Written by: Scarlett Amaris, Douglas Buck, John Esposito, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, Emiliano Ranzani, Richard Stanley, and Zach Chassler
Directed by: Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, Tom Savini and Richard Stanley
Starring: Udo Kier, Virginia Newcomb, and Tom Savini
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
We toss around the term “grand guignol” a lot, so much so that most probably assume it’s French for “weird, fucked up shit.” It might as well be, but it actually refers to the actual Grand Guignol theater, the legendary Parisian venue that specialized in lewd and graphic horror shows around the turn of the 20th century and on into the 60s. Some of the literary canon’s more seedy and splattery plays, like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, were often performed, so if anyone ever chastises you for enjoying amoral horror flicks, tell ‘em the Bard did it first. Anyway, The Theatre Bizarre is an anthology film that takes its cue from the Grand Guignol by assembling six lurid and strange tales that center on violence.
They’re even framed by a theater setting, as a girl (Virginia Newcomb) strolls into an eerie, decrepit old place and takes her seat. She’s greeted by a life-size, animatronic marionette (a mechanically creepy Udo Kier) that serves as the host for the evening’s grotesque entertainment, which includes tales of the supernatural, infidelity, revenge, perversion, and death. Kicking off the festivities is “The Mother of Toads,” which features a couple of Americans who get more than they bargain for when they attempt to track down a Necronomicon, while “I Love You” examines the violent breakdown of a marriage. “Wet Dream” continues that theme by capturing the end of an abusive, violent relationship before “The Accident” shifts gears to reveal a young girl’s first encounter with death. Finally, “Vision Stains” features a murderer who is able to transfuse her victims’ memories and identities during their death rattle, and “Sweets” returns to the theme of love gone bad when yet another relationship ends in bloody fashion.
Save for “The Accident” (which actually aims to be a darkly tender tale between a mother and daughter), The Theatre Bizarre is full of terrible people doing terrible things. And not just typically terrible things, but weird and bizarrely terrible things, so it’s mostly right there in the title. I would say the film is most enjoyable when it embraces its weidness, and the framing device provides a nicely atmospheric opening serve that’s volleyed right back with Stanley’s opening tale, which ends up being a vicious, straight-laced take-off of Frogs. Catriona MacColl even shows up as the strange old lady that ends up as the catalyst for the strange events that climax with a nice, retro rubber suit. From there, everything’s a bit of a mixed bag; my knee-jerk reaction is to proclaim “The Mother of Toads” to be the best, but Savini’s “Wet Dream” is also quite fun that sees the effects master also playing psychiatrist to the main guy (James Gill) who constantly dreams of being emasculated by the wife that he abuses. Gill plays a horrible, abusive bro-like figure who eventually gets everything that’s coming to him, and he’s also haunted by the scariest vagina since Teeth. Stanley and Savini are two vets who make the best use of their time, as the former delivers an old school, EC Comics throwback, while the latter splatters impressive gore effects all over the place.
The rest of the segments range from passable to forgettable to borderline unappealing. All of them have one or two memorable images or hooks--“I Love You” has a vicious throat slashing and a vindictively slutty wife (Suzan Anbeh), while “Vision Stains” has its intriguing central concept. Unfortunately, it also features one of those terrible people (and their annoying voice-over) as its protagonist and has an odd ending that lets them off the hook considering everything they’ve perpetrated. Then there’s “Sweets,” which is just short of being repulsively unwatchable. An anthology that ends on its worst note is most disappointing, and The Theatre Bizarre unfortunately follows suit by checking out with a story centered around another breakup--in this case, Estelle (Lindsay Goranson) is ditching Greg (Guildford Adams), this sad-sack cartoonish dolt whose hysterics make him instantly unlikable. She’s not much better considering her odd detachment and cryptic motivations; it turns out she’s part of some cult that loves food, so “Sweets” is full of people stuffing their faces in vomitous fashion. Gregory’s segment at least closes in bloody grand guignol fashion after it’s hammered on its one gross note the entire time.
That’s the problem with some of the segments--they’re just a little repetitive and feel content to wallow in the macabre without any sense of grotesque artistry. With the exception of the framing segments, “The Mother of Toads,” “Wet Dream,” and "The Accident," The Theatre Bizarre is a stiff, non-atmospheric slog that never quite feels fun enough considering its premise. The odd segment out here is “The Accident”-- it’s downright somber and not at all in the grand guignol tradition, but it is a subtly disturbing little tale because it artfully hovers around the inevitability of death. Amidst the cacophony of severed penises, killer frogs, and eyeball-needlings, it serves as a measured change of pace. Thematically speaking, both it and “Vision Stains” probably could have been cut to make this a bit tighter and constantly revolving around failed relationships, but you’d lose one of the stronger segments in this case. Just losing “Vision Stains” would at least shave a little bit off the runtime to keep The Theatre Bizarre running a little more smoothly. Granted, the short length of each segment keeps it moving okay, so when one doesn’t quite click, you can take solace that you’ll soon be whisked off to a different story soon enough.
By the end, though, a bunch of uneven stuff is on display in The Theatre Bizarre. There are some great concepts and even some noteworthy performances, but consistently great execution is lacking. Many of the stories are delivered with a flat, digital aesthetic that also renders them a bit unappealing, visually speaking. I’m not sure that’s the fault of the source or the DVD mastering, but there are some occasionally noticeable artifacts in the way of combing and jaggies. Otherwise, the transfer is perfectly watchable; I suspect the film is meant to look a little murky and grimy, and it often does. The 5.1 surround track fares a bit better, though it’s very front-heavy. Special features are plentiful enough--there’s a behind-the-scenes look, on-screen interviews with the directors, the film’s trailer, and commentaries for each segment. Minor quibbles concerning the transfer aside, Image’s disc is quite nice and worthwhile if you come to enjoy the film. I appreciate its wide palette and its attempt to marry classic Amicus with a modern Grand Guignol sensibility, but The Theatre Bizarre is a place I can’t see myself returning to very often. Rent it!
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