Friday, November 20, 2009

Wizard of Gore (2007)

Criticizing a horror movie for being bad is a little like criticizing rum because it gives you a hangover: it's kind of beside the point. Most horror films are bad, but so what? We generally don't watch them for their educational value or their artistic merit. We watch them because we want to be scared or shocked, or titillated. We want cheap thrills. Girls and gore.

"Bad" is a subjective term anyway. Captivity (2007) was an expensive, technically polished studio movie that bored me out of my skull; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was a grubby little low-budget indie film that scared the crap out of me. So which is the better movie? The point is, most horror movies are bad, it's usually only a question of degree, and some of the "worst" ones are actually the most entertaining.


Crispin Glover is Montag the Magnificent in Jeremy Kasten's remake of 'Wizard of Gore'(Left) Crispin Glover as "Montag the Magnificent"

It's hard to say where Jeremy Kasten's Wizard of Gore registers on the bad-o-meter, however the strength of this gruesome little oddity lies squarely with Crispin Glover's weirdly brilliant performance as a creepy magician whose bloody "illusions" become retroactive reality.

The film is a remake of the 1970 shocker by cult horror/exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose original version is one of the most messily gory films ever made. In it, veteran Lewis player and sometime production manager Ray Sager starred as Montag the Magnificent, a fiendish magician who is able to alter the perceptions of his audience--and his victims--in order to inflict horrifying injuries that go undetected until long after the show is over. As a horror concept, it was one of Lewis's most original and disturbing. (Interestingly, Sager wasn't even supposed to be in the movie. He had signed on to do production work, and was pressed into service as Montag only after the original actor became so difficult to work with that Lewis was forced to get rid of him.)

In the new film, Crispin Glover--Johnny Depp's evil twin on acid--plays the monstrous illusionist as part televangelist, part Las Vegas showman. With his white tuxedo and Ace Ventura pompadour he certainly looks the part, except for the conspicuous bulging codpiece. The sly contempt with which Glover exhorts his audience is a subtle nod to Sager's original Montag, and the breathless, near-orgasmic glee with which he eviscerates his victims is reminiscent of Udo Kier's perverse sexual antics in Paul Morrissey's twisted Flesh for Frankenstein.

An almost unrecognizable Jeffrey Combs (The Frighteners, Re-animator) is on hand as Montag's maggot-eating warm-up act, and horror veteran Brad Dourif turns in the one of the film's most interesting performances as an eccentric Chinatown doctor. Several of The Suicide Girls appear as Montag's hapless victims. 

Surprisingly, Kasten's version isn't nearly as gruesome as the original, however Glover's over-the-top turn as Montag is sure to earn points. Were the rest of the film up to the level of Glover's performance, it's the sort of movie that might have attracted a modest cult following. Sadly, the best thing about this Wizard is the trailer. Due to some last-minute gerrymandering by one of the film's producers--Kasten won't say who--the film went so far off the rails, even Glover's darkly entertaining performance couldn't save it from straight-to-video hell. 

The first problem has to do with the muddled plot. Zach Chassler is credited as the writer, however movies, like space shuttle launches, are always collaborative efforts, so I suspect he can't be entirely faulted. The storyline seems to be striving for Christopher Nolan, but leaves the viewer feeling confused and cheated. This is especially true of the ending, which seems rushed and haphazard. A villain as colorful and diabolical as Montag deserves a far more spectacular denouement than the hurried afterthought it seems to be here. 

Wizard's second problem is that almost all of the main characters are relentlessly annoying. I wouldn't spend five minutes with these people, let alone an hour-and-a-half watching them on a 20-foot movie screen. To expect an audience to accept an "O. Henry" ending in which the hero turns out to be as nasty as the villain mightn't have been as much of an imposition had there been at least one prominent character in the film who wasn't insane or corrosively obnoxious.

Bijou Phillips' shrill, phoned-in performance as a bitchy girlfriend is hardly a career highlight, however it may be understandable in light of her character's love interest, a thuddingly inarticulate geek played by Kip Pardue, who comes off as sort of a poor man's Matt Damon. Pardue plays a character named Edmund Bigelow, who harbors a baffling penchant (and we've all known somebody like this) for wearing fedoras, Clark Kent glasses, and 1940s apparel. The affectation might be endearing if Bigelow were the least bit charming or amusing, which he is not. What's worse, he is prone to panic attacks, the only apparent remedy for which is to huff repeatedly into a crumpled paper bag that he carries with him at all times. By the second or third iteration of this unfortunate contrivance, I was hoping Bigelow would asphyxiate so that Kasten could get on with his damned movie.

Poster for Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 shocker, 'The Wizard of Gore'(Left) Poster for HG Lewis' 1970 version

In subsequent interviews, Kasten has attributed much of what went wrong with the film to creative interference on the part of one of its producers (there were about eleven), who apparently shanghied the film during the editing process in order to make it less of a gore movie about Montag and more of an atmospheric "film noir" about Pardue's character. Big mistake. According to an interview in Fatally Yours, the whiny Pollyanna told Kasten, "Jeremy, stop trying to put gore into this! No one wants gore in this movie!"

Huh? What?! No one wants gore? In a movie called the Wizard of Gore? Seems to me that's a little like trying to make a porno movie without the sex scenes. 

In the age of Criss Angel and the gruesomely funny Penn & Teller, it was an ingenious idea to do an updated version of The Wizard of Gore, however it says something about this film that Lewis' original, "bad" as it was, is both gorier and more entertaining. One suspects that had Kasten had his way, things might have turned out differently. 

(NOTE: this article is about the original theatrical cut of "Wizard of Gore," not Jeremy Kasten's "Director's Cut" recently released on DVD)

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