Making Guignol Grand Again: An Interview With David Gregory About THE THEATRE BIZARRE

If you’ve followed cult films on video at all in the last decade, you’re familiar with the name David Gregory.  He became one of the great cult movie documentarians when he made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth in 2000 and quickly moved into a career of producing top-notch supplements for all manner of cult and horror DVD’s.  His work in the home video field eventually led to the formation of his own DVD label, Severin Films, which specializes in the kind of cult fare he’s spent his adult life chronicling.

More recently, Gregory has moved from telling the story of how films are made to making films himself.  He made his directing debut with Plague Town in 2008.  That film stayed true to his horror roots and so does his latest, The Theatre Bizarre.  This new effort finds Gregory working with a variety of talented and unusual directors to create a horror anthology in which each director tackles a different story.  Read on to learn more about this film, Gregory’s thoughts on the horror anthology and what the future holds for his career…

You have made a successful transition from making documentaries to directing fictional narratives with Plague Town and The Theatre Bizarre.  What was the biggest challenge in the learning curve that accompanied that transition?

DG: It actually wasn’t huge as it’s something I’d always wanted to do and had done to some extent with shorts and such before getting into the documentary realm. Sure there’s a lot more coordination and people etc but then you get to throw blood around so that’s more attractive.

With The Theatre Bizarre, you are both directing and supervising the work of fellow directors in a producing role.  Which role presents the greater challenge and why?

DG: Well the role of directing was more of a challenge because it was a huge undertaking to get what we needed with the time and budget we had. But it was an absolute pleasure because the team working with me was absolutely dedicated from start to finish, no matter how long the days ran. It was without a doubt the most satisfying production I’ve ever been involved with. Now, I have to say that being an overall producer was also cool because considering that we were shooting in four countries, with seven separate production units, with a tight budget and schedule, it went relatively smoothly. Though I have to admit that the producer role was not as complicated as you might think because each unit had their own producers handling their films so I didn’t have to be involved in the day to day production of the other episodes. And all of those producers (including Alex Spector who handled producing duties on my episode SWEETS — I had my hands full enough with directing) were top notch. The most fabulous thing about this whole Frankensteinian experiment was that rather than everyone taking it as an opportunity to moan about low budgets and difficult conditions (and pretty much everyone was used to working on bigger budget productions), they took it as a challenge to pull something off under such conditions.

Your fellow directors on The Theatre Bizarre are a diverse and impressive bunch.  Did anyone take you by surprise by what they produced for their segment and, if so, why?

DG: The main surprise was getting such high caliber filmmakers to leap on board the experiment. Surprises were minimal with the films themselves because we saw each others’ scripts before shooting began. I know at the script stage there was some minor debate about THE ACCIDENT which Doug Buck encouraged and we unanimously agreed ultimately that it absolutely had its place in the film, being about why we may enjoy such entertainment and acting as something of a breath of fresh air from all the severed dicks, toad monster sex and eye piercing. And lo and behold it has proved to be the segment that most audiences have responded to. The only occasional negative response being that it doesn’t belong. I disagree and will happily take on that discussion whenever it comes up.

I suppose something of a surprise was that all the filmmakers were able to attack this concept of Grand Guignol from a perspective that was absolutely representative of their work but why should I be surprised by that? When I approached these directors I approached them because I wanted their work in its purest form. And because the filmmakers are diverse I think the overall film illustrates how phantasmagorically varied the horror genre can be.

Do you see The Theatre Bizarre as fitting into horror’s grand tradition of anthology films or are you and your fellow directors trying to reinvent that tradition?

DG: I do indeed. Even though most, though not all, of the oldies have a single director, you still always like some segments better than others and know if one wasn’t doing it for you that another was around the corner. I used to hate “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril” in CREEPSHOW but would never fast forward through it. It was short. I’m actually rather fond of it now. Or the middle vampire episode in THE MONSTER CLUB. The anthology has a rich history in horror and I was very much hoping for TB to be a part of that.

On the subject of anthology films in horror, do you have a favorite?  And if so, what makes it your top choice?

DG: DEAD OF NIGHT is probably my favorite overall and not just because of the dummy episode — which is undeniably terrifying. I love that it has multiple directors attacking ghost stories so you get the varied styles and each one is interesting or scary or weird for one reason or another but quite unlike like the next. I like THE UNCANNY particularly the Donald Pleasance episode but also there was something about Cushing playing a nervous, almost unkempt man in the wraparound that was strangely riveting. Not like a lot of roles he played. Even in TALES FROM THE CRYPT he may be unkempt but he’s still the lovely bloke that we came to know Cushing as in real life. That CRYPT episode by the way is deeply disturbing. CREEPSHOW is certainly a favorite. I like ASYLUM, TWO EVIL EYES, BLACK SABBATH, TALES OF TERROR, even CAT’S EYE — except the dumb final story.

In your opinion, how important is the linking story in a horror anthology?

DG: The linking story is essential. It’s the thin line between an anthology movie and a collection of shorts. On TB we all knew we were going to be part of a bigger movie and made our films with that in mind. But it was Jeremy’s THEATRE GUIGNOL that held the whole thing together, helped in no small part by the charisma and cinematic icon status of the mighty Udo Kier. And Jeremy and his team had their work cut out because they had to link a series of unrelated stories shot in different parts of the world without trying to force a meaning connecting them all. He had to keep it abstract but still have it be something that you wanted to come back to, so they had to devise something that would develop as the film went on without being overpowering — a tough balance.

