We find ourselves in a modest theater, looking at a drawn curtain. After a moment, a disinterested middle-aged workman — stocky, balding, in khakis — steps onto the foot of the stage and sets a sign down on an easel. The sign reads:
Montag the Magnificent
Without a glance our way, the workman shuffles off. We’re alone again. Or not really: we can’t see the other people in the audience, but surely they are there, all around us in the darkness. Yet no one says a word; maybe we are alone after all.
We seem to spend too long looking at the curtain, still closed. At the sign. And then — just as we’re beginning to wonder if anything will happen next — it does.
A man steps onto the stage. Black suit, white shirt, bow tie, top hat, red-lined cape. He holds a wand. His silver mustache marks him as older, but there’s a coiled-spring energy to him that belies his years. He pauses to read the sign, and smiles with clear amusement. Suddenly, he whips his head stage right, and gestures with his free hand. A light snaps on, the world freezes, and there suspended in air before him are the MAIN TITLES:
THE WIZARD OF GORE
The titles vanish. The man speaks.
“I am Montag — master of illusion. Defier of the laws of reason. A magician, if you will. But then — what is a magician? A person who tears asunder your rules of logic? And crumbles your world of reality? So that you can go home and say, ‘Oh, what a clever trickster he is. What a sly deceiver.’ And go to sleep in the security of your own real world. What is real? Are you certain you know what reality is? How do you know that at this second you aren’t asleep in your bed, dreaming that you are here in this theater? I know…it all seems too real. Well, haven’t you ever had a dream that seemed so very real, until you woke up? Then again…how do you know that you ever really did wake up? In fact, perhaps when you had thought that you were waking up, you had actually just begun to dream! You see what I mean, don’t you. All your life — your past — your rules of what can or cannot be — may all be part of one long dream, from which you are about to awaken. And discover the world as it really is!”
Montag is standing in front of a guillotine. The workman returns to take Montag’s offered hat and wand, then leaves again. Montag moves around to the back of the guillotine, kneels, pushes his head through the small opening. For all his bluster and braggadocio, the thinning hair at the crown of his skull makes us aware of his mortality, makes him seem human and vulnerable. He is laughing. He pulls the lever.
The blade falls. It lands hard. The shock of it thrums in our nerve endings.
And then, like magic, Montag’s head leaves his shoulders in a jet of hot blood. It rolls into the waiting basket.
1970 in Horror
The Wizard of Gore’s opening moments would make it stand out among any year’s horror releases. But it’s hard to imagine how the average filmgoer must have reacted to that scene — to say nothing of the next ninety minutes — when the film premiered on October 23, 1970.
The 1970s were a wild, revolutionary time in cinema. No style of genre filmmaking would be more affected by the decade’s strides than horror…within a few years. In 1970, though, where horror was at could be summarized in a word:
Christopher Lee starred as Count Dracula in three (!) films that year — Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, and (yes) Count Dracula — and his iconic bloodsucker was not alone. TV producer Dan Curtis translated his vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows” to the big screen in House of Dark Shadows. Hammer adapted Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic novella “Carmilla” into The Vampire Lovers, which ramped up the original story’s subtle lesbian themes into full-on topless makeouts featuring the film’s toothy vixens. Back in modern-day LA, Count Yorga, vampire, worked his wiles on the ladies in the imaginatively titled Count Yorga, Vampire. Not to mention —
Well, you get the idea. Horror was in an escapist mood, favoring historical settings and gothic trappings. Vampire tales may have been the easiest way to conjure that feel, but not the only one.
Vincent Price, the face of countless Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, appeared as a sadistic, Elizabethan-era judge in AIP’s Cry of the Banshee. (The titular banshee is really more of a werewolf, but never mind.) A solid film with echoes of Price’s earlier, better Witchfinder General (1968), probably the most interesting thing about it today is its opening credits sequence, animated by Terry Gilliam in a style that would soon be identified with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
AIP also took a stab at H.P. Lovecraft with The Dunwich Horror, but only the film’s climax approaches the cosmic dread at the heart of Lovecraft’s work. The Dunwich Horror is a talky melodrama about a vague, ominous paganism that exists to get extras naked and in bodypaint. There’s also a mysterious monster who stays a little too mysterious. But the enterprise sparks to life whenever it focuses on Dean Stockwell’s weird student of the occult. Stockwell is a compelling presence, his youth and mod-ish appearance lending a shock of the new to a movie that needed more of the same.
