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The Theatre Bizarre | Review

Horror Sliced Up: Genre Fans Will Welcome Return of the Grand Guignol

For whatever reason, there haven’t been many horror anthology films made over the past decade, and those that did come out were for the most part underwhelming. One could argue that Michael Dougherty’s excellent Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology film, but in reality the four interwoven stories were all written and directed by Dougherty himself, stretching the definition. This just might be the year that the format makes a comeback, though, with the U.K. offering up a psychosexual trio of tales in Little Deaths and the Canada/USA/France co-production The Theatre Bizarre delivering a pastiche of visceral thrills sure to delight genre fans of all stripes.

Severin Films co-founder and Plague Town director David Gregory brought together five other independent directors and issued a challenge: each of them would work with the same budget and come up with a short horror film that fits the idea of ‘Grand Guignol’. The result is The Theatre Bizarre, a violent and gory anthology that also features an ominous wraparound segment from director Jeremy Kasten (The Wizard of Gore remake from 2007) in which genre icon Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein) prances about the stage of a dilapidated theater like a human marionette introducing each segment.

The first entry in the anthology is The Mother of Toads, from director Richard Stanley (Hardware), which evokes H.P. Lovecraft by way of Clark Ashton Smith. In it, a young couple vacationing in the French Pyrenees stumbles upon a street vendor (Catriona MacColl, Fulci’s The Beyond) claiming to have an ancient copy of the Necronomicon. The young man, who studies such artifacts of the occult, can’t resist an invitation to visit the woman’s home to see it and before you can say “ribbit”, strange and slimy things start happening.

I Love You, from Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), shows what can happen when one member of a couple falls out of love while the other is still in the ‘smitten’ phase. The bright colors and lighting Giovinazzo uses serve to contrast the gloomy mood of Axel, played to perfection by André Hennicke (Antibodies), as well as to accentuate the eventual bloodbath.

Next up is Tom Savini’s Wet Dreams, where the audience – and the main character – never know whether they’re experiencing a dream or reality as scream queen Debbie Rochon takes action against her cheating husband. Savini, known more for his expertise in makeup effects and gore gags, delivers a competent body horror tale that will have many a male viewer wincing and squirming in their seats. Oddly enough, the gore effects in this segment were handled – very capably – by Toetag Pictures (August Underground)…Savini must have had his hands full directing and starring in it.

Things get a little more serious in the next two instalments, Douglas Buck’s The Accident and Karim Hussain’s Vision Stains. Buck, whose 1997 insanely gory short Cutting Moments was probably more along the lines of what people were expecting, instead goes against the grain in his powerful and contemplative meditation on death, as a young girl asks many questions about the subject and her mother tries to answer them as best she can following their witnessing of a horrible accident. Hussain, a well-regarded cinematographer who lensed Jason Eisener’s Hobo With a Shotgun, here tells the tale of a young writer who murders homeless women and junkies, extracting the fluid from their eyes as they die and injecting it into her own so she can see experience their lives “passing before their eyes” and write about it.

With a wink to the giallo films of Argento, and featuring an intense performance by Kaniehtiio Horn as the writer, Vision Stains is likely the most graphically disturbing of the bunch, and that’s saying a lot! The final installment is Gregory’s own, Sweets, which depicts the bad ending of a relationship between a couple of food-obsessed lovers. Even with a masterfully comedic turn by a blubbering Guilford Adams (Punching the Clown) as the jilted man pleading for one more chance and a cameo by genre great Lynn Lowry (Shivers), the true stars of Sweets are food, puke, and cannibalism.

What’s noteworthy about The Theatre Bizarre is that while the films are so different in tone, execution, and setting, many of the shorts shared similar themes (three of them deal with relationships gone bad, for example) and many of the filmmakers worked on each other’s entries (Hussain lensed three of the shorts, while Buck edited a couple of the segments), making for an oddly cohesive anthology film that will thrill the thrill-seekers and gross out the gorehounds, reminding fans more of the classic Amicus anthologies (The House That Dripped Blood, Tales From the Crypt) than of the many copycat Tales From the [insert noun]s of the past 20 or 30 years, albeit with much more explicit violence and grue. Genre fans can can only hope that The Theatre Bizarre resurrects the anthology film for a new generation.

Reviewed at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival

Rating 4 stars

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