Grand Guignol horrors abound in The Theatre Bizarre, a gloriously twisted, frequently stomach-turning anthology horror film comprised of six segments, each from a different genre director. Anthology films are a mixed bag by definition, and that's even more apparent when multiple storytellers are involved: It's simply impossible to expect different filmmakers at various stages in their careers to all be firing on the same number of cylinders. And while the resulting variance in tone and quality can often be part of an omnibus' scabrous charm, there's always the distinct possibility that the lesser efforts will weigh down the stronger ones. In the case of The Theatre Bizarre, at least, the balance is fairly even.
A curious young woman sneaks into a derelict movie theater and experiences six tales of terror from six shock specialists. As the sinister host (Udo Kier) emerges to introduce the show, the screen flickers to life and the terror begins to build. In Richard Stanley's "The Mother of Toads," an anthropologist (Shane Woodward) and his frivolous partner (Victoria Maurette) encounter an enigmatic witch (Catriona MacColl) who casts a seductive spell before making a grotesque transformation. Buddy Giovinazzo's "I Love You" tells the tragic tale of a bewildered man (Andre M. Hennicke) who awakens with a gruesome hand injury and a debilitating case of amnesia, only to unravel even more as he endures a brutal verbal onslaught from his unfaithful wife (Susan Anbeh). The marital troubles continue when an abusive husband gets his gruesome comeuppance in Tom Savini's "Wet Dreams," while Douglas Buck's "The Accident" finds a concerned mother searching for the words to comfort her traumatized young daughter after the pair witness the sudden death of a friendly motorcyclist. Hopelessly depressed after being rejected by his gorgeous girlfriend Estelle (Lindsay Goranson), portly sugar addict Greg (Guilford Adams) discovers too little too late that she is colder than soft serve in David Gregory's "Sweets," and a female serial killer seeking to preserve the tragic memories of society's outcasts finds an unusual means of doing so in Karim Hussain's "Vision Stains."
Though it's difficult to recommend The Theatre Bizarre as a whole, at least three of the featured segments are strong enough to warrant a look from devoted horror fans, with one among them standing out as a mini-masterpiece that transcends the genre altogether.
Nearly 20 years after seeing his last horror feature (1992's Dust Devil) gutted by Miramax (and later having his Island of Dr. Moreau adaptation hijacked altogether), South African writer/director Stanley proves that he still has what it takes to craft an atmospheric frightener in "The Mother of Toads." Imbued with the dark esoteric concepts that have always been Stanley's specialty, the perverse tale finds Lucio Fulci muse MacColl returning to her genre roots with striking effect, and it gets things off to a suitably grim start.
The second entry, Giovinazzo's "I Love You," gets points for its mind-bending tale of emotional cruelty, though the segment ultimately feels a bit too rushed to be genuinely effective, and despite containing a few gruesome surprises, Savini's "Wet Dreams" only offers further proof that the talented makeup-effects artist should probably stick to his specialty.
After a pair of forgivable misfires, however, things really get back on track in Buck's affecting segment, "The Accident." Despite the grim subject matter of a child attempting to grasp the concept of death after witnessing a fatal motorcycle accident, Buck's story is difficult to label as outright horror, and to do so would be a bit of a misnomer. We all remember that profound moment when we realized that we wouldn't live forever, and any parent who has struggled for the words to speak honestly with their child about death will instantly recognize the perceptive writing and skillful direction displayed by Buck as he tackles a very real and very difficult subject in a way that's genuinely moving. Perhaps it's simply due to the placement of the shorts within the feature, but to follow "The Accident" with Gregory's alternately revolting and darkly comic "Sweets" makes the latter come off as a bit forced. Still, for those who like their shocks served with a side of ghastly humor, "Sweets" does manage to deliver at least a few enjoyably foul laughs.
And if the malevolent ringmaster of this sick spectacle was seeking to send us out with a bang, it's hard to imagine a more effective means of doing so than ending on Hussain's "Vision Stains," a heady, high-concept short anchored by the repeated, disturbingly realistic imagery of eyeballs being pierced by hypodermic needles. But as unsettling as the sights of "Vision Stains" may be, Hussain proves that he isn't simply interested in making us squirm by taking us deep into the tortured psyche of his troubled protagonist and shooting his story with a sense of grimy, stylistic flair. Director Jeremy Kasten, meanwhile, makes the most of horror legend Kier (lumbering around the stage like a possessed marionette) in the spooky framing segment, which casts an intoxicatingly eerie yet weirdly playful spell over the whole macabre endeavor.