Never before have the weird, the eerie, the astonishing, the bewildering been shown in so stunning a film. Behind the façade of the normal world lies another world whose grisly mystery brings panic to some, satisfaction to others.
When one titles a movie The Wizard of Gore there is zero audience expectation of subtlety and former English teacher (among other things)1 turned exploitation moviemaker Herschell Gordon Lewis is anything but subtle. That said, there is more than meets the eye if one is willing to look past the low budget filmmaking and excessive butcher shop gore effects. Really. The movie even develops themes of man's appetite for the spectacle of violence (with reference to the film audience) and reality v. illusion. In its own blood and entrails by the gallon low style way, this 1970 exploitation film works with that theme every bit as much as Ingmar Bergman does in Vargtimmen ("Hour of the Wolf," 1968). But this is no art film and Lewis ain't no Bergman.
The titular wizard is a magician named Montag. He puts on a show of fairly routine conjurer tricks. Some ineptly performed sleight of hand that warms up the audience (actually and intentionally leaving both his audience and the film's audience unimpressed, skeptical, even bored). These tricks are mere prelude to his more spectacular tricks. Again, these aren't too exceptional, per se, but "magic" (itself thematically dealing with illusion and reality, suggested perception and misdirection) isn't so much about originality but performance and style. Actor Ray Sager (a Lewis regular), top-hatted and crimson caped, goes through the motions of an over-the-top third-rate performer. Lots of emoting and slow gesticulation. The mediocre (contrary to Lewis' estimation) performance really works, though. It adds the seediness and surreality that make the film work.
And that is an important work: surreal. The whole film is meant to work on the level as surrealism, as dream. Is what occurs really happening? On which level? Pulling it off largely rests as much on Sager's performance as it does on what Montag is doing on stage (about a third of the film takes place in the small theater and most of that is a view of his brand of stagecraft). It doesn't have to be believable and that's good. Lewis and his crast/crew don't really have the time, ability, and (probably) talent to pull off really good illusions but that doesn't matter because the illusion is two-tiered, the most important of which is designed for the audience of the film.
The rather mundane opening tricks are put there is set up both audiences of the performance. Meant to make them doubt his ability to perform and entertain. Lewis shows reaction shots of restlessness and disappointment. Then Montag does a "big" illusion. Again, nothing on the scale of work seen today, but there are interesting elements. An important aspect of a magic performance is to introduce a (fake) sense of danger and peril to heighten the impact of the trick. His first illusion2 is the standard sawing a woman in half.
Two things are notable. One is that she isn't in a box as is typical for the trick (it was performed the same way, aided by the ability to edit and not having to fool a live audience during off-camera preparation). The second is that he uses a chain saw (electric of all things)a full four years before the Tobe Hooper film (six if the Internet Movie Database contention that Wizard was filmed in 1968 is accurate). Another interesting bit is that the chain saw is definitely realnot one of those usually used in movies with the teeth on the chain removed. This is necessary because it has to rip apart the audience volunteer's (fake) midsection. And it does nicely.
That trick signals the film audience just what they are in for. Wet, slimy, extremely bloody chunks of flesh and gore. Entrails and organs. Made more realistic because Lewis really used those things. His effects budget included quite a bit of butcher/grocery store meat purchases. It shows, it works, it's disgusting.3 But here is where the disconnect happens. After the "trick" is done and the screaming, writhing woman eviscerated, he stands back and she is unharmed. Not even a hint of stage blood. See: that is what Montag's audience sees. They see a fairly ordinary trick. No blood, no gore, not so well done by Montag the Ham. This is a key to the plot and might be overlooked at first glance (though in each instance there is always a couple quick shots during the act showing her unharmed before returning to the horrorthese shots are what the theater audience sees). It is through subsequent, similar tricks that it becomes very clear that they are watching a fully different performance than the film audience though both are happening at the same time.
