Sure, we’re all sick of remakes. But The Wizard Gore – director Jeremy (The Attic Expeditions) Kasten’s take on the 1970 Herschell Gordon Lewis film – is something very unique. Featuring a variable dream cast of genre actors led by cult icon Crispin Glover, this indie shocker came seemingly out of nowhere and has already taken precedence as one the year’s most anticipated releases.
It’s the tail-end of the film’s twenty-two day shooting schedule and the producers are kind enough to invite me out to take part in the on-set madness. Arriving late at night, I pull into a seedy part of downtown Los Angeles and park several blocks away in the cast/crew lot. From there, I’m crammed into a small shuttle bus and quickly notice that I’m surrounded by over a dozen scantily-clad Suicide Girls.
So far, so good.
I arrive at the set, an outdoor motel area that’s been dressed up to look like a twisted carnival. Over a hundred extras are assembling, while heavy metal/punk band The Death Riders are prepping their instruments. I meet up with producer Dan Griffiths, who shows me around and introduces me to members of the cast and crew. As the extras jump into their costumes, I take a look into a video monitor and watch a scene-in-progress which involves some serious motel room violence. At the request of the filmmakers, I’ll skimp on the details, but I will say that the action is well-staged and disturbing. Outside sits Kasten, who is immediately recognizable with his trademark suit and hair-style. He calls “cut” and runs in to direct the stuntmen.
I’m later introduced to the charismatic Kasten, who is so full of energy you could easily mistake this as his first day of shooting. “I’ve always dreamed of it and it’s amazing to be here doing it!” he says, regarding the Gore remake, “[This version] follows a classic anti-hero noir structure with garish colors and a giallo, Italian horror aesthetic.”
Down time on a film set is usually pretty dull, but it’s a different story when you’re surrounded by a ton of Suicide Girls. With a drink in hand, I stroll around set admiring the half-naked flesh and risque motel room photo shoots. “The Suicide Girls – that was a part of my vision for remaking it,“Kasten explained, “Zach [Chassler] wrote this great script. It’s very post-punk Los Angeles. I’ve been a member of Suicide Girls and thought that world would be such a cool tie-in! That’s what a filmmaker hopes for: To make a movie without suits. I have the freedom to make the movie that I know, in my heart, the fans are hoping for and there’s nobody over my shoulder saying ‘That’s too much nudity’ or ‘You can’t cut up a naked woman.’ The restrictions are non-existent.”
“We have very extensive FX!” continues Kasten, “Because the Suicide Girls are the victims in Montag’s magic acts, the work on the prosthetic bodies and make-up appliances was insane for them, because we have to match their tattoos. We’ve had to come up with practical ways on the set without a lot of digital work. And it gives Crispin [Glover] the opportunity to do some of his best work – like cut a girl open, pull out her intestines, and sniff them.”
I meet up with writer Zach Chassler, who’s script has been the subject of much praise by the cast and crew. Eccentric and talkative, Chassler is the kind of person any horror fan can instantly connect with and he rants about everything from David Cronenberg to Jorg Buttgereit films. Eventually the discussion turns towards H.G. Lewis:
“I had actually seen The Wizard of Gore a number of times before I wrote this. My friends even found a stray dog and named it Montag,” he chuckles, “You wanna keep what’s great about it, and I know that everyone who’s ever written a remake in the history of mankind says the same goddamn thing, but I’m a fan of this genre. I really tried to do the old man proud!” But Chassler assures us that his Wizard is a completely different animal. “This is splatter-noir. Very dark, very down-beat, and very unsettling – which makes me happy!” he says with a sadistic grin, “In my world view, everybody’s a fucking freak and everybody has problems and I use that as a subtext” Even more exciting is the prospect of future H.G. Lewis reduxes. “I did a treatment for She-Devils, but that’s a much bigger budget than this movie.”
I bump into friend and Bloody Disgusting writer Spooky Dan and the two of us start poking around the set. Moving through glow lights, blow-up dolls, and evil clowns, we wander upstairs and into a few of the motel’s rooms where we’re treated to some truly twisted production design. “This is the Circus of Horrors, and it’s basically a performance art/haunted house/freak-out block party,” informs Chassler, “There’s a group called the ‘Chaos Conglomerate’ that’s taking an abandoned motel and throwing a Halloween party with bands. And each one the rooms is done up with a horrific theme. We have the Michael Jackson Playland, where it’s basically grown men in diapers with a Michael Jackson lookalike whipping them in a disgusting playroom setting. We have Hoboland, which is self-explanatory…”
With the extras finally in place, Kasten calls “action” and a giant crane shot moves over the motel. In the corner, The Death Riders begin to jam and the entire place erupts in an orgy of head-bangers, fire-breathers, and carnival games. Spooky Dan and I sit on the sidelines watching the unfolding chaos for several takes, but the vibe is too infectious. We make our way over to the second floor balcony and begin rocking out onscreen with the extras. Several takes later, Kasten is satisfied and the whole crew breaks for a midnight lunch.
Back on the set, I’m introduced to rising star Kip Pardue, best known from Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction and Asia Argento’s recent The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Dressed in an old-fashioned business suit, Pardue gives off a real Naked Lunch vibe (which Chassler credits as one of his many inspirations) and he’s clearly having a blast on set. “My character is named Ed Bigalow,” he says, “and I run and publish and edit the coolest underground magazine. It covers the bizarre, the grunge, the punk rock scene in Los Angeles. And as I go out looking for stories, I get a card to see a magic show where we meet Crispin Glover’s character, Montag. He begins to perform these gruesome, horrifically real tricks on these girls and in the process it completely enthralls me. I become addicted to his show and addicted to him and addicted to the whole idea of what Montag is, and slowly get spun in deeper and deeper.
