Once Sid get Hank to agree, Sid starts to shape Hank’s message. As a disgusted Tammy watches, Hank starts to sell out. Soon, Hank is making jokes about people on welfare. He’s defending law and order. He’s taking the side of the landlords against the rent strikers. Everything from his campaign announcement to interviews with the local media is precisely choreographed by Sid.
Hank’s message starts to resonate with the voters. This is largely because he doesn’t have a message. Instead, he just has a bunch of empty slogans and coded phrases. Hank’s campaign commercial features him riding on a horse while the word “Hope” appears on the screen. (I mean, who could possibly vote against hope?) What’s going to happen when Hank’s elected? Well, as he explains in the film’s theme song, we’re going to run the nation “like a country store.” Just vote for Hank and “you’ll see how everyone relaxes.”
(At times, The Year of the Yahoo! almost feels like a musical. The majority of the songs were written by Lewis, who was a legendary figure in the advertising industry before and after his career as a grindhouse filmmaker, and Claude King had a nice voice. The songs are surprisingly catchy, even if they often are a bit too on the nose in their satire.)
Now, make no mistake about it. This is definitely a Herschell Gordon Lewis film, which means that it often appears to have been made with more enthusiasm than skill. At times, The Year of the Yahoo! moves way too slowly. There’s a riot scene that is embarrassingly filmed. The action stops for a stomach-churning sex scene between the hairy Ray Sager and a campaign volunteer. The entire film, in fact, is full of actors who appeared in Lewis’s other films and it’s a bit weird to see familiar grindhouse performers cast as governors and campaign aides. This is a Herschell Gordon Lewis production, with everything that implies. While Lewis’s style was perfect for his semi-comedic gore films (Who can forget the “Have you ever had …. AN EGYPTIAN FEAST!?” scene from Blood Feast?), it feels a bit out of place in a film that is attempting to comment on reality.
And yet, it’s hard not to appreciate and kind of resoect just how serious the film’s intent seems to be. Watching The Year of the Yahoo!, you get the feeling that Lewis actually was trying to say something important. In The Year of the Yahoo!, Lewis not only attempted to make an important point but it was a valid point as well. He may not have had the resources to really pull it off but consider this:
In 1972, Herschell Gordon Lewis predicted that a candidate could shoot the top of the polls by enticing voters with vague promises of hope.
In 1972, Herschell Gordon Lewis predicted that a wealthy TV celebrity, one that claimed to speak for the common man, could be packaged as a populist and sold to angry voters.
The Year of the Yahoo! was incredibly ahead of its time. Say what you will about the film’s production values but you can’t deny this. Everything that Herschell Gordon Lewis predicted came true. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone often dismissed as merely being a gore director.
In fact, it’s such an accomplishment that it should give us all one thing for the future: