“Is it beautiful? Or is it ugly?” by Michael Fuchs
from the book Urban Noir: New York and Los Angeles in Shadow and Light
In his book Horror Noir (2010), Paul Meehan remarks, “Horror and film noir have a lot in common. Both genres share a common preoccupation with the dark side of human existence, with fear, madness, fate and murder amid the looming shadows of night. Both are populated by grotesque, monstrous characters with homicidal motives caught in a labyrinthine netherworld.” Despite these shared characteristics, the two genres differ in one pivotal aspect: Where film noir habitually taps into the range of meanings the urban wasteland offers, American horror movies routinely exploit the Gothic traits of the American wilderness. While “the complex and often negative initial response which early settlers expressed towards the North American wilderness continues to influence American horror,” nature’s binary other has also inspired tales of terror. “The city frightens,” Chad Luck has explained, “because it places us very close to lots of unfamiliar things.” These tales of urban horror draw on a deep-seated skepticism toward city life in the American imagination. When Mike Davis thus remarks that “[t]he American city . . . is being systematically turned inside out—or, rather, outside in,” his words not only evoke the urban planning processes he describes but also tap into the repertoire of urban horror, as he paints a picture of an abject urban body, of a “body . . . turned inside out,” as Julia Kristeva might say. Notably, in her theory of abjection, Kristeva is centrally concerned with bodies, figures, and objects in transition or transformation, located in liminal spaces between being one or the other.
As I will argue in this chapter, the 2007 remake of Hershell Gordon Lewis’ splatter classic The Wizard of Gore is located in a similarly liminal position. As a horror movie that self-consciously taps into the visual aesthetics and narrative specifics of film noir, The Wizard of Gore truly embraces the “dark sisters” of horror and noir (to draw on the subtitle of Meehan’s book). Yet The Wizard of Gore’s thematization of liminality transcends its location between, or even beyond, the limits of horror and noir (as traditionally defined). Indeed, drawing on the noir tradition allows the movie to put a spotlight on a seemingly minor background character in the staged psychodrama of its character-narrator into a major character—the city of Los Angeles.
In an interview with author Dana Davidson, director Jeremy Kasten claimed that The Wizard of Gore was “a love letter film to Downtown [L.A.].” However, I will suggest that the City of Angels, in fact, emerges as one of the movie’s monsters. Monsters, Noël Carroll has explained, are “interstitial” beings that “breach the norms of ontological propriety.” The Wizard of Gore’s Los Angeles, I will demonstrate, is such a liminal creature, which transcends binary oppositions in a number of ways.
Introducing The Wizard of Gore
Both the 1970 and 2007 versions of The Wizard of Gore are structured around the grotesque and gory stage shows of a magician known as Montag the Magnificent. The original film’s plot, which centers on television talk show hostess Sherry Carson’s investigation of violent crimes that mirror Montag’s performances, is simultaneously thin, convoluted, and full of self-reflexive moments, leading one blogger to describe the movie as “meta-as-fuck-yet-somehow-still-very-dumb.” The Wizard of Gore’s narrative structure emerges as one of these meta-elements, highlighting that in horror movies “structure per se is less significant than the creation in viewers of states of fright, anxiety, even disgust.” Indeed, the rather boring and dull episodes of narrative exposition and elaboration are little more than fillers between the slicing and dicing of young female flesh. The movie eventually culminates in a scene in which Sherry’s husband Jack tears off his face to unveil Montag underneath. Subsequently, he tells Sherry that she has “been living a life-long dream,” seemingly tearing down the layers and layers of illusions that make up her worldly existence only for her to explain, “You—you are my illusion,” which returns the movie to its beginning.
