Year Released: 2011
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 108 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:
This review was originally published on July 28, 2011…
If there’s one thing I especially like about going to the Fantasia Film Festival it’s that every couple of years I’m guaranteed to come across at least one new horror anthology; a genre that I feel is to cinema what UFO, Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot sightings are to science. It’s something so mind-blowing and unique that the world isn’t quite ready to accept it yet, because if they did it would change everything.
I’ve said many times, with varying degree of emphasis, that the horror anthology is my “pet” genre. I’ve never seen a truly bad one in my life, or at the very least have never been bored by any of them. Pacing and length are usually my two main problems with most films, but with an anthology those problems are eliminated from the get-go. So when an effort is made to do a good one, the results can be nothing less than spectacular.
Theatre Bizarre is one of those efforts to make a good one, and it shows. A lot of care and love and attention went into it. The filmmakers of each segment didn’t just toss gore and entrails around in some lame attempt to shock. They thought about their work long and hard, and then they raped our brain… forever.
Here are my reviews of each individual segment:
Theatre Guignol (Wraparound): Directed by Jeremy Kasten
Finally, something that lets Udo Kier go all out. The thing that’s always nagged me about a lot of films Kier has acted in is that they sort of try and pigeonhole him in these more or less “ordinary” roles. Frankly, that just isn’t who he is. I’m sure he could blow everyone away playing a sweet German uncle or grandfather, but when I see him cast as Hans the transmission mechanic I think the filmmakers are pushing the limits of audience credulity.
The story is about a young woman who wanders into a Grand Guignol play acted out with animatronic robots. One of which (Kier) seems to become more and more human as time goes on, and functions in a kind of “Cryptkeeper” role to introduce each ghoulish tale.
Theatre Guignol let’s Udo be Udo, and this is a good thing.
The Mother of Toads (The Guignol of Lust): Directed by Richard Stanley
Richard Stanley is a wonderful filmmaker, whom the world has been deprived of because of atrocious bad luck when making The Island of Doctor Moreau. Otherwise, he has a spotless record, and a lot of style. Mother of Toads is one of the first things he’s directed in years and it only makes me want to see him do more films.
A couple vacationing in Europe meet an old Gypsy who claims that she has a copy of the real Necronomicon. He is immediately interested, his girlfriend not at all. Both soon discover that nothing human could possess such a book.
Stanley’s guignol is one of sex, lust, gooey monsters and ancient hungry evil. It almost feels like it’s a short story that’s been written with images instead of words.
I Love You (The Guignol of Jealousy): Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo
Here’s a more subtle guignol, one where the blood being shed is not physical (at first anyway), but emotional. A jealous man’s wife tells him that she’s leaving once and for all. As she gets her things she freely admits that, even though he is a paranoid nutcase, he was pretty much right about her the whole time. She’s cheated on him with everyone at every opportunity, had abortions, and generally lived up to his suspicions.
The calm way in which she cuts him to shreds is really masterful, and while the story itself doesn’t feel that original at times the structure of the piece more than makes up for it. It’s Machiavellian about how it pulls the wool over your eyes, nothing you see or hear is as true as you think. In the end, the twisted “love” between these two can be as ugly of a monster as anything with teeth.
The Accident (The Guignol of Soul): Directed by Douglas Buck
The one segment without much blood, but it’s still one of the most disturbing nonetheless, and my second favourite. Basically, it’s an existential conversation between a mother and her child about the nature of death after the young daughter witnesses an accident between a motorcycle rider and a deer. You’d think it wouldn’t work because it’s so quiet and different, but the music and the editing and the dialogue are hypnotic. Buck has innate timing and knows what to show and what not to show. He knows the value of words and how their rhythm can provide more momentum to a story than ten Michael Bay movies combined.
In almost anyone else’s hands this would have felt timid, but not in Buck’s. It’s dreamlike and lulling and sad and horrible. He gets more out of two people whispering than most directors would get out of gallons of blood and entrails. I really like Buck’s style and this has only whet my appetite to see more of his work.
Wet Dreams (The Guignol of Blood): Directed by Tom Savini
If the tale of an abusive husband’s recurring nightmares about castration isn’t enough to freak you out, just remember that Tom Savini directed this and that he knows a thing or two about messing with people’s head. What I like about Savini’s segment is that he is well aware that if he just tries to gross people out, it’ll stop being effective after the initial shock. However, if he uses disturbing images instead of plain old gore it’ll work quite a bit more.
I did get a little tiny bit of a Tales from the Darkside vibe here and there, but trust me when I say that it doesn’t matter. First of all, it’s probably my own skewed perception at work rather than anything the segment did. Second of all, even if was an unused episode from back in the day, it’s the best damn Tales from the Darkside you’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen them all so I know. Not to mention that the plot is a hall of mirrors where every mirror reflects another, and you never quite see what you think you’re seeing. It’s admirably twisted.
One of my favourite things about the segment is Savini’s acting, as the abusive husband’s psychiatrist, which is probably the best thing he’s ever done. He’s often been cast in larger than life roles, and that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t allow a lot of opportunity to show much range. Here he proves that he could play grounded, nuanced characters, and I encourage him to do so in the future.
Vision Stains (The Guignol of Mind): Directed by Karim Hussain
This is my favourite segment in the whole film, probably the best in the bunch, and the only one that I think could be stretched out to feature length. A homeless writer discovers that by injecting the fluid from people’s eyes into her own she can steal their memories and use them as inspiration for her books. This satisfies her creative urges until she begins to wonder what kind of things an unborn child might have rattling around in its mind.
Vision Stains shows the ugly side of artists, the selfishness, the self-centeredness, the sense of entitlement to ideas that are not theirs. Not to mention the self-destructiveness, or sometimes just plain destructiveness, masquerading as artistic expression. It shows the artist as he/she truly is under the mask of civility, as a devourer of dreams, one who can never have their fill.
Sweets (The Guignol of Gore): Directed by David Gregory
The guignoliest of all the guignols present here. Few things are as utterly disgusting to sit through as this segment, and I say that with honest admiration. Sweets is about the natural conclusion of a man and woman’s twisted feedee/feeder relationship. She wants to dump him because, as she says, she “likes him too much” to continue. He is confused and begs her to stay. In the end she takes him back, but he quickly discovers that she really did love him, and that leaving him would have been a great act of kindness on her part.
I can’t say any more, not without ruining it. Enjoy, I know I did, just make sure you’re not going out for a big lunch afterwards.
One of the things that struck me with Theatre Bizarre is how often its segments use clever story structure to their advantage. On the surface, stories like I Love You may seem simple and straightforward, but once they get going you see the labyrinth open up and swallow you whole. In other cases they may be going exactly where you suspect, but the detours they take to get there… Oh man.
Posted on January 27, 2012 in Reviews by Jeremy Knox
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