Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Screenplay: Allen Kahn
Cast: Ray Sager (as Montag the Magnificent); Judy Cler (as Sherry Carson); Wayne Ratay (as Jack); Phil Laurenson (as Greg); Jim Rau (as Steve)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #56
It seems inappropriate to give an average review to one of Herschell Gordon Lewis's just after his sad passing in September 2016, so I'll start this review with only immense praise to him to counterbalance this, something deserved as one of the most important people of the American phenomenon of exploitation cinema. Many directors, stars and producers, including frequent Lewis collaborator David F. Friedman, are responsible for this movement but as much of its aesthetic style, which became a pop art flourish in itself and is lovingly paid tribute to with Arrow Video's cereal box sized Blu-Ray collection of his work, can be found in his pronounced emphasised on promotion and luridness, his worlds of bright bubblegum colours alongside bright red gore contributing to an exploitation cinema aesthetic that I and many others loves, and can be found in anything from fanzines to music like psychobilly. He was the inventor of the splatter genre, as important in itself to a whole size of horror cinema of obsessing over blood and using animal organs bought from the butchers. I like Something Weird (1967) immensely as a snapshot of the growing obsession with the paranormal which only got weirder, living up to its title, in the seventies and American pop culture, and whether you like Blood Feast (1963) or not it's a historically important film that has to be preserved - if not as a Video Nasty or for being one of the first gore films, at least for Fuad Ramses' giant eyebrows. His theme for Ten Thousand Maniacs! (1964) is exceptional, both composing and singing it, and I have a fondness for the monotonous drum beat, also played by Lewis, that makes up Blood Feast's main theme. Regardless of my criticisms of The Wizard of Gore, I can only have absolute admiration for Lewis and his career because of all this.
With this is mind it's a shame to find faults in The Wizard of Gore but a large part of this is really because it's an acquired taste in his filmography than like Blood Feast. This is entirely down to the very repetitious structure which can be sluggish in the slower moments - Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) performs a gruesome magic trick involving a female audience member, (by chainsaw, by swords, by industrial punch press), only for the volunteer when they seem okay to suddenly die of the same affliction of the trick hours later, leading to police investigation and broadcast host Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) and her sports journalist boyfriend Jack (Wayne Ratay) to suspect Montag is involved. The police procedure is entirely responsible for the weaker moments of the film. As much as I am someone who doesn't immediately like a film just for gore, with Lewis he's at his most rewarding with the sloppy, blood drenched gore scenes or with the more openly absurd and camp moments of hysteria; the police investigation and small talk, especially over ninety minutes, is out of place with what makes Lewis rewarding, particularly when his most famous film Blood Feast is a lot shorter in length. This type of exploitation cinema of the period especially, because of its ninety plus minute length, needs something to keep the viewer's attention and in this case it lacks the general weirdness of the titular Something Weird or Mal Arnold's performance in Blood Feast to compensate for the drearier scenes.
When Montag is onscreen or the gore is split, The Wizard of Gore becomes entertaining in an incredibly sick humoured way. While his tone is comical, I've always found Lewis' gore, because its exceptionally fake, to actually gross me out, the tactile nature of his polystyrene heads and real butcher shop animal organs exceptionally disturbing at points, close-ups of Montag molesting an actual eyeball, possible a sheep's for all I know, from a very fake doll's head actually gross to see in its viscous and tangible reality. (Not surprisingly, and Lewis would've rubbed his hands in glee at this, the first of his films I saw at eighteen or nineteen, The Gore Gore Girls (1972), actually offended me with its lurid fake prosthetics and leering at their destruction, the infamous milkshake scene taking his obsession with fake gore to its inevitable conclusion, still burnt into my mind whilst having never seen the film since). When it gets to the finale as well and breaks from the repeating of magic tricks, it manages to tap into a legitimately creepy idea of how Montag is able to hypnotise everyone around the country who is watching the TV broadcast he is on; all reduced to staring hypnotised to the screen with blood dripping off the back of one hand each, the director who openly admitted he didn't make art did take into something legitimately freakish I have to commend him on.
While the reason behind the deaths are obvious, the unexplained supernatural nature of the film, from the layers of reality cut between in during the magic shows, to the multiple scenes in (naturally) blood red hue of the bodies being taken away to an unknown destination, stand out as the more interesting parts. And the final twist is hilarious in pulling the rug under the viewer and causing them to scratch their head in bafflement - it's a random turn of events, ending in a kaleidoscope image, but brilliantly its set up at the beginning with Montag's opening monologue about the subjectively of reality, forcing one to admit Lewis was purposely fucking with the viewer out of his (justified) amusement since the beginning. And it's in this where the film is rewarding, the ideal taste of low brow surrealism found in this era of American exploitation cinema eventually found by the end. If The Wizard of Gore was slightly shorter, I would've gladly recommended it but, unfortunately, I have to ask people who've never seen films of his to proceed with caution due to its bloated length.