It seems like a horror anthology should be easy to pull off. It has big appeal to both horror fans and the genre’s filmmakers: fans like them because they get a lot of gruesome bang for their buck and filmmakers love them because they get to tell multiple stories and play with different styles all in one film. That said, the anthology is a very demanding format: all the stories need to maintain a certain level of interest, sequencing of segments is a concern and the wrap-around story has to be really strong or it can detract from the appeal of the stories it contains.
The Theatre Bizarre is a recent example of the form and offers an illustration in the many challenges presented by this format. The framing device, directed by Jeremy Kasten, deals with a troubled young artist (Virginia Heywood) who finds herself drawn to an abandoned theater. Once she goes inside, a sinister master of ceremonies (Udo Kier) appears on the stage. It’s hard to tell if he is man or puppet as he begins to regale the young artist with a series of stories designed to recall the good ol’ days of the Grand Guignol…
Mother Of Toads: this is Richard Stanley’s segment and simply put, it’s a mess. The loose script is a ragbag of ideas and references – H.P. Lovecraft, Dario Argento, supernatural places in France – but the lead characters are a couple of dolts so there’s no reason to worry about what happens to them. The photography is nice but the performance styles are mismatched (Catriona MacColl acts the two leads off the screen), the narrative is barely there and the director’s stylistic flourishes don’t add up to much.
I Love You: Buddy Giovinazzo’s segment has the premise of something that could have been a genuine Grand Guignol play but his style of direction makes it feel like an particularly acidic drama about a relationship’s decay… at least until the final few minutes, where the horror kicks in. The slow build works here thanks to strong performances and subtle work from Giovinazzo.
Wet Dreams: Tom Savini’s segment is the one entry in the film that follows the tradtional E.C. Comics-derived style of playfully gruesome horror that most fans associate with the horror anthology. It starts off with a guy having bad dreams that revolve around cheating on his wife and castration fears and spirals into a crazy quilt of delusions, dreams and hallucinations from there. It plays like a b-movie with a wickedly modern sense of humor and is perhaps the most fun segment in the film.
The Accident: this segment was directed by Douglas Buck and is the most atypical of the bunch. It throws aside the supernatural and a focus on shocks to create a dark yet ethereal exchange between a mother and daughter inspired by a roadside accident they witnessed. Artsy in a minimalist style, it almost plays like an Atom Egoyan film. Gorehounds might not like it but this is the segment that is most likely to stay with you after the credits roll.
Vision Stains: Karim Hussein’s entry deals with a young woman who forcibly extracts the ocular fluid from female derelicts so she can “relive” their experiences and record them on paper. This is a powerful, downright Cronenberg-ian concept but it feels like a rough draft: the story never explores the interesting paths it could have taken and finishes on an abrupt, all-too-pat note. Hussein has a gift for grimy yet elegant visuals and visceral effects (the bits involving the eye are stomach-churners worthy of Lucio Fulci) but overall this segment allows its avant-artsiness to overpower the storytelling.
Sweets: the final segment was helmed by David Gregory of Severin Films fame and it’s a black comedy that straddles the divide between Tales From The Crypt‘s ghoulish humor and an artfully bitter style of black comedy. The story revolves around the end of a relationship built on food and how getting “one more chance” can be the downfall of the weaker half of the relationship. Gregory uses color to atmospheric effect, gets solid performances and delivers a nice chuckle-while-you-squirm climax.
The Theatre Bizarre get about halfway in achieving what it wants to achieve. Its biggest problem is that it doesn’t follow the requirements of the horror anthology closely enough. The problem might lie in the fact that with its multi-director/multi-writer format, The Theatre Bizarre is more an omnibus than a horror anthology. As a result, the directors and writers pull in several different stylistic directions, adding up to a film that covers a lot of creative ground but never really coheres the way the great horror anthologies do. This is accentuated by the fact that Kasten’s wrap-around, though artfully shot, never really frames the diverging storylines in a coherent manner nor does it deliver the sting in the tail that an effective framing story should offer.
That said, The Theatre Bizarre remains worth a watch if your interests lie beyond simple, meat-and-potatoes horror. It’s great to see talents like Giovinazzo and Buck get to work in a film that has good distribution and everyone involved takes interesting creative chances. Even it doesn’t gel like a classic horror anthology should, it offers an interesting sampling of several genre-friendly directors doing challenging work that they are clearly enjoying.
In short, The Theatre Bizarre isn’t the kind of pure-blooded horror anthology craved by fans of Creepshow and Tales From The Crypt but it offers enough shocks, bizarre concepts and shifts of tone and mood to be interesting, plus the occasional morsel of food for thought. If you can roll with its inherent peaks-and-valleys nature, there’s a little something here for daring horror fans of all kinds.