Color, 2011, 113m.
Directed by Jeremy Kasten, Richard Stanley, Buddy Giovinazzo, Tom Savini, Douglas Buck, Karin Hussain, David Gregory
Starring Udo Kier, Catriona MacColl, Lynn Lowry, Virginia Newcomb, Shane Woodward, Victoria Maurette, André Hennicke, Suzan Anbeh, Harvey Friedman, Debbie Rochon,
Tom Savini, James Gill, Lena Kleine, Mélodie Simard, Kaniehtiio Horn, Lindsay Goranson, Guilford Adams
Image (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


The Theatre BizarreThough it's always been more of a fan's secret indulgence rather than a box office powerhouse, the horror anthology has been a surprisingly durable force over the years. Long after the days of films like Dead of Night and the classic Amicus anthologies, we're still seeing fresh new spins on the format like Trick 'R' Treat, Little Deaths, Three... Extremes, or this outlandish offering, which throws in a heavy dash of surrealism and art house aesthetics to go along with some heavy helpings of gore and nastiness. Like any omnibus, some stories will resonate more strongly with viewers than others, but it's certainly a trip you'll never forget-- and at its best, this is a rare modern horror film that manages to be both transgressive and wildly entertaining.

The main hook here is the fact that each segment is directed by a different filmmaker with his own association to the horror genre. The framing story (directed by Jeremy Kasten, who helmed the Wizard of Gore remake) involves a young woman (Newcomb) who becomes the sole audience member in a darkened theater, where a macabre puppet man (Kier) appears and regales her with a series of stories -- during which his appearance becomes more human yet unsettling. First up is "Mother of Toads" (from Hardware director Richard Stanley), an adaptation of the Clark Ashton Smith story (with a heavy dash of Lovecraft) in which an anthropology student, Martin (Woodward), and his girlfriend Karina (Maurette) become involved in supernatural shenanigans in the European countryside involving a creepy sorceress (The Beyond's MacColl) and an ancient mThe Theatre Bizarreyth about the titular dark goddess. Obviously MacColl's creepy turn is the main attraction here, and it's great to see her onscreen again in a horror role. Stanley's gift for atmosphere and capturing the local flavor of his location is well in evidence here, and it's fascinating to see him adapting to the demands of the anthology format. It all ends pretty much how you think it will, but the path getting there offers a few chilly occult flourishes via Stanley's hallucinatory visual sensibilities. Next up, permanent '80s cult hall of famer Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock, Life Is Hot in Cracktown) offers a darkly humorous and ultimately splattery character sketch called "I Love You" in which a ridiculously tolerant, cuckolded man (A Dangerous Method's Hennicke) pleads with his verbally abusive wife (Anbeh) to stay while her lover wait in the car, escalating to a grotesque twist ending. Continuing on a similar theme (which occurs again later in the stories) in "Wet Dreams," an adulterous man named Donnie is hurled through a series of dreams dovetailing into reality involving his genital mutilation at the hands of his wife (Troma regular Rochon) while he seeks help from his shrink (director Savini). It's a twisty little piece that often plays like a more sexualized, graphic version of the 1990 film Brain Dead, and Savini certainly knows his way around short-form horror after helming some of the best episodes of Tales from the Darkside.

Things take a sudden left turn at this point with the most unexpected and divisive story of the bunch, Douglas Buck's "The Accident," a subdued visual poem on the nature of death with a little girl reflecting back on a road accident involving another driver and a deer. Though some of the imagery is briefly disturbing, it's way outside of the horror genre and plays more like a beautifully shot short film on its own. Best known for the notorious short "Cutting Moments" and his remake of Sisters, Buck has a distinctive, hypnotic rhythm to his films that can challenge some viewers but definitely leaves a strong imprint afterwards. Then the film smacks the audience in an entirely different way with the most extreme installment, The Theatre Bizarre"Vision Stains," from Subconscious Cruelty director Karim Hussain (who also shot the Stanley and Buck segments). The premise here is pretty great and could have easily been a jumping-off point for a feature film, as society's discarded women ranging from addicts to prostitutes are slain in alleys by a writer (Horn) who's discovered that extracting fluid from their eyeThe Theatre Bizarres and injecting it into her own at the moment of death allows her to absorb their life experiences. She records everything she sees in a journal, but when she gets a bright new idea, things don't go quite as expected. It's a brutal and aggressive piece of work that can pulverize some unprepared audience members, and apart from a questionable "happy" coda, this may be the highlight of the film for those with a taste for the very dark and experimental. Last up is the DayGlo gore fantasia of "Sweets" from director David Gregory (Plague Town), which features a bravura performance from Guilford Adams as Greg, a sad sack who munches on candy all day and suffers a deteriorating relationship with his very mismatched girlfriend (Goranson, the nasty stepmom from Plague Town). As it turns out, she has an ulterior motive involving nocturnal activities in a society including a memorable turn by alternative icon Lynn Lowry (Score, The Crazies) as a sinister mistress of ceremonies named Mikela Da Vinci. In true anthology fashion, it all wraps back around to the theater of the title where the spectator becomes another part of the macabre narrative.

Digitally shot in HD (including some portions with a Red camera) with often colorful and stylish results, The Theatre Bizarre might be best experienced in a movie theater with a like-minded audience. However, at home you'll still get more than an eyeful from the disparate visual schemes on display here ranging from the dank, hallucinatory gothic scheme of the first tale to the candy-colored freak out of the final one. For some baffling reason, this has only been made available from Image on DVD with no accompanying Blu-Ray; it still looks quite strong overall, and absent any hi-def alternative for the foreseeable future, it's a fine way to make the film's acquaintance. The standard Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix kicks in well enough where it counts, as some stories feature much more aggressive sound mixes than others. The wild music score sounds great for the most part, too. Inexplicably, the chapter stops don't actually lead to the beginning of some stories but instead go to other random scenes within them.

The Theatre BizarreIn an interesting approach, the audio commentary essentially works as a tag team effort between various participants from the film including the director of each segment (apart from Buck, whose "The Accident" plays silent even though he appears elsewhere for "Vision Stains," which he edited). Kasten kicks things off (sounding like he's coming through Skype or a phone) to discuss where and how he shot the wraparounds, and then he hands off the baton to Stanley, whose discussion is as fascinating and dense as you'd expect from his previous work. It's also oddly delightful how he says "Ouija," and he's also joined by Maurette and cinematographer Hussain who talk about the steps they took to create the magic-infused ambience of the piece including "toad-vision" and the genuine odd history of the shooting location. After a phoned-in anecdote from Kier about meeting Kasten and playing the "host" of the film (to which he returns during his later interstitials), Giovinazzo takes over to cover the Berlin shoot (the city in which he lives), his experience working in German TV, removing certain lines of dialogue, the similarities to "Sweets," and the stories behind the three actors from the film, whose language abilities dictated the direction of the characters in the film. (Gregory is also on hand to provide some fleeting questions.) Savini, associate producer Robert Lucas, and producer Mike Ruggiero appear for the third story, covering everything from cooking food on the set to teasing the audience as well as the obvious rationale that Savini, the reigning godfather of modern gore, would be the perfect choice for an anthology based around Grand Guignol theatrics. Hussain, Horn, and the aforementioned Buck chime in on "Vision Stains" to talk about the hiring of all the performers, the astonishing makeup effects (the heads used for the eyeball piercings were three times more than normal size), and creating the correct on-set environment in Canada. Finally Gregory reappears for his full-length coverage of "Sweets," which starts off talking about capturing the proper food colors and launches into writing the role for Goranson, shooting in L.A., and pointing out a familiar face from the now-legendary Birdemic as well as a quick but key role for Damon Packard, director of the briefly notorious underground "epic" Reflections of Evil. There's also a funny phone call halfway through, but you'll have to discover that one for yourself. Other extras include the theatrical trailer, three bite-sized Shock Till You Drop "Choice Cuts" episodes with Ryan Turek (featuring interviews with Gregory, Giovinazzo, and Kasten), and brief, mostly raw segments of behind-the-scenes footage from "The Accident," "Mother of Toads," the wraparound, "Sweets," and "Vision Stains," with an understandable focus on creating some of the grislier scenes and a "fisting" FX gag that will make most viewers do a double take. A truly stuffed package indeed for one of the year's most audacious horror films.

 

Reviewed on April 28, 2012.