“I think this movie for Kip, whether or knows it or not, will establish him firmly as an icon in the horror genre,” says Kasten, “He plays both the hero and the anti-hero. This character has a really dark side and its fun to explore.” The director also raves about the strength of his supporting cast. “Bijou Phillips is great! And Joshua Miller – how great to have him back in movies as a grown-up! He’s so different from the kid he was and yet he’s immediately recognizable, like ‘Hey! There’s that guy from Near Dark and River’s Edge!’”
But for horror fans, the biggest draw is undoubtedly the three great genre actors who make up The Wizard of Gore’s “axis of evil” – Crispin Glover, Brad Dourif, and Jeffrey Combs. “Like Jeremy says, it’s a movie of his first choices,” says Pardue, “This is my first horror movie. I knew of all these guys, but I never thought of myself being a part of that.”
“They’re doing things that are different than anything they’ve done before. They’re so perfectly cast, all three of them,” says Kasten, “Crispin is a really interesting take on Montag. He’s gone in kind of a Siegfried & Roy direction with it – just really flamboyant and over the top! It’s a great contrast to this world. The theater Montag’s show takes place in is this filthy, fucking gutted department store. Like in the original movie, he gives these amazing speeches for each act.”
“There’s a lot of monologues in this movie,” Chassler confirms, “I kept [Montag] as a blow-hard magician with complete contempt for his audience. And Crispin brought a ton of contempt to the role!” Unfortunately, Glover isn’t around for tonight’s festivities, but several Suicide Girls recount his manic on-set energy and “gigantic cod-piece.”
“I don’t want to say ‘He’s never been better’, because it sounds narcissistic,” says Kasten, “but when I see his performance in the dailies, I’m floored. I don’t think anyone’s seen him do any work like this ever before. It’s gonna be something!”
As for Dourif: “Brad is…well, Brad!” laughs Kasten, “He is as charming in real life as you hope he would be and as scary on film as you pray he would be. He is unnerving to the core! He plays an interesting character that’s not necessarily a good guy and not necessarily a bad guy. All the characters in the film have an interesting thing where they straddle that line.
“Jeffrey [Combs] plays a sideshow geek who’s the opening act for Montag’s show. He literally geeks in the movie. He eats a handful of maggots and a giant cockroach, bites the head off a rat. He looks so much like a homeless guy that when he walks onto the set, he sometimes freaks people out.”
Kasten isn’t joking. As I’m introduced to Jeffrey Combs in his trailer, he is virtually unrecognizable, sporting a long raggedy beard and mop. Despite the late hours and long schedule, he remains in good spirits about the shoot. “It’s been pretty painless. Although this make-up takes a little time to get into,” Combs says, scratching at his beard, “Even though Herschell Gordon Lewis movies were made for 57 cents, there was always sort of a nucleus of good ideas, a good hook. So I think they saw something there they could riff on. There are parallels between The Wizard of Oz and [this version of] The Wizard of Gore. ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!’”
Of course, the man – or men – behind the curtain were never quite like this. “That’s a nice little triumvirate, isn’t it?” he quips, regarding his two horror co-stars, “We’ve each had our licks at this genre, but never all at once, even though we don’t really work together in this film. We never interact.” I ask Combs about the rumors regarding a possible directorial debut: “I worked with a good friend of mine on a script that I’d like to take a good crack at directing, but y’know, it’s not like you can just go ‘That’s what I want to do!’ It’s a notion, but it’s not a burning ‘My God, I gotta do that or else I’m gonna destroy myself’ drive.”
What about the long-rumored fourth outing for Herbert West? “We’re in a bit of a holding pattern,” says Combs, “Brian Yuzna came out to the American Film Market fairly confident that the ‘usual suspects’ as he calls them would jump at the notion of House of Re-Animator, which is a very cool concept and a great progression for the series. They all kind of shrugged their shoulders and didn’t get it or wanted something different. Y’know, this business is filled with a lot of rejection. And I have no doubt that Brian will re-tool and re-pursue and find avenues to get the movie made. We still want to do it with Stuart [Gordon] writing and directing it, but we haven’t heard anything in a couple of months. Nothing’s ever as easy as you think it is.”
Meanwhile, Kasten seems optimistic about his next film. “My next project is a monster movie,” he says, “I don’t have financing for it yet, but I’m very hopeful. I’m a fan of the original monster movies, like all horror geeks. But I feel like monsters, in the second half of the 20th Century, became so removed from what monsters used to be. [Peter Jackson’s] King Kong felt like a throwback to that with the humanizing of the monster. We have a brilliant take on the monster film, where the monsters are children.”
As the shoot continues into the wee hours of the morning, I decide to call it quits and begin the long drive home. After witnessing the stellar work and devotion of cast and crew, I can easily say that this Wizard has what it takes to give horror fans a good dose of maniacal magic.
I’d like to thank Dan Griffiths, Jeremy Kasten, Zach Chassler, Kip Pardue, Jeffrey Combs, and all the good people at Sick-O-Scope and Open Sky Entertainment for their time and hospitality.
– Andrew Kasch, dreadcentral.com