Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Herschell Gordon Lewis, also known as the Godfather of Gore (a mantle he shares with Lucio Fulci), was responsible for inventing the splatter film, beginning with 1963 gore-soaked shocker Blood Feast. The film pioneer would churn out splatter films with quick succession, and by the latter half of the ‘60s, would focus more on exploitation films than horror. By the early ‘70s, Lewis departed from film entirely and focused on a career in advertising and book publishing instead, with numerous other shady business dealings that would land him in prison for 3 years in the late ‘70s. Lewis wouldn’t return to film until 2002, for a long-delayed follow up to his first splatter film. Before his first retirement from film, though, came one of the last of his splatter films, and one that’s among his most recognized; The Wizard of Gore.
For fans of Lewis’ work, the Wizard of Gore tends to be one of the more polarizing entries in splatter, but it’s one of the more accessible films in the director’s catalog. It’s also one of his goriest. The simple narrative follows Montag the Magnificent as he mutilates women on stage during his performances before horrified audiences, who appear unharmed after the performance ends. Hours later, though, the women collapse and succumb to the same injuries sustained on stage. A TV talk show host, Sherry, and her boyfriend Jack, suspect Montag of the grisly murders after attending on of his shows.
As Montag waxes poetic about the philosophy of reality as he butchers his female victims on stage, reveling in the gore during protracted sequences of mutilation. The women are hypnotized, laying across the magician’s table or sometimes tied upright, as he uses large spikes to ram into their skulls and pull out their brains, or saw them in half with a chainsaw, and various other weapons to dismantle them with glee. Each time Lewis zooms in on the viscera, lingering as Montag plays with the entrails like a child in a sandbox.
While most of the gore and makeup effects can look as low budget as you’d expect from a Lewis film, the guts look extremely real. That’s because they are. Revealed in Daniel Krogh’s book, The Amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis, much of the gore used in the film came from two sheep carcasses. The female victims were really two different actresses (one as the top half, and the other as the bottom) with a fake midsection filled with guts, stage blood, and makeup between them. The most disturbing element about this is that these carcasses had to be used for two weeks of shooting, and they tried to delay the decomposition with a Clorox based cleaner.
As graphically gory as this film is, budgetary limitations prevented Lewis from taking it even further. The ending isn’t one of huge climatic gore or action, but one that completely encapsulates Lewis’ sense of humor and desire to elicit a reaction that causes its viewer to question just what exactly they watched. That Ray Sager clearly enjoyed portraying the eccentric Montag only further hammers home the satire Lewis was aiming for. The Wizard of Gore is pure camp, and among the very last of Lewis’ splatter films, but it also was influential in the horror that would follow decades later.