"What is a magician? A person who tears asunder your rules of logic? And crumbles your world of reality?!"
It must be love. No other force on earth could motivate a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 warp-brained The Wizard of Gore. The Lewis film is possessed of one of the gore god's strongest premises: the blood and gut show illusions of lunatic magician Montag later come true as his audience volunteers die later, of identical wounds, far from the stage. But the camp-tinged title and cult-audience name recognition provide very little cache. If anything the Lewis pedigree is something remake director Jeremy Kasten and screenwriter Zach Chassler have to fight against, in their film's crackpot desire to be taken seriously. Love, of course, frequently misguides us all.
Lewis' Wizard is structured around a series of grotesque stage illusions, as Montag (Ray Sager, in a ham-and-cheese performance for the ages) hacks up victims on stage, tricks which appear bloodless to the in-house audience, but are revealed as bloody messes to the filmgoer. Not that there is anything coy about the rest of his work, but if most of Lewis' horror pictures are stories built backwards to justify graphic scenes of dismemberment mayhem, Wizard of Gore proudly declares itself: we're all here for the blood. A subplot - or is it truly the plot? - as TV host Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) investigates, leads back into itself, a mystery trail laid in the shape of a question mark. There is no answer to the riddle of Montag's powers, of his motive, his means of evading authorities, or significance of his weird rituals; in baroque philosophical stage patter, direct to the movie audience, Montag insinuates that perhaps we are dreaming, not watching his stage show, not watching a film, perhaps that we've never been awake, dreaming even that we wake and dream. Like a Zen kōan, there is nothing to "figure out" about H.G. Lewis' Wizard of Gore, no secret kernel hidden in its gory heart. Lewis' film continuously worms in and out of metaphysical conundrum with a thick, stoned confusion, as if the story has surprised itself.
So while the rough timbers of the plot are good material for an H.G. Lewis movie, it may well be that the story is unfit for any other use. The Wizard of Gore 2007 keeps the icky magic show its deadly consequences, but reverses the spectacle: the jaded underground clubgoers in Montag's audience are misdirected to believe that the magician is actually brutally hacking apart Suicide Girls models as he delivers loopy life-advice speeches. When they flee for the exits, the bloodless reality is revealed... and later that night the audience volunteers turn up roasted, gutted, dismembered, etc, ad nauseam, literally. In these vicious main attractions Wizard of Gore fires all chambers at once. Presided over by Crispin Glover in pristine white and immaculate pompadour, Montag reborn as blood and thunder tent revival preacher, his stage patter berates the audience of glum hipsters, slouched on folding chairs in a moldering cathedral warehouse, for the sins of ennui, of cynicism, of casual misanthropy, of joyless hedonism edging into misogyny and brutality. Equally self-righteous and self-loathing, Glover is magnetic/pathetic as he squeaks terrible lies and more terrible truths, as he mimes the mutilation of beautiful flesh, and whirls the blame back at his audience, pleading "did you feel something?"
The greatest slight-of-hand in the exploitation filmmaker's repertoire is to pay lip service to important issues and charges critics may level against the film, creating an impossible tangle of politics and potential complications. Are Africa Addio auteurs Jacopetti and Prosperi racist or have they made a career of pointed social criticism? Is Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust a circumspect investigation of man's inhumanity to man, or pandering and hypocritical? Is Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper profoundly conservative, humanistic, hateful or satiric? Do a few cathartic moments of horrifying, violent vengeance by victims transform I Spit on Your Grave, or Mother's Day - or Death Proof - into a feminist statement? Or are they all just dishonest? Jungle-dense ambiguity or cheap parlor trick? If the artist is bluffing, is it wise to dignify the insult by responding in a civil fashion? What is reality? How can you know that you are really sitting there in your chair, and not asleep in your bed, dreaming that you are here?