What are some great linking stories in anthologies? DEAD OF NIGHT again, the mystery of the deja vu and no one taking it seriously, great stuff. Often the Amicus linking devices featured characters from the stories, like DR. TERROR’S, TORTURE GARDEN, VAULT OF HORROR or ASYLUM. We did not have the luxury of getting an actor from each piece out to LA so that wasn’t possible. Or it’d be two people talking about certain types of stories like THE UNCANNY, THE OFFSPRING, MONSTER CLUB or even something that ran between the stories like the cat in CAT’S EYE or the comic in CREEPSHOW, again no such link for us. Ours I guess is a cross between the horror host like in BLACK SABBATH and the items in the shop in FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. Our items just happen to be automatons.

Incidentally, I always loved how you could get a top-billed star to essentially be your host through the horror anthology like Cushing or Karloff but only have them committed for a minimal time. We were all over the moon when Udo agreed to do it. He’s played Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll, worked with everyone one from Fassbinder to Madonna, from Von Trier to Argento, and he is larger than life on screen. That casting couldn’t have been better.

Your entry in The Theatre Bizarre, “Sweets,” deals with the falling apart of a relationship built around food. What inspired you to pursue these themes and is there a message you want to communicate with this segment?

DG: I don’t know about a message so much as creating a situation that we can all relate to on some level ie being the dumper or the dumpee in a relationship but then exaggerating and perverting the situation so it becomes disturbing or funny depending on your outlook. To me the way we treat each other at the end of a relationship can be far more inhumane and despicable than a bit of pervy food fetish play and imagery but it’s not the stuff that audiences find gross behavior. So mixing the two together in a sort of grotesque celebratory stew seems to me like a pretty honest, if metaphorical, representation of how we humans behave.

Supposedly someone passed out at a horror festival screening of The Theatre Bizarre.  Can you tell us the story behind this incident?

DG: Indeed it’s become something of a legend now and plenty of folks think it’s just distributor hype. I wasn’t there but I have no reason to believe that Doug Buck, Buddy and (“I LOVE YOU” producer) Gesine Giovinazzo, Richard Stanley or (MOTHER OF TOADS co-writer) Scarlett Amaris would make it up — they were in attendance at the Oldenburg festival that fateful night. They’d all seen the film plenty of times already so they were waiting in the café outside the theater when a dude came stumbling out of the auditorium and into the bathroom. They thought he was drunk and paid little attention. Soon Doug needed the loo so he went in to be faced with the site of the guy laying flat out on the floor, bleeding from his nose, having hit his head on the urinal as he fainted. Doug went out to get help to see the others reviving a second guy who had passed out at the entrance to the auditorium. Both were ultimately ok but the image of eye trauma from Karim’s VISION STAINS had proved too much. There were a few other cases after that, including one in France where a guy was taken to the emergency room. In each case I believe it was the needle/eye clash that caused the dizzy spells and mainly in men.

Unlike a lot of independent horror fare, The Theatre Bizarre actually achieved a limited theatrical release.  How did this come to be and how has it worked out for you?

DG: Landmark theaters took a look at the film and thought it would fit their midnight programming, which has started to become popular again after many years. And it’s true, we experienced it with BIRDEMIC a couple of years ago and THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is a good example too of films that adventurous cinemagoers would like to see in a theatrical, late night setting rather than sitting on their arses at home. Theaters like the Drafthouse in Austin and Cinefamily in LA and others across the country are very creative with their programming and the cinema experience in general in order to get people back into theaters for smaller movies. It’s a niche at the moment but it’s working for them and it’s very encouraging.

Word has it that a sequel is already in the works. How are you going to keep the concept fresh in the second film?

DG: We’ll be getting six new directors, one of which will have to come up with a concept for a completely new wraparound. But other than that I don’t know how much fresher you can be than telling a filmmaker, “hey, here’s some money, come back with a film that would play in a Grand Guignol theater if it were a movie theater. Otherwise, it’s all you!” The concept is vaguely reminiscent of the all night horror festivals I used to enjoy in London in my youth. You’d see ten or so new movies all vaguely genre related but otherwise completely different stylistically. It would be exhilarating witnessing all this new stuff that sometimes would never even make it to home video in England. That’s how I saw COMBAT SHOCK, HARDWARE, TWO EVIL EYES to name the ones with artists connected to TB but also everything from MEET THE FEEBLES, THE CHURCH, FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, BRIDE OF REANIMATOR, HENRY, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM etc etc. Always eclectic, always awesome. I wanted TB to be a mini version of one of those subversive, delirious, sleep-deprived, but invigorating festivals.

Will new filmmakers be involved in the next anthology, and if so, can you drop any names at this early stage?

DG: All new names and we have some great ones lined up but can’t say who at this point.

Finally, what are your future ambitions as a director?

DG: Doing a feature documentary on Richard Stanley’s ill-fated ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Got some ideas for a new feature but need to make myself go away and write it. On the other hand am hoping to continue producing for other filmmakers and have a fair few projects in development. Rather enjoyed the process of making this one.

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