Directed by Jeremy Kasten, Richard Stanley, Buddy Giovinazzo, Tom Savini, Douglas Buck, Karim Hussain, and David Gregory
Distributed by Image Entertainment
Who doesn’t love a good horror anthology? From Dead of Night to Trick ‘r Treat, Black Sabbath to Three…Extremes, Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror to the portmanteau horrors of Amicus Productions, short horror film collections are the best way to sample the genre in quick, concentrated bursts. At their best, they showcase the talents of various writers or directors while being joined together by an overarching story or by simply following common themes. And while The Theatre Bizarre perhaps cannot stand next to the greats listed above, it is still a worthwhile contribution to the form that is well worth checking out, featuring seven tales of varying quality that pay homage to the types of short horrors that were often showcased on stage in the legendary Théâtre du Grand-Guignol.
The first short, Theatre Guignol, opens the film with a young woman drawn to a beautiful, and mostly abandoned, movie theatre. She takes a seat in its main auditorium, and is treated to a series of tales presented by a life-size, living marionette (played with a perfect mix of strangeness and malevolent charm by Udo Kier). This story fills the gaps between each tale while advancing its own narrative (which, sadly, goes nowhere interesting). As mentioned, Kier is great as always, but the young woman (played by Virginia Newcomb) is given very little to do, save for overacting silently to each of the horrors and wonders presented to her.
Director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) gives us one of the stronger segments in this anthology with The Mother of Toads, a Lovecraftian tale loosely based on a short story by Clark Ashton Smith. Beautifully shot, but with some dodgy acting, Toads follows a young couple, Martin and Karina, vacationing throughout a French countryside. Martin, an occult enthusiast, is offered a chance to purchase a copy of the fabled Necronomicon from the titular witch, only to be seduced and then…well, I won’t spoil the ending. Overall, it’s an interesting short that unfortunately forgoes the atmospheric dread of its first three quarters for a silly, monster-driven finale. Too bad.
In I Love You, André Hennicke (who rather brilliantly played warped serial killer Gabriel Engel in the sadly underrated Antibodies) stars as Axel, a man in the middle of a crumbling marriage he is desperately trying to save. His wife, Mo, feels smothered by his constant affection and clinginess, and tries to make the unwitting Axel understand how little she cares for him. The short is essentially focused on their final conversation as man and wife, which starts out as cordial and ends with biting cruelty.
The bulk of this short plays out in a single location (with the exception of a few flashbacks), and is more of a relationship drama than straight up horror. That is, until the final few moments, which I won’t detail here. Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock and the fantastic Life is Hot in Cracktown), I Love You is a strong entry, full of great acting and photography that is beautiful, in a sterile sort of way.
Tom Savini’s entry Wet Dreams is, unfortunately, the weakest of the bunch. Concerning a battered wife and her douchebaggy, abusive philanderer of a husband, the story weaves between the horrific dreams and banal realities of each character, until…well, nothing much happens. Had the story been pulled off with a coherent ending, I’d be applauding. But, unfortunately, the incomprehensible meshing of dream sequence after dream sequence does little but act as a clothesline on which to hang several gruesome special effects setpieces. Even with its short running time, expect the urge to fast forward to the next tale.
Undoubtedly the finest tale of the bunch is director Douglas Buck’s moody and haunting The Accident. This short intercuts between a young girl questioning her mother on the nature of death with the two witnessing the aftermath of a roadside accident that spurred the questioning on in the first place. This film is beautifully shot with great performances, and will likely stick with you long after you watch it, even if it may not qualify as “horror” for some viewers expecting something a bit more on the splattery side. I’m not really familiar with Buck’s other work, but if it’s as equally disturbing and touching as this, then I’ll have to rectify that ASAP.
If Karim Hussain’s Vision Stains isn’t the strongest entry in the collection, then it’s at least the most original and daring. Stains stars the intense Kaniehtiio Horn as a young woman known only as The Writer, a sympathetic murderer who has the ability to experience her victims’ lives by transferring the fluid from their dying eyes into her own via syringe, thereby seeing the life that “flashes before their eyes”. This short is brutal, with matter-of-fact violence and lots of gruesome closeups of ocular trauma. Unfortunately, as strong as this short starts, its ending is ultimately a bit unrewarding, making one wish Hussain had a bit more time to flesh his ideas out further. Is it too much to hope for a Vision Stains feature film?
The final story is David Gregory’s Sweets, a quirky relationship drama with some downright Lynchian weirdness woven throughout. Intercutting between a couple’s crumbling relationship (the third such in this anthology) and scenes of the pair gorging themselves on all manner of sweets, this short tends to try the viewer’s patience. The dialogue is a bit overcooked, and the cutaways to the binge-eating are just off-puttingly strange. However, the ending holds not only a twist, but the kernel of an idea that could make for one hell of a feature film, should Gregory ever decide to expand on this world.
For an alternate take on this film, check out EvilAndy’s review here. Now on to the DVD. Image Entertainment gives us a solid offering here, a DVD with a good image that ably represents each of the directors’ distinctive styles and color palettes. The audio is strong, if not overly impressive on most of the tales.
The special features portion of the disc isn’t too terribly skimpy, featuring a commentary, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and a trailer. The commentary has a host of contributors who speak about the various segments of the film (except, unfortunately, The Accident), while the interviews are gleaned from three episodes of ShockTillYouDrop’s Choice Cuts, featuring host Ryan Rotten as he speaks with directors David Gregory, Buddy Giovinazzo, and Jeremy Kasten. Finishing off the disc are a collection of brief behind-the-scenes bits for each of the shorts, and a trailer.
All in all, The Theatre Bizarre is a mixed bag, but one worth checking out all the same. Anthologies are a bit rare these days, especially ones that are worth a damn.
3 out of 5
3 out of 5