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18 Jun

Chapter on The Wizard of Gore as LA Noir in the Making

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"Is it beautiful? Or is it ugly?" The Wizard of Gore's L.A. Noir

In his book Horror Noir (2010), Paul Meehan observes, "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" (277). However, among the dozens of movies Meehan discusses in his book, none, I would argue, embraces the "dark sisters" of horror and noir to the degree Jeremy Kasten's 2007 remake of Hershell Gordon Lewis' splatter classic The Wizard of Gore does. Set in early-twenty-first-century Los Angeles, the movie is structured around the grotesque and gory stage shows of a magician known as Montag the Magnificent. Montag's audience is made to believe he dismembers, guts, and burns volunteers, only for them to come to understand at the end of each performance that it all was merely illusion—only for the bodies of the volunteers to turn up dismembered, gutted, and burnt a few hours later. Reporter Edmund Bigelow decides to look into the connections between the performances and the murders, but he gets engulfed in the abyss that is Montag's world.

In an interview with Citizen L.A., filmmaker Jeremy Kasten claimed that The Wizard of Gore was "a love letter film to Downtown [L.A.]." However, by drawing on noir sensibilities, The Wizard of Gore depicts a dualistic vision of the City of Angels, which, I will suggest, emerges as one of the movie's monsters. I will develop this argument in three steps: First, setting the film's action in Downtown L.A. draws on the awareness that the sprawling city's downtown area is nothing but a "soulless, … bifurcated non-center," as Alan Silver and James Ursini note in L.A. Noir: The City as Character (2005). Downtown L.A. is a liminal space that refuses categorization and, consequently, appears monstrous. Second, the city's depiction oscillates between nostalgia for an analogue, noir-ish past (personified by Ed Bigelow) and the digital present, creating a hyperreal urban environment that generates an excess of meaning. This excess, however, leads to the implosion of meaning, which results not only in the city's effective emptiness, but also vacates its urban subjects of meaning. Third, sociologist Richard Sennett has diagnosed that "dullness," "monotony," and "tactile sterility … afflict the urban environment." Sennett's argument echoes Fredric Jameson's famous statement that postmodern culture is characterized by a "waning of affect." However, Montag's shows offer an antidote to these social ills, for they provide their audiences and—especially—volunteers direct, bodily experience, as they are "pushed to new thresholds of intense, masochistic sensation," as Steven Shaviro puts it in The Cinematic Body (1993). In the end, the morbid shows taking place in The Wizard of Gore's Los Angeles suggest that hyperreality, in fact, breeds visceral immediacy—tellingly staged in a magic show.