Friday, September 27, 2013

Because of the Terrible Things He Does

Year: 1970
Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Cast: Ray Sager, Judy Cler, Wayne Ratay
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: NR

If you're anything like me or Shannon, you know the scene. Juno. Jason Bateman and Ellen Page sitting together on a couch, discussing the auters of the 70's gore scene. While Bateman prefers the red-blooded American splatter filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, Page posits that Italian giallo maestro Dario Argento is the ultimate master of horror.

They sit down to watch HGL's Wizard of Gore (which Bateman states is "better than Suspiria") and resume their creepy age-inappropriate flirting.

Insert Arrested Development joke here.

First things first. The Wizard of Gore is in no way better than Suspiria, an out and out masterpiece of gore cinema. Score one for Juno. We can say this with some authority, seeing as I've forced Shannon to watch both of them. However, WoG is a delightfully straightforward splatter picture that benefits greatly from sitting back and letting the audience bask in the atmosphere of the 70's without having to worry about any cumbersome distractions like plot or momentum.

The film centers around the magic act of one Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager, who not only was a victim in Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil but produced Prom Nights II, III, and IV! I love this guy.), who hams it up, delivering a scenery-chewing monologue about the nature of Reality and Dreams (WHAT. IS. REAL? he screams) before he performs such standard and hackneyed tricks as the Vanishing Water and Sawing the Lady In Half.


An onstage explosion of gore, followed by the whole and healthy volunteer rising from the table to take her bow shocks and delights audiences, including young Sherry Carson (Judy Cler), an anchor for her college news station. She gives the show a rave review and drags her boyfriend Jack (Wayne Ratay, who gets to take his shirt off in quite a few scenes, so you'd better relish that - this is his only film role) back the next night to try to score an interview with Montag himself.

He refuses to give interviews but he does agree to go on her show to perform one of his Illusions (and now we understand why Bateman loves this film - it reminds him of his brother Gob) at the end of the week. Unfortunately, the volunteer from last night has just turned up dead - cut in half by some psychopath by the looks of it.

When that night's volunteer (who gets a railroad spike poked through her skull) is also killed in a manner mirroring the performance, Jack starts to get suspicious. The movie that follows is essentially four cycles of Montag Performs Gory Magic Trick - Woman Ends Up Dead - Jack Gets Increasingly Grumpy About This.

Simplicity itself.

Gordon Lewis is nothing short of genius in his approach to the material. Because the gore is what matters, isn't it? This simple and clean storytelling structure allows it to remain front and center for as long as possible, augmented by scores and scores of repeat shots from different angles that do double duty, emphasizing the dreamlike qualities of the illusions (it is heavily implied that Montag hypnotizes both the audience and his victims) and allowing us to see as many shots of Montag pawing through human viscera for as long as possible.

He's like a sixth grader dissecting his first frog.

The sheer amount of times the same action is repeated in a multitude of slightly different ways says a lot about the filmmakers and the genre. They spent all their money on this big gore setpiece so they're sure as hell gonna make sure you appreciate it in all its glory. Honestly, the gore effects themselves aren't good at all, but the wicked glee with which Herschell and Montag display it makes all the difference. The hyper low budget prevents it from getting too realistic and the sleazeball lust for blood is charming in its very specific way.

And there's just something about 70's blood that you couldn't got from any other era. It's so thick and creamy, a look totally divorced from reality that instead of taking you out of the movie, draws you implacably further under its spell.

The Wizard of Gore doesn't have more to offer than this, so if you're not the type of person who can stomach the sight of a woman's torso being mashed with a punch press, maybe you should stay at home and watch Mary Tyler Moore instead.

Although I don't see how this is all that different.

Despite its flimsy plot, The Wizard of Gore magically remains as far from boring as a movie so repetitive and structured could possibly be with its Grand Guignol approach to human butchery, the Vincent Pricey hamming of Sager, who mugs to the camera like there's no tomorrow, and Gordon Lewis' obvious passion for his lowbrow and sleazy subject matter.

Endlessly diverting, even considering the toll time has taken on the effects, The Wizard of Gore is a pure representation of what the splatter genre was, a textbook example of how 70's horror films appeased the brutal animal instincts of an increasingly nihilistic young audience.

Cinematic violence could never hold a candle to what was going on in the world. These films allowed viewers some measure of control over their base urges, and that catharsis carried over into their daily lives. When Montag sifts through another victim's innards, it's not an expression of cruelty but an extension of the innate stirrings of a society unimpressed with the world around them.

They went to the movies for destruction because that's the only thing that they believed in. It's no coincidence that the most successful movies of the decade were mirthless violent spectacles like Alien, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Exorcist, A Clockwork OrangeThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and so many more that it would take a whole separate article just to list them.

The dreamlike state Montag's audience enters is not far from the reaction of the home audience who lusted for blood because what else was left? The cinema took care of them, allowing them temporary autonomy over their actions and their lives.

What is real?

TL;DR: The Wizard of Gore is a tawdry and cheesy but immensely engaging gore picture.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1066
Reviews In This Series
The Wizard of Gore (Gordon Lewis, 1970)
The Wizard of Gore (Kasten, 2007)

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