The Wizard of Gore may not be among Lewis' best, but it's one of his most notorious. The title character is Montag the Magnificent (Lewis regular Ray Sager), a stage magician who maims and dismembers his hypnotized female "volunteers," who leave appearing A-OK, only for their wounds to reappear later, this time fatally.
Sherry Carson (Judy Cler), the daytime TV host of Housewives' Coffee Break, gives his act on on-air rave and pursues an interview. Her fiancé, newspaper reporter Jack (Wayne Ratay) is less enamored, dubbing Montag "a technician, but no magician," and seeks to expose him.
Wizard adheres closely to its elementary formula — Montag performs a stunt, a person dies, Sherry and Jack discuss it, repeat thrice — so there's really not much to it. But I'll be damned if that isn't what made the movie so successful then and now, as Lewis has invested everything — except money, of course — into those atrocious acts of mucked-up magic.
The first scene — of both Montag and the movie — runs a head shy of 15 minutes, even! It involves a chain saw; further illusions utilize a metal spike, a punch press and double sword-swallowing. (Well, "swallowing" might be a stretch.)
Montag's toxic tricks look too fake to be as vomitous as Lewis intended, yet they are still gross. It probably pushed audiences' nausea buttons hard in its heyday, whereas today, viewers might just have one patty on their hamburger later instead of two. One would think the leaps in technology since the movie's release would make a remake better, but that's not the case; Jeremy Kasten's dull 2007 redo isn't worth watching, as it has nary a drop of Lewis' charm.
Yes, I said "charm." Part of what makes Lewis great is that he wasn't trying to be great — he just wanted to put butts in theater seats to earn him as much green as possible. The lower the budget, the higher the potential for profit; in other words, corners are skirted, if not ignored outright.
For example, when Jack is handed a newspaper announcing Montag's second murder, you can see the edges of the faux stories peeling off the front page. Montage's onstage antics might be accompanied by music, but when Lewis cuts to capture audience reaction, the audio track abruptly switches to silence. Ratay's acting is so bad that at his climactic scene ("Look at your hand! Look at your hand!") has long been a part of Something Weird's product montage, dating back to the VHS era.
It's all gold — goopy, gushing gold. "THE END ... OR THE BEGINNING?" asks the final shot. Well, the middle, if you watch the other feature directly afterward. I recommend you do, as it's the more enjoyable one.
In The Gore Gore Girls — aka Blood Orgy, as it reads on this print — effeminate private detective Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) is hired by reporter Nancy Weston (Probe, Airport 1975) to investigate the death of stripper Suzie Cream Puff, whose face was pushed into mirror. Because $50,000 can buy a lot of paisley and Meow Mix, he accepts.
In doing so, Lewis has set up his film as a murder mystery, but he's not so skilled at the "mystery" part of that equation; Gentry doesn't so much dig up and interpret clues as he does open his wallet to pay for info. He could stand to be speedier, because another clothes-peeler, Candy Cane, gets slit and slain while chewing gum; she dies mid-bubble (!) but the killer soon renders her face unrecognizable.
When Gentry and Weston stumble upon Cane’s body, tragedy does not dampen the dick's sense of humor, telling the cops, "A friend of mine stepped into trouble and seems to have lost face." All this while sipping on a can of 7-Up as if it were a Dom Pérignon Rosé!
True to Lewis fashion, the homicides grow grislier and crazier. Lola Prize is offed when her behind is beaten with a tenderizer, and then salted and peppered! Later, two birds bite it in one scene, with one girl having her face ironed, while her roomie's gets French-fried. I'm not revealing what ultimately happens to the former, but I'll never be able to drink chocolate milk again without thinking of the brilliant bit of absurdity.
Is the culprit the big oaf at the bar who squeezes fruit and veggies with his bare hands for the fun of it, or perhaps the feminist group members who protest the strip clubs via placards that read "LEWD IS CRUDE" and "QUIT WITH TIT"? To crack the case, Gentry convinces a club owner (legendary comedian Henny Youngman, doing Henny Youngman) to stage a striptease contest with a $1,000 booty, in hopes of drawing the murderer out.
Remarkably, all this told with a palpable sense of humor, despite grislier butcher-shop goings-on. Because most of the laughs are intended and genuine, I had a better time hanging out with The Gore Gore Girls than with The Wizard. Don't take that as a suggestion that Girls is any more polished, however, because it's full of too-long takes, songs looped beyond the point of sanity, and shots that are not only poorly framed, but sometimes out of focus, too.
Once more, I wouldn't want it any other way. After all, here we are, four decades later, still watching and still talking about these little pictures. Their "it" factor — whatever "it" is — remains intact.
As any advertising guru worth his weight should, Lewis delivers thoroughly engaging, self-deprecating commentaries for each, but watch the movies on their own first. Image Entertainment's disc also contains vintage ad mats for more than a dozen of Lewis' films (among them are such lesser-known efforts as Moonshine Mountain, Alley Tramp, Suburban Roulette, The Pill, Linda and Abilene, The Ecstasies of Women and Miss Nymphet's Zap-In) and trailers for nine of his "classicks," all of which I hope receive similar Blu-ray treatment in the near future.
Last but not least, there's a trailer for Something Weird's recent documentary on Lewis, The Godfather of Gore, directed by Frankenhooker creator Frank Henenlotter. I highly recommend it to the cult-movie crowd, just as I do this crimson-soaked double feature. —Rod Lott
Hey! Read This:
• The Blood Trilogy Blu-ray review
• Frankenhooker Blu-ray review
• Herschell Gordon Lewis interview
• Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore DVD review
• Probe DVD review