in Shocktober

The Wizard of Gore (1970)

Blood. Guts. Gore. If there’s one thing 1970s horror movies accomplished it was unleashing exploitation cinema upon the world like a deranged lunatic. Of course, no one was more deranged than Herschell Gordon Lewis. At least that’s what I have been told to believe. I, like many, first became aware of the “Godfather of Gore” through the blood-curdling shock fest that is Juno. If you don’t recall the scene, a puzzled Ellen Page finds a tape of The Wizard of Gore on Jason Bateman’s coffee table. Bateman responds by saying “Oh yeah. It’s Herschell Gordon Lewis. He’s the ultimate master of horror.” Later in the film, they sit down to watch the film and enjoy it. Now that I’ve finally seen The Wizard of Gore I can tell you that Jason Bateman is full of shit.

By its most basic definition The Wizard of Gore is low-budget torture porn, and we’re talking public access TV on a Saturday night low budget. The film opens with a magic show performed by Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager), who I can best describe as one part SNL’s Master Thespian and one part dinner theater reject. Montag speaks in a lengthy and oddly arrhythmic monolog about how he’s going to appear to murder a woman on the crappiest stage ever built but not actually harm her.

Keeping his promise with a graphic disembowelment, Montag’s show becomes the obsession of audience member Sherry Carson (Judy Cler). Sherry is so taken by the performance that she spreads the word about Montag on her televised “Talk Show” (if you can call a couch and one camera a talk show) with plans to have Montag perform on the show. The name of her show? “Housewives Coffee Break” Jesus. I mean, it was the sixties after all.

I forgot to mention that immediately after Montag’s performance, Sherry and her husband Jack (Wayne Ratay) spot police officers fending off a crowd of people outside a restaurant. Apparently, a woman mysteriously died inside, which Jack confirms by yelling “Press! Press!” to get past police. What the couple doesn’t realize until later is that the dead woman is the same volunteer from Montag’s show. Does that mean Montag’s magic was GASP… MURDER?!? Only Sherry and Jack aka “The Worst Two Actors Ever” can crack the case.

After watching this “film” and reading about the career of Herschell Gordon Lewis I’ve come to the conclusion that Lewis was more of a businessman than a filmmaker. With this film’s unbelievably flat cinematography (some of the worst I’ve ever seen). I sometimes wondered if Lewis even cared about what he was shooting. I was so baffled I even took a screenshot and posted it below this paragraph. Look at that. That’s the angle he chose for an entire unbroken scene.

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“The performances must save it though right?” No fucking way. I couldn’t believe how poorly acted this film was. Characters would constantly trip over their own lines. My personal favorite is when Montag says, “Concentrate. CRONCENTRATE!” He clearly messes up by adding that “R” yet they go with it. Really the only artistic merit this film has is its gore effects which are surprisingly effective. The story is that they supposedly used real sheep carcasses. That’s ballsy. I’ll give them that.

So how did this Pittsburgh native with a Masters in Journalism end up making films like The Wizard of Gore? Lewis first cut his teeth as a filmmaker in the 1960s making nudie-cutie flicks with titles like, “Goldilocks and the Three Bares”, and the classic, “Boin-n-g!” Lewis made the transition to “Splatter” films in 1964 with Blood Feast after it became apparent those kinds of films would be more commercially viable. Throughout the rest of his career, Lewis dabbled in everything from pornography to children’s films. Truly a renaissance man.

Does that mean The Wizard of Gore is no more than a cash-in from a guy who didn’t care if he was filming people humping or people decapitating each other? Not entirely. Oddly enough, there is still at the bloody heart of this film a certain charm. I would liken that charm to the same feeling you get when you watch a short film made by a bunch of kids. The acting is bad, the technical work is questionable, but the spirit and the fun are there. Even if The Wizard of Gore was more interested in filling seats than telling a story it still has fun doing it and I had fun watching it… Sometimes. I just needed to croncentrate.