A young girl (Virginia Newcomb), who frankly looks frightened out of her gourd (I’m gonna assume that if you can be coked out of your gourd, you can be frightened it out of it too), seeks refuge in the “Theatre Guignol”. I know that sounds like a bad idea on paper, but I can see how watching a modern variation on the Grand Guignol might be a safe way to relieve anxiety. However, a rotting mannequin version of Udo Kier comes on stage, and that causes me to rethink my stance. Nothing against the great German actor, but I think it’s probably a good idea to simply run away whenever you see a rotting mannequin version of Udo Kier, even if he has a briefcase full of money to hand to you. Better safe than sorry.
Anyway, this is actually a linking device (directed by Jeremy Kasten), as creepy doll Udo introduces six different stories while creepy doll people act creepy on stage. It’s rather perfunctory as a linking device, but I guess every horror anthology has to have one for some reason. However, creepy doll people are awesome enough to where I can give them a pass for being perfunctory.
The first story, “The Mother of Toads”, is about a good looking American couple (Shane Woodward and Victoria Maurette) who are sightseeing in an ultra rustic part of France, where paganism still exists and the crème brulee recipes are probably not up to date (sacre bleu!). The dude buys his girlfriend a pair of earrings, even though he notices that they are modeled after the elder sign from H.P. Lovecraft fame (it’s both a hot look and a red flag). The creepy pagan lady (Catriona MacColl of The Beyond) selling the earrings invites him over to her place to check out her rad book collection. Specifically, she claims to have a copy of the Necronomicon, and dude is into that kind of stuff, while his girlfriend would rather go swimming. Needless to say, things break bad. Specifically, the pagan lady is the mother of a race of toad people. I hate it when you go looking for the Necronomicon and freaky monster people ruin your day. Never again. I’ve learned my lesson.
“The Mother of Toads” is not the campy Evil Dead ripoff you might expect from the description. Rather, the setup is an excuse for director Richard Stanley to assault the viewer with pagan psychedelic imagery in a way that’s not too stylistically different from his earlier films (like Dust Devil). Watching it is like dropping acid in the middle of a pagan toad ceremony or something. Not that I would know. However, if that’s your average weekend, you might as well skip the segment as it will just seem redundant.
“I Love You” is the next story, and it’s about a German dude (Andre Hennicke) living in Berlin who wakes up one day and notices a giant cut on his arm. If that wasn’t bad enough, his cold French wife (Suzan Anbeh) shows up, trying to find a way to tell him that she is leaving him for an American guy. He can’t understand what he did to deserve this, but she just tells him that it’s her fault; that what she needs is “to be fucked with a scream…our penis and vagina never liked each other.” As a result, she has “cheated behind (his) back at every opportunity and laughed about it”. I’m no expert at relationships, but maybe there’s a better way to break up with an angry German dude. I guess French women are just frank about sex. God bless ‘em. Anyway, their relationship, shall we say, “breaks bad”. Let’s just leave it at that.
Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, this feels like a very European (both literally and stylistically) variation on themes in his earlier films like Combat Shock and No Way Home; that is, desperate men in emotionally desperate situations that end in shocking ways. The central performance is a bit too overdone (maybe Mr. Hennicke isn’t used to acting in English), but this is a well done slice of character-based psychological horror with a stylish and shocking ending.
The third story, “Wet Dreams”, starts with some hunk (James Gill) being led around by a hot naked chick, only to end up castrated by…well, how do I explain this…you’ll just have to watch it I guess. Thankfully, it was all a nightmare. Phew. However, he wakes up screaming and accidentally elbow smashes his wife (Debbie Rochon) in the face. Thankfully, he realizes that if he is haunted by castration fantasies (both waking and dreaming) to the point where he ends up breaking his wife’s face, it’s probably time to see a psychiatrist. So, he goes to see psychiatrist Tom Savini (another red flag), who sarcastically diagnoses his dream as “not too Freudian”. Savini then asks him if he’s ever raped his mother in his dreams. I guess that’s pretty vital information to have if you’re trying to figure out if someone is crazy.
However, this is all a "dream within a dream within a dream" structure where our “hero” is subject to castration nightmares (usually of the torture porn variety) that arise because of guilt from cheating on his wife. Directed by Tom Savini, this is more of a cool and amusing effects reel (as you might imagine) than a normal story, but maybe it had a definite structure and I was just confused. I dunno.
The fourth story, directed by Douglas Buck, is entitled “The Accident”. A mother (Lena Kleine) is trying to explain death to her young daughter (Melodie Simard) before she goes to sleep, intercut with remnants of an accident earlier in the day involving a motorcyclist and a deer from the daughter’s point of view (“Mommy, is that man ever going to wake up again, even as a zombie?”). The biker’s living friend is even forced to kill the dying deer with a knife in front of the daughter. That’s messed up yo. The short is an elegiac and fairly beautiful portrayal of a young girl trying to process the horrors of death, belonging more to the likes of The Spirit and the Beehive than some torture porn movie.
Up next is “Vision Stains” by Karim Hussain. This one is about a young woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) who lives on skid row in some faceless metropolis (and this is the real hardcore “dead bodies covered in trash” kinda skid row). She is interested in telling the stories of hopeless people (even more hopeless than her). She does so by taking a needle full of eye juice from people while they are dying, and injecting this eye juice (sorry, I’m not a doctor) into her own eye. Well, that’s certainly an innovative way to get to know somebody. I guess interviewing somebody with one of those little tape recorders is old fashioned. Anyway, this allows her to see the memories of the now dead person, and she furiously scribbles what she sees in notebooks in order to chronicle the lives of those lost to society. That’s admirable on some level (although not admirable enough to cancel out the murder part), but things get less admirable and more uncomfortable when she wonders what would happen if she tried to inject the memories of somebody who doesn’t actually have any memories. I'm not saying things break bad, but they don't exactly break great either. I’ll just leave it at that.
Sort of a gutter poetic Outer Limits episode (VERY gutter), this story manages the mean feat of being disturbing while being built around an original an interesting idea that is unpredictable, but manages to seem somewhat logical in retrospect. Maybe my favorite of the bunch, if you care.
The last story, “Sweets” by David Gregory, is about a couple (Lindsay Goranson and Guilford Adams) who both have an insane junk food fetish, yet don’t seem to put on any weight (maybe they both do Tae Bo religiously). However, their relationship is turning sour, and she tells him she “needs her space”. Better that ‘ole chestnut than hearing the truth, I guess. So, they decide to attend some ultra fancy modern art party for gluttons, and things break good. Just kidding. They break bad. It’s against the rules of horror movies to have people just sitting around eating the entire time. That’s not gonna fly on the message boards. Even though it’s stylistically pretty cool, this is my least favorite story, as whatever “food as metaphor” thing the director was going for didn’t really work for me, and it felt a little long and pointless as a result.
The party has this cool band though, if a guitarist and a cellist can be called a "band".In summary, if you go in expecting Creepshow, you’ll probably be disappointed. The Theatre Bizarre seems like a case where a group of interesting filmmakers were given free reign to do whatever they wanted, as long as it vaguely fell under the rubric of horror (and even then, maybe only the first story can be said to be a straight horror film). Other than that, there is no real unifying factor, story wise or aesthetic wise. It sort of reminds me of recent arthouse anthologies like Paris, je t'aime, which strings together a bunch of interesting short films whose only connection is that they take place in Paris. I don’t even think every short was about love, but they might have been. I guess love is everywhere when you’re in Paris anyway.
The results are very refreshing, as each story is unique from each other, both in terms of narrative and style, as well as being unique when compared to other horror movies and shorts. It also hums along, as there are seven stories (if you count the linking segments as one story) jammed in there, although it kind of fizzled out for me considering my least favorite short came last. Either way, I’d much rather see this kind of approach to horror anthologies than the typical fourth rate Creepshow ripoffs you normally see. We get it, there's a hook killer out on lover's lane, and a ghost seeking revenge, and a heavy breather harassing a babysitter. I liked it back when it was done well, thank you. I'd get off of my soapbox, but it has long since collapsed under the weight of my pretensions.