Saturday 4 August 2012

The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

Directors: Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, Jeremy Kasten, Tom Savini and Richard Stanley
Stars: Udo Kier, Guilford Adams, Suzan Anbeh, Lindsay Goranson, André Hennicke, Kaniehtiio Horn, Lena Kleine, Catriona MacColl, Victoria Maurette, Virginia Newcomb, Debbie Rochon, Tom Savini and Melodie Simard
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Horror anthology films are often hit and miss affairs but this one's even more hit and miss than usual. There are six segments from six different directors and eight different writers, along with a vague framing story from another one each of each, and none of them seem to have anything remotely in common with any of the others with regards to actors, tone or genre. Not even the language is consistent. At the time I wondered if it wasn't a real anthology at all, perhaps just a few unrelated short films which someone acquired the rights to and decided to pass off as an anthology, but I now see commonalities within the crew. Douglas Buck, for instance, wrote and directed The Accident, but edited Wet Dreams, Vision Stains and Sweets too. Karim Hussain, who wrote, shot and directed Vision Stains, was also the cinematographer on The Mother of Toads and The Accident. So it appears to be a real anthology, all other evidence to the contrary.

Unfortunately the first segment is by far the worst. It's Mother of Toads, an adaptation of a Clark Ashton Smith story by Richard Stanley of Hardware and Dust Devil fame. I'm a big fan of Smith, a contemporary of H P Lovecraft and contributor to Weird Tales. What set Smith apart from other writers was his vocabulary; reading a Smith story is a lush, immersive experience unmatched in weird fiction, but precisely none of that was translated to the screen here. What we get instead is thoroughly routine. An anthropologist and his wife tour France so he can research and she can buy things, but they stumble upon a copy of the Necronomicon in the hands of a local witch and that never ends well. It isn't all bad, as the imagery is decent, if not remotely new, and Catriona MacColl is fine, but it all feels flimsy and predictable. I'll never complain about a nubile, naked witch, but this needed freakiness and tension and only the toads in the forest come close.

I Love You is an improvement, but is so different it's impossible to compare. New York writer and director Buddy Giovinazzo, still best known for his debut film, Combat Shock, gets psychological in Berlin with a neatly arced story about Axel and Simone, an obsessive German and his former French girlfriend. They're played by German actors, André Hennicke and Suzan Anbeh, who are much better in their native language than they are in English and they know it. Axel wakes up in the bathroom covered in blood, recovering from a fight that he doesn't remember. Outside is Mo with her new boyfriend George, and our story begins when she comes in and comes clean. It's a brutal psychological piece, which plays with our sympathies and ends well, though I did want a twist on the twist. Hennicke is excellent, like a young Polanski mixed with Robert Carlyle and a little Viggo Mortensen. I'd like to see more of his work, which is increasingly not in German.

After a Lovecraftian tale and a psychological foreign drama, next up is a more traditional horror yarn all about sex, violence and dreams. Oh, and special effects. It's directed by the legendary Tom Savini, after all. I liked it, but more for the many layers of reality and dream that it travels through than the gore, which is still agreeably solid and rarely off screen. There's more here to remember in a short segment than in most features, beginning with a POV shot where we follow a girl in a thong and progressing through torture, genital mutilation, amputation, you name it, all done capably and gratuitously. The biggest problem that Wet Dreams has is that it has precious little time to work with, so can't really build anything in such a way that we can try to figure any of it out. Without intellectual engagement, it becomes merely a set of revelations, all fun ones to be sure, but revelations nonetheless. It deserves more length to be explored properly.
Slow and atmospheric from moment one, The Accident is a jarring shift in the pace of the film, which is a shame because it's the best segment thus far. It's beautifully shot, both the leisurely motion and the photographic stills; it's scored well; and it unfolds superbly, inevitable in plot but ambiguous in effect, which is a neat little combo to have. 'Why do people die, mummy?' the little girl asks, as the film flashes back to the title scene where a biker who waved to her hit a deer. It isn't clear on one viewing exactly what writer/director Douglas Buck, an unfortunate name given the circumstances, was aiming at here. Obviously there are many questions asked about death, not just by the little girl and not just about the biker. There's a gruesome scene that I won't spoil that takes that deeper. Yet I wonder if there's more: it seems notable that the mother/daughter are in a car but the unrelated father/son are on motorbikes. I'd love to see this again.

Almost to underline how the common thread of these segments is to not have a common thread, the fifth piece mixes science fiction and horror into a story that aims to find the secret of life in an unusual way. The protagonist in Vision Stains, credited simply as the Writer, extracts fluid from the eyes of dying women and injects it into her own. In doing so, she extracts the important things from their lives, which presumably flash before their eyes at the moment of their death, to document for posterity. Being their biographer is a calling and she has a lot of notebooks. This is a neat take on an old idea, which calls on actress Kaniehtiio Horn to get into freaky locations and do icky things. I last saw her in The Wild Hunt and I appreciated her work there too. I'm not sure I caught everything Karim Hussain aimed at, but it's telling that he's known as a cinematographer more than a writer/director, a worker in the visual. It's original and it has a great escalation.

Last up is a metaphor from David Gregory, the prolific biographer in film whose work tends to be found by clicking on the 'Extras' button on DVD menus rather than 'Play Movie'. However I was a big fan of his last feature, Plague Town, and I liked this short piece, Sweets, very much too. It has to do with a compulsive eater called Greg, a complete slob in a mess of a place, but who still has a lovely girlfriend in Estelle. Well, maybe not. As she wheels out all the leaving lines and he gets progressively grosser, they flashback to increasingly weird foot fetish scenes and we realise that she isn't real, or at least isn't any more. Then we switch from Greg's suitably gross environs to a chic party, a wonderful contrast in style and setting but still very much about food fetishes and eating disorders. This is far from your average chic party, folks, and it gets less so from there. It's a very European piece, weird but arty, and put together very well indeed.

Our host and guide is the ever-freaky Udo Kier, sharing the stage of the Theatre Guignol with a host of automatons during the linking segments. These segments are weak but the name of this theatre is important, as the film was apparently inspired by the legendary Grand Guignol theatre in Paris, which, at the height of its success from 1898-1930, specialised in short gory plays with shocking special effects. An average of two audience members fainted every evening. I knew of the Grand Guignol but hadn't realised that its shows varied in style as much as the segments of this film, even alternating horror plays with comedies to heighten the effect. Each director built their own tribute from a consistent budget, schedule and directive to follow the Grand Guignol themes, but with complete artistic freedom otherwise. With each segment featuring something icky or gross to focus on, this would seem to be fair tribute, but it's still annoyingly disjointed.

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