The Theatre Bizarre boasts seven directors, nine screenwriters, and nineteen people with varying producing credits to their names. It’s a horror anthology, you see, comprised of six shorts and one wraparound segment. As a collective whole, it’s a little like a hideous laboratory monster stitched together out of spare parts by people with no skills in science, medicine, or even basic needlework. As individual stories, the parts are rotten, as if they had been extracted from subjects several months dead. Only one piece is a fresh specimen; it’s an honest, though-provoking, and surprisingly poignant little story that addresses life’s darker aspects with dignity. It’s the only segment with an emotional core, so I think of it as the film’s heart – harvested from the body of a good person and beautifully preserved in a glass jar.
The framing segments, directed by Jeremy Kasten, are constructed as live stage performances in an abandoned theater. The only apparent audience member is a disturbed young woman (Virginia Newcomb), who lives across the street in an apartment bedroom with cut-up and tattered theater paraphernalia plastered to the walls. On stage are a series of actors caked with unnatural makeup; they’re made to resemble automatons, and their static movements are enhanced with a slew of mechanical sound effects. The emcee (Udo Kier), whose narrations are a series of nonsensical ruminations about stories and storytellers, becomes more natural-looking as the short films progress. The young woman in the audience, meanwhile, becomes increasingly unnatural in appearance. Visually creative though they may be, the wraparound segments make no adequate connection between the individual stories and exist primarily to be gawked at.
Short 1: The Mother of Toads, directed by Richard Stanley. Martin (Shane Woodward) and Karina (Victoria Maurette) are a young couple vacationing in France. Karina buys a pair of pentagram earrings from an ominous old woman (Catriona MacColl), who piques Martin’s interest by claiming to possess a copy of the Necronomicon. Karina, uninterested, goes to a spa. Martin travels into the countryside to the old woman’s home, which looks more like a castle you would see on a historical monuments tour. I cannot make heads or tails of the rest of the segment, except to say that there’s a sex scene, some grotesque physical transformations, and a lot of toads.
Short 2: I Love You, directed by Buddy Giovinazzo. In Berlin (a wasted location since all the characters speak English), a French woman named Mo (Suzan Anbeh) decides to leave her German boyfriend, Axel (Andre Hennicke). It has more to do with the fact that he’s obsessive and paranoid; quite simply, she enjoys being a slut. She explains this to him during a calm and candid conversation that’s not only excessively wordy but also hilarious unconvincing. What are we to make of the fact that, at two points in the segment, Axel awakens on the floor of his bathroom with a gaping wound on his hand and blood everywhere?
Short 3: Wet Dreams, directed by Tom Savini. Here is an awful Freudian segment that cheats the audience by incessantly blurring the line between reality and dreams. An abusive and unfaithful husband named Donnie (James Gill) is seeing a psychologist (Savini) about his recurring nightmares. In one, his wife’s vagina is a crab monster. In the other, his penis is served to him for breakfast. One too many moments are of Donnie waking up screaming, making it impossible to keep track of his dream states. The final scene, which unfairly reversed everything I thought I had learned, begins with his wife (Debbie Rochon) waking up from a nightmare.
Short 4: The Accident, directed by Douglas Buck. This is the only good segment in the entire film. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s a wonder anyone thought it belonged in this movie. It’s the heart I mentioned earlier. It deals with an unpleasant subject, and yet it’s not a horror story; it’s simply about a mother (Lena Kleine) explaining to her young daughter (Melodie Simard) about death. It intercuts between their lying in bed and the scene of an accident, in which the girl witnessed the deaths of a motorcyclist and a deer on a stretch of road. The girl is not disturbed, but she wants to understand what it means. The mother feeds her daughter age-appropriate explanations, all the while aware that, in reality, certain things cannot be explained.
Short 5: Vision Stains, directed by Karim Hussain. A woman known as The Writer (Kaniehtiio Horn) seeks out female transients and drug addicts, kills them, and extracts fluid from one of their eyeballs. She then injects that fluid into her own eye and is flooded with her victims’ memories, which she then writes down in a single-use notebook. Her home, a filthy warehouse, has stacks and stacks of these notebooks, which must make her one of the most prolific serial killers in history. She then spots a pregnant woman and wonders what the unborn see. Do I need to describe this any further?
Short 6: Sweets, directed by David Gregory. Here is a segment so strange that it seems to have been transplanted from an alternate universe. It begins as relationship drama, in which an unemotional woman (Lindsay Goranson) clutches a melting ice cream cone while her blubbering boyfriend (Guilford Adams) picks at candy, which is smashed into a gooey mess on his floor. It becomes food porn, the woman dressing like a fashion-show reject and going to a restaurant that looks more like an art gallery. A band plays while people are served plates of nondescript food, which they pick up and greedily stuff into their mouths. Quite inexplicably, it turns into a gore fest, someone getting slit open before being eaten by the ravenous patrons. This segment alone proves that The Theatre Bizarre is an apt title indeed. I feel bad for Douglas Buck. His short deserved far more than being a segment in an awful anthology.
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