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Saturday, May 5, 2012

THE THEATRE BIZARRE -- DVD review by porfle

From "Night Gallery"-level chills to art house pretention to EC comics-style irony, THE THEATRE BIZARRE (2011) is, like other anthology films done by a gang of directors, similar to one of those mystery grab bags kids used to order from the back of a monster magazine.

Of course you have your wraparound segment, which in this case concerns a strange young woman named Enola Penny (Virginia Newcomb) whose apartment is across the street from an old abandoned theater with which she's abnormally obsessed.  One night as she's gazing at it through her window, the doors open by themselves and beckon her into its dark, spooky interior.

What she finds onstage is a troup of decaying clockwork figures jerkily performing under the direction of creepy master of ceremonies Peg Poett.  If you're a fan of Udo Kier, you should enjoy seeing him cavort as the robotic storyteller whose bizarre tales seem to draw Enola deeper into the world of the unreal until, as the film's finale, the segment ends precisely as we predict. 

Kier's first tale of the bizarre is "The Mother of Toads" by Richard Stanley (HARDWARE) about a young couple vacationing in France.  Karina (fave actress Victoria Maurette) just wants to have a good time, but anthropologist Martin (Shane Woodward) is caught up in the local pagan history when they meet witch Mere Antoinette (Catriona MacColl) at a street fair. 

Martin can't resist an invitation to her secluded hovel to see her copy of the fabled Necronomicon, which will lead to the usual dire consequences when Mere Antoinette turns out to be none other than the titular sorceress.  The segment is richly Lovecraftian with an adult-oriented "Night Gallery" vibe and laced with grotesque imagery (along with some nice nudity when statuesque Lisa Crawford steps into the Mere Antoinette role during Martin's supernatural seduction). 

Buddy Giovinazzo's "I Love You" makes an abrupt tone change with its story of clinging, emotionally-needy Axel (André Hennicke) not taking the news very well when the love of his life Mo (Suzan Anbeh) announces that she can't stand living with him anymore and is leaving him for someone else.  Aside from the blood, this could be any Euro-cinema relationship drama centered mainly on two people trading tortured dialogue in an apartment.  It's pretty good dialogue, as is the acting, but the predictable twist ending is only mildly effective.

Gore effects legend Tom Savini directs "Wet Dreams" and plays the psychiatrist friend of Donnie (James Gill), a stereotypical male chauvinist who abuses and cheats on demoralized wife Carla (scream queen Debbie Rochon in a strong performance).  Along with an affair with his friend's wife, Donnie's been having nightmares involving horrific forms of castration (the segment's main preoccupation) including a lobster-claw vagina that recalls Lovecraft again. 

Dr. Maurey (Savini) tells Donnie to simply close his eyes and count to three as soon as he realizes that he's dreaming, which should awaken him.  But this won't save him when Carla's own dreams start to take over his reality.  While its women's-revenge-fantasy theme is about as subtle as a bucket of bricks, "Wet Dreams" has that EC comics "ironic retribution" feel to it which--along with James Gill's comically exaggerated performance and some extreme gore effects--makes it one of the film's more wickedly amusing stories. 

Hardly seeming to belong in such a collection of dark horror tales is Douglas Buck's exquisite tone poem "The Accident."  Hauntingly expressive child actress Mélodie Simard plays a little girl who's curious about the hows and whys of death after she and her mother (Lena Kleine) witness a fatal motorcycle accident on a country road. 

There's no real plot or resolution here--the little girl's contemplative impressions of the incident form a leisurely-paced succession of dreamlike images as she questions her mother about death at bedtime and Mom does her best to answer.  And that's it.  It may not sound like much, but upon second viewing I was near tears the whole time, stunned by the subtle beauty and emotional depth of this delicately-rendered fable.  More than anything else, for me anyway, it's what makes THE THEATER BIZARRE a keeper.

Karim Hussain's "Vision Stains" jars us out of this tender reverie with one of the film's most startling tales.  Kaniehtiio Horn is The Writer, a young woman insanely driven to experience and record the memories of the other destitute women she murders by extracting the fluid from their eyes at the point of death and injecting it into her own.

Hussain's handling of the segment is as woozily off-kilter as its premise, probably the most "bizarre" concept in the entire film, and plays upon our eye-injury fears with the help of a very convincing practical effect--namely, an oversized articulated eye used in some cringeworthy closeups.  The Writer's quest for knowledge will eventually lead to a fate familiar to fans of Roger Corman films.

Finally, there's David Gregory's sickly "Sweets", which may put you off dessert for awhile.  Candy addict Greg (Guilford Adams) goes into withdrawal when his girlfriend Estelle (Lindsay Goranson), with whom he's shared many moments of confectionary bliss, announces that she's leaving him.  As Greg devolves into a mass of syrupy hysteria, the strangely distant Estelle responds to his pleas with a monotone string of cliches such as "It's not you, it's me" and "I need space."

Something's definitely not right about Estelle or her effect on the bloated, pathetic Greg, and anyone who's ever read "Hansel and Gretel" will have little trouble figuring out why.  The climactic scene occurs inside an underground restaurant populated by weird Goths overindulging in grotesque delicacies, and ends with the film's most over-the-top gore.  The old-school practical effects used to achieve this are impressive, but, despite being somewhat amusing, the segment isn't.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound, and closed-captioning but no subtitles.  Extras include a short behind-the-scenes featurette, directors' interviews, a trailer, and a commentary track featuring the directors along with certain cast and crew members.

THE THEATER BIZARRE is a worthwhile trip for horror fans through some dark, strange territory, with each story offering its own unique style and approach.  Like those richly colorful Warren comics from the 60s and 70s that director Richard Stanley cites as one of his inspirations, the film is always interesting to look at but the stories range from the memorable to the forgettable. 

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