By Scott Dorward
The Wizard of Gore (USA, 1970)
It wouldn’t be the October Horror Movie Challenge without Herschell Gordon Lewis. Despite his reputation (infamy?) in the horror genre, I’d never seen any of his films until I tried Blood Feast for an early challenge. Since then, I’ve only watched Two Thousand Maniacs. While neither was my favourite of the year, each held some strange allure. The premise of The Wizard of Gore is even stranger than either of these, which gives me hope. Let’s see what’s in his bag of tricks.
Montag the Magnificent, a stage magician who speaks in booming monologues, enjoys murdering young women. It seems to be even more of a passion for him than magic, and he loves magic. Happily, he has learned to combine his interests. Using unexplained powers that include mass hypnosis and necromancy, he summons volunteers from his audience and kills them bloodily on stage. His audience see glimpses of what is really happening, but also a much tamer, bloodless version, and are unable to tell which is real. At the end of each trick, the apparent victim walks off stage, in a trance, and heads home. Some time later, each is found dead, seemingly from the wounds Montag inflicted upon her.
Sherry Carson, one of the audience members, takes an interest in Montag, wanting to interview him for her TV programme. As she and her reporter boyfriend Jack return for multiple performances, they spot the relationship to rash of strange deaths in town. But given the sheer impossibility of the deaths themselves, what chance do our sleuths have of piecing everything together?
After seeing a couple of other Herschell Gordon Lewis films, I was expecting something altogether more campy. Despite the low budget and overwrought performances, this is not a campy film at all. It is simply nasty and strange.
In fact, it’s difficult to convey exactly how strange this film is. Everything about it feels like it comes from outside the cinema of planet Earth. From the odd cold open to the choppy editing and inexplicable ending, this feels more like something I dreamed than watched.
The structure of The Wizard of Gore is no less bizarre. While this is sort of a thriller, most of the film is devoted to Montag’s routines. The rest of the story seems cobbled together to justify these set pieces. Also, no one seems to care that Montag’s whole act runs 10 minutes. Maybe he hypnotises the audience into thinking it’s longer.
For all the weird elements in this film, the ending is especially strange. Until the last two minutes, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how things might wrap up. Oh boy, was I wrong! By the time it was over, I was left shaking my head, trying to make any kind of sense of what had just happened. I think I hate it but at the same time I am so in awe of its audacity and sheer weirdness that I have to admire it.
Ultimately, this is the kind of weird horror I’d associate more with the Phantasm films than Herschell Gordon Lewis. Aspects of the climax, if not the very ending, seem to presage Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And I’m sure there’s more than a little of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” in its makeup. For what is fundamentally a cheapie gore film about a killer magician, The Wizard of Gore is so much weirder than it needs to be. And I appreciate that!
Almost every aspect of The Wizard of Gore is amateurish. Even the more competent actors have scenes in which they clearly struggle to bring any meaning to the dialogue they’ve been given. The lighting in outdoor scenes is so atrocious that we are left to guess at what may be happening. Some of the audio sounds like it was recorded using a tin can and string. Barring a comically unconvincing dummy, all the special effects have to offer is fake blood and all-too-real offal. The editing in a few key scenes jars and confuses, probably by design. And yet….
For all its many faults, The Wizard of Gore is a shockingly effective film. The apparently random editing of the murder scenes makes them nightmarish. Tossing animal viscera into every scene of gore is repellent and disturbing. Even the poor acting, sound and lighting confound our sense of reality. Nothing about this film should work and yet almost all of it does.
And there are some things it gets absolutely right, such as not offering explanations. We are left with no idea of who Montag is, how he does the things he does, and what his ultimate goal is. He is a sinister force and all the more so because we do not understand him.
While I would be lying if I described The Wizard of Gore as a good film, it is so relentlessly odd that I am compelled to recommend it. Just don’t do as I did and watch it while having supper. Well, unless you have a taste for offal.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!