Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Wizard Of Gore (1970)

I have proclaimed in the past my upbringing as a monster kid and my love for horror hosts near and far.  What I haven’t discussed in any sort of detail, however, is the horror host we had right here in our own backyard.  The first time I saw Uncle Ted, he was guest hosting The Land Of Hatchy Milatchy (think WPIX’s The Magic Garden, only cheaper and without the folk singing), the Rosemary Clooney song being used as the program’s namesake and theme song (I can only assume with permission).  The show’s regular host, Miss Judy (played by Lois Burns in my youth, who took over from the original host, Nancy Berg) was rumored (and rumored is the only word for it, since there is no evidence I could find on this, and it sounds like the sort of thing dipshit children would say around a playground) to have been incarcerated for drug possession, so Uncle Ted had to fill in.  I’m certain the truth, as it so often is, was much more mundane. 

Back to my point, Uncle Ted literally looked like someone’s uncle.  He was tall and slender, had a walrus-ian mustache and a stentorian voice, and dressed a lot like Mehemet Bey from Hammer’s 1959 version of The Mummy (that is, like a Shriner, fez and all).  A short bit after seeing him on Hatchy Milatchy I would discover that Uncle Ted (real name Ted Raub) hosted a late night monster show titled Uncle Ted’s Ghoul School (which would move over to PBS and change its name to Uncle Ted’s Monstermania before cancellation sometime in the Nineties).  Unfortunately, it’s time slot prevented me from being able to actually sit and watch many of the early shows (I’ll tell you sometime about my abortive efforts to watch the show using a mirror), but somehow just knowing he was putting the energy in was almost enough.  

So, what has any of this got to do with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Wizard Of Gore?  Well, just like Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager), Uncle Ted was a magician.  He would cut strings in half, and they would magically reappear whole mere moments later, pour a jug of water into a paper cone from whence it would disappear, and so on.  Also like with Montag’s illusions, you could usually see the how trick was being done with my old Uncle Ted.  Whether his sleight of hand wasn’t quite up to snuff or he was not used to staging for television, I can’t say.  Yet, these seeming deficiencies didn’t drag Ted’s esteem down in my eyes (or in the eyes of those who remember him to this day).  If anything, they only further endeared the man to me.  He really was that uncle who shows up every now and again, does some fun stuff with the kids, and then leaves.  And that’s a sort of charm that money and artfulness cannot buy.

The film opens with Montag taking the stage and delivering a monologue, which includes such lines as, “What is real? Are you certain you know what reality is? How do you know that at this second you aren't asleep in your beds dreaming that you are here in this theater?”  Then he asks for a volunteer from the audience (Karin Alexana) and proceeds to chainsaw her in half in full view of the spectators.  Moments later, she appears fine, but when she goes to a restaurant after the show, she literally falls to pieces as the wounds she received from the chainsaw recur (and topples onto the conveniently plastic-covered carpet).  Meanwhile, television personality Sherry (Judy Cler) is completely taken with the morbid spectacle, though beau Jack (Wayne Ratay), who is incidentally one of the largest dickweeds I have ever set eyes upon, absolutely hates it.  Sherry attempts to get Montag on her show, but the eponymous wizard evades her, while continuing to invite her and Jack to his shows for each new depraved delectation.

Like every other Lewis film I’ve ever seen, The Wizard Of Gore is shot in the most utilitarian manner possible.  Most scenes play out predominantly in master shots with the occasional closeup inserted in the least fluid way possible.  Focus varies from shot to shot, but with a piece like this, it’s not a detriment.  The lack of gloss, the stilted filmmaking, the grandiloquent acting, the constant habit of actors looking straight at the camera lens (though it should be noted, there are, in fact, times when this practice is intentional) all give this film a verisimilitude that the presence of a big budget would tend to erase.  And I like that about this film and its ilk.  Sadly, the story itself is about enough to fill up a short film of about thirty-five minutes at the maximum, but the film clocks in at ninety-five minutes.  Thus, the plot goes like this:  Montag does his act, Montag spends an inordinate amount of time toying with his victims’ innards, the stage victim leaves and dies, Jack and Sherry argue, repeat.  

And this is not to say that the film doesn’t have some ideas at work (as Montag’s purple dialogue attests), but this is, essentially, a gore show.  The prestidigitator’s tricks are little more than Grand Guignol displays of blood and animal parts, and Lewis’s camera blithesomely leers at every square inch of meat on display.  As previously stated Sager really goes for the gusto, wiggling fleshy bits in front of the lens and practically smooshing chunks of grue between his fingers like wet Play Doh.  It’s like watching psychic surgery ramped up to the nth degree.  The level of graphicness is fairly startling for the time (but so was Lewis’s groundbreaking Blood Feast seven years prior).  What’s interesting is, for the animal scraps principally used in these scenes, there are also several manufactured body parts (I’m thinking here of a couple of papier maché heads) which totally undercut the effect.  Nonetheless, the incongruities do a lot to augment the level of amusement herein.  I’d wager it can be safely stated that Lewis’s films were never intended to be viewed forty-odd years from when they were made.  They were meant to bring young folks into a theater or drive-in, give them something they more than likely didn’t see every day, and then be forgotten (the order of which could most likely be shuffled around depending on how much necking was going down).  But have them we do, and the filters of modernity and the level of sophistication of the modern viewer can sometimes fog the intended reception of a film, for better or worse.


Speaking of which, The Wizard Of Gore is a film very much concerned with Jacques Lacan’s concept of the Gaze.  When Montag calls for volunteers from the audience, his eyes lock onto a woman.  Lewis cuts to an extreme closeup of Montag’s eyes.  Next thing, you know, a woman is on stage being eviscerated.  Women are objects in a very literal sense.  They are meatbags to be dismantled for Montag’s amusement.  Their insides are playthings for the magician.  By that same token, the viewer is implicated in this objectification, since we gathered specifically to watch this.  Montag’s monologues are directed largely at camera, and the camera is placed in the position of an audience member.  Montag gives sly, knowing looks at the audience at a couple of moments in the film when he’s not doing his act, letting us in on the sick joke and forcing a feeling of commiseration upon us.  The idea of being unable to look away from car accidents is suggested, and this is reinforced when Jack uses his press credentials (he’s a sports writer) for he and Sherry to have a peek at one of the crime scenes.  When Montag does appear on television, he again looks straight out at the audience, but this time the intent is to turn us into objects like the women he slaughtered in his show, rather than sharing some twisted mischief with us.  The film is carnage for the sake of carnage, but notions like this give it just a hint of substance.  It’s like a plate of bread with a miniscule piece of steak on it.  At least you got some steak with your bread, but with this film, ironically, the more gruesome bits are the metaphorical bread in the meal.

MVT:  When the gore gets going, it’s difficult to not look (thus pretty much proving Montag’s point) and be repulsed at the same time.  And Lewis has a knack for filming the color red which appears both dirty and painful onscreen.  He’s not “The Godfather Of Gore” for nothing, you know.

Make Or Break:  The scene where Montag hammers a spike through a woman’s head moves things into a higher realm of outlandishness.  Not only does the man pierce the lady’s melon and haul out her grey matter, but he also digs his fingers into her sockets and plucks out her bulbous eyes.  It’s a piece of gratuitousness that goes just one step beyond, and the extraneous bloodshed lends a layer of true madness to Montag’s methods.

Score:  6.25/10

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