Kasten's film walks this interesting line for a little while, as one Edmund Bigelow (Kip Pardue), trust fund slacker with a late '40s retro fetish that puts cartoonist Seth to shame, sets about writing a review Montag's show for his zine. Edmund finds himself and/or loses himself in an amateur murder investigation that begins to point to his own involvement in the crimes. Or are there crimes? The plot unfolds in double bind flashback, and a theme throughout is not to trust one's eyes. With cinematography that coats every surface in a slimy sheen, enough jittery negative-flash-frame editing for a mid-'90s alternative music video marathon, canted angles and screwy characterization from the opening frames, there can be no sense of mounting unreality or a man losing his grip. A frenzy of exotic plot points are announced in every scene, each wilder than the last, none disguising or relieving the fact that the story is essentially a man wandering around LA, sweating, and obsessively watching a magic show every night. What's going on, and what's real is up for grabs at any point, so take your pick from an escort service for sadists, CIA MK-Ultra-style brainwashing experiments, Oriental psychotropic neurotoxins, newspapers printed in human blood, gore-soaked sex dream sequences, spontaneous combustion, shark attacks, paper bag chemical huffing, Alice in Wonderland allusions coupled with L.A. strip club in-jokes, spams of electrical flashes that seem to reveal the Tron set or the Matrix code or something beneath the walls, signaling either virtual reality, Edmund losing his mind, or whatever. Depending on one's generosity, the voyage down the rabbit hole is either established or botched from the beginning. Either way, it all reads more interesting than it plays.
And either way, the remake, as seriously as it takes itself, comes up with no greater statement on reality and illusion than the crazy H.G. Lewis original. Without the brazen/stupid flare that buoys Lewis' movies, Wizard '07 just isn't any fun. Too chic to be unnerving, too banal to be horrific, the film's desire to freak itself out goes utterly splat, because it's too busy making cute to go bonkers.
By the time Wizard '07 reaches its climactic revelations and everything we've seen is not what we've seen - or, as Montag would have it, the trick began before the audience entered the theater - there is no bottom to drop out from under the audience. While striving for the puzzle-box psychodrama mystery of Lost Highway or Memento, The Wizard of Gore can achieve only low-rent mind-fuck of Hellraiser: Inferno (2000). Inferno, a fellow mish-mash-mush of horror noir, and Wizard both end up as films about sadistic murderers who have built walls of fantasy around themselves to protect their mean old brains, but eventually get their comeuppance when the appearance of otherworldly forces (Pinhead and Montag respectively) tears down the safe-zone, and reveals a private hell. Both films' main strategy for creating mystery and surprise is to exasperatingly withhold information, spring twists that only work because the audience has been lied to, and makes its dippity-doo reveals in undercooked page-long expository speeches. When a magician employs a skillful misdirect, part of the trick is in not pointing out that there's a trick.
Setting horror films among the Manic Panic and neck tattoo set never really flies. For as much as the subculture's aesthetic owes the history of horror film and literature, the posturing self-made freaks of 2007's Wizard of Gore look dour, silly and too big for their britches next to Herschell Gordon Lewis' inspired stilted, tacky, gleeful madness. When you promise to bring the weird, you gotta be able to bring the weird. The Wizard of Gore '07 has Jeffrey Combs as Montag's sideshow geek opening act, sticking a handful of wriggling maggots to his tongue. It has Brad Dourif as a mad acupuncturist who helps bleed all the brain-control drugs out of the antihero's body and walks around with leeches stuck on his back. It has these cult-favorite spaz-specialist actors, going through Jim Rose Circus Sideshow paces.
The Wizard of Gore 1970 has a guy wearing fake white eyebrows and a top hat telling everyone they aren't really there, then cutting off his own head with a guillotine. For no real reason. At the beginning of the movie. Which one is truly, bafflingly, unforgettably Fucked Up?
"That's some nice misogyny you got going there," snaps Edmund's nagging girlfriend Maggie (Bijou Phillips), when he enthuses about Montag's layered and electrifying magic show. During this lover's spat, as Maggie and Edmund back-and-forth about whether Montag's act is trash or High Art, there is a brief glimmer of a larger fish beneath the Wizard of Gore remake's stagnant pond. Grasp for it, and realize: this is how Mr. Kasten hopes his audience will quarrel about his film later.