Fantasia 2011: ‘Theatre Bizarre’ resurrects the horror omnibus
Directed by Richard Stanley, Buddy Giovinazzo, Douglas Buck, Karim Hussain, David Gregory, Tom Savini and Jeremy Kasten
A horror anthology in seven parts, The Theatre Bizarre is a throwback to the tradition of the port-manteaux films of the `60s and `70s. The main exponent of this type of film then was Amicus Films, a small British production company established by two American ex-pats (Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky) who wanted to take on the mighty (at the time anyways) Hammer Films at their game. The Theatre Bizarre, then, is a deliberate callback to that era, but with a contemporary sensibility that could only come from these directors having been exposed to myriad horror films by the likes of Fulci and Argento, and their own previous works of course; a true cross-pollination of styles and moods that is as refreshing and revolting as one might reasonably expect.
The film starts with a wonderful little enveloping piece (directed by Jeremy Kasten) that has a young girl venturing into what appears to be an abandoned cinema, only to be greeted by a wax puppet automaton (beautifully played by Udo Kier) who proceeds to segue us into each story. Each time we will see him, he becomes more human-like, and the visiting girl becomes more puppet-like.
The first story, The Mother of Toads, is directed by Richard Stanley (of Hardware and Dust Devil fame); a perfect little tale about a couple who purchase earrings that may have some ancient magical qualities from a shop owned by an old hag (not unlike Peter Cushing`s turn in From Beyond the Grave as the antique shop owner). Potions that make one hallucinate; late night strolls through old pagan-looking grounds; nature unleashed and uncontrolled; all aspects that we have come to expect from Stanley`s close connection to old mythologies. The couple are put through some horrifying moments that culminate in a tragic ending worthy of H.P. Lovecraft (whose spirit inhabits most of the stories here).
I Love You, directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, ably portrays the disintegration of a relationship between a French woman and her German boyfriend. The man is desperate to keep this woman in his life despite the fact that she confesses to him that she has never been sexually satisfied with him, and that she has been seeing various other men during their entire time together. Giovinazzo consistently toys with perspective, leading up to the story`s bleak ending. From the man who brought us Combat Shock and Life Is Hot In Cracktown.
Next is Tom Savini’s Wet Dream, which is a similar story of a sexually dysfunctional relationship which could be a dream or reality. It has always been a hallmark of anthology films such as this one to have a few lighter vignettes, and this Savini piece is that link in this chain of the bizarre. Douglas Buck’a The Accident is a soft, heartfelt meditation on life and death from the point of view of a young girl who has witnessed it first hand in the aftermath of a road accident, leaving her mother to try and explain the unexplainable almost as if this horrible reality were a night-time fable; a wonderfully shot and score little respite from the next two hard-hitting pieces to come.
Karim Hussain gives us Vision Stains; a young woman`s attempt to discover the meaning of life via the experiences of other women by injecting fluid from the eye of these other women, whom she kills, into her own to see what they saw during their life. She considers herself a chronicler of past lives, which she has written down in various manuscripts kept in a dilapidated library reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam nightmare. Seeking the ultimate answer, she manages to get ahold of the fluid of an unborn child, and all is finally revealed to her, albeit not what she had expected. This particular entry is brutal to watch, bringing to mind the director`s first film Subconscious Cruelty in some respects. There is a scene where a female junkie injects herself with drugs that is brilliantly edited, putting into images what has been described many times in books or articles as to how a junkie experiences the hit of the dose of heroin; like sex and/or orgasm.
The last item on the menu is David Gregory`s Sweets, in which a couple, on the verge of splitting up, agree to a last meal together. To say more would spoil the surprise. All I will say is that there is a great reference to an old 70`s Vincent Price vehicle entitled Theatre of Blood. Enough said.
A very satisfying anthology film that should re-invigorate the genre (one can only hope). This crew of filmmakers have produced what is possibly their best work by keeping to their self-imposed limited parameters of production.
– Mark Penny