The remake adopts many of the original’s elements, but doubles down on the latter’s confusing narrative by featuring an unreliable voice-over narrator who seems to be drugged for most of the movie’s plot. The film’s character-narrator, Ed Bigelow, is a hipster living off a trust fund in a huge L.A. loft. He writes and publishes the underground magazine The Cacophony Gazette. In the opening minutes, he stumbles through the streets of downtown Los Angeles and ends up in herbalist Dr. Chong’s practice, where he gets an acupuncture treatment while leeches suck his blood. Chong wonders, “Wanna tell me what went down?” Instead of responding to the doctor directly, Ed remarks that “it’s all in the Gazette.” As Chong starts reading, a flashback is triggered, which moves the narrative back to a week earlier—Halloween.
Ed and his girlfriend Maggie attend an underground party, but when the party and its guests fail to impress Ed, the two go to a magic show close by. A seemingly homeless man enters the stage and eats a handful of maggots before biting off a live rat’s head, which he subsequently gulps down. A woman in the back gets up and wants to leave, but a mysterious voice sounds from the offstage space: “Where do you think you’re going? Yes! You! The slut in the back!” The magician appears on the stage and continues, “Sit down, bitch! You will die tonight.” Before he turns his prognosis into reality, however, Montag swallows a neon tube in order to “feel something.” After this brief opener, he performs his main act of the day, featuring the woman who attempted to leave the show earlier. The magician starts to cut open the woman’s torso with a butcher’s saw behind a semi-transparent window. He takes a rib spreader and commences to remove her intestines. A power outage seems to reveal that Montag’s performance is no show at all, as he wallows in the woman’s blood. Then, the lights go out for a moment and the woman is again standing on stage, with no indication of any mistreatment whatsoever and apparently remembering nothing. Two days later, however, the woman is found dead with her torso slit open—the first of several people who turn up dead with the fatal wounds Montag appears to have inflicted upon their bodies during his performances.
Ed begins to investigate the murders, convinced that Montag is behind them. However, as Ed gets drawn into the vortex of downtown L.A., he starts to question his reality, for he can no longer remember how he met his girlfriend and certain of pieces of evidence appear to contradict what he thinks happened in the past few days. After a couple of days, Ed ends up in one of Montag’s performances (with no audience present). As the magician begins carving up Ed, the latter comes to understand that Montag is merely “part of the trick”—the homeless man is the actual magician. This insight allows Ed to break the spell the magician holds over him and he goes on to kill both the homeless man and Montag, which concludes the extended flashback and returns the movie to its opening scene. Back in Dr. Chong’s practice, Ed reveals that the homeless man was not behind the murders, either, and explains that the magician recruited Chong’s prostitutes for his performances, which drove the doctor mad. Thus, Chong killed the women and pinned the murders on the magician. In the end, Ed takes over the magic show, controlling it from behind the curtains, while Chong plays the puppet, performing in front of the audience.
As this plot outline suggests, The Wizard of Gore operates in the “mindfuck” tradition, which has been flourishing since the mid-1990s. Many film scholars and critics consider this type of film testament to the increasing narrative complexity of mainstream cinema. Accordingly, Warren Buckland has explained that the “puzzle film,” as he calls this kind of movie, “rejects classical storytelling techniques and replaces them with complex storytelling.” Steven Johnson has elaborated on the phenomenon, noting that these movies are “built around fiendishly complex plots, demanding intense audience focus and analysis just to figure out what’s happening on the screen.” This observation leads him to diagnose the emergence of “a new microgenre of sorts: the mind-bender, a film designed specifically to disorient you, to mess with your head . . . by creating a thick network of intersecting plotlines; some challenge by withholding crucial information from the audience; some by inventing new temporal schemes that invert traditional relationships of cause and effect; some by deliberately blurring the line between fact and fiction.” All of these elements ensure that viewers come to understand that they are being “played games with, because certain crucial information is withheld or ambiguously presented.”
