Anthologies are all the craze right now in the horror world, from Little Deaths to Chillerama to Drafthouse Films’ own The ABCs of Death and even more in the pipeline. While anthologies are hard to sell to the public they’re enticing because they allow filmmakers to be more playful, to take more chances and maybe even to work when they aren’t able to get the money together for a feature. As a fan I love the trend - horror is often at its best when it’s short and to the point. Plus, the joy of a good anthology is seeing so many visions collide, and even when one segment isn’t very good, you know another is just minutes away.
The Theater Bizarre is the latest entry in the anthology sweepstakes; unlike Little Deaths this film opts for a connective device, complete with a host. This gives the whole thing a sort of Tales From the Crypt vibe… which is completely okay by me. Also okay is the fact that the host is played by the legendary Udo Kier, playing a wooden puppet who slowly comes alive during the course of the film. The make-up job on Kier is iffy, but his performance - in which he’s more or less doing the robot for half the movie - is delightful.
The challenge of a good anthology is sequencing, making the segments work together with an ebb and flow. The producers of The Theater Bizarre opted to put their worst foot forward, and I’m sorry to report that it’s a Richard Stanley film. The return of Stanley, who has barely worked for decades, is a massive disappointment and his short, The Mother of Toads, frankly sucks. Laughably stupid, embarassingly acted and featuring a sub-SyFy monster suit, the short smashes up HP Lovecraft (filmmakers - stop having people looking for the Necronomicon. It’s goofy at this point) and Clark Ashton Smith and does justice to neither.
But once you’re past that, things get much better. The rest of the segments range from pretty good to absolutely great, with two being so excellent I would recommend sitting through the entire film just to watch them. But let’s take the remaining segments in order from okayest to best:
Vision Stains, directed by Karim Hussain (cinematographer on Hobo With A Shotgun) has an incredible premise it sort of squanders - a woman discovers that she can take the aqueous humor (eye juice!) from a person when they die, inject it into her eyes and see the dead person’s entire life. Hussain, who also wrote the piece, doesn’t seem to know what to do with this amazing idea, and he fills his short with awful voice over. The short is beautiful and evocative and features great eye trauma, but the moronic voice over - and the pretentious finale - really sink it. What’s worse is that I think the short is strong enough to stand on its own without almost any voice over at all.
Tom Savini’s Wet Dreams doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s exactly the kind of gory fun you would hope to see from the FX master. The whole thing is a series of dreams, and it doesn’t really add up to much of anything at all, but there are limbs being torn off, cocks being pan fried and buzzsaws bisecting people. The entire Theater Bizarre project is an homage to the Grand Guignol, and Savini’s entry feels like the most cheerfully lowbrow version of that possible.
David Gregory of Severin Films put this whole movie together, and he has a short in here as well. His piece, Sweets, might be the most disgusting - and that’s before we get to any gore. The beautiful Lindsay Goranson plays Estelle, a pin-up type who keeps feeding her chubby beau (played hilariously by Guilford Adams) with junk food. Gregory’s film is filled with candy-bright colors and extreme gluttony, including people eating out of vomit. It’s great, and while the ‘twist’ is visible a mile and a half away, it’s executed with a perfect wry sense of Crypt Keeper humor.
The final two shorts (in quality, not in order) are so good that ranking them against each other is nearly impossible, and some may think I Love You is the best of the omnibus - and I would have a hard time arguing with them. Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, the man behind the infamous Combat Shock, I Love You takes a long time getting to any explicit horror elements, but you won’t care because the set up - a completely jealous man (Andre Hennicke) being confronted by his completely slutty wife (Suzan Anbeh) - is sheer relationship horror all on its own. Giovinazzo could have just made a short about that, but he elevates it to the level of great horror with a macabre twist that works like gangbusters.
My favorite of the group is the film that could be argued isn’t even a horror story. The Accident, by Douglas Buck, centers on a young girl seeing a terrible traffic accident and talking to her mother about the meaning of death. The Accident has horrific imagery, especially of a dying deer, but it’s mostly unsettling in the way it makes you think about mortality. Hardcore horror hounds might balk at this short being included - and it certainly is far from the Grand Guignol sensibility of the project - but it’s so morbidly beautiful and sad that film fans in general will swoon. And a good horror fan is a film fan as well, I think.
The Theater Bizarre is a lot of fun; the film is sequenced well, and the movie’s sensibilities lean towards fun gore (and not a small amount of nudity). It’s definitely a film in the tradition of The Monster Club and other Amicus anthology movies. It really is a shame that the long-awaited latest from Richard Stanley is just so damn terrible, but the rest of the film’s gory goodness more than makes up for it.