Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Theatre Bizarre (anthology, 2011)

(Note: This review was originally posted at Truly Disturbing Horror.) 

Do you like Lovecraft inspired horror? How about kinky, body horror? Are you into horror with a slightly more metaphysical aspect to it? What about psychological horror? Maybe the kind of art house horror that goes all out weird and truly mind boggling is more your taste? Are you into gore? What are your feelings about the emotionally disturbing kind of horror that reflects on childhood? How do you feel about creepy Udo Kier?

If you’ve answered postively to more than two or three of those questions, The Theatre Bizarre is for you. If you can’t find one or two segments that you enjoy in this film, you probably hate horror films.

The various segments of The Theatre Bizarre careen from the somewhat campy and silly to the downright bizarre and grotesque with screaming glee. Even the weakest segment, Tom Savini’s Wet Dreams has some great aspects. Even then, the reason it’s the weakest segment is that it needs more time to develop the story and characters to their fullest potential. It’s a great premise, with some great visual presentation, but it’s a few minutes too short to develop it’s premise thoroughly enough to pack the maximum punch. It feels like it rushes to its ending a bit too suddenly. That being said, it’s still a wickedly fun short with enough shock to make it somewhat effective. It just isn’t quite as powerful as the premise and the setup promise it could be.

There may be too much of a shift in tone across the different segments for some people to appreciate the film, because it does make for a jarring experience. That can also be taken as a strength though, adding to the sense of disorientation that can work to the advantage of some films. Here, because of the obvious joy and love the different creative teams have for each story they’re telling, it’s exhilarating. As a matter of personal preference, one of my favorite things about horror and about film in a more general way is that it can tell a variety of stories and provide a variety of different experiences. Having the degree of variation crammed into the same ninety minute running time that The Theatre Bizaree does is something I’ve always loved in anthology films.

The Mother of Toads segment takes some Lovecraft lore and spins a new tale with it, throwing in some of the best elements of what has made old H.P. an icon in horror and literature in general. It also adds a few elements which weren’t so prominent in most of Lovecraft’s work and becomes a hallucinogenic romp into the truly weird, and then throws some great fifties monster movie camp into the mix. It’s the first segment, and a great way to signal the amount of strange mayhem the audience is about to see.

I Love You has a more conventional conceit at it’s center, but approaches the story from a fresh perspective. It’s the story of a couple who’ve been driven apart by jealousy and a kind of emotional reliance that is suffocating for the person who’s the object of it. The fun is in watching these two people at the end of that relationship, heading toward an inevitably bad conclusion. It plays with time, perspective and the audience perception of the events in an interesting way. The final reveal proves to be more conventional than the rest of the story, but it’s still fun getting there and both of the actors give performances that are interesting and entertaining enough to avoid it being a let down.

Visual Stains is a metaphysical head spinner. It’s brutal and disturbing, without coming across as pure exploitation. The premise is awesomely strange and is horrifying all by itself. A young woman is chronicling the stories of other women who’ve been cast aside by society. How she goes about getting those stories is what makes this segment a shocker. Let’s just say forbidden knowledge is forbidden for a reason, and things get weirder with each passing minute. This may be the most truly fresh and different story in the whole film. It’s even more interesting to think about in connection with some of the big stories in the news right now.

The Accident might be my personal favorite, because it is so different from the other segments. It takes a significant risk in that it doesn’t present a horror story in the way we normally think about horror. Instead it explores an idea that is in many ways much more simple, that just about anyone can identify with in some way, and examines a part of the horror of real life from an interesting perspective. It is more or less about a child’s realization of what mortality is and that it means everything eventually dies, including one’s self and loved ones. It’s oddly tender and lyrical, especially in the middle of the rest of the segments, but it’s definitely an interesting take on what horror is. It’s also the most visually beautiful segment, and doesn’t run away from being it’s existential roots. For the audiences who have a particular taste for the more visceral, hardcore and less intellectual or emotional kind of horror, it’s going to be a let down. I can’t help but respect the chances their taking by putting it in the middle of the these other segments, and I hope audiences might gain a bit more of an open mind to this kind of storytelling as a result.

The last of the segments, Sweets, is completely surreal. There’s an almost John Waters vibe to it that I really appreciated. This and The Accident are almost tied for my vote as best segment, for reasons that couldn’t be more different. It runs full speed into the kind of art house horror territory that most other anthologies avoid like the plague. It’s not going to be the most popular of the segments, definitely, but it’s as good as any of the others. It establishes a deeply uncomfortable, weird, creepy vibe from the first shot and gets even stranger over it’s length. It ends with a funny, incisive jab at the culture of “being cool” and the metaphor isn’t so heavy that it feels smothering, but also isn’t so vague that it takes much after thought to grasp it. It’s funny, gore filled and just… weird.

The framing segments, with Udo Kier as the M.C. of The Theatre Bizarre that the film takes it’s name from are pretty great too. The separate segments of the film are presented as stories being told in The Theatre. Using this kind of device as the way to wrap all of the stories together is part of what gives them the breadth and variation they have. In that circumstance, there could be stories about anything. And Udo Kier in creepy, almost mannequin like make-up is even more creepy than Udo Kier normally is. He seems to really relish the M.C. role too, which helps to sell it.

All in all, The Theatre Bizaree is a surreal adventure in anthology horror. It’s fun, smart, entertaining, diverse and well made. If all horror anthologies had been able to keep the level of quality throughout their segments that this one has, we wouldn’t be experiencing a resurgence of the anthology, because they’d never have gone away.

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