August 28, 2014
The term “splatter cinema” was first coined by George Romero, but his films rarely fit the pure definition of the term. Although there is plenty of gore in some of his films, Romero’s movies tend to have more substance than the average splatter flicks, movies which exist purely for blood and guts’ sake. The true king of the splatter film is the Godfather of Gore himself, director Herschell Gordon Lewis. Lewis’ filmography consists of dozens of films with titles like Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and The Gore Gore Girls, each one bloodier and more exploitive than the last. The real crowning achievement of Lewis’ entrail-encrusted career, however, came in 1970 with his masterpiece The Wizard of Gore.
The Wizard of Gore is the tale of a magician named Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager from Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil) whose shows consist of him performing torturous and sadistic tricks on female audience members. Montag becomes famous for sawing women in half, drilling holes into their midsections, and driving spikes into their heads, only to have them be perfectly fine (after he plays around with their entrails, of course). Unfortunately, the women always die later of mysterious injuries that echo the ones that were inflicted upon them by Montag. A television reporter named Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) and her boyfriend, Jack (Wayne Ratay), catches one of Montag’s shows, and requests to do a story about the magician. He initially declines, then curiously changes his mind, deciding that it is time for him to challenge the entire world with his illusions. As the bodies of Montag’s “victims” start to pile up, Jack gets suspicious about his motives for allowing himself to be interviewed. Jack and Sherry have to find out Montag’s methods and motives before he uses Sherry’s television show to carry out the next phase of his evil plan.
Herschell Gordon Lewis is from the school of Do-It-Yourself filmmaking, and The Wizard of Gore is an amazing example of his tenacity. The film was made for $60,000 from a screenplay by Allen Kahn (The Year of the Yahoo!). The term “screenplay” is used loosely, because the film has a very improvisational feel, almost as if the director and his actors were working off of an outline rather than a finished script. With the exception of Ray Sager in the role of Montag, the cast are all amateurs, resulting in some uneven performances, some bordering on horrible. The film is much more planned out than just Lewis rolling a camera and shouting action, however; although the narrative gets repetitive, the ending is as hilariously awesome as it can possibly be. It’s easy to see why, despite its low budget flaws, The Wizard of Gore has become a classic splatter film.
One of the big selling points behind The Wizard of Gore is Ray Sager’s portrayal of Montag the Magnificent. A large chunk of the movie is made up of Montag’s performances, and Sager plays the moustache-twisting magician role perfectly. Lines like “Isn’t there one lady among you who is considerate enough to satisfy her fellow human beings’ lust for blood?” may look silly written on a page, but Sager’s delivery of the over-the-top dialogue makes his performance nothing short of legendary. As the most charismatic figure in the film, Sager stands head and shoulders above every other actor in the cast. He’s just the right mix of camp and class, and he is a big reason as to why The Wizard of Gore has such a big cult following.
Of course, the other reason behind The Wizard of Gore’s longstanding popularity is the gore itself. Herschell Gordon Lewis designed the effects himself (even though they are credited to a Sheldon Seymour) and, unfortunately, animals were harmed during the making of the film – the blood and guts shown onscreen were real, coming from a pair of sheep carcasses that, although they weren’t killed specifically for the film, were moved from location to location to ensure the freshest entrails. Montag’s torturous stage antics and illusions were performed using old magician’s tricks. For example, in a scene where Montag cuts a girl in half with a chainsaw, two actresses were used, one for the head and another for the legs, with a false torso filled with gore set between them to gush blood and guts for the chainsaw. The schlocky visual effects may not be completely convincing, but Lewis’ splattery work in films like The Wizard of Gore paved the way for the practical effects that would be used in slasher movies for years to come.
Keeping with the low-budget theme of the production, The Wizard of Gore was shot by Lewis himself, and edited by his pal Eskandar Ameripoor (who worked on many of Lewis’ films including The Gore Gore Girls and This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!). There are many interesting photographic and editorial decisions in the film, some mind-blowingly good and some puzzlingly bad. An example of one that works occurs during a handful of dream sequences where Montag is shown carrying the dead girls through a graveyard. The shots are captured through a red filter, giving the scenes a hellish, surreal look. On the other hand, whenever Montag performs one of his deadly illusions, the actual deed will be shown redundantly in a loop of violence, breaking the continuity and rhythm of the trick. Lewis’ low budget experimental style of filmmaking is hit-and-miss, but it’s always interesting, even when it’s not entirely effective.
In 2007, The Wizard of Gore was given the ultimate horror movie compliment; it was remade by director Jeremy Kasten (The Theatre Bizarre), starring the quirky Crispin Glover (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) as Montag the Magnificent. As for Herschell Gordon Lewis, he’s still going; he recently published a book of his memoirs titled “The Godfather of Gore Speaks,” and is rumored to have a new movie called Zombificador in the works. Whether he makes another movie or not, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ legacy in horror history is solidified by his work on films like The Wizard of Gore.