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Friday, 3 July 2009

The Wizard of Gore (1970)

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Star: Ray Sager

This was an experience. I've never before watched a low budget piece of seventies exploitation horror trash while dining on fine cuisine, but that's what Farrelli's Supper Club offered one happy Friday night in Scottsdale: gourmet brie, salmon and chainsaws. I think it was something new for them too but they seemed fascinated and I hope they continue to play this sort of material in and amongst their standard blockbusters. I've also never seen this film before, though I thought I had. I was expecting a nasty example of late Herschell Gordon Lewis with Henny Youngman and a bunch of go go dancers, but it turns out that's The Gore Gore Girls. So this one ended up being new to me.

The Wizard of Gore is Montag the Magnificent. It says so on the sign but he tells us anyway just in case we can't read. Quite why he's named after a day of the week is open to question, but perhaps it's because he wants to tear asunder our rules of logic and crumble our world of reality. He's a master of illusion, a defier of the laws of reason, a sly deceiver who wants us to believe that we're asleep and dreaming and we can believe it too because he tells us this from a very cheap stage. While. Overacting. Horrendously. Slowly. He's Lewis regular Ray Sager, who is obviously trying to be Vincent Price but comes across more like the aging John Carradine.

To to prove his mastery of illusion he promptly chops off his own head in full Eastmancolor, but hey, he's a sly deceiver, remember? It isn't real, needless to say. He's a stage magician, apparently not a very big one given the size of the theatre and the response of his audience, who fail to react even when he takes a volunteer from the audience apart with a chainsaw. They sit there utterly quiet even when he starts pulling her intestines out, as if they didn't know the camera was running and they were waiting for Lewis to call 'Action!'

But magically Montag the Magnificent puts our delightful volunteer back together again. Her intestines go back where they should be, her flesh heals itself and even her dress repairs. But after the show is over, she wanders off into a restaurant like a zombie and promptly falls apart, her injuries precisely as they were delivered to her during Montag's performance. Now you might expect that people might connect these two little dots but the film hinges on the fact that nobody really noticed. Maybe that audience was asleep after all.

Two members of that audience are Jack and Sherry. Jack is a sports reporter and his girlfriend Sherry is a daytime TV presenter, but this audience is so in tune with reality that they don't even notice. Imagine Oprah sitting next to you at a show and nobody noticing. Yeah, that's what we have here. Anyway, Jack and Sherry happily leave Montag's performance arguing about how real it all was. Jack is cynical and shrugs it all off as cheap trickery but Sherry is hooked, promptly turning her TV show into a commercial for Montag. The. Magnificent. and trying to persuade him to appear live.

He won't have any of it, dismissing her utterly, at least until he touches her hand and it magically appears covered in blood at the spot where she'd touched the corpse the night before. He instantly changes his tune and becomes all sweetness and light, inviting her and Jack back the next night on his dime. Jack really doesn't want to go but he's so pussywhipped he wears boxers with hearts on them, so it's hardly surprising he tags along with Sherry and even volunteers to inspect the metal spike Montag hammers throught he head of a blonde from the audience, pulling out her eyes and her brain with the sort of lingering exploitation glee you'll expect if you've ever seen the tongue scene in Blood Feast.

And so the cycle begins. Montag does his show in the same tiny theatre with the same tiny unresponsive audience. Jack and Sherry turn up every night for free. A new girl is volunteered to be murdered on stage by her boyfriend, but she always leaves alone. Montag runs through the same material, only varying the method by which the girl dies by changing the angle of his table and introducing a new weapon. Gobs of blood and gore appear and disappear depending on the view, as if the editor of the movie is blind. Montag puts the girls back together again, only for them to die after the show in the same way they were apparently killed during it.

And nobody notices. You'd think that Montag, who must have a long running gig at this tiny theatre similar in length to the one Michael Jackson had to kill himself to get out of doing at the O2 Arena in London, would be something of a known entity in the town, especially as Sherry doesn't talk about anything else on her daytime slot on the NBC affiliate she works on, WTVO 17. But no, nobody notices. The press notices that people are dying but the police don't seem to notice anything. Only Jack, sports reporter, is up to the task of connecting the dots.

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that these murder victims die, in their unusual ways, are autopsied and buried all in the same day, so that Montag can dig them up for his collection in some evil lair and start on the next victim the very next night. This would be awesomely efficient policework if only they'd done something more than bury the bodies, which it would seem they hadn't. So Montag continues with his nefarious plan, whatever it is. We do discover what it is, late in the film when Herschell Gordon Lewis decides that we've run through enough cycles. Montag appears live on Sherry's TV show and... well, I'm not going to give it away.

This is a cheap and cheesy horror movie with the sort of effects you'd expect from Lewis and even worse acting than usual. Ray Sager is such a terrible actor that we can't fail to wonder why Lewis kept casting him. His IMDb page shows that he's a versatile talent who has turned his hand to many roles in the film industry with a good deal of success. What he can't do is act, however often Lewis cast him and this was the fifth attempt. He'd played the lead in the last one too, Just for the Hell of It. And yes, that's the title not just the end of my sentence but both could work.

Yet The Wizard of Gore is a mindmelting film, because it has ideas that has depth way beyond the budget. No, it's not cleverly done, because there are more plot holes than you could comfortably imagine and it doesn't all make sense, but it relentlessly throws more twists and turns into the last twenty minutes than sanity allows. It's like an episode of The Twilight Zone where the scriptwriter was running on bad acid and couldn't find his way back to reality until he'd turned out the right twist, and every try he had made it into the story. Freaky freaky stuff.

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