The word “masterpiece” and the name “Herschell Gordon Lewis” don’t appear together too often. Most see his films as plotless, pointless and void of anything resembling something worthwhile. I’d be hard pressed to argue with them, to be honest. But for some of us, even with all of that taken into account, we can’t seem to tear our eyes away from his films. They’re like staring at the aftermath of a terrible car-wreck on the highway. You should know better, you should have a little more class, but you do it anyway.
The Wizard of Gore is all of the things I just mentioned. But all of the aspects that the small community of H.G. Lewis fans have come to love from his films are in top form here. The film is arguably Lewis’s creative peak, where all of the facets of his filmmaking prowess are displayed at the top of their game. Taken as a normal film, this is probably a piece of shit. In the world of Mr. Lewis however, this may very well be his masterpiece.
The film begins at a magic show, performed by one Montag the Magnificent. The audience watches as Montag goes through a bunch of standard magic tricks we’ve all seen before, making water disappear from a cup and other such sleight of hands. Things take a turn however when Montag begins to recite a monologue on how TV has desensitized all Americans towards acts of violence, seeing them as nothing but fantasy, and never actually seeing true “acts of butchery” in person. Montag then reveals the grand finale of his show: He’ll be sawing a woman in half. But this won’t be any normal trick. Montag will be doing it right out in the open, and with a chainsaw no-less.
Montag first needs a volunteer, and when no one steps up, he does some sort of hypnotic suggestion with his eyes, and a woman walks up to the stage in some sort of dazed state. As Montag carries out his “trick”, the woman begins to shriek in pain as her entrails begin falling out of her gaping wound. Montag actually delights in playing with the exposed intestines, as the theatre full of people watches on in disbelief. Yet we are shown quick glimpses of the woman in perfectly fine shape. Before you know it, the trick is over, and the woman walks away in one piece. The crowd erupts in applause, and the show is over.
Sherry, a local TV show host, is at the show and is completely blown away by Montag’s performance. She wants Montag to perform on her show, and Montag originally denies the offer, but then reconsiders and leaves her free tickets for the next nights show. What Sherry doesn’t yet know though is that the woman volunteer that walked away in one piece, seemingly fine, has actually been found dead at a local restaurant, sliced in half just like in the show. Is there some crazy person attending Montag’s show and then killing the women volunteers in the same fashion as Montag’s tricks? Or is Montag himself somehow doing it? And is Sherry herself falling into a trap?
Whether it’s intentional or not, The Wizard of Gore is a completely tripped-out and surreal ride. The editing during Montag’s tricks really makes the viewer wonder what exactly is truly going on. The film will cut from Montag reveling in the bile and guts of his subjects, to the audience watching on stoically, to the trick being performed with no gore on display, and then that editing cycle is repeated. It will definitely make you wonder what the true vision really is. Is Montag hypnotizing the audience into thinking there is no killing going on while he actually is dismembering the victim on stage right in front of them? Or are the scenes of gore completely in Montag’s mind? And either road you want to take, how do the victim’s just walk out if he is indeed killing them, and vice-versa, how do they end up dead shortly after in a recreation of the trick if Montag really isn’t doing it? Lewis’ films aren’t known for expertly mapped-out plots, so this could very well just be sloppily planned writing and filmmaking. For some reason though, this film actually makes you wonder if Lewis is finally in full control of his material and is having a blast fucking with the viewers mind.
But enough of this intellectual meditation on an H.G. Lewis film. Let’s get down to what many will come to the game for; the cheese and the gore, both of which the film readily delivers. The acting, as is par for the course in a Lewis film, is atrocious. Any Lewis fans will already be more than prepared for this, but newcomers will probably be taken back a bit. If this is your style of film however, you’ll agree that the acting certainly adds to the overall charm of the picture. Most of the actors seem hilariously uninterested in the proceedings, although you have to take into account that the dialogue is ridiculous and it's probably damn hard to spout them off believably. The one saving grace is Ray Sager, who plays Montag himself. Lewis at least was smart to pick someone that actually appeared to want to be in the film for the starring role. I’m not saying Sager is some undiscovered gem that shouldn’t be stooping to this style of film, because in most other places, this would NOT be considered good acting. He does take what’s given to him though and makes the most of it, and he turns in one of the more entertaining and accomplished performances in Lewis’ filmography.
And now let’s get to what the film is named after; the gore! Everything here is really just an excuse to get to the juicy stuff, and in that department, it delivers. In fact, like many other aspects of the film, this may very well be Lewis’ most accomplished display of gore FX. Sure, the blood is still an incredibly gaudy shade of red, some of the bits of guts and intestines don’t look like they’re in the right places, and severed heads look like they’re made out of paper-maché, but damn if the scenes aren’t downright nasty. There’s a scene in particular with Montag poking and prodding a woman’s eyeball that is surprisingly realistic and effective, and a magic trick involving an industrial punch press going into a woman’s sternum is appropriately stomach-churning. Also watching Montag gleefully play with the entrails and intestines of his victims can prove to be a bit unnerving.
Lastly, there’s the matter of the ending, where again the viewer is given the indication that Lewis is having a ball messing around with the viewers of the film. Or, like I’ve said before, it could be more proof of inept and stupid filmmaking. It really all depends on your personal tolerance of such films. I personally felt like Lewis was helming this film with a huge smile on his face, giving the masses the depravity they crave, while pulling a prank on them at the same time. You could think completely different however, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue.
If complete nonsense and camp is what you’re looking for, The Wizard of Gore is exactly what the doctor ordered. It covers all of the trappings of a B-grade (hell, Z-grade!) film, and may surprise you too on a couple accounts. The phrase “not for everyone” cannot be put to use in any better fashion than when talking about this film, but connoisseurs of trash should be quite satisfied. Just don’t stare too long into Montag’s eyes, because he might hypnotize you like he did me into thinking this film is better than it has any right to be.