The presence of the magician in cinema is about as old as the medium itself, and it should be of no surprise considering film’s inception and the many early figures that shaped its production and exhibition. Naturally, the b-movie purveyors, side show hucksters and run of the mill exploiters of the 40s through 70s saw plenty to capitalize on in regards to magic and those that performed such acts. Such films as the Tyrone Power film noir NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), the Vincent Price starring 3D horror shocker THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954) and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s blood soaked opus THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970) paved the way for the much more bombastic, big budgeted magic films of today like THE PRESTIGE (2006) and NOW YOU SEE ME (2013).
The magic focused features of the 1940s and 50s tended to be atmospheric thrillers, designed to get a jolt out of the viewer much like the reveal in a stage magic act. The 1970s changed that up quite a bit and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1970 (though made in 1968) film THE WIZARD OF GORE starts that off. If there is any atmosphere here, it is at its utmost grimiest, calling to mind the dirty backrooms and street corners of the films of Lewis’s contemporaries Doris Wishman and Andy Milligan. Even the dimly lit, rundown sideshow sets of NIGHTMARE ALLEY feel more welcoming than this. And there’s the gore. At this point in his career, Lewis was already responsible for BLOOD FEAST (1963), TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964) and COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1965) making him the go-to filmmaker for splatter. THE WIZARD OF GORE wears its gore like a badge of honor, marking the first Lewis feature to actually use the word ‘gore’ in the title – and the only one prior to 1972’s THE GORE GORE GIRLS which would begin a thirty year hiatus – and easily outdoing the most grisly scenes from his previous work.
What WIZARD OF GORE does differently than most other magic films, especially of its time, is introduce popular technology into its trickery. The titular wizard, Montag, doesn’t only mesmerize his theater audiences but those viewing at home as well, with Lewis perhaps boldly starting a ‘fear of TV’ trend that would fully manifest in later features like NETWORK (1976) and VIDEODROME (1983). That the various slayings in the film also take place in the home rather than on the stage as they appear to – or do they? – root this almost firmly in the type of home invasion/slasher feature that would become popularized in 1978 with HALLOWEEN.
Though the majority of magician films would take a decidedly dramatic or spectacular route, some other filmmakers mixed magic with horror. Most notably, Clive Barker’s also heavily gory (and oft censored) 1995 feature LORD OF ILLUSIONS and, perhaps unavoidably, the Crispin Glover starring remake of THE WIZARD OF GORE in 2007. LORD OF ILLUSIONS has more in common with WIZARD OF GORE than just tricks and gore as well. It dabbles in a sort of procedural noir that Lewis’s film attempts to work in via the TV reporters that question Montag’s relation to the various deaths taking place. Barker’s film utilizes the more legitimate investigative skills of an NYPD detective, but in both cases those investigating are caught up in a reality vs. illusion debate that they can’t quite figure out. Perhaps these films have more in common with NIGHTMARE ALLEY than they appear to after all.
THE WIZARD OF GORE remake followed directly on the heels of 2006’s double dose of mainstream magic of the aforementioned THE PRESTIGE and the Edward Norton/Paul Giamatti period drama THE ILLUSIONIST. It was the perfect example of exploitation cash-in and put pop culture weirdo Crispin Glover front and center in a stark white suit with Suicide Girls as victims. Unlike Lewis’s film, it offers no real mystery or misdirection. The viewers of Montag’s act are lead to believe that he’s killing all of the women on stage only to have it revealed during the show that everything is fine. And then people that attend the shows start dying in weird ways. There’s no statement of reality vs illusion, no technology to exploit and the film noir connection is barely tacked on. But it does feature Jeffrey Combs shoving a handful of maggots into his mouth!
What Lewis’s film may lack in subtlety it makes up for in blurring lines that were already blurry in the first place. The real spectacle isn’t all of the young women being dissected on screen and covered in – what was rumored to be – sheep guts, it is in Montag’s speeches about what we don’t know and can’t begin to figure out. For all of the endless twists in today’s mega budget magic films – didn’t NOW YOU SEE ME have three third acts? – WIZARD OF GORE needs only Montag’s beginning and ending speech to the audience to give credence to everything that comes after/before: “What is real? How do you know at this second you aren’t asleep in your beds, dreaming that you are here in this theater?”