If there’s one thing I know for sure after watching The Wizard of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis's splatter classic is that Lewis was no auteur. Hell, he was hardly even a director. If you are feeling generous, you might call him a filmmaker. He was, however, one heck of a salesman. After spending a few years doing various jobs - teaching at university, managing radio stations, and working in advertising - Lewis turned his sights on movies. Not because he had any artistic dreams, but because he figured he could make a few bucks at it.
Teaming with notorious exploitation producer Davie F. Friedman in the early '60s, the two initially began making nudie cuties, and other films whose main draw was naked women. As the naked breast market began to wane, the two turned to another exploitive teat upon which to suckle, namely horror films. Having both no artistic ability or money in which to make these films, they knew they needed a hook so they made the gore explicit, essentially creating the splatter genre.
In 1963, they made Blood Feast, arguably the world’s first gore film, about a food caterer chopping up women to include in his meals and perform sacrifices to the Egyptian goddess Ishtar. It was a smashing success, turning over its minuscule $24,000 budget and then some. Numerous more splatter films followed along with other exploitation genres. Lewis continued making movies all through the sixties while remaining a success in the advertising industry. It was in 1970 in which he made his magnum opus of splatter, The Wizard of Gore.
I must confess that I first heard of both Herschell Gordon Lewis and The Wizard of Gore via Jason Reitman’s 2007 comedy Juno. The Jason Bateman character in that film tries to impress Ellen Page’s 16-year-old pregnant character (whose baby Bateman is going to adopt) by declaring The Wizard of Gore to be better than Suspiria. This both excited and humbled me. Excited because it is always fun to see movie nerds in movies, especially when they name check movies like Suspiria that I love. Humbled because I’d never heard of Lewis or The Wizard of Gore. Some ten years later, I finally watched The Wizard of Gore and all I can say is that Bateman’s character is a complete moron if he thinks The Wizard of Gore is a good movie, much less better than Suspiria.
The Wizard of Gore cannot on any level be considered a good movie. The script is juvenile, the acting terrible, the directing nonexistent. Even the gore is pretty ridiculous. The story, such as it is involves Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager), a magician who specializes in sawing pretty girls in half with a chainsaw, or goring them with a punch press, or gouging our their brains with a metal spike, or slicing out their innards by making them swallow swords for his magic show. The trick is that he hypnotizes the girls and the audience into believing it's all just a gag so that when it's over the girls walk away unscathed. At least, until the hypnotism wears off and they fall down dead from whatever gore-filled violence was bestowed upon them in the show. At least, I think that’s what happens. The girls are brutalized on the stage. But then again some alternating shots show them to be fine. They do walk away from the show and fall down dead sometime later. So I’m assuming it was hypnotism that does it, but it's so poorly put together its hard to tell.
A couple of journalists start putting things together and go to the cops about it but first suspect that some crazed killer is watching the magic act then killing the girls in a similar manner afterwards. It all ends in a bit of psychedelic trickery that’s best left unsaid, not so much to avoid spoilers but because it's so ridiculously bad I prefer not to talk about it.
As noted, the script is bad. It feels ad-libbed on the set by people who don’t actually understand what Lewis is going for. Not that you could tell if they that did because all the actors are atrocious. Sager is terrible as Montag, but at least he looks like he’s having fun. Lewis’s form of direction is to point the camera at the cast in a mid-level shot and let it sit there statically until the scene is over. The gore is poorly edited but does have some authenticity as Lewis bought a sheep carcass and used its real guts as a stand-in for the girls' insides. For two weeks, they carted that stuff around, apparently soaking it in Pine-Sol to help with the smell. Making the poor women who had have those guts rubbed up against them the real heroes of this movie.
There is a certain sort of charm to it. Herschel Gordon Lewis wasn’t out to make a good movie. He wasn’t even out to make a cult classic that we’d be talking about all these years later. He was out to make a buck, and figured the best way to do that was to gross everybody out. No doubt he did that to countless grindhouse audiences in the early '70s. These days it is so ridiculously bad you have to laugh. Or maybe grab the ultra-hip teenage girl whose carrying your adopted baby and show it to her to prove just how cool you are.
Due to the nature of The Wizard of Gore’s release, none of the original negatives are in existence. Arrow has taken the best of what they could find and cleaned it up as best they could but this is still not a good-looking print. There are lots of scratches, debris, and other signs of its age and poor original quality. All things considered, it looks pretty good and as good as it will ever be, but don’t go in expecting show-off quality. Ditto on the sound.
Extras include an interview with Ray Sager, audio commentary with Herschel Gordon Lewis and Mike Vraney from Something Weird. There’s also several features on the making of the film, and an introduction from Herschel Gordon Lewis. Also included is How to Make a Doll, Lewis’ film from 1968 about a nerdy scientist who makes bikini-clad women in a lab so he can roll on the floor kissing them. If The Wizard of Gore is bad, then How To Make a Doll is godawful.
All of these extras have been ported over from the Something Weird release awhile back. Arrow Video released this exact copy in their Herschel Gordon Lewis Feast boxed set from a couple of years ago (you can read our review of that set from Luigi Bastardo and Kent Conrad). If that set was too expensive, or just too much for you then this is a perfect introduction to the gore-filled, blood-soaked, poorly constructed world of Herschel Gordon Lewis.