Summer of Blood: Horror Gets Mean - Because of the horrible things he does
Herschell Gordon Lewis has long been known as the Godfather of Gore. In recent years, that nickname was used as the title of a documentary; Lewis has embraced it himself, adopting the name on his official website. In fact, the website goes one further: Lewis is, in his own words "the Godfather of Direct Marketing and Gore". Which is is one of the weirdest dual careers in the annals of Western Culture, but sure enough, alongside his invention of the modern splatter picture with Blood Feast in 1963, Lewis has decades of experience teaching companies how to use more effective active language in selling their product and inveigling customers. This sounds insane, but as I ponder it, it makes perfect sense: it's just two different forms of calculated hucksterism.
With that in mind, it's really not much of a surprise that Lewis jumped ship from the filmmaking game in the early '70s. It was a game he'd already played: as the relaxation of sexual standards led to the collapse of the market for "nudie cuties" in the early '60s, Lewis simply switched from titillating his audience through peek-a-boo nudity to doing the same through extreme violence. With the end of the production code and the explosion of low-budget gore pictures at the end of the same decade, it was no longer possible for Lewis to stand out in a newly-crowded field, so instead he simply closed up shop (only to return to the game in the 2000s, when he'd graduated to the status of living legend and inspiration to a host of grind house aficionados). After all, when there was only one Lewis, he didn't need to be good at all to be the best at it. And he exploited that reality to the hilt: his films are some of the most dismal pits of ineptitude you could ever hope to scrounge up.
We turn at this juncture to one of the director's final horror movies, made during the short window when he was able to really crank up the gory effects thanks to the loosening of moral strictures: 1970's The Wizard of Gore, which would have been an even better nickname. My sweet Lord, what a movie it is, too. There's not a genuinely good film in the director's canon (Two Thousand Maniacs! comes sneakily close, though), but this isn't the mere crappiness of no-budget regional filmmaking with a cast of the finest nonprofessionals who could be convinced to volunteer. This is rank incoherence, even worse than Lewis's notorious hatchet job cobbling the delirious Monster a-Go Go out of the incomplete footage of an unfinished production. And a more incoherent movie than Monster a-Go Go is one of those things that I pretty much assumed simply couldn't exist.
It sounds simple enough: Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) is a stage magician whose showy opening trick is to cut his own head off with a guillotine and re-attach it. This is merely the first of many tricks involving hideously dismembering people for the appreciation of tepidly interested audiences, but it turns out that Montag is secretly a murderous psycho, who actually kills the women he brings onstage, only he hypnotises them to think that they're fine. Once they leave the theater and it wears off, they drop dead. TV chat show hostess Sherry (Judy Cler), who is fascinated by Montag's show and wants to interview him on the air, and her journalist boyfriend Jack (Wayne Ratay) start to investigate the chain of inexplicable violent deaths. Straightforward "killer magician" boilerplate.
Move in even slightly closer than the broadest rendering of the plot, though, and The Wizard of Gore turns into a deranged slurry of aggressive stylistic mistakes strung together by the barest semblance of a plot. Like a pointillist painting, the incidents that make up the film's story appear to be a cohesive whole from a distance, but in the moment-by-moment experience of watching, it all feels like so many globules standing independently of each other and only barely gelling into something that's bound by rules of causality and chronology. At the micro level, The Wizard of Gore is a process of intercut sequences that follow the shape "Montag performs a trick, a woman dies later, Sherry wants to interview him, nobody knows why women are dying", over and over again. This pattern stops for no good reason; one imagines that the film could just as easily have been only 20 minutes long, or gone on for three or four straight hours, without meaningfully altering its impact. It concludes in a twist that makes no sense, and is individually redeemed only by immediately preceding a twist that makes so little sense that it turns into a soothing kind of Dadaist anti-logic, but may be meant to imply that we've been watching the unrealised fantasies of a murderous woman-hater all along. And that is meeting the film so much more than halfway that I'm walking up its driveway carrying a Bundt cake.
Its disastrous narrative is worse than confusing, though: it is unstintingly boring, as well. That's readily seen to by the constant repetition of basically the same three points with no consequences to any of it until suddenly it's all been kicked out from underneath, so that we can be sure that there's no consequences that will ever occur in all of the history of the universe. And yet, if all that was terrible with The Wizard of Gore was the disastrous structure of Allen Kahn's screenplay, I'd only hate it slightly. I might even find it enjoyable - superficially, most of what's bad about The Wizard of Gore is also what's bad about Blood Feast, and that movie is a hoot, in the short patches when it's not a slog.