One film that did capture the zeitgeist to come — if crudely — sounded like a vampire story, but wasn’t: David Durston’s I Drink Your Blood.
Its antiheroes are a group of wandering hippies, a bunch of devil-loving psychos who live in a psychedelic-painted van. When the van dies in a small town, the hippies resolve to stay awhile, and get up to their usual habits of rape and torture. That night, the adolescent grandson of one victim shoots a rabid dog in the woods, and has a very bad idea. Hoping to poison the hippies, the boy taints their food with the dog’s blood. Unfortunately, things don’t quite go as planned, and soon there’s a plague of foaming-at-the-mouth murderers roaming the countryside.
I Drink Your Blood wants to be topical, but it’s hard to understand what the film’s saying. It may not be saying anything. The self-described Sons and Daughters of Satan resemble the Manson Family, but the group’s ethnic diversity (the Manson figure is Indian, his lieutenant black, a fortune-telling woman Asian) puts a different spin on things…one that, again, is difficult to interpret. Maybe an interracial gang of killer hippies really was Middle America’s worst nightmare, but I Drink Your Blood doesn’t have any thoughts on why. When rabies drives the Asian hippie to suicide by self-immolation, it’s obvious that we’re supposed to think of the Buddhist monk who died the same way to protest the actions of South Vietnam in 1963 — but without any meaning to back it up, the reference is simply in poor taste.
Still, I Drink Your Blood’s gritty venue and realism foreshadow better films to come. Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) would explore similar themes. Films as dissimilar as A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Last House on the Left (1972) would make their villains first the protagonists and then the victims, tweaking our notions of whom to grant our sympathies. Such moral ambiguity persists in the nihilistic strain of contemporary horror typified by Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005).
We’ll discuss those movies later. For now, though, let’s get back to…
Our Feature Presentation
“Awakening the dead is beyond the scope of my meager powers,” Montag (Ray Sager) tells us in the immediate aftermath of his own demise. Should we believe him? His decapitation seemed impossible to fake, but here he is, whole and lecturing. In real life, we’d know it all had to be smoke and mirrors. But this is a movie, and anything can happen in a movie…at least anything that doesn’t break the rules. The question becomes: What kind of movie is this? And: What are its rules?
First and foremost, The Wizard of Gore is something that barely existed in 1970 — a splatter movie. Its director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, had pioneered the subgenre with 1963’s Blood Feast, a gruesome paean to human sacrifice and dismemberment. Splatter movies don’t set out to scare you; they want to make you puke. Suspense in a film is generated by waiting for an axe to fall, but a typical splatter movie will stop everything to show you the axe splitting a head open like a pinata. The children of Herschell Gordon Lewis abound — from Lucio Fulci’s The Gates of Hell (1980) and The Beyond (1981) to Noboru Iguchi’s The Machine Girl (2008) — but in its day, what The Wizard of Gore brought to the table was in a class by itself.
Montag asks for a volunteer. Unsurprisingly, she’s an attractive young woman in a miniskirt. Montag announces his intention to saw her in half. This goes exactly the way you’d expect. Blood and guts are everywhere, and while the special effects aren’t terribly convincing, it’s still revolting to watch. Stuff like this is the film’s raison d’etre, but what’s intriguing is what happens when the evisceration stops. At the sound of a gentle chime, all returns to normal; the gutted woman’s screaming is silenced, and she herself is completely restored, if apparently entranced. Was it all an illusion? It seems so…but then the horror picks up right where it left off. We flash between scenes of ghastly mutilation and its eerily tranquil opposite many more times, until we can only guess which is real.
The show ends, and that seems to settle the issue. Montag releases the woman back into the audience, unharmed. But there’s more. That night, the woman visits a restaurant; the waiter turns his back on her for a heartbeat, and when he looks back, she’s dead — cut nearly in two.
