It’s difficult not to get overly excited about anthology films that feature favorite actors or filmmakers, and when The Theatre Bizarre was announced, it immediately got the attention of hardcore horror fans. An anthology featuring shorts directed by Richard Stanley (Dust Devil), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), David Gregory (Plague Town), Jeremy Kasten (The Attic Expeditions), Douglas Buck (Family Portraits), Karim Hussain (La belle bête) and makeup effects legend Tom Savini seemed like a sure bet, and bleeding-edge, boundary-pushing horror seemed all but guaranteed. Now that the film is out on DVD after a hit festival run, salivating fans can finally see how this dream project turned out. Unfortunately, fans looking for something as mind-blowing as The Theatre Bizarre promised are likely to be sorely disappointed.
Opening with a threadbare framing story about a young woman who wanders into an abandoned theatre where a seemingly mechanized emcee (Udo Kier) introduces each story, The Theatre Bizarre is on shaky ground from its first frames. Richard Stanley’s short “The Mother of Toads” kicks things off, but aside from some beautiful scenery, the story is painfully straightforward: a young American couple in a foreign land meet a strange local who appears to be a witch (Catriona MacColl) and things turn out exactly as one would expect. There is also some awkward voiceover that feels tacked on, as if the audience needed more explanation for the characters’ actions. It’s not a promising start, and things don’t improve much with Buddy Giovinazzo’s “I Love You.” This short takes place in Berlin and features characters who speak French and German, but who in the film speak all their lines in English. While no doubt shot this way to make the short more accessible, the fact that English is clearly not the actors’ first language is extremely distracting, in much the same way as in Takashi Miike’s infamous Masters of Horror episode “Imprint.” This is especially unfortunate because Giovinazzo shoots his film beautifully and the story is simple but interestingly fractured.
Tom Savini is up next with “Wet Dreams,” a Twilight Zone-esque pile-up of dreams upon dreams that features Savini and fan favorite Debbie Rochon, as well as a lot of very unpleasant things happening to people’s bikini areas. The constant “waking up” from one dream into another grows tiresome quickly, but Savini still manages to get in some effectively nasty images in his short, and Debbie Rochon is fun. Following “Wet Dreams” is what is easily The Theatre Bizarre‘s high point, Douglas Buck’s “The Accident.” This beautiful, spare short takes place on two different time lines: one is a mother (Lena Kleine) talking to her daughter (Mélodie Simard) at bedtime about an accident they witnessed earlier that day in which a motorcyclist died after running over a deer after passing the mother and daughter on a country road. Buck provides the audience with the little girl’s view, only giving glimpses of what happened. This is a beautiful piece of work, and is really so completely different from the rest of the film that it feels like it doesn’t belong. “The Accident” is so good that it is worth tracking down the whole film just to watch this short.
Douglas Buck’s fellow Canadian Karim Hussain follows “The Accident” with “Vision Stains,” an ambitious short that feels like it is somewhat hamstrung by its budget. The Writer (Kaniehtiio Horn) is a woman who has discovered that by draining the ocular fluid of a person as they die and injecting it into her own eye, she can see that person’s life flash before her eyes. She has taken it upon herself to find women who want to die– mostly homeless junkies– and document their lives this way. The Writer’s quest drives her to a transgressive act that was probably supposed to be much more graphic, but instead is dealt with mostly in a voiceover. The final short is David Gregory’s “Sweets,” a very odd short that depicts the breakup conversation of Estelle (Lindsay Goranson) and Greg (Guilford Adams), punctuated with flashbacks of the couple eating a lot of candy. The second half of the short feels like a gorier version of something you might have caught on Alive from Off Center on PBS in the late 80s– that may not necessarily be a complaint, but the two parts of the short feel so dramatically different they hardly seem to fit together at all.
Overall, The Theatre Bizarre is a crushing disappointment. Perhaps if some of the filmmakers had had more time or resources, they could have fleshed out more worthwhile shorts. Or perhaps the film is a fluke, a perfect storm of several filmmakers working at a low point in their game. Of the six shorts, only Douglas Buck’s “The Accident” is fully realized enough to stand on its own merits, with all the others coming in far below Buck’s film on virtually every level. Hopefully “The Accident” can find an audience outside The Theatre Bizarre, and hopefully the filmmakers involved can get back to their usual standard of quality after this misstep, which if nothing else proves that nobody knocks it out of the park every single time.
Image Entertainment released The Theatre Bizarre on DVD on 24 April 2012. Special features include the film’s trailer, commentary on all the segments (except, notably, “The Accident”), brief behind-the-scenes clips and a few interviews with some of the directors.