The truly awful parts of the movie go deeper than mere writing. They go deeper than anything to do with merely poor filmmaking, though that is present in abundance. The acting, as is typical for Lewis, is bargain-basement amateur mugging, like the husband of one victim who doubles over weeping with his head in his hands like a parody commercial for a migraine medication, or the moment than an actress has to conspicuously feel around in her mouth before spitting out the hunk of red goo meant to look like her guts, or some such. Mostly people are hellaciously stiff and uncomfortable-looking. There is, though, one performance that goes off the deep end into some freakish other dimension, and that's Sager. It's not fair to blame him: he was but a young crewmember called up on the spot to fill in when the actor cast in the role walked off, and Lewis couldn't afford even a single day's delay. Being an untrained performer stuck with the film's biggest role and its heftiest lines was the first insurmountable difficulty facing Sager. Having absurdly ineffective makeup applied to his cheeks, forehead, and facial hair in a failed attempt to make him look old was the second. The monologues Kahn dumped in his lap are a third - long reams of zoned-out ranting about how all people care about these days are random acts of florid violence in their pop culture (that the film is self-aware enough to autocritique its genre is astonishing, given the pronounced lack of self-consciousness about anything else), which feel more like a stoned street preacher gone wrong than the menacing villain of a shitty horror picture.
Faced with these awful tasks, Sager called upon all the demons of hammy acting, and let forth with fiendishly potent blast of the most purple, flowery, magnificently mis-emphasised line readings it is possible for mortal minds to imagine. It's beyond my powers of transcription to even slightly imply the odd cadences and extreme shifts in volume that happen every single time Sager opens his mouth. His gestures match the grandiosity of his recitals, pointing dramatically like a bad stock player from Restoration comedy and suggesting that the Tin Man got stuck in the rain again. It is simply impossible to look away from the film even momentarily when he's onscreen; the impossibility that anybody might have let this go on for more than a few seconds, let alone filmed it, let alone cut it into the final edit of a notionally professional motion picture, demands every ounce of attention. It is horrible and painful, but it is captivating. (Bless her for trying, Cler attempts to go head-to-head with him in the final scene, but this kind of madness cant be taught, it has to be innate).
Even that, however, isn't the point where The Wizard of Gore runs screaming into the void. It's the way it has been staged - if, indeed, "staged" is the right word. That implies planning and intention, and I don't want either of those things to have been true. There's plenty of run-of-the-mill embarrassingly bad filmmaking: cutaways to a humiliatingly threadbare and barely interested audience for Montag's reedy show, flubbed lines left in of economic necessity, glaring establishing shots that couldn't be more obvious product placement for long-dead northeast Illinois fast food restaurant chain Chicken Unlimited. Which I insist on mentioning because it's just so goddamn goofy. Chicken Unlimited. Chicken Unlimited! I want there to be a synthpop flourish everytime I say it out loud, which I have of course done every time I've typed it.
But the gore scenes, the part of the film that is quite clearly the only reason that we're here: oh my God, they are impossible. This is what happens, basically, in every one of them: Montag brings up an obviously hypnotised woman from the audience. He blandly performs a violent trick as the audience watches intently. SHOCK CUT TO BLOOD SPLATTERING EVERYWHERE! THE MUSIC SHRIEKS IN ATONAL ELECTRONIC PAIN AS THERE ARE CLOSE-UPS OF SOMEBODY'S HAND MASHING AROUND IN SOME PIG GUTS DYED BRIGHT RED! SAGER ROLLS HIS HEAD AROUND LAUGHING! Cut to the very serious, solemn, bloodless version of the trick. The woman looks beatific. CUT BACK SHE'S SCREAMING! RAGEMUSIC! BLOOD BLOODBLOOD! PIGGUTS OH HO! Montag finishes the trick and everybody blandly applauds.
I have no fucking clue how to parse this. Not even at the level of who is seeing what - the sound editing alone is enough to suggest that the audience has also been hypnotised into not seeing the violence, and the victim is aware and conscious and screaming - but then, why the big deal about showing violence? What is even the point of the tricks, if there's no blood? They'd just be random, stupid bits of nothing happening. Which is certainly not something The Wizard of Gore is unfamiliar with. But then, if the audience is actually seeing the gore, why even bother cutting in the shots of bland, bloodless silence? For that matter, why bother cutting those in regardless? It's interesting almost solely because it's so confusing as to be surreal. I honestly think Lewis might have been trying to make a psychedelic splatter movie, bringing the art house and the grind house together in one package, only he did this without even slightly understanding what makes psychedelia or art films tick. As pure dizzying surrealism, it's only confusing, without being in any way atmospheric or haunting; it's like seeing a Dario Argento film remade by Ed Wood.
Reader, I hated this movie, and its languid, puttering 95 minutes bored me out of my skull. And yet I am inexplicably, even unforgivably compelled to recommend it with all the enthusiasm I can muster. It's terrible in every way - even the disreputable appeal of unflinching gore scenes is undone by the unconvincing cheapness of the effects (dropping some intestines onto a ripped dress does not, by any stretch, evoke the horror of pulling a woman's insides out) - but it is god damn weird. As weird as any movie of any extraction I've encountered in a very long time. That doesn't make the experience of watching it pleasurable, but Jesus Christ, it's memorable.
Body Count: 6, unless it's 7 - the twist makes it tricky to tell exactly who died and when. But I think it's 7. It might also be none at all.