While the original Wizard of Gore’s conclusion anticipated the emergence of these “mind benders” in the 1980s, the 2007 version fully embraces the narrative playfulness proliferating in mainstream filmmaking since the 1990s. Accordingly, the movie is extremely discontinuous—it starts in the present, moving into the past. Additional flashbacks, set at different points in time, are embedded within this extended flashback. Some of these memories are revealed to be nightmares (sometimes within nightmares), which are, in addition, influenced by Ed’s experiences in the then-present moment of the dream. These different layers of reality are further complicated by mediated realities. For example, surveillance footage of one of Montag’s performances shows an elaborate hypnosis, as the magician explains what his audience sees (as the film’s viewers had a few minutes earlier)—he describes his actions, but doesn’t perform them. If not earlier, then the moment viewers see this video, they will start questioning the character-narrator’s reliability—that Ed is, as his friend Jinky remarks, “in denial about . . . many things.” And if that were not enough narrative convolution, the various layers of reality not only overlap and interact, but, in fact, repeatedly segue into one another.
Beyond these features, the final thirty minutes introduce (apparent) plot twist after plot twist, as first Montag seems to be the murderer, then Ed, then again Montag, then the homeless man, then it turns out that Chong was the killer all along, only for Ed to take over the grisly show in the movie’s concluding moments. Indeed, when recapitulating Montag’s first gory performance, Ed fascinatedly analyzes, “Everything about it was misdirection. Even his patter about escape was an illusion. Control—that was the illusion. And then the way that he turned it back on itself and made it seem like everything was out of control.” This analysis could easily serve to describe the movie, as well. Meta-gestures like this, along with the convoluted narrative, seem to suggest that The Wizard of Gore strives for complexity and might even have artistic aspirations, yet the movie’s aesthetics and overall tone squarely situate it in what traditionally would be considered the lower regions of cultural production. This apparent paradox does not simply characterize the film; instead, The Wizard of Gore celebrates this liminal position by employing it as a central image to characterize the city in which the story is set.
Into the Darkness Peering
The Wizard of Gore introduces the city of Los Angeles right after the opening credits, which are superimposed over images of Ed drenched in blood. As the credits come to a close, he stumbles through a door into the downtown areas of Los Angeles, apparently close to Broadway, with a bag in his hands. The images of the blood-soaked main character in the preceding moments, in combination with the viewers’ generic knowledge, suggest that the bag’s contents may be terrifying—parts of human bodies, that is. The fact that, merely minutes later, it turns out that the bag contains nothing but copies of his magazine is of little relevance here; what proves important is that the cityscape supports the narrative mystery created in the opening moments. Ed walks through dark and lonely streets, seemingly looking for something. He appears uncertain where exactly he is; and while he seems to know very well where he wants to go to, he does not seem to know how to get there.
Tellingly, Barbara Mennel has noted that “[s]treets and alleys, shown primarily at night and in the rain, are the . . . obvious urban settings of film noir. They provide the environment for alienated characters, chance encounters, and chases, which in turn motivate narratives of mystery and detection.” The Wizard of Gore employs Downtown L.A. for exactly this purpose. From the shady backroom in which Ed’s seemingly gory actions are set to his confusion (which appears to be at least partly caused by the nocturnal setting), the urban design fuels the narrative mystery, as viewers ponder how Ed got into this situation and what “this situation” is, to begin with. The voiceover narration supports the effect, as Ed relates, “My name is Ed Bigelow, and what you are watching is the end of my life as I knew it,” preparing viewers for a structure characteristic of film noir: the extended flashback.
