The late Gene Siskel once said that if filmmakers want to remake a film, they should focus on the junk. Why update a classic, he argued, when there are so many b-movies and unsuccessful schlock efforts to choose from and improve on. He had a point, of course. There’s no need to make another Casablanca, or Citizen Kane – not when there are hundreds of lamentable horror titles and uneven exploitation outcasts to pick through. In a clear case of “be careful what you wish for” however, novice screenwriter Zach Chassler and outsider director Jeremy Kasten have decided to revamp Herschell Gordon Lewis’ neo-classic splatterfest The Wizard of Gore. Unfortunately, the duo completely forgot the reason the original film was so memorable.
By 1970, things were changing quite radically within the grindhouse model. Sexploitation was blurring the line between hard and softcore, and filmmakers were trying to find more rational, realistic ways to incorporate violence into their drive-in fare. One of the last purveyors of unadulterated gore was Lewis, the man responsible for starting the cinematic trend in the first place. In the early part of the ’60s, his Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) became the benchmark for all arterial spray to come. But by the end of the decade though, he had dissolved his successful partnership with producer David Friedman, and was trying to make it on his own. Hoping a return to serious scares would increase his profile (and profits), he made The Wizard of Gore.
It was kind of a homecoming for Lewis, and not just because he was going back to his straight sluice roots. No, at one time the director actually ran a Grand Guignol style nightclub in Chicago, and the premise for Wizard mimicked his showmanship experiences perfectly. The plot revolved around a magician named Montag the Magnificent (Ray Sager) whose blood drenched act gets the attention of a local TV reporter named Sherry Carson. Along with her boyfriend Jack, they attend Montag’s macabre show. In between tricks, the conjurer calls up young women from the audience, hypnotizes them, and then puts them through all manner of gruesome tortures. After it’s over, the girls seem okay. Later, they end up dying just like they did onstage.
In both its approach and execution, the original Wizard of Gore is a sleazy, surreal treat. It uses a shoestring narrative thread that allows Lewis to indulge in his ever increasing bits of brutality. The splatter set pieces are rather inventive, including a human hole punch and a tasty chainsaw attack. While the mystery of what’s happening to these young girls is part of the plot process, Wizard would rather spend the majority of its time watching Sager overact. A longtime associate of Lewis’, this on-set jack-of-all-trades in gray sprayed hair is pure ham as our perverted prestidigitator. His line delivery would be laughable if the actor wasn’t trying to take it all so sincerely. Together with the red stuff, the 1970 Wizard is some goofy, grotesque fun.
So how do Chassler and Kasten update the material? What do they do to try and breathe new life into an old hat horror show? Why, they create one of the most confusing plots ever presented in a fright film, and then populate the confusion with several quality genre names and a few naked Goth gals. If you look closely you will see Jeffrey Combs as The Geek, Brad Dourif as Dr. Chang, and former child actor Joshua John Miller (Homer from Near Dark) as coroner’s Intern Jinky. The main casting offers Bijou Phillips as a mystery girl, Kip Pardue as the publisher of an underground paper, and the fantastic freakshow that is Crispin Glover as Montag himself.
Doing away with the investigative reporting angle, the updated Wizard uses the seedy and subversive LA fetish scene to fashion a narrative involving Edmund Bigelow, a trust fund baby who uses his considerable cash to live like it’s the 1940s every day of the week. He dresses in period garb and outfits his large loft with era-specific items. He even drives a classic roadster. One night, he takes new gal pal Maggie to see Montag, and both are immediately taken by the magician’s presence and performance art atrocities. Soon, Edmund fears that the “victims” he is seeing each night onstage are winding up dead in real life. He seeks the advice of Dr. Chang, as well as best friend Jinky. He soon learns, however, that things are far more complicated (and corrupt) than he could ever have imagined.
As revamps go, the new Wizard of Gore is not without its charms. The aforementioned actors all do a wonderful job of delivering definitive turns within a very unfocused and often unflattering set-up. Glover is given the most leeway, and his “audience vs. actuality” speeches are delivered with almost Shakespearean verve. He doesn’t quite steal the movie from the others, but there would be little reason to revisit this material had Glover not been sitting at the center. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, with Ms. Phillips and Mr. Miller earning special marks. Pardue, on the other hand, is just so strange as our purported hero Edmund that we can never get a real handle on his potential guilt or outright gullibility. Toss in some decent F/X and you’ve got a chance at some wonderfully wanton thrills.
But the shoddy script by Chassler, or perhaps the scattered interpretation of same by Kasten, lets this remake down time and time again. Stumbling over into spoiler-ville for a moment, we are supposed to understand that Montag is merely an illusion, a symbolic slave to the Geek’s murderous desires. While he’s onstage racking up the bodies, the horrific hobo with a taste for blood is using a hallucinogenic fish toxin to brainwash audiences into seeing something else – the better to go about his splattery serial killing in the back. Edmund’s propensity toward violence has made him the Geek’s latest target – he will replace the old Montag and continue on the duo’s deadly work. Naturally, our hero outsmarts the villain, deciding to take control of the show – and the slaughter – all by himself.
Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with this kind of plot repurposing. In the original Montag was just a madman, using the power of mind control and post hypnotic suggestion to destroy pretty young things. Here, Chassler and Kasten want to overcomplicate things, tossing in scenes blurring fantasy and reality so regularly that we loose track of the timeframe. Bijou Phillips is supposed to be an important catalyst to all that’s happening, and yet she’s introduced in such a clumsy manner that we never understand her overall importance. Even Dourif, who uses reams of exposition to remind us why he’s crucial to the outcome seems adrift in the filmmakers’ fixations. From the 1940s focus (which gets old very quickly) to Edmund’s constant cracking of his neck (a byproduct of the fish toxin) there are repeated elements that will drive viewers to distraction.
Yet perhaps the most disturbing thing about the new Wizard of Gore is the lack of…well, gore. Of course, the new “Unrated” DVD reportedly solves most of that problem, but at the expense of what, exactly. Why was the original edit so devoid of actual grue? Surely, the MPAA was a concern, but the set up seems more interested in dealing with Edmund’s growing dementia (and addictions), the full frontal nudity of the Suicide Girls, and the on again, off again trips into inner space than blood and body parts. Lewis only used his premise as a means of delivering the disgusting. In The Wizard of Gore 2007, the offal is the least of our concerns, and that’s not the way to approach any old fashioned splatter film.
And so the redux legacy of The Wizard of Gore sits somewhere between old school corner cutting and post-modern meddling. The original version delivers in the vivisection department. The new movie fumbles the all important garroting. In fact, it may be safe to say that, in some fictional film lab, where the best aspects of otherwise incomplete entertainments can be sectioned out and sewn together, a 70/07 Wizard amalgamation could be formed that offers both valid plot points and solid putrescence. Until that time, we are stuck with two competing if competent cinematic claims. One uses blood instead of baffling narrative to win us over. The other decides we care more about the psychological than the slippery. In either case, The Wizard of Gore deserves better. Apparently, Mr. Siskel’s advice has a few unforeseen filmic flaws to be worked out.