Is the "victim" really a victim? Yes. She's seen after the show visiting a restaurant, almost sleepwalking (important not only to the themes but the plot). There she suddenly succumbs to her previously invisible injuries and dies. This happens after other performances. A girl gets a spike pounded into the side of her skull and out the other sideMontag then twists parts of her brain out of the hole and then thumbs her eyes out of their sockets (a rubber mask was used over the head to the eye trickyeah, real animal eyes). Another is punch-pressed to death (through her middle). Each case is the same. He goes through the motions of demonstrating the objects or devices are real, calls for a volunteer, then "kills" them. Seemingly unharmed, hours later, they are found dead of the same wounds.
Though this does capture the attention of the police (after a few victims show up, but they don't do much) but more importantly, the attention of a couple. The woman is a television journalist4 and her boyfriend works for the paper (generically titled "The Gazette"). They know he's simply doing tricks but there is something intriguing about it that almost compels viewing. She plugs his act on her current events show. Then goes and speaks with Montag, asking him to appear with her for an interview. He declines and shrugs her off (Montag is always in characterinterestingly there is no illusion in his character, he is the Montag persona) and something odd happens. As their hands touch briefly in farewell, blood appears on her hand. Then fades away. After that, he seems to change his mind and leaves tickets at the door for them to return for his next performance.
At that performance Montag says (in his usual florid speech) "torture and terror have always fascinated mankind" going on to speak of all the deaths people watch on television and film, car accidents that cause onlookers to stare at the wreckage and carnage. It echoes an earlier speech about how those things allow people to view "human butchery in person" but with the detachment of safety. This is part of the theme. Even when the things viewedwhether on the screen or as one passes by on the roadare "real," there is an unreality that comes from that detachment. Real is what happens personally, illusion happens to others.
It also speaks to the audience viewing him and the audience viewing the movie. Layer and layer, onionlike, there is a web of illusion separating the viewer from the act. That distance allows a certain "respectability" to the process (or at least an acceptable outlet for indulgence). The surreality and over-the-top gore of the whole film further insulates and creates distance and safety from which to view the proceedings. It's not believable and therefore more illusory. Another layer is that of the filmgoer's self-awareness of watching a film. (It's worth noting that at no time is Lewis critical of the media or the audience with its appetite for this sort of material.)
That saidand Lewis' background as a college-level (I believe only undergraduate) English professor certainly means he was aware of these themes and ideasthough it would be a bit much to hold the film up as some sort of wacked treatise on these subjects. But there are elements that are worth discussion and the discussion on its own can be approached through the lens of a popular culture artifact like Wizard. But at its heart this is still basically exploitation entertainment. A bucket (and trunkful) of blood and gore, violence and screaming, targeted at the teenagers necking in cars at the drive-in.
However, because there are other layers accessible (some certainly intended, others simply applied by the viewer or commentator), this film does transcend the genre in ways thatsayThe Incredible Torture Show5 never could. That it is put together with some kind of intelligence behind it gives it more depth than this sort of film deserves. Then again, this is just the sort of bizarre, Grand Guignol, disreputable entertainment that the surrealists would have loved.
The film continues to layer the illusions and surreality as it continues. It becomes apparent that they audience members are being hypnotized by Montag (in extreme close-ups that allow the viewer to see the fakeness of his "white" hair). This is why they volunteer. The hypnotic "state" imposes yet another illusion on the victim. But there are some things that the movie never answers (which may or may not be deliberate).6 Whether the people really were ripped apart or made to think they weresomehow the power of Montag's suggestion creating the injuries. Or even if they knowin the scene where two victims swallow swords there is a moment when one sees the other being skewered and begins struggling and screaming.
The levels of filmic reality are blurred constantly and it isn't always clear who is on what level at what time. The blood on the hand, while apparently foreshadowing to some extent, isn't consistent in all cases. It seems to only be viewable by the one afflictedbut not always.
Operating on what the film audience assumes to be mundane reality, the police and newspaper reporters speculate on the murders. The police follow the women and can't figure out how they are still being killed. At one point they even think it is the work of two killers (which might be seen as some obscure foreshadowing but that's really overreaching). As the film reaches its final moments, even that mundane reality comes into question.
And how best to wield his control over more victims? He agrees to go on television for the interview (which is also part of a sting to bring him to justicethe couple suspect he's behind the murders). It will allow him to hypnotize (thus kill) massive numbers of people. He seems to be about to succeed when the reporter rushes in to save the day. But the rescue itself is another illusion in the penultimate scene Montag isn't dead but he is also not in control. There was another layer on top of each and every one. He tells his victim (before ripping her abdomen apart with his bare hands):
You fool. What makes you think you know what reality is? [laughs] Tell me the truths of what can and cannot be. Oh no. You've been living in one long dream. But now you're going to discover what the real world is!
After that, he discovers he has been a victim as much as everyone and everything else, part of another's illusion.
You are my illusion. You are no longer even here. You have to start your little charade all over again.
Full circle. Montag, back in the theater, asking the audience how they know they aren't really at home in bed sleeping. Dreaming. The movie audience is left to wonder just which level of reality within the film they are watching. What is the final outer layer of the onion. Lewis never tells.
While it is possible to view the movie as something beyond its "type," it is the exploitive set pieces that make the it memorable. The chunks of "meat" and large amounts of blood, the need for Montag to finger (almost greedily fondling) the bits and chunks of "glop" (Lewis' term) during each performancesort of Lewis' variation on the magic show practice of having an audience member test an instrument or device to "prove" it is real and not a prop. Then there is compulsion to have the actresses spit out chunks of unidentifiable parts as they die. If it was all better done and filmed with a real budget (it was made for $50,000 or $60,000) this might have been disturbing in a most vile way rather than mainly disgusting (which it certainly is, the usual caveats apply).
It still is far and away more extreme than anything out at the time (even coming out of Europe as far as I know) and even for years after. Fake heads, weird blood, and no attention paid to human anatomy aside, the effect is almost much more "realistic" (with the qualifications) than some of the best work by the great special effects masters of later years. And it is doubtful that after the sort of trauma involved in the "tricks" that the human viscera would look like one's shelved and dusty copy of Gray's Anatomy anyway. It'd appropriately be...a bloody mess.
Let's get this straight. This is not a "good" movie. Nor is it a "reputable" movie. The acting is poor, the sets cheap, the dialogue unrealistic. The lighting is unnatural (the bright lights needed to film come from the side on opposite side of the screen creating off shadows combined with normal light sources), sound primitive (almost echoes because of the distance the mics are from the actors), and the effects for all their effectiveness, still amateurish. Sure those things add to the surreal aspect that the director did intend (the aspect was intended, not the low production values), but that doesn't change what this is. It's entertainment for kids (and adults) who like horror movies that are gory and "disreputable" and maybe even poorly made. On that level it does very well, even being a seminal work in its genre (by the man who invented it). Does it deserve its cult status? Yes. Really.
Still, let the viewer beware. This ain't Bergman.
Some closing notes. Lewis really doesn't care for the film. He felt it was a jinxed film (refer to the director's commentary on the DVD) and didn't like how parts of it turned out. The action/pacing is slower than in other work (though that works with the dreamlike quality of the film). He says that if he was to remake one movie, this would be the one. And while the movie posters said that the film had an R rating, the film was never submitted for reviewthey simply printed it on the poster. As Lewis tells it, as long as he didn't have any sex (there is no nudity in the picture) in it, the powers that be took little or no interest in small independently produced low budget drive-in fare like his work.
1(From footnote 2 to my Curse of the Swamp Creature which must suffice until I get around to a proper biography.
Lewis has a masters degree in journalism and taught college-level English before moving into radio, then television (as a director and later in advertising). After becoming partner in an advertising business (his partner later moved on, leaving Lewis with ownership), he came to realize he couldn't make a living in it (with only 108 channels on the air in the United States at the time, it was hard to break into the business and be successful). He and a friend decided to enter the feature film industry and as many before and since have discovered, the best way to do it (and do it cheaply) is through exploitation films (just one year earlier, Russ Meyer made his first film). Lewis started with a rather tame sex-based melodrama. He would later make a number of very soft exploitation flicks with requisite nudity to draw an audience. The speed that they could be written and shot turned them a profit. After about 30 films of this type (only seven remain), Lewis and his partner tried their hand at horror, making the bloody Blood Feast which has the claim to the world's first gore film (1963). It was enormously successful (for an independent exploitation flick). They would go on to do a few more movies before the partnership split. Lewis continued in the same vein (pun intended), expanding his subject matter slightly (swingers, teens gone bad, two children's filmswhich he didn't write) as well as the horror/gore stuff. His movie career dried up in the early 1970s and he went back to school, so to speak. He has since written several books on advertising, marketing, and public relations. Several of his books are available on amazon.com as of this writing and all are well reviewed by readers. He also writes columns for marketing and advertising industry publications. Really.
2Technically the second trick but the first is pretty much outside of the film narrative. In order to start it off with a bang, Lewis has Montag performing solo during the opening credits. He does a guillotine trick (a la Alice Cooper's stage show) using himself as the victim. It's rather poorly done as the head is painfully fake and the blood (the "stump" is suitably gory) minimal (it had to be because too much would stain the prop and it was needed for laternot used, but needed onstage). Lewis acknowledges how bad it looks but the whole point was to lop off a head for the opening of the film. It also sets the stage for the mess that occurs through the film.
3On the DVD commentary, Lewis tells of driving around the Chicago area (where the movie was filmedhis children were attending school in Highland Park, Illinois at the time)with a trunkful of meat. Unsurprisingly that became a serious olfactory problem. He asked a friend of his in the used car business if he had any idea how to get rid of the stench. His friend informed him that finding a body in the trunk of a used car happened more often than one might think. He was told that the dealers would put a can of coffee in the trunk and burn it. This apparently worked. As curious as I am, I see no reason to field test this and am taking the director's word on it.
4A personal note. Watching this, I was quite surprised when I saw the television camera in the studio scenes had the same network, channel, and call letters as one in my hometown (it has since switched network affiliation). This must have been noticed years ago when I first saw the film but I had forgotten. During the commentary, Lewis confirmed that all the scenes shot in the studio were indeed filmed where I live (I've even toured the station when I was a kid). Though it was a bit of a drive from Chicago (about 90 minutes), it appears to have been done because the television stations in Chicago were unionized (a cost measure among other things). He said they were very helpful and accommodating, though were a bit concerned about him lighting a fire in their studio.
5Better known under its later release title Bloodsucking Freaks (or Blood Sucking Freaks). While it is almost universally cited as Troma Studios release, I have never been convinced. The interview with the film's director (Joel M. Reed) here: www.dark-waters.com/features/joel-reed.htm seems to confirm that. Troma got involved later and presumably owns the rights for distribution and video/DVD releases. Other than for perverse curiosity, there is no reason to search that one out. I suppose there is also the feeling of the initiate in being able to say you're seen it.
6Perhaps, most notably "why" Montag is doing what he is doing. That does add to the surreal quality of things but also just confusesespecially the odd scenes at the cemetery (filmed entirely with red filters) where he brings bodies or removes them from coffins only to stash them into a secret panel in a mausoleum. They serve no narrative purpose but are a bit eerie. The ultimate unanswered question will be discussed above.
- Personal copy of the DVD: movie, opening quote from the trailer provided; director's commentary: the commentary is a wonderful look at the ways one can make a real low budget movie and worth listening to, whether it's the trunk story, buying cheap rugs at Kmart in order to keep blood off the carpet on location, filming in a real police station (no set, no decorations, no extras necessary), or plugging a restaurant to get the cast and crew a free lunch. The morgue scene? An actual funeral parlor with actualno shitcorpses under the blankets and in the drawers. Then there's the story of his "ultimate effect" that he was unable to do (they were kicked out of the hotel before he could do it). It involved a fake head and legs and a goat carcass....
- Facts, dates, trivia were aided with the Internet Movie Database
- The biographical material came from http://22.214.171.124/halloween2001/hgl/hgl1.shtml
- Many years of watching "disreputable" entertainment