I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
The Theatre Bizarre is a stronger than usual anthology film. I’ve been intrigued by the film for a couple of years now because of the directors involved and decided it would be a good way to kick off my Horror Challenge.
As with all anthologies, the wrap-around story is the weakest. A troubled young woman (Virginia Newcomb) enters a theatre where an emcee (at first, an animatronic figure, later Udo Kier in varying degrees of makeup) introduces the different films to an audience made up of the woman and a few mannequins.
The first film, The Mother of Toads is a Lovecraft-infused tale of an American couple (Shane Woodward & Victoria Maurette) on vacation in France. They meet an old woman (Catriona MacColl) who leads them into a surreal situation where the titular monster stalks them through the countryside.
If my plot synopsis is disjointed, that’s because the actual film, directed by Richard Stanley, is not concerned with having any kind of narrative coherence. Unfortunately, it lacks the visual punch and building suspense of Stanley’s other films (Hardware, Dust Devil) to make up for the lackadaisical story and thin characters. Aside from one good visual punch line, there’s not much that would be missed by skipping this story.
The second film, I Love You, is a significant improvement. Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, it’s a distressing and intense film about obsession. Axel (André Hennicke) loves his wife Mo (Suzan Anbeh) intently. This is a problem when she informs him that she is leaving him for another man. Not surprisingly, things proceed very badly from this revelation.
That the film goes to dark, violent extremes is not a surprise coming from Giovinazzo. This is the man who gave the world Combat Shock, so the last thing he can ever be accused of is shying away from unpleasantness. What is impressive about the film is not so much the level of physical violence on display, but the amount of psychological violence Axel and Mo inflict on each other. This is where the film gets under the skin. Anyone who has had an intense relationship that flames out badly will find much that is sadly familiar in this disturbing little gem.
The third film, Wet Dreams, is a frustrating mix of clever moments and fumbled execution. Donnie (James Gill) is a scumbag having erotic dreams about his lover Maxine (Jodii Christianson) that end with him getting his penis severed. Carla (Debbie Rochon) is Donnie’s long-suffering, possibly abused wife. While she shrinks from her husband’s passive-aggressiveness, he’s busy in therapy explaining his disturbing dreams to his doctor (legendary effects master Tom Savini, who also directed). Eventually, Donnie loses his ability to tell when he is having a nightmare or when he’s awake and his worst fears come to life. Or do they?
I quite like the Savini-directed remake of Night of the Living Dead, so I had high hopes for this film. But Savini is unable to overcome a weak performance by Gill, some rough DV cinematography by Eduardo Fierro, and some dodgy sound issues that leave several pieces of dialogue sounding like they were recorded in a cavern. There are some good twists to the story and Savini and Rochon are obviously having a ball with their performances, but overall this one is too hampered by missteps to fully recommend.
The fourth film, The Accident, is an odd inclusion. A young girl (Melodie Simard) questions her mother (Lena Kleine) about death as she is being tucked into bed. While the mother sensitively answers her questions as truthfully as she can, the film flashes back to a motorcycle accident that they happened upon. The accident is the source of the little girl’s sudden interest in death. And that is really all there is to the film.
Written and directed by Douglas Buck, the film is a solid piece of storytelling that is particularly insightful with the observation that the little girl’s only other frame of reference when it comes to understanding death is in the form of fairy tales and children’s books. But I can’t help feeling that despite some disturbing imagery in the aftermath of the accident; this is not a horror film and doesn’t belong in this anthology.
The fifth film, Vision Stains, is easily the most visceral of the lot. An unnamed woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) stalks homeless women and kills them. But she’s not a deranged serial killer. Her reasons are simultaneously intriguing, horrifying, a tad pretentious, and best learned from watching the film.
Written and directed by ace cinematographer Karim Hussain (he also shot The Mother of Toads and The Accident), it’s the most visually interesting and polished of the films. This means that the gruesome imagery on display is even more unsettling for its graphic clarity, especially if you have a crippling fear of needles (as I do). Where the film stumbles is in a running voiceover narration that is so flat, it sucks some of the juice out of the film. It’s still a tough, fascinating film, it just spells out its intentions in such a monotone voice that it gets in its own way at times.
The final film, Sweets, starts out clever with a much-needed dose of levity after the grim sights on display in Vision Stains. In an extended comedic setup, cold-hearted Estelle (Lindsay Goranson) uses one clichéd line (“It’s not you, it’s me” “I need space”) after another to break up with her whimpering, heart-broken boyfriend Greg (Guilford Adams). What heightens the comedy of the cruel situation is Goranson’s deadpan performance and that both characters are stuffing their faces with candy and ice cream. Eventually, the reasons behind Estelle’s cold nature, the ending of her relationship with Greg, and their sugar consumption are revealed in a climax that gives up on comedy or scares to revel in a heightened gross-out sequence.
I quite enjoyed the first half of Sweets much more than the graphic second half. The comedic interplay between Goranson and Adams was entertaining while the amped-up ick factor of the ending felt a little rote—a half-hearted attempt to surprise an audience that takes more than blood and guts to be shocked. There were still some clever visual and musical cues during this ending, but it was nowhere as inspired as the opening scene seemed to be leading the film.
Finally, the wrap-around story offered its final twist, which was obvious from the start of the film. But Kier appears to be having a blast, so it’s hard not to enjoy it.
Anthology films are tricky and The Theatre Bizarre doesn’t avoid its slip-ups, but it’s more entertaining and interesting than most. It’s worth a look for horror buffs tired of the routine.
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