AUGUST 20, 2012
Since it was two hours long, I opted not to check out The Theatre Bizarre during its "theatrical release" earlier this year, as it only played at midnight and thus I knew I was too likely to fall asleep and screw myself out of a proper review. A bummer, since I'm always happy to see new anthologies being made and would have loved to have supported it theatrically. Let's quit with the midnight only releases, folks - there's gotta be a movie or two that's doing poorly anyway and thus it can be replaced for a prime (7:30pm) show for an evening, same as a theater has to do for a premiere or test screening.
Anyway, like pretty much all anthologies (especially those with different directors for each segment), it's a mixed bag - some work, others don't, and part of the fun is discussing your picks with someone who saw it differently. However, one thing about it is quite rare - I actually found the wraparound segments to be the most entertaining part. As a fan of Udo Kier (who isn't?), nothing else in the movie's two hour runtime delighted me as much as seeing playing an automaton that gradually became more human like as the film progressed. He's sort of the MC of the titular theater, telling the stories (which are represented by their own automatons) to a girl in the crowd. At first he's almost unrecognizable, and even when the makeup starts to shed and his real face shines through I was so impressed with his jerky, robotic movements that I considered some digital trickery was at work, only to remember that the budget was too low for that to be the case. It's creepy as hell, and sets the tone nicely for the segments, which are often garish and strange as well.
They're also nicely balanced, in that I liked every other story. The first, third, and fifth entries suffered from poor acting, obnoxious dream plotting, and a horrendous voiceover, respectively, while the even-numbered tales, while not perfect, brought out the best of their filmmaker's abilities and held my attention. Unfortunately this made for a bit of a bumpy viewing experience - just when I started getting really into it, a new, lesser story would begin. They're also tonally all over the place; black humor is a big portion of many, but the 4th and 5th are quite serious. And the 1st story is supernaturally based, which is an odd start considering there's only one other that isn't real-world based.
I don't have much to say about the first tale, about a guy looking for the Necronomicon, finds a witch of some sort, fucks her, and then she turns into a frog or something. It was quite silly, and the two leads (the guy and his girlfriend) weren't very appealing as actors, nor did they have solid chemistry, so it just didn't work. I do like the concept, however - it's certainly unusual. Perhaps the original short story would be better, where you can spare yourself both bad acting AND come up with your own vision of the monster.
But things get back on track with "I Love You", which comes from Buddy Giovinazzo, the director of Combat Shock. Like that film, it doesn't really qualify as horror until the end, but it's compelling enough as a drama for that to not really matter. Our hero is a weak-willed man who learns his wife is leaving him (for a close friend, if I'm understanding correctly), and the piece depicts his pleas for her to reconsider. Things, naturally, go awry. Both actors are terrific, and unlike most of the entries, I could actually see this being a stage play, which fits the film's Grand Guignol-inspired motif. It also has the best "sounds silly but it's kind of awesome" anti-romance line I've heard since Closer's "It tasted like yours only sweeter!", so there's something.
Tom Savini directs the next installment, which would have been fine as a Tales From The Crypt episode 20 years or so ago, but just feels too dated now. A guy who is cheating on his wife gets his just desserts, but to get to that point we have to watch roughly 800 million dream sequences, all of which end with the guy's manhood being mangled in some way. I would have preferred something that built off the film's obvious "twist", rather than a bunch of hooey until it reached its obvious conclusion, but at least Savini (who also has a small role) seems to be enjoying himself, and it's certainly a step up from his entry in Deadtime Stories.
Now, so far all of the stories have basically been about the consequences of fucking people you're not supposed to, which is what makes Douglas Buck's segment such an oddball in both placement and theme. If it had been placed second, it could have perfectly set the tone for the film as a whole, a sort of "You don't know what to expect" type thing. But with the first three seemingly following a theme, it really makes this one stick out even more than it already would have, since it's also the least horrific of the bunch. No, it's actually a quite melancholy (and great) rumination on death, as seen through the eyes of a child, and I can't help but wonder if it should have been dropped from the film and used elsewhere, because as it stands it's sort of like dropping a bit of caviar into a McDonald's hamburger - both have their merits, but they just don't belong together.
The 5th story also avoids the "sex = death" concept for something a little more Twilight Zone-ish, where a woman can extract fluid from someone's eyeballs and insert it into her own in order to experience their memories. Like Savini's, you can probably figure out where it's going right off the bat, but it might have been less of an issue without the droning voiceover. If I wasn't trying to ignore it by concentrating elsewhere, maybe I would have been caught up more in the on-screen action (which includes lots of shots of needles going into eyeballs - you've been warned!) and less likely to "see it coming". Voiceover: always reconsider it.
Finally, David Gregory's 6th entry fits more with the first three; it's not as sexually graphic, but it similarly combines death with a deadly sin (in this case gluttony), and the main character is a woman who is fattening up her boyfriend so her and her upper class pals can feast on him later. It's the most disgusting one of the lot, as the snobs (who mostly dress like the assholes in Hunger Games) literally stuff their faces (one even eats her own puke) and slobber all over each other - nothing like ending on a memorable note. It's not the best story ever, but there's something admirably insane about the whole thing, and anything that can get me to not want to eat for a while (I eat like an asshole) can only be a good thing.
In addition to the 2 hr movie, the disc comes kind of packed - 40 minutes of interviews (with my good friend Ryan from ShockTillYouDrop) featuring Gregory, Jeremy Kasten (who was behind the wrap-arounds), and Giovinazzo, who talk about how they got involved, the production of their shorts, working with the others, etc. All worth a look, unlike the behind the scenes material, which is literally just a bunch of random, context-free shots of the production of a few of the segments (one even ends on someone asking the director a question!). Skip it, because you'll need more time for the commentary. Buck sits out, unfortunately, but the rest all deliver breakneck tracks for their respective pieces, with Kasten and Kier (both of whom sound like they're on speakerphone) piping up for the framing scenes. I much prefer this style than say, the Chillerama version, which had all four filmmakers sitting together through the whole thing and not really being 100% relevant to what segment was on - if you hated a piece you can skip over it and not miss out on potential information for the others.
A sequel is already in production, so obviously the ambitious gamble paid off, and I applaud them. It's not a home run, but few anthologies are (especially when they're joint efforts), so I can't really complain about a few lesser entries as it's almost a given. I think the overall viewing experience could have benefited from re-ordering (I'd go with 3, 4, 1, 2, 5, 6), but I'm sure every sequence was considered during the post production process, and perhaps they have reasons for doing it this way that I'm not privy to. Either way, definitely worth a watch if you're a fan of the format.
What say you?