On March 20, the Boston Underground Film Festival kicked off its tenth annual proceedings with a screening of The Wizard of Gore from filmmaker Jeremy Kasten, a re-imagining of the 1970 film of the same name directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, the godfather of splatter films. An hallucinatory tale of murder and magic, the film contains enough gore to please genre fans, and plays enough mind tricks to keep everyone else along for the ride.
Kasten's update brings the subject matter of the original movie (filmed during the '60s) firmly into the present, with the action taking place in the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles and the whole given a decidedly post-punk noir aesthetic (right down to the irony of having The Suicide Girls play the comely victims). The story begins in flashback as we are introduced to Ed Bigelow (Kip Pardue), a fellow who dresses straight out of a Raymond Chandler story and even has an old fashioned dial phone in his otherwise industrial strength loft space. Bigelow publishes a newspaper that chronicles L.A.'s underground art and entertainment scene — if there's a seedy venue out there that panders to an audience's baser instincts, Bigelow's been there, done that, and written about it. As the tale begins, he's covered in blood and lurches out into the night to bring things to a conclusion. And so the tale begins…
One evening prior to the beginning of the story, Bigelow attends a magic show. The warm-up act is the magician's assistant, an actual geek (played by a hirsute Jeffrey Combs) — the kind of fellow who will tear the head off a living thing with his teeth, in this case a hapless rat. The main attraction is Montag the Magnificent, played with just the right amount of mesmerizing sliminess and intensity by Crispin Glover. The elegantly white-garbed Montag has a schtick that's straight out of Grand Guignol — he picks out a member of the audience (who seems to be completely under his hypnotic power), demands that they disrobe, and proceeds to dispatch the "volunteer" in grotesque (and poetic) fashion before the stunned audience. As the agitated crowd reacts to the carnage it's just witnessed, Montag produces the "victim" unharmed. End of show… or is it?
Bigelow finds himself fascinated by Montag's act and returns again accompanied by his girlfriend Maggie (Bijou Philips). When he learns that the participants in Montag's act end up dead later on of injuries similar to the ones they "succumb" to in the magic show, he begins a relentless pursuit of the truth that ultimately reveals to him more than he wants to know.
Kasten chooses to keep us guessing nearly right from the beginning as the film has a surreal quality to it that blurs the edges between reality and illusion. As Bigelow's mental state begins to unravel (signaled by the increasing frequency with which he breathes into a paper bag to calm himself), we are led to question his real relationship to the murders. He is increasingly tormented by nightmares that contain images reminiscent of the killings. Does Montag actually exist, or is the entire magic show a figment of Bigelow's imagination? Is he a clever serial killer, a dupe, or an insane man in the grip of tormenting visions? Along for the ride is Maggie, who isn't entirely the person we are led to believe she is, and Bigelow's friend Jinky (Joshua Miller), who conveniently happens to work in the coroner's office. Some expository help is handed out by Brad Dourif, who plays Dr. Chong, a mysterious ex-spook of a medicine man who helps Bigelow (and us) figure out some of the hows and whys along the way to the denouement.
While the gore effects are stellar throughout, much of Montag's stage work (and hence some of the film's more gruesome moments) takes place behind a glass screen which serves to both mask some of the grislier elements and heighten the illusion of… well, illusion. If you're inclined to close your eyes during some of the bloodier moments, be forewarned that the sounds effects folks have done a thorough job here, too. The acting is fine throughout, and the electric, off-balance cinematography serves to heighten one's disconnect from reality. You don't have to be a gore-hound to like this movie — you just need to have a sense of fun, a big bucket of popcorn, and someone to keep you company.
Jeremy Kasten was on hand after the screening for an audience Q & A. He mentioned that the film will be released directly to DVD, and if you're a fan of well-done horror with a psychedelic edge, this film is well worth your time. If you happen to come across a festival screening, take the opportunity to see it on the big screen. The Wizard of Gore won an honorable mention in the Best Feature category (Director's Choice Awards) at the Boston Underground Film Festival. For more information, visit the film's official website.
Watch the trailer: