Anthology movies seem to be making a bit of a comeback, which is good news as far as I’m concerned. After all, I grew up on movies like DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), George A Romero’s CREEPSHOW and absolutely anything and everything by Amicus, and so did David Gregory, British owner of Severin films, producer of this movie and director of one of the six story segments on offer. Each of the stories is by a different director, each director was given the same (small) amount of money and each was told they could do pretty much what they wanted. The difficulty, then, was presumably ensuring that the final product wasn't too uneven and credit has to be give to Mr Gregory and his co-producers that the directors selected for this project have each delivered unsettling stories that veer from the emotionally devastating to the outrageously flamboyant but overall give THE THEATRE BIZARRE a cohesive feel. I really liked this film when I saw it on the big screen at London's FrightFest last year, and a recent DVD rewatch has confirmed my feelings and strengthened my opinion that we really do need more of this sort of thing.
Jeremy Kasten directs the wraparound sequence which is set, reasonably enough, in the theatre in question. When a young girl sneaks inside to watch the show who should take to the stage but a marionette of Udo Kier! Udo introduces each of the stories and gets more ‘human’ as the film goes on. Each of the introductions features grotesque stage tableaux involving more life-size puppets, and these work as a fine way of tying together into a whole the weird and wonderful stories we are about to see.
First off is Mother of Toads, directed by Richard Stanley of DUST DEVIL and HARDWARE fame. This has to be one of the very few movies to even attempt to adapt the work of Clark Ashton Smith (one of my favourite authors and it was a delight to learn that Mr Stanley is a fan, too). A couple travelling through France cross paths with a witch (Catriona MacColl), who turns out to be a bit more than just a harmless old woman. Some of the imagery here is splendid, with Lovecraftian symbols etched in stone mixing with the damp countryside of the Pyrenees to provide an appropriately unsettling atmosphere. There are plenty of toads here as well, including a great big one but to say any more would be to spoil it.
Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘I Love You’ is next and is as brutal, harsh, honest and extreme a depiction of the breakdown of a marriage as I have ever seen on screen. First class acting from Andre Hennicke and Suzan Anbeh and some awful violence make this one a mini classic. After that we get Tom Savini’s ‘Wet Dreams’, which features the director himself as a psychiatrist trying to help Donnie (James Gill) with his recurrent unpleasant dreams where a beautiful girl turns out to have Lovecraftian genitalia. It all ends horribly and the episode itself is deliberately dreamlike, with the suggestion that different characters are moving in and out of each others nightmares. I think.
Next is a complete change of pace with Douglas Buck’s lyrical and gentle ‘The Accident’, in which a mother does her best to explain death to her young daughter after they witness the deaths of a motorcyclist and a deer in a road accident. This episode can be interpreted in different ways, one being that the child is eventually reassured that death isn't such a bad thing. In my mind there’s something much bleaker and darker going on, and the really evil part of me hopes that’s what the story is actually meant to be about.
Karim Hussein’s ‘Vision Stains’ features a girl who is able to drain the life visions from women at the moment of their death by aspiration using a needle and syringe. She then injects them into her own eye to live the experiences and write about them. There’s an awful lot of eyeball violence in this one, which may distract some viewers from wondering how on earth this girl has managed to repeatedly do all of this in such squalid surroundings without succumbing to some awful eye infection.
Last up is David Gregory’s ‘Sweets’, which is a dessert serving in every way. Channeling his inner Ken Russell Mr Gregory serves up a deliciously outrageous tale of yet another relationship breakup, but this time one using baths full of cream and carpets covered in crushed biscuits as metaphors. It’s a seriously twisted, flamboyant and wonderful ending to a film that deserves as wide an exposure as possible. Not all the stories are going to be to everyone’s tastes, but it is extremely reassuring that this kind of film-making is going on. I understand THEATRE BIZARRE 2 has been announced and I for one can’t wait.