The Wizard of Gore: The Undeniable Appeal of Excess

[Continuing our look at trailers for exploitation films–what I’ve called in a previous post, a redundancy, insofar as a trailer is itself an “exploitation” film–we have today a trailer for an exploitation horror film. Tony is charmed by the preview and tries to understand what it is about this admittedly and confidently crude trailer that makes it effective marketing. Personally, I think it has much to do with our aesthetic distance, which casts a patina over this film and its ilk. But I also think that there’s an argument to be made for the ways in which the hyperbole of trailer making in general combines with the excesses of a splatter film to produce a self-conscious, self-parodying “kitsch” effect. And who can resist that?]

The promo for independent filmmaker Herschell Gordon LewisThe Wizard of Gore employs a marketing approach reminiscent of 1950s fright fare. It begins with Lewis in the role of onscreen narrator, solemnly introducing the trailer and intoning that this film will be one of the most shocking and controversial of its time, an appeal especially tailored for the counter-cultural sensibilities of 1970s audiences. He goes on to warn audience members with “cardiac conditions” and “parents with small children” to close their eyes or leave the auditorium “for the next two minutes.” (Hitchcock posted signs with similar warnings outside theaters where PSYCHO was being exhibited.) Lewis fades out followed by a fade up on Ray Sager, in character as magician Montag the Magnificent, who introduces scenes from the movie with a dramatic flourish of his cape.

True to Lewis’ warning, clips of young women subjected to sadistic forms of torture and mayhem appear on screen. These images are so graphic that even hardened 1970s New York City grind house habitués must have squirmed in their polyester bellbottoms. In a bizarre interlude created specifically for the trailer, the Montag character demonstrates a self-decapitation act using a guillotine: his headless body picks up his own head. A series of scenes from the film displays more ultraviolent acts ending with a disembodied voice over proclaiming that the film “will make motion picture history, a cinematic achievement.”

The Wizard of Gore is not a sophisticated coming attraction preview by any means. Its gory stunts are hardly realistic and its editing is crude, even by then current trailer standards. Yet, however bluntly, it delivers the promised shock value to a specific demographic. The studio and producers of this film tailored this trailer to “those in the know” who were familiar with the genre and forgiving of the low production values. This coming attraction also relies on provenance – in this case the director Lewis – whose previous film trailers were likewise extremely graphic. (Interestingly, they were occasionally shown to matinee audiences at much tamer, Hollywood fare.) Still, despite its visual excesses and production deficiencies, The Wizard of Gore trailer retains a certain “charm,” an effect of its undeniable enthusiasm and experimentation, a charm that polished and gorgeously edited contemporary coming attractions often lack. Perhaps there is a lesson for filmmakers and film marketers in the sincerity and visceral enthusiasm with which Lewis approaches independent cinema and advertising for it?

Tony Best is a researcher, digital media producer/archivist and aspiring TV promo creative director based in Los Angeles. An alumnus of UCLA’s Moving Image Archive Studies master’s degree program, Tony has worked on several preservation projects, including digital restoration of “lost” television programs and coordinating the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “L.A. Rebellion” initiative (under the aegis of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time). He is also a regular contributor to the music and film quarterly Wax Poetics. Tony can be reached at

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About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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