Directed by Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, Jeremy Kasten, Tom Savini, Richard Stanley
The Theatre Bizarre is a film that shouldn’t work, but it succeeds on a grand (guignol) scale. Budgets were tight, for the most part crews and locations were not shared, and the filmmakers had complete creative freedom. Given that the directors in question are some of the most iconoclastic genre filmmakers on the scene today, The Theatre Bizarre had all the makings of a wildly inconsistent mess. After all, even anthology films have to hang together as a single consistent experience. In the end The Theatre Bizarre reinvigorates the anthology horror film genre with a thoughtful and artistic take on the format that doesn’t shirk in its graphic depictions of depravity and violence.
The first segment, “The Mother of Toads”, comes from Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil), who has been living off the grid director-wise for between ten to twenty years depending on what you consider his last film. The fact that Stanley currently lives in the French Pyrenees and is purportedly studying witchcraft and searching for the Necronomicon belies the fact that despite his fringe proclivities, his episode is actually the most standard EC Comics inspired fare of the film. But make no mistake; while the “young couple threatened in a remote location” is a familiar setup, Stanley delivers his own brand of pagan inspired horror with the Mother of Toads herself being an inspired and genuinely creepy creation. You’ll never hear bullfrogs again without feeling menaced (well, either that or aroused; Stanley’s film inspires both reactions). These fifteen minutes made me a believer: Richard Stanley is back.
Next up is “I Love You”, a title you know is devoid of treacle when it designates a segment by documentarian of the dejected Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock, Life is Hot in Cracktown). The film dissects the psyche of a man who cannot dissociate feelings of love from those of jealousy. A man who even while falling in love finds himself distrustful and paranoid. A man whose lovesick puppy dog whimperings turn rabid and who bares his teeth when love finally dies. By providing one of the more realistic and darkly nihilistic episodes of the series (though shot in a brightly lit white Berlin apartment throughout!), Giovinazzo continues his chronicling of mental collapse and easily steals the most powerful final shot of any of the films in the anthology.
The next episode, “Wet Dreams”, is the one that surprised me the most. I have to admit I wasn’t expecting a lot from Tom Savini’s episode, mainly because he hasn’t directed anything of note since 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake, and generally speaking makeup effects guys have a history of being pretty bad directors. But Savini’s episode destroyed my misplaced expectations. It has all the requisite Savini gore (limbs pulled off, buzzsaw vivisections, etc.) structured within a tightly scripted dream within a dream structure, with some light psychological themes that thankfully don’t take themselves too seriously (“I rape my mother every night…in my dreams!” barks Savini, who plays a psychoanalyst in the film). The basic premise of a philandering douchebag who dreams of being castrated (and whose dreams come true) is puerile, but at the midway point of the otherwise heavy proceedings, I found it to be the perfect splattery (cleft) palate cleanser. Count me in as wanting to see more Savini directorial efforts – especially if he keeps putting his girlfriend in naked!
The fourth episode in The Theatre Bizarre, “The Accident”, is also the most contemplative and artfully directed of the bunch. Doug Buck (Cutting Moments, Sisters) has focused his particular brand of family oriented horror on the ultimate theme: death. Specifically the moment when a child learns about death and tries to understand it. Dealing with issues of violent versus peaceful death, compassion for the dying and ultimately acceptance, Buck’s film could easily play in any arthouse festival but will please fans looking for subtle, meditative films that deal with horrific subjects, but in less bombastic ways than their more over-the-top genre cousins. Hopefully this is the movie that makes Hollywood recognize Buck’s particular talent for telling intimate, unsettling stories about ourselves.
The penultimate entry is easily the most surreal and whacked-out film of the anthology so it should come as no surprise that the madman behind “Vision Stains” is none other than Karim Hussain (Subconscious Cruelty, cinematographer on Hobo with a Shotgun). The film is a depraved superhero tale told in reverse; a young woman preys on homeless, drug-addled females, siphoning the vitreous fluid in their eyeballs and injecting it into her own pained peeper as a way of viewing their memories which she then feverishly jots down in stack upon stack of notebooks. She believes her purpose in life is to give voice to the stories of these discarded women but comes to learn that that her vocation is tainting her ability to live her own life.
The final film is directed by the man who helped put Theatre Bizarre together, Severin Films founder David Gregory (Plague Town). While Gregory is best known for his copious DVD behind-the-scenes work and documentary shorts, his entry “Sweets” is easily the most debauched of the anthology, bouncing from cheery candy colored flashbacks to the dingy vomit flecked present. The film tells the story of an unhinged dessert addicted woman and her breakup with her beau. Huh? That doesn’t even come close to describing the mad premise at the center of “Sweets”, but if you’ve ever been in a relationship where your partner changed you without you even knowing it, then you’ll have something to relate to – let’s just hope not too literally. Make sure to go to the late show of The Theatre Bizarre because after “Sweets” you’re not going to want to go for an after-movie dinner. Trust me.
Special mention also has to be given to the wraparound segment directed by Jeremy Kasten (Wizard of Gore remake) starring Udo Kier in a wonderfully demented role as a living marionette who lures a young woman into an old-timey theatre to watch the various segments of The Theatre Bizarre. Prior to each of the individual films, there is a brief tableau of cracked-face living dolls who presage the horrors to come. Unlike many wraparound segments, which often seem to strive to be just another entry in the anthology, Kasten’s unifying vision is both original and interesting in its own right but stays focused on fusing the various segments into a cohesive whole.
The Theatre Bizarre is easily one of the best horror anthology films not just recently, but in the history of the sub-genre. Each director has created his own wildly unique film, unhindered by creative restrictions, and yet the result remains unified by themes of corrupted love via either via the mundane erosions due to infidelity and sexual dissatisfaction or the more horrific and sudden cataclysms caused by death, murder, and mystical trickery.
4 1/2 out of 5