Meanwhile, Montag comes to the attention of a pair of reporters: TV journalist Sherry Carson (Judy Cler) and her boyfriend, Jack (Wayne Ratay). Jack is a man’s man sportswriter who finds Montag’s routine a waste of time, but Sherry is determined to put the magician on her midday talk show. (That show — with no apparent irony — is called “Housewife’s Coffee Break,” which…wow, 1970.) Neither reaction is believable; the only thing less likely than a meat-and-potatoes guy who yawns his way through a brutal murder is a proto-Oprah who figures her viewers would love to watch one, or that airing it wouldn’t get her fired. But who cares? The important thing is Montag refuses to go on TV, but does offer Sherry and Jack free tickets to come back and see “a new illusion,” and says if they do come back maybe he’ll reconsider, and so:
More gore. So much more gore.
It doesn’t take long for Sherry and Jack to realize that every woman (and they’re all women) Montag “kills” onstage is slaughtered the same way shortly thereafter, even though she was seen leaving the theater alive. Montag always has an alibi, so the couple concludes there must be someone in the audience who’s taking inspiration from his act. With an exuberance better-suited to a Hardy Boys investigation, our heroes set out to solve the mystery.
But there is no mystery…not in the sense of a whodunnit. Sherry and Jack think the movie they’re in is a detective story; they’re wrong. Logic and reason have no power here. We are in the realm of the shaman.
In the first reel of The Wizard of Gore, no character is ever alone. Everyone is either putting on a show or in conversation with someone else. And the latter can be just like the former, can’t it? It’s only when a person is alone, or believes they are alone, that we can be sure of their sincerity. That we know what we’re seeing is really real.
A new scene opens. The red lens-filter Lewis has chosen transforms a mundane exterior shot into a strange alien planet. Montag, somnambulistic, walks through a stand of trees and approaches a structure adorned with a quote from Tennyson: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” The place is a cemetery. The magician stands at the grave of a recent victim, and with a gesture, summons the coffin from the very earth. The coffin opens — seemingly it is opened by the inhabitant — and Montag spirits the body away…and whatever he does with it next is something even this film does not deign to show us.
As the death toll rises, the protagonists continue their quixotic hunt for the killer’s identity. But the viewer knows that something far deeper and stranger is at work. Montag is no mere illusionist; he may not even be anything as simple as a wizard. Like the eponymous villain of Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Montag seems to have a warping power over reality itself, coupled with an inscrutable desire to play with people’s minds before he destroys them. It’s not unthinkable to call such a creature a god. But a cosmos ruled by a sadist must be an evil one…or, worse, one utterly without meaning.
The true horror of a film with this central concept is not that a cruel madman can tear a body apart in countless creative ways. It’s that blood and guts may be all there is to us after all.
Thanks to Vincent and Chris for letting me do this, and for being so patient. I hope it was worth the wait! Thanks also to Tom Breihan, who, like, doesn’t know me or anything, but whose fantastic “A History of Violence” series at The AV Club was the main inspiration for this one. Read it!
My explicit goals with this series are to discuss the highlights of each year covered, and to identify the standout film of the year in question. I’m not trying to claim that the standout film is necessarily the year’s best. For instance: Almost certainly the best horror movie of 1970 was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a Hitchcockian giallo that instantly made the Italian director a star…but would be overshadowed by (in the same subgenre) Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982), plus a half-dozen more of his films outside it. The Wizard of Gore is sui generis in a way Bird is not. It’s doing something new in a way that Bird does not. Now, is The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a better movie? Oh, dude, come on. Are you kidding me? Yes. Argento hits his target dead-center; Lewis doesn’t. But Lewis is blazing a trail. When I look at 1970, I see a great film by a man who would make better ones, and a really weird, fresh film unlike anything that had come before. That the former is a superior work of art doesn’t automatically make it more notable. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
But this is all just, like, my opinion, man. If you feel I really should have devoted 1500 words to Count Yorga, Vampire — by all means, let me know!
NEXT TIME: 1971! We’ll reconvene right around Valentine’s Day to talk about a few of the decade’s most stylish, sexy horror movies in general — and in particular, Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness. Till then!