I (sort of) knew what I was getting into. I had heard about this movie from The Double Shadow, a podcast dedicated to the works of Clark Ashton Smith. You likely don't know Smith, so briefly, he was an exceptionally talented artist who was most productive during the first half of the 20th century. He and H.P. Lovecraft exercised a tremendous amount of influence on each other, and though Smith was probably a better writer and storyteller than Lovecraft, his ideas were much more grounded and much less striking, which is why Lovecraft will always be Lovecraft, and Smith will always be his pupil. At any rate, the podcast discussed one of Smith's stories, "The Mother of Toads", and when they mentioned that it had been adapted as one chapter of the movie The Theatre Bizarre, I decided that I had to see it. Understand, it's not a great story, but I'm a big fan of Smith's work, and he's only been adapted for screen once or twice.
They did mention that the movie wasn't very good.
And it's not. There's a lot of blood and a lot of nudity and it claims to be inspired by the shows of Paris' legendary Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol which specialized in the portrayal of realistic gore. The Theatre Bizarre certainly bathes in its sex and violence, but t's not in the service of anything. It's like they're saying "here's some vomit-inducing imagery! Deal with it!"
I can't say why, exactly, but that sort of presentation does nothing for me. I get bored and need something more. Humor, camp, maybe a hero to root for. The Theatre Bizarre is more stylishly executed than The Saw movies, but it fulfills the same (literally) visceral need. If you're so jaded that you only watch these movies for the gore, then The Theatre Bizarre is probably for you, but my mind wanders to my to-do list when I watch this stuff.
"But Allan!" I hear you saying. "You've barely spoken about the movie yet!" To this I say, number one, stop calling me Allan. Number two, okay. Here goes:
The Theatre Bizarre starts with its framing story, in which a young woman goes to the theater, where a life-sized puppet played by the always dependable Udo Kier gives disturbing and confusing monologues in front of every vignette.
Chapter #1: "The Mother of Toads" is actually not a bad adaptation of the original short story, but this is coming from someone who watches a lot of Lovecraft adaptations, which usually don't even share the names of their characters with the original stories. In short, a kid has sex with a toad.
Chapter #2: "I Love You" is basically a psychological thriller in which a woman breaks up with her husband. He wants to reconcile, and they talk it out. Then we discover that the guy is re-living the moments before his gristly murder of his wife and her lover. Surprisingly well executed, considering the dismissal I'm giving it.
Chapter #3: "Wet Dreams" Guy has horrible nightmares. Guy wakes up from horrible nightmares to find that his real life is also a horrible nightmare. Guy wakes up again. One of the nightmares is probably real. Also, his wife cuts off his legs and eyebrows.
Chapter #4: "The Accident" portrays the aftermath of a brutal traffic accident which was witnessed by a little girl. The little girl has questions about life and death, and her mother answers them as best she can. A motorcyclist gets his head bashed in, and deer gets its throat slit.
Chapter #5: "Vision Stains" A woman becomes a serial killer when she discovers a way to extract and experience the memories of her victims.
Chapter #6: "Sweets" A woman and her boyfriend have a long, painful discussion about breaking up, intercut with scenes of them overindulging on candy. After the conversation, she attends a posh party, where he is brutally slaughtered and fed to the other guests.
None of this is as bad as I make it sound, but it's only slightly better. Everything in The Theatre Bizarre reminds me of two things: student films, and special effects demo reels. You can find more of both on Youtube, and like anything else, the best examples seem to rise to the top. Click on the popular ones, and you won't have to wade through the pap. There are good moments here, but not many. Each of the chapters was directed by a different person, and Tom Savini's "Wet Dream" is, if not good, then at least visually impressive. "Sweets" also has some stunning imagery, but when all is said and done, I just don't see the point.
I just. Don't. See. The point.
I'm not scared, I'm not grossed out, I am bored. Give me Roger Corman and an alien in an obvious rubber suit. Or give me William Castle and a plastic skeleton on a wire. Give me Vincent Price as a cackling, mustache twirling villain, or Lon Chaney Jr., his jowls quaking with fear (or possibly DT). Give me Carol Ohmart as a methodical, backstabbing harlot, or Linnea Quigley as a brazen, punk-rock zombie. Give me cool-headed Peter Cushing or overacting Christopher Lee, or even catchphrase-spouting Robert Englund, but give me something -- anything -- to keep me interested. I have not been desensitized. I get it. But I need more than splatter and breasts. Other horror fans do too, evidently, or you'd already have heard of this one.
Two stars out of five: one for effort, one for visual flair. That's still only 40%.
Here's the trailer anyway.