A TV talk-show hostess and her boyfriend investigate a shady magician whom has the ability to hypnotize and control the thoughts of people in order to stage gory on-stage illusions using his powers of mind bending.
Let me paint a picture for you: in the room I do my writing work, I try and keep both my sources of reference and inspiration near at hand. Shelves on horror movies cover one wall. Books on Russ Meyer, John Waters, Jorg Buttgereit, and others stack near my desk. And in front of me I have, among other things, a photo of me and my family making funny faces in a photobooth, a Movie Maniacs Leatherface figure, and on the wall, a framed movie poster of The Wizard of Gore, signed in person to me by the legendary director himself, Mr. Herschell Gordon Lewis. To say that I’m a fan of this movie might be putting it lightly, but I will do my best not to let my bias show…too much.
The Wizard of Gore was one of Lewis’ “final” films (after The Gore Gore Girls in 1972, we got nothing from the director until 2002’s Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat), and it is also one of his bloodiest. In fact, as the story goes, it was supposed to be even bloodier, with a complete body dismemberment in the original plans before an accidental fire put a stop to it (see the book A Taste of Blood – The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis by Christopher Wayne Curry for tons of interesting details on this and all of Lewis’ films). But even without, we still have swords down throats, punch presses through guts, chainsaws through torsos, and more. So what is this movie all about, anyway?
Montag the Magnificent (played by Ray Sager, a regular in many of Lewis’ movies, most recently appearing in Smash Cut) is a magician, an illusionist, with a very different type of act. More Bloodsucking Freaks than David Copperfield, Montag puts on a type of Grand Guignol performance, challenging his audience’s beliefs as well as their eyes when, in the first act, he cuts a woman “volunteer” from the crowd in half with a chainsaw. Everyone clearly sees the blood and viscera, hears the screams of agony, but when it is all over, Montag helps her to her feet and guides her back to her seat. Everyone is amazed, and many plan a return to catch his next performance. Little do they know, just a little while later, while sitting down at a restaurant, this same woman falls from her seat dead, her body split in two.
Sherry Carson, host of a daytime talk show (Judy Cler), takes an interest in the magician and asks to interview him on her show. At first, he refuses, but when he sees blood appear on her hand, he quickly changes his mind and invites her and her fiancé, Jack (Wayne Ratay), to come back the next night. With each performance, the couple gets a little more suspicious. Especially since each of the volunteers for Montag’s illusions keep ending up dead. And eventually they go to the police and brainstorm on who could possibly be killing these women.
Okay, so there was no Oscar nomination for writing, but The Wizard of Gore is a lot of fun (something I imagine was kept up in the remake starring Crispin Glover). Up until the bizarro ending, the movie goes back and forth between our protagonists trying to figure out the killings and Montag performing and mutilating women. And these are some creative kills, as I mentioned, kind of showing the Godfather of Gore at his best. And sticking with tradition, when a hole is made in a body, the attacker doesn’t just stop, he takes a moment to play in the blood and guts. When a spike is driven into a woman’s head, Montag not only pulls out chunks of the brain, but goes for the eyes as well. When he has two separate women “swallow” swords, he relishes the bits and chunks that come back up on the blades. You want the red stuff, don’t worry, it’s in there!
Much like most of Lewis’ films, the acting in The Wizard of Gore is so-so, and while the sets aren’t extravagant, they are authentic; when Montag goes to retrieve a corpse from the morgue, one of those covered bodies is an actress, the others are dead people. The movie is from 1970, but when it comes to the effects, it doesn’t look as dated as you might expect. In fact, a lot of the gore is still pretty impressive, and definitely no CGI ruining any of the scenes here. It’s a little frustrating that Montag the Magnificent, an old man, is played by a young actor, but it’s forgivable. And the ending, oh boy, the ending… Without giving away spoilers, we feel like everything is building up to one event, but instead we find a character asking all of the questions that we, the confused audience, might ask regarding plot holes, and then something else happens and we just throw our hands in the air.
Sure, there’s a lot of questions left unanswered and plot holes left unfilled. Sure, it’s not so much scary as it is an all-out attempt to gross out an audience. There are no quick cuts, no hot young ensemble cast, no jump scares or surprise character reveals at the end. The Wizard of Gore is a typical Herschell Gordon Lewis movie in that you pretty much know what you’re getting from the first moment on. If you want to pay respects to the early days of gore, check it out. If you like the look and feel and sounds of low budget, early 1970s horror, this is a good example for you. And if you’re looking for a fun, gross horror movie, this (or, really, any of Lewis’ films) is a perfect choice.