As Andrew Kania has explained, a typical film noir “begins with the protagonist in some sorry state, followed by a flashback that comprises the rest of the film, showing how this came to pass.” Indeed, in The Wizard of Gore, the flashback quickly moves to a Halloween party and the first magic show, which took place a week before the opening scene. The party functions as a transitional space between the exterior of the streets and the indoor space of the show, taking place in a courtyard and in some large buildings. Its participants wear different sorts of fetish gear instead of “typical” Halloween costumes, as if to suggest that this location is a carnivalesque space that exists throughout the year and allows for the “complete exit from the present order.” This idea is continued at the magic show, which epitomizes “the seedy [and] extravagant underworld of the city.” Indeed, as the setting changes to an abandoned building’s interiors, a man in a Nazi costume is demonstratively positioned behind Ed and Maggie at the dead center of the frame. They desperately try to ignore him, momentarily positioning Ed and his girlfriend as arbiters of “normality” who might tolerate some deviations from the norm, but certainly do not accept all kinds of otherness. This symbolic positioning creates a tension because the journalist obviously looks for some kick that transcends and/or exceeds “normal” enjoyments.
The movie characterizes the urban underworld as a place where people are “relieved of [their] usual determinants.” Both the Halloween party and the subsequent magic show perfectly illustrate this idea, as the guests temporarily abandon their everyday identities and perform (more or less) transient roles anchored in a specific locale. Accordingly, these are the types of places Marc Augé has referred to as “non-places,” where the individual “becomes no more than what he does or experiences.” These “non-places,” as the term suggests, lack any kind of geographical rootedness in the traditional sense, which leads to “disorientation experienced in the familiar world we live in, which turns into a potential source of unease and even fear.”
Tellingly, Alan Silver and James Ursini have described Downtown Los Angeles as a “soulless, . . . bifurcated non-center,” as the sprawling metropolis’s constant expansion and attendant movement make the definition of a geographical center not necessarily impossible, but a moot point, as it can only be a snapshot; a temporary designation that requires constant re-definition. Jacques Derrida famously diagnosed that “the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable.” When something becomes unthinkable, he explains, “concepts become nonconcepts.” Similarly, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has observed that monsters are characterized by a “refusal to participate in the classificatory ‘order of things,’” as “they are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions.” Accordingly, the urban spaces featured in The Wizard of Gore’s opening minutes function as a microcosm of Downtown L.A., which suggests that Los Angeles’ “center” is, in fact, not really a center, but rather a liminal space that “refuses easy categorization.” As such, the uncanny city, Lucy Huskinson explains, “threatens to challenge our rational preconceptions and expectations, and rudely reminds us that we’re not in total control of our lives.”
Nostalgia Drives Into Our (Hyper)Reality
“The uncanny,” Huskinson continues, “enables us to traverse boundaries of all that is supposedly ‘normal’ to realms that are otherwise hidden and apparently strange.” Ed’s journeys through Los Angeles are marked by constant transgressions of various boundaries—although the reporter does not necessarily notice crossing them. In particular, The Wizard of Gore’s City of Angels emerges as a fusion of reality and fiction, played out through a clash between analogue and digital imaginaries.
Indeed, the city Ed inhabits does not seem like a place that might exist in material reality, for the movie’s visual grammar is deeply entrenched in the noir tradition. The film’s protagonist highlights this aspect in his opening voice-over narration, noting, “They say, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ and naïve as I was, I bought the line. I made myself the star. I built the stage. I cast the actors.” Ed’s evocation of the theatrum mundi implies that his lived reality is based on fictions; that he “substitut[es] the signs of the real for the real,” as Jean Baudrillard famously put it.
Interestingly, Ed’s hyperreal world returns to the past. Similar to how the movie embraces the visual style and narrative preoccupations of film noir and transports what momentarily was a “speech in a dead language” to the twenty-first century, its protagonist resurrects the golden age of film noir in his worldly existence. Indeed, Ed seems uncannily out of touch with the twenty-first-century reality in which he lives. He drives a 1930s’ roadster, types his articles on a typewriter rather than a personal computer, and refuses to use cell phones, spurring one of his few friends to ask Ed to “enter the twenty-first century.” His 1930s’/40s’-styled suits, complete with a hat, are the cherry on top and turn Ed into a character who could be taken straight out of a classic film noir, evoking Stephen King’s detective Clyde Umney who is metaleptically transferred from the hypo-diegetic reality of “Los Angeles, in 1930-something” to the diegetic reality of the 1970s, when the character is written into existence (by a diegetic author who himself was created in the 1990s).
Ed’s consciously artificial appearance invades the reality of Los Angeles, conflating the ontological layers of reality and fiction, which are usually strictly kept apart. As Sigmund Freud has explained, “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality.” Accordingly, the urban hyperreality characterizing Los Angeles in The Wizard of Gore, defined by the indistinguishability between reality and artifice, entails a “peculiarly contemporary sense of haunting . . . provoked by the loss of traditional bodily and locational references.”
In particular, this “pervasive substitution of the simulated for the real” is driven by Ed’s yearning for a “lost referential” located in the imagined past, as his penchant for analogicity seeks to exorcize the digital. However, traces of the digital reality characteristic of the early twenty-first century repeatedly invade Ed’s artificial analogue world. In several scenes, Ed is walking through Los Angeles when a digital grid suddenly appears. Sometimes, Ed appears to notice its presence, while at others only viewers seem to be able to see it. In any case, the grid simultaneously suggests how the digital infiltrates and destabilizes Ed’s analogue reality (thus highlighting his unstable psychological state) and how his Los Angeles is, in the end, a hyperreal space created from fragments of the film noir tradition. Whereas Ed, in the opening voiceover, expresses pride about “the world [he] had made for [him]self,” this world is not truly his creation, but merely a re-creation of the past; indeed, it is not even the past, but the past as imagined in cinema, which becomes Ed’s Los Angeles. While scholars have long stressed the interrelations between the urban imagination and the built reality of the urban environment, The Wizard of Gore takes this idea to the Baudrillardean extreme—the noir past of the city has usurped its material reality.
Thus, Los Angeles’ hyperreal quality appears to provide an “excess of meaning”; however, this excess, leads to semantic “collapse.” The Californian metropolis, as depicted in The Wizard of Gore, is merely a minor element in the larger discursive network surrounding the signifier “Los Angeles,” the meaning of which can neither be restrained nor contained. As Mike Davis explains in his studies of the City of Angels, which by now have spanned several decades, Los Angeles has a dual function in the American imagination. On the one hand, it represents a utopian vision as the “Land of Endless Summer” that promises “lifestyle against which other Americans measured the modernity of their towns and regions.” On the other, the city is “the First World capital of homelessness, with an estimated 100,000 homeless people” and “a dystopian symbol of . . . intractable racial contradictions.” However, this semantic duality merely scratches the surface of the possible meanings of Los Angeles. To try to contain these meanings in an orderly grid or typology risks extinguishing semantic tensions. Indeed, in a way, such an action destroys meanings by ignoring them; at the same time, however, the abundance of Los Angeles’ meanings implodes the very idea of the city’s meaning—no matter whether in a specific instance or on a more general level. Accordingly, these semantic excesses, in fact, obliterate meaning.
As one of the movie’s monsters, the city of Los Angeles likewise opens up a host of semantic potentials; however, the resultant “vertiginous excess of meaning” simultaneously robs this symbol of any specific meaning, transforming the city into an open signifier, requiring filling. Since urban spaces and urbanites exist in a dialogic relationship, the people frequenting the City of Angels are accordingly emptied, as well. This downbeat condition is, however, not of the vampiric kind. In other words, the city does not suck the life force out of its inhabitants; rather, the urban condition results from the interplay between individuals and their environment: “the adaptations made by the personality in its adjustment to the forces that lie outside of it,” as Georg Simmel argued.
Can You Feel the City?
Ed most explicitly embodies this condition. Indeed, he wastes little time in voicing his opinion of the Angelenos he encounters and the metropolis they inhabit: “You know what I do not love? It’s the boredom of this place.” Since the people, according to Ed, are well aware of this monotony but do not want to confront it, they “are trying harder and harder to make it seem like they’re having a good time, when in reality everyone here is just [snort].” Ed is unaffected by the world around him and embodies Simmel’s idea that “[t]here is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook.”
Yet, whereas Simmel has suggested that “the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli” causes this condition, Ed’s condition results from the “dullness,” “monotony,” and “tactile sterility,” which, he believes, “[afflict] the urban environment.” Richard Sennett has argued that this “sensory deprivation” stems from the urban population’s dispersal caused by sprawl and the cocooning of human bodies by “technologies of motion,” such as cars. Ed exacerbates the effects of these developments by trying to live in his fabricated world of the past, isolated from the outside world. Notably, Sennett wonders, “What will make modern people more . . . physically responsive?” Montag echoes Sennett’s ideas, diagnosing, “You people feel nothing. You have no empathy.” However, the magician promises his audience (both intradiegetic and in the auditorium/at home in front of the TV), “Well, tonight you are going to feel something!”
Indeed, Montag delivers on his promise by allowing his audiences—especially his volunteers—to engage in direct, bodily experience, as they are “pushed to new thresholds of intense, masochistic sensation.” While Ed personifies the “waning of effect” Fredric Jameson considered typical of postmodern culture, Montag’s performances reveal a new dimension of experience and (bodily) knowledge to the hipster. The magic shows make Ed recognize his “somatically felt body” as a form of “aliveness or vitality that is literally felt or sensed but cannot necessarily be articulated.” The inexpressibility of this corporeal experience is made explicit after Montag’s first performance. Ed is fascinated, telling Maggie, “It was brilliant. Everything about it was about misdirection. Even his patter about escape was an illusion. Control—that was the illusion. And then the way that he turned it back on itself and made it seem like everything was out of control. Did you see his face when he got caught in the act? Literally, caught in the act. Brilliant.” She responds, “That’s a real fancy rationalization.” Admittedly, Maggie goes on to connect this rationalization to the “obvious misogyny” she diagnoses in Montag’s performances (in which women first drop their clothes and then are tortured), which, she believes, Ed enjoys.
However, Maggie’s statement also describes Ed’s attempts at verbalizing his corporeal experience, which is subtextually present in his words. Indeed, the intradiegetic audience—including Ed—repeatedly flinches, turns their eyes away from the stage, and shows other reactions of shock while watching Montag’s performances. In fact, after Montag has put a woman in a bronze bull, Jinky insists that “you don’t know the smell of [boiled blood] until you’ve personally gotten a nose full.” The magician’s shows are, accordingly, multi-sensory experiences.
While Montag’s shows satisfy Ed’s desire to “feel something,” they do not become the antidote to urban disaffection. To be sure, Ed’s disaffection, caused by living in the hyperreal city he has created, demonstrates that “the sensory foundations of mental life” are irrevocably altered by the urban experience. However, the city itself provides a means to dealing with disaffection—potential sources for generating affect are practically everywhere: “Particular affects like anger, fear, happiness and joy are continually on the boil, rising here, subsiding there, and these affects continually manifest themselves in events which can take place either at a grand scale or simply as a part of continuing everyday life,” Nigel Thrift explains. The urban “condition,” Brian Massumi might similarly argue, “is characterized by a surfeit of [affect].” It remains up to individuals to decide which of these offers they use; which affect potentials they seek out.
“Is it beautiful? . . . Or is it ugly?” ponders Montag at one point. While he explicitly wonders “about what’s on the inside; what is inside you,” the double-question conclusively sums up the depiction of Los Angeles in the movie. The questions may seem to oversimplify matters, but they remain unanswered, which suggests that they, in fact, cannot be answered. Indeed, Los Angeles is neither one nor the other; the city eludes categorization. Good vs. bad, real vs. imaginary, a “roiling maelstrom of affect” vs. an emblem of the waning of affect—Los Angeles transcends these binaries. And this uncategorizability is the city’s monstrosity.
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