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The Wizard Of Gore
cast: Crispin Glover, Kip Pardue, Bijou Phillips, Brad Dourif, and Jeffrey Combs

director: Jeremy Kasten

94 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Revolver DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 2/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
It is difficult to write about The Wizard Of Gore without writing about Herschell Gordon Lewis. Not only is Lewis the director of the identically titled film of which this is a remake, he is also a genuinely fascinating figure in the history of horror cinema, whose style was not only hugely influential but also very conspicuously shaped by the social changes that affected the American film industry in the 1960s. To speak of H.G. Lewis is to speak of the history of the exploitation film and to speak of the history of the exploitation film is to speak of genre cinema in the most fundamental terms. However, for the purposes of this review, all you need to know is that Lewis had a very distinctive campy and cartoon-ish style. A style that made his films as memorable as Jeremy Kasten's remake is forgettable.

The film's primary problem is that it is dull. The plot revolves around a magician who appears to murder people on-stage only for their bodies to turn up identically butchered several hours later. This is a great idea for a film but the problem is that the second act is spent endlessly re-staging the same trick as the protagonist returns to the show again and again hoping to work out the magician's secrets. Once the director gets bored with this, we are dragged through some tiresomely sub-Philip K. Dick plotline involving mind-control drugs that can force you to see whatever the person administering the drugs wants you to see. This sets up a rather tedious hall of mirrors as we move from considering the nature of the magician's trick to the nature of reality itself as the trick seems to involve not just murder on stage but a huge conspiracy of murder, sadism, slavery and prostitution.

Under the special effects and the Goth posturing, The Wizard Of Gore is a film full of paper-thin characters. The film's standout personalities are undeniably Brad Dourif's scenery-chewing Vietnam veteran chemist, and Crispin Glover's preposterous, ranting stage magician, but it is abundantly clear that these are performances that are entirely the creation of the actors. Kip Pardue and Bijou Phillips are utterly vacuous as the male and female leads, and this is not because their parts are less well written than Dourif's or Glover's, it is simply that, as young pretty people accustomed to playing the lead, Phillips and Pardue lack the presence that comes from years of having to flesh out one-dimensional supporting roles yourself.

Tim Sullivan's 2005 remake 2001 Maniacs is a great piece of filmmaking as Sullivan saw the lack of characterisation and the tendency to cartoon violence and realised that the only way to do justice to this kind of film is to play it for laughs. Evidently, this thought did not occur to Jeremy Kasten.

Despite the cartoon-ish set pieces and the lightweight script, Kasten treats The Wizard Of Gore like a serious film. This attitude is evident in the po-faced earnestness of the actors and the presence of a subplot involving mind-controlling drugs. The Wizard Of Gore is set-up as a kind of meditation upon the darkness in us all and how, given the right provocation, we are all capable of being tipped over the edge into madness. This is the same idea that animated such landmark horror films as The Last House On The Left, I Spit On Your Grave, and Straw Dogs (1971). Indeed, the film's downbeat tone and the seriousness of the acting all point towards this film being quite an introspective and psychological work. This is simply not so.

In order for a piece of drama to be about psychological change, you need to establish a clear psychological starting point as well as an end point. It is no accident that the end of The Last House On The Left features middle class 'squares' butchering marginalised criminals, it's no accident that Dustin Hoffman's character in Straw Dogs is such a reasonable man, and it's no accident that they spend time at the beginning of I Spit On Your Grave establishing that the victim is an author from the city. All of these films are about people crossing over into madness and they all work (more or less) because we learn from the start that the protagonists are sane and generally sympathetic people.

By contrast, Bigelow (Pardue) is a poorly drawn character. We know that he is rich; we know that he does not work and we know that he dresses like a 1950s' FBI agent. In short, we know enough to find him unsympathetic, but not enough to know what he is like as a person. So, when Bigelow emerges as a sadistic psychopath, the dramatic thrust of the film is revealed to have no strength behind it whatsoever. It is interesting to watch a good man turn bad, it is interesting to watch violence cause an extreme psychological reaction in someone, it is not interesting to see someone you barely know (but still dislike) become even more aloof and unsympathetic. It is, dramatically speaking, a busted flush. It does not work.

Because this central psychological arc misfires, the rest of The Wizard Of Gore does too as the gory scenes (the true heart of the film) are brutally undermined by an inappropriate tone and poor direction. This situation is not helped by the fact that the gore scenes are then repeated again and again with much the same lead in and Bigelow commenting in voiceover about how he has seen all of this before.

The Wizard Of Gore is a masterclass in how to fail to make a horror film. The special effects are decently staged and there are naked 'Suicide Girls' if you like that kind of thing but as Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) proves, a horror film is built not upon its effects but upon its drama and characterisation. The Wizard Of Gore is undeniably a technical success but dramatically it is inept and this makes for an excessively dull viewing experience.
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