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
Friends Don’t Let Friends Review – A Haunting Mixture of Psychological Turmoil and Brutal Supernatural Horror
Starring Brittany Anne Woodford, Jenny Curtis, Kanin Guntzelman, Brendan McGowan, Jake White
Directed by James S. Brown
We all like to think of ourselves as being surrounded by friends, but let’s face it, if we were to ever truly hit hard times, there are probably very few, if any, people we could truly rely on. So on some level, Friends Don’t Let Friends is a film we can all relate too, as it deals with this very issue.
Stephanie is an emotionally unstable young woman who strangles her boyfriend to death after he insults and breaks up with her. She calls her friends to help her dispose the body out in the Joshua Tree National Part area, and instead of reporting her to the police, they reluctantly comply. As their car breaks down, the four friends find themselves alone at night in the Californian wilderness with the rotting corpse in need of disposal. Given their dire circumstances, they begin to become more and more aggressive towards each other, and this was where the film was really at its best. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how far the limits of their friendship could be stretched, and who would be the first to crack and turn on the others.
Anyway, their body disposal endeavor soon proves to be a mistake, as Stephanie’s ex rises from the grave as vengeful zombie demon thing with claws as long as knives. I’ll admit, I first I thought Friends Don’t Let Friends was going to be a movie purely about the limits of trust, so I was pretty surprised when the supernatural elements came into play. And when they did, the trust and friendship elements of the plot were somewhat downplayed in favor of a more traditional horror approach, and while it was still entertaining, I still would have preferred for the film not to have strayed from its initial path. At least the ending came as a shocker. I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say the even the most attentive viewers probably won’t see it coming.
As you can probably guess from a psychologically-driven film of this kind, the performances were top notch, with Brittany Anne Woodford being on particularly top form as the manipulative and unstable Stephanie, a character who revels in the revels in the power she felt when ending another human life.
With its mixture of psychological turmoil and brutal supernatural horror, Friends Don’t Let Friends is a film I would certainly recommend, but keep in mind that it may make you think twice when confiding in people who you think of as being your friends.
8 out of 10.
Coulrophobia Review – One of the Most Entertaining Killer Clown Films in Quite Some Time
Starring Pete Bennett, Warren Speed, Daniella D’Ville, Roxy Bordeaux
Directed by Warren Speed
The word ‘Coulrophobia’ refers to the fear of clowns, and if you happen to suffer from it, you might want to avoid director Warren Speed’s film of the same name. However, if you can stand the sight of clowns with gaping wounds in their manly parts, then you’re in for one heck of a fun time.
An all-female hockey team get lost deep in the Scottish woods on their way to a match (don’t ask), and are captured and forced to participate in a series of horrific games by the Grock family of clowns. All of the members of said family are absolutely fucking insane, but the one that really stood out was Twitch (Pete Bennett), who wears jester cloths and it said to have a short attention span. He longs to be a violin player and wishes he could blend in with normal society like the other members of his family. And you almost feel sorry for him, even though he’s a mad killer with bells on his head.
Director Warren Speed also appeared as Milo, a grunting mute who had his tongue cut out when he was a boy. As mentioned above, we see a close-up shot of a open wound in his penis being stitched up, which is not an image that will be leaving your mind anytime soon. Speed is clearly fearless when it comes to his art.
Inter-spliced with all the torture and mayhem, we also see documentary-style telling the sad history of the family involved, and this was where the film unfortunately faltered, because these scenes seemed out of place and just didn’t flow with the rest of the plot.
Ultimately, however, Coulrophobia almost seems like a film Rob Zombie might have made before he lost his way and started churning out trash like 31. Comparisons to House of 1000 Corpses are inevitable, and I absolutely mean that as a compliment. This is one of the most entertaining killer clown films in quite some time.
The Gatehouse Review – What Is Found in the Woods Should Be Left in the Woods
Starring Scarlett Rayner, Simeon Willis, Linal Haft
Directed by Martin Gooch
Now while no one will sneeze at the prospect of bringing up a bit of a rebellious child alone, it’s those damned kids that like to tempt fate by pissing off creatures in the woods…oh kids, they do the funniest things, don’t they?
In Martin Gooch’s moderately spooky presentation, The Gatehouse, a struggling writer named Jack (Willis) finds himself behind the 8-ball following the tragic drowning death of his beloved wife, and if that isn’t enough to torque your drawers, his young daughter, Eternity (Rayner) is becoming quite the salty soul herself. Unfortunately the little one has been finding herself bullied at school, and her recourse of sorts is to simply toss attitude around as if it was pleasantly acceptable. Her pastime has become lonely wanderings in the deep woods, digging for hopeful treasures…and we all know what problems reside in the woods, don’t we, horror fans? Well, Eternity’s father is attempting to re-start his writing career with a frightening backstory – taking the reigns on a novel that was abruptly ended when the author committed suicide, and supposedly the tome is quite the dark piece of literature.
Eternity’s never-ending quest for fortune and glory in the forest leads her to a most interesting (and ultimately) dangerous discovery (don’t sweat it – I won’t spill it for you). Bottom line here is this: the little girl has taken possession of something that should have been left in the friggin’ woods, and now someone (or something) wants it back PRONTO. What follows is a lackluster series of “spooky” events, and far be it from me to say, I’ve seen creepier stuff watching the evening news. Gooch then tries to bombard the audience with a plethora of instances and swerving plot direction – it’s fun at the beginning but can grow a bit tiresome over a duration.
Performance-wise, both Rayner and Willis play the perfect combination of mentally-shot dad and determined-to-be-independent daughter – their scenes are ripe with subtle contempt, and the right amount of indecision. Overall, the film is best suited for those fans of fantasy/fable-like horror, and while it might not scare the pants off of you, it definitely will give us all another reason to stay the hell out of the woods once and for all.
Children in a forest-setting don’t always add up to cutesy-pie encounters with furry creatures – this one’s got a few scares to keep fans of coppice-horror appeased.
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