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.