Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 22 March 2008
Source 35mm print
Reviews Two-Thousand Maniacs!
Simplicity can be woefully underrated. Consider, for instance, the plotting of a good horror film. John Carpenter’s Halloween? Nutjob. Knife. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Texas. Chainsaw. Massacre. It isn’t that these films are lacking in technical and cultural complexities underneath their simple surfaces; on the contrary, teasing out the how’s and why’s of splatter flicks can be a rich and rewarding occupation. If you’re into that sort of thing. But besides that, sometimes keeping it simple is the best way to pack the kind of visceral punch that the audiences for horror films are seeking.
To wit, director Jeremy Kasten’s film The Wizard of Gore – despite a title full of bloodthirsty promise – loses its footing by relying too greatly on disorienting the audience with its tangled narrative (something about a hallucinogen emitted by blowfish) rather than doing what it really should be doing: making them squirm and scream. Adapted from Blood Feast director Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1970 original of the same title, this Wizard feels labored. The script by Zach Chassler builds toward Memento-style twists and turns without stopping to make us care about Kip Pardue’s cipher of a lead character, Edmund Bigelow, the way we did Memento’s poor, confused Guy Pearce.
Edmund is a self-styled journalist, a rich boy with a flair for the weird, but the story never gets us close enough to him to make a good guess at what makes him tick. The other characters are equally opaque. One must credit Kasten with tapping some familiar genre faces – Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs is a sideshow geek; Brad Dourif is a weirdo with a back covered in leeches; Near Dark’s Joshua John Miller is Edmund’s confidant – but it can’t really be argued that they get a chance to shine.
Best served by the bizarre proceedings is Crispin Glover as the titular wizard, a ghoulish magician named Montag who appears to gruesomely kill an audience member (almost always a buxom woman whom he first humiliates) at every show, only to resurrect them again. Clad head-to-toe in white, with a hilariously exaggerated codpiece rounding out the look, Glover is in oddity overdrive. Every line is delivered with a kind of mesmerizing eccentricity, and Kasten amplifies the performance’s idiosyncrasies with lurching camera angles and extreme close-ups. (Glover is such a spaced out presence here that one can scarcely believe that he ever had a place in such mainstream efforts as Back to the Future. And talking of Back to the Future: how is it that the actor hasn’t aged since then?) But one engagingly freaky turn does not a cult film make, and there isn’t anything else here that matches Montag for memorable madness.
As Edmund’s girlfriend Maggie, Bijou Phillips raises of few of the film’s most obvious talking points – the troubling connection between the thrill that Edmund gets out of patronizing strippers and the thrill that he gets out of Montag’s magic act, and the inherent misogyny of that same act – but these points seem to be raised only to be dismissed, as if the filmmakers believe that by anticipating these potential criticisms of their film, they might render them moot. (That Maggie, our would-be gender critic, turns out to be a masochistic call girl further muddies the matter.) That’s too bad, because the more that Kasten’s film, gets lost inside its own world rather than confronting the larger one, the more it feels like a missed opportunity. Even the gore, which ought to have had the same evil appeal as the artwork in old EC comics or the death scenes in one of those seventies Vincent Price pictures – The Abominable Dr. Phibes or Theater of Blood – is sapped of its strength by its confused context.
It’s ironic, then, that Montag is so emphatic about his literal and figurative desire to see what’s inside the unlucky participants that he plucks from his audience. As a film, The Wizard of Gore has a complicated surface, but on the inside, it’s fatally hollow.