The Theatre Bizarre is the first proper horror anthology to get a theatrical release in a while, as near as I can figure. The format, in which a bunch of different directors (usually) contribute a 10-30 minute horror short, connected by a loose framing device, has given us a series of strong films in decades previous, from the revolutionary Dead of Night (whose time-turning story arc actually inspired a new theory about the creation of the flipping universe) to Michael Dougherty’s recently overlooked Trick ‘R Treat. But the horror anthology comes with its own unique set of problems, most importantly the simple fact that not all shorts are created equal.
Even the best horror anthologies usually include a dud or two, but then again even the worst horror anthologies can have one spectacular entry. So unless the framing device is truly spectacular and connects every film together seamlessly – and it rarely does – reviewing the film usually boils down to the law of averages. Luckily,The Theatre Bizarre has an impressively good hit-to-miss ratio, culminating in an overall experience that’s entirely worth a horror fan’s time, but is probably too erratic and violent a film for the casual enthusiast. That’s a great thing, by the way. The directors of The Theatre Bizarre aren’t pulling any punches, and appear to have been given the freedom to do whatever the hell they want. The resulting film feels a little random at times, but also refreshingly outré.
The Theatre Bizarre (dir. Jeremy Kasten)
The framing device for The Theatre Bizarre doesn’t waste time getting the movie started, which seems to be its raison d’être. A young artist (Virginia Newcomb) is enticed by the sudden opening of a mysterious, dilapidated movie theater across the street, and sits down to watch a life-sized marionette played by horror legend Udo Kier introduce each film, one after the other. There’s a twist, sort of, but without a hint of character development it feels a little token. Kasten, the director of The Wizard of Gore, gives his entry a nice, creepy vibe thanks to strong makeup and production design, but it feels like he was given the short shrift. At least he doesn’t try to distract attention away from the short films he’s responsible for introducing, but that doesn’t give him much to work with. The approach is better for the film as a whole than as a piece in-and-of-itself, so Kasten deserves credit for taking one for the team.
The Mother of Toads (dir. Richard Stanley)
The Theatre Bizarre does not kick off with its strongest offering. Richard Stanley, whose excellent cyberpunk horror film Hardware has a deserving reputation as a cult classic, tells the story of a young couple enticed by the promise of (what else) a chance to read the Necronomicon, the mysterious tome invented by H.P. Lovecraft and popularized in modern cinema by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies. The story is a little thin, and the protagonists seem to have been borrowed from the first draft of a Woody Allen screenplay (the young girlfriend doesn’t understand the hero’s neurotic obsessions, so of course their relationship is doomed), but Stanley is still able to eke some creepiness out of the amphibious villain. Alas, by now the Necronomicon feels like a trite conceit on which to base a horror film and throws a pall on the whole movie, making it difficult to take too seriously.
I Love You (dir. Buddy Giovinazzo)
Combat Shock director Buddy Gionvinazzo pulls things way back Theatre Bizarre’s second offering, telling a personal, character-driven story about an emotionally overbearing husband who learns that his wife hates him, and has been having a string of affairs. Giovinazzo lets I Love You play out naturally, and after a few minutes it’s easy to forget that, as part of a horror anthology, it’s all destined to end with violence. Excellent performances, an honest and painful screenplay and some truly involving editing decisions makes I Love You one of the best shorts included in the film, and one of the only ones that can boast deeper meaning beyond mere entertainment.
Wet Dreams (dir. Tom Savini)
Legendary goremeister Tom Savini jacks up the terror in his entry, Wet Dreams, about an abusive husband having recurring nightmares about losing his junk to brutal violence. Savini doesn’t mess around there: a shot of a naked woman with a giant carnivorous beetle coming out of her pelvis is certainly hard to forget. Savini appears as probably the world’s worst psychologist (Hannibal Lecter is more interested in his clients than this guy), and it all winds up in an ending worthy of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series. Not brilliant, but memorably shocking.
The Accident (dir. Douglas Buck)
It feels like director Douglas Buck, who directed the straight-to-video remake of Brian De Palma’s Sisters, didn’t quite get the memo. The Accident is a sober, thoughtful story about a mother trying to explain death to her young daughter after they witness a car accident, and that’s it. No twist, no terror, just a quiet examination of death as viewed through the eyes of a child. It’s a fine short film, but it’s not a horror movie in any real sense of the term. It’s tempting to giving it a lower X/10 rating for being such a jarring change of pace, but there’s no denying that The Accident was made with class, even if its inclusion is a little mystifying.
Vision Stains (dir. Karim Hussan)
A woman discovers – God only knows how – that by extracting ocular fluid from a person at the moment of their death, and injecting it into her own eye, she can see their life pass before their eyes. There are an awful lot of close-ups of that, making Vision Stains one of the more grotesque offerings in The Theatre Bizarre. But beyond the imagery, Vision Stains isn’t much of a story, feeling more like an underdeveloped science fiction short than anything else.
Sweets (dir. David Gregory)
The Theatre Bizarre ends on one hell of a winner. Sweets, a candy-colored bit of surrealism from director David Gregory (Plague Town), takes a grotesque view of the now-popular Foodie subculture, as a sugar-obsessed couple falls to ruin thanks to their mutual obsession. Or maybe one of them was far more into it than the other. With a beautiful style and a genuinely interesting concept that, unlike the other entries, probably could not have existed before the last few years, Sweets feels like a genuinely new horror experience, and deserves some very high praise for its efforts.
The Theatre Bizarre (Whole Film):