Toronto After Dark Review: The Theater Bizarre
Review by Kayley Viteo
The Theater Bizarre is the result of an interesting experiment where six genre filmmakers are given an identical budget and full creative license in order to make a short film in Grand Guignol tradition. Basically, this is an anthology for “mutant side projects” that showcase the most disturbing, grisly things an auteur filmmaker can think of. All of this is great in theory, but in practice complicated and incredibly incoherent.
The Theater Bizarre’s framework – loose as it is – is that of a young woman getting caught in the theater’s irresistible pull. The stories are “told” by Udo Kier, fantastic as always. This segment is great in its own right, giving the anthology the right amount of frenetic, although controlled, energy. Still, the actual short films are uneven, with only two of the seven standing out to me.
Mother of Toads – Director Richard Stanley (of the cult classic Hardware) crafts an inconsistent narrative that basically answers the question of what happens when you go looking for the Necronomicon. The answer is exactly what you’d expect: all manner of disturbing, Lovecraftian, creepy shit. I was drastically underwhelmed by this piece, which contains a few amusing parts but is overwhelmingly dull.
I Love You – A film that expounds on the horrors of the absolute truth, I Love You documents the tragic end to a relationship. Very well-acted by a cast that includes André Hennicke (Antibodies) and backed by a script that works you into a ball of tension. The end feels like a release if only because something has actually happened, you’re no longer waiting for it, and you feel grateful for that. Out of the two stories I enjoyed, this would be my second favorite. Not everyone was a fan as I spotted a few groups leaving about halfway through this one.
Wet Dreams – First, I’m not entirely sure why Tom Savini is included as a director here. I am the first to champion Savini as I’ve been a fan for ages, but when I think of auteur genre filmmakers, he does not come to mind. His short film is about embodied castration anxiety, but none of that tension comes forth. Weak and relatively lazy, Wet Dreams amounts to a bunch of cut off penises, with nothing else to show for it. Coming after I Love You doesn’t do it any favors, which handles violence and gore with a deft and honestly beautiful hand. Watching I Love You is like watching a surgeon; watching Wet Dreams is like seeing someone hit things with a sledgehammer. In short: repetitive and boring.
The Accident – Hands down my favorite of The Theater Bizarre, this short film by Douglas Buck is also one of my favorites of the festival. A young girl has her first encounter with death, and asks her mother a series of questions. Wonderfully acted and brilliantly written (particularly the dialogue between mother and child), The Accident is realistically disturbing and deceptively simple. I would buy the DVD of The Theater Bizarre just so I could have this short.
Vision Stains – A strangely intriguing story by Karim Hussein. A woman is writing a journal of sorts, but the memories aren’t hers. She kills and takes the “key moments of experience” from other women, which basically amounts to her sticking needles into eyeballs. Fantastically gruesome, this one had me up until the last sequence, which I felt was a cheap ploy. Still, this one certainly made people squirm and there are moments where the film looks really good. The most interesting thing about Vision Stains is that no CGI was used, which is very impressive given the effects in the film.
Sweets – If there ever was an excuse to have numerous close-ups of a female actress’ mouth, Sweets is it. Combine the end of a relationship and a severe food fetish and you have Sweets, directed by David Gregory. This is another that I was intrigued by in the beginning, but fell apart for me by the end. Led by actress Lindsay Goranson, I was mostly in this just for her. She’s great with what she’s given, and still manages to look gorgeous in what can only be described as a demented Peggy (Married with Children) get-up. This is a short film reliant on the concept of excess, but to the point of no return.
Overall, I enjoyed two of the seven short films in The Theater Bizarre. None of the films tie together, though these stand out the most. The rest are all spectacles, whereas The Accident and I Love You are simple, textured storytelling that are grisly and haunting without glut. The Theater Bizarre will be enjoyed by some, and perhaps would have been personally more enjoyable had there been some connections between the films.
The Theater Bizarre played with short Puzzleface, which has to be the most annoying short film ever created. Gimmicky and asinine, Puzzleface looks like a bunch of friends filmed something, put it on YouTube, and somehow were allowed into the festival. Needless to say, I didn’t like it and don’t think many will.