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The Theatre Bizzare is the kind of under-the-radar, independent production that obsessive horror fans, like myself, get excited about, and the rest of the world doesn’t really notice. I suppose the Hot Topic set might like the trailer. Let me explain why [ Theatre Bizzare is at the very least an exciting prospect. The first thing you need to understand is that horror fans (again, I’m including myself here) revel in obscurity, and revere under-known filmmakers. We also love the grand tradition of the anthology production, so mixing obscure directors with a short form format is like mixing, um, ambrosia with manna. For this particular celebration of the Grand Guignol experience Severin Films and French-based Metaluna Productions have gathered a definitely enticing motley crew, made up of two relatively cabalistic genre veterans, a super-star make-up artist that hasn’t directed a feature film in 22 years, and four relatively untried, but exciting underground directors. The short story here is that the brevity of the pieces hinders any major investment, and that the final effect is interesting, but also pretty disappointing.

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Richard Stanley is perhaps the biggest cult favourite among the directing cast, and has had a bit of a career resurgence thanks to lovingly crafted DVD and Blu-ray releases of his most beloved features, Hardware and Dust Devil. Stanley’s genre output is defined by gorgeous imagery, smarter than average takes on exploitation subject matter, and a disappointing lack of humour. After his final cut of Dust Devil was butchered by the Weinsteins, Stanley spent years developing The Island of Dr. Munroe for New Line, only to be replaced by John Frankenheimer after only four days of filming. For years he disappeared into documentary and short subjects, so The Mother Of Toads marks his return to genre. This one follows an annoying couple on a trip in a remote part of the French Pyrenees, who passive aggressively argue before eventually crossing paths with a lustful toad witch. The characters are dull, and stiff dialogue is a problem, but the short format ensures we aren’t saddled with too much outside of Stanley’s Dario Argento inspired hypercolour visions and entertainingly non sequitur storyline (nothing about this makes sense). The director calling upon images from Hardware and Dust Devil quite a bit, which is fun, but also kind of smells of fan-service in place of a lack of inspiration. The analogue creature effects are quite charming, and the colours are fun, but overall Mother of Toads is awkward, and likable mostly for the appearance of Lucio Fulci favourite Catriona MacColl as the witch (when her clothes are on).

Buddy Giovinazzo is best known for his feature debut, an utterly, hopelessly nihilistic 1986 release called Combat Shock. Combat Shock sits on a high shelf with only a handful of films that genuinely disturb even genre enthusiasts, and is a suicidal-inducing success despite being an obviously amateur production. As far as I knew Giovinazzo’s career began and ended with Combat Shock, but he apparently directed No Way Home, starring a young Tim Roth, and has found steady work on German television over the last decade. Having never seen any of Giovinazzo’s later work I found myself most anticipating his part on this film. Generally speaking I Love You, the story of a woman cruelly dumping her emotionally devastated, psychotic boyfriend, meets expectations – it looks like a very well produced modern TV episode (filmed in Germany), and deals in nihilistic human relationships. I actually wouldn’t have been surprised had I been told this slot had been directed by Abel Ferrara, which also makes sense given similarities between his and Giovinazzo’s bodies of work. Things start rather innocuously, and will probably make the gorehounds in the house squirm in their seats, but the climax is plenty bloody, and for the most part genuinely disturbing. Still, pretty flavourless overall, and generally a weak use of the short format.

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Tom Savini is the one member of the directing cast that even non-genre enthusiast will likely recognize. If not by name, they likely know his mustachioed face from Dawn of the Dead, From Dusk Til Dawn and Grindhouse. It’s easy to assume his participation here is somewhat ceremonial given his general lack of directorial output, but it’s also just as easy to forget that his Night of the Living Dead remake (from 1990) is actually really well made, and that he was often credited as directing the gore sequences in which his famous make-up appeared. The guy has chops, he just hasn’t used them in a while. Wet Dreams, which plays kind of like a mix of late night Cinemax softcore and an episode of Tales From the Crypt, utilizes the short format well with dream logic psychosis (events are revealed as nightmares within nightmares just about every two minutes), and features some great, goopy gore effects that will have the fellahs in the audience crossing their legs.

Douglas Buck has been on the horror underground radar since 1997, when he created a little shock machine short called Cutting Moments, which was eventually combined with pseudo-remake, cum sequel Home and Prologue and released in 2003 as Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America. Since then he’s only been given a chance at one feature length film, an ill-advised remake of Brian DePalma’s Sisters, but his talent for disturbing shorts makes him an obvious candidate for a project like Theatre Bizzare. The Accident fits his mould well, and can easily be lumped with Family Portraits for future releases as an ‘upper’ finale. This moody tale of a mother trying to explain the events of a horrific motor accident is a bit heavy-handed in terms of its artistic expression and serious tone, but is emotionally quite honest, even moving. Buck obviously understands the limitations of time and budget, and his story is easily the most artfully edited of the bunch.

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The wildest of the wild cards is French Canadian Karim Hussain. Probably best known for his cinematography on Hobo with a Shotgun (he acted as cinematographer on The Mother Of Toads[I] and [I]The Accident as well as his own segment), Hussain’s feature directorial work is extremely experimental, starting with 2000’s plotless arthouse gore-fest Subconscious Cruelty. He followed it up with Ascension, the story of a world where god is dead, and a character study entitled La belle bête (I have seen neither). Vision Stains is an uncompromisingly bleak vision that revolves around a ‘biographer’ that steals memories from suicidal, drug addicted girls by sucking the liquid from their dying eyes with a needle, and replacing it in her own. Her work is just as gross as it sounds, and Hussain has no interest in having fun with his gore – he wants to unsettle his audience. Like The Accident, Vision Stains is successful because it fills out a short form narrative in a smart manner. It also scores points for originality and an outstanding central performance.

Of the six segment directors, David Gregory is, sadly, probably the least interesting. Best known for directing featurettes and documentaries for DVD extras, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth, Gregory’s only feature release is a decent looking, but largely ordinary rural UK set Plague Town, but he’s an important figure at Severin Films, and is generally responsible for the entire project, so he’s earned his place in the film. Turns out that low expectations can breed some of the best results. Like I Love You, Sweets tracks a cruel breakup, this one between a particularly odd couple perversely obsessed with eating dessert food. Traditionally the final act of a horror anthology is the most outrageous, and Gregory doesn’t disappoint in terms of graphic, colourful content or general silliness. It’s not quite the bang the film needed to go out on, but it’s still plenty memorable, features funny performances, and is uniquely gross.

Everything is supported with a brief wrap around segment from Jeremy Kasten featuring Udo Kier as a doll in a Grand Guignol that slowly turns human while telling the stories. These sections look kind of like a heavy metal music video, which actually works for the film, and they don’t take up too much time between pieces.

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I admit I’ve become enough of an HD snob that I was disappointed that Severin and Image didn’t spring for a Blu-ray release of Theatre Bizarre. Especially since the bulk of it was shot using RED cameras, and would likely look super sweet in 1080p. Every film in the set is generally pretty colourful, and everything is uniformly framed at a 2:35.1 aspect ratio. The power of the RED system, and my Blu-ray player’s upconversion capabilities make for a generally satisfying experience, and compared to other SD transfers overall saturation levels are plenty vibrant (the warmer hues are the most impressive), contrasts are plenty sharp, and details aren’t too smudged or messy at any point. The digital grain changes up throughout the film, but rarely becomes an issue, and compression artefacts are actually less prevalent than I normally expect from an SD transfers these days. However, there is one prevalent and likely avoidable issue with the transfer that I don’t believe is a case of my eyes having adjusted to HD video too exclusively, that of interlacing effects. These sometimes appear as a shutter of a blend, but more often are represented by chunky scan lines.

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This Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is thinner and quieter than I’d been expecting from a series of experimental filmmakers, but generally doesn’t have any obvious problems outside of overall ‘budget’ sound. The centered dialogue is continuously sharp and clear (there is some minor distortion during the high volume screams and laughs of Wet Dreams), and blends well with the basic centered sound effects. Ambient effects are low in the stereo and surround channels throughout, and are a bit of a problem assuming they’re ever supposed to sound natural. Everything here sounds canned and digital, which works for the more abstract and musical effects, but sounds cheap where nature and reality are concerned. The best use of abstract directional work is heard during the climax of Vision Stains, where a voice in the central character’s head blends into a whirr with the dissonant music. The music, composed by Simon Boswell ( The Mother Of Toads and Vision Stains), Susan DiBona ( I Love You), Pierre Marchand ( The Accident) and Mark Raskin ( Sweet), is pretty eclectic, and mostly manages to lift the thin mixes up to somewhere closer to ‘blockbuster’ level, especially in terms of bass support.

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The extras begin with a series of commentary tracks, featuring each director discussing their own piece. Jