The Wizard of Gore first published by Film4
Synopsis: Jeremy Kasten remakes and updates Herschell Gordon Lewis’ grimy Grand Guignol 1970 horror. Featuring Crispin Glover, Brad Dourif and Jeffrey Combs…
Review: Having established his place at the more visceral end of exploitation cinema with Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and many other bloody, bikini-laden B-graders of the 1960s, in 1970 Herschell Gordon Lewis unleashed The Wizard Of Gore.
Featuring an endless parade of Lewis’s trademark torture, mutilation and dismemberment, a paradigm-shifting freak-out of a finale, and a titular protagonist who seemed a stand in for the director himself, it was to be the summation of Lewis’ schlock-filled career, as well as a cult classic. Still, the reputation of Lewis’ film far outstrips its actual merit. Even back in those old grindhouse days, its wooden performances, creaky plotting and deadening pace were difficult to overlook, and, viewed today, the gore effects that were its whole raison d’être look simply risible.
News of a remake hardly comes as a surprise – after all, it is one of the few remaining horror films from the 1970s that has not yet been retrodden for a twenty-first century audience. Any viewer, however, expecting just the standard retooling – a bit of updated dialogue here, a cast of fresh young things there – is in for a big surprise. For while this reimagining of The Wizard Of Gore certainly contains all these elements, it also turns the original inside out, refashioning its innards into something wholly new, as disorienting and off-kilter as Christopher Duddy’s cinematography.
The barebones premise is the same as the original: girls appear to be viciously murdered by an idiosyncratic magician, only to reappear on stage alive and well at the end of the act – and then to die later of similar wounds. But where Lewis was uninterested in explaining his films’ events – they were magic, pure and simple – this remake is focussed much more on the whys and wherefores, so that Lewis’ Grand Guignol is transformed into something more akin to a Chandleresque mystery, complete with a protagonist who dresses like a noir ‘tec.
The solution on offer here, taking its cues from such headspinners as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), is a convoluted Oedipal mindbender that will utterly confound viewers even as it confronts them with who they really are (or at least might be).
Retro-dressing trustafarian Edmund Bigelow (Kip Pardue) is roaming LA’s nightlife in search of sensational stories to report in his underground paper, when he stumbles into the magic show of Montag The Magnificent (Crispin Glover) and his warm-up Geek (Jeffrey Combs). A local stripper known to Bigelow is called on-stage, humiliated, undressed, and then, as the audience’s cynicism turns to horror, eviscerated, before Montag reveals that it has all just been an illusion and that the girl is very much intact. Impressed, Bigelow finds himself revisiting night after night, despite the suggestion of his girlfriend Maggie (Bijou Phillips) that Montag’s show is merely a platform for “some real obvious misogyny”.
As Bigelow delves deeper, disturbing questions emerge. Why do the previous night’s volunteers keep turning up dead the following morning? What is the strange toxin found in their bloodstream? Why does Bigelow keep experiencing violent dreams, memory blackouts and nervous tension? And how does drug-dealing pimp Dr Chong (Brad Dourif) fit into the picture? Bigelow will be forced to discover that here, as in Montag’s show, nothing and nobody is what they appear to be, including Bigelow himself.
Pardue’s Bigelow may (necessarily) be a jittery cipher, but there is ample compensation in the unhinged performances of cult favourites Glover, Dourif and Combs. The best way to describe Dourif’s menacingly addled take on Dr Chong is as a composite of Dennis Hopper’s insane turns in Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. Even more mesmerising (in every sense) is Glover, who was born to play Montag, and who here, in white suit, slick quiff and over-sized cod-piece, lends his oddly emphasised inflections to every utterance, working his magic over us like a true showman. It is an act truly worthy of an Oscar, if a film as scabrous, sadistic and seedy as this could ever attract the Academy’s attention.
To match the labyrinthine convolutions of its plot (which might require more than one viewing to be fully appreciated), The Wizard Of Gore has a visual aesthetic all of its own, with a mannered colour scheme, reeling camerawork, and hallucinatory editing. Of course there is gore here too, but if that is your only interest, you are bound for disappointment. For it is a rather different sense of what is inside us with which Jeremy Kasten’s excellent remake is more concerned.
In a Nutshell: In this masterclass in the art of the remake, it is as though Herschell Gordon Lewis’ frankly sub-par original has here metamorphosed into the gloriously head-messing sleazefest it might have been.
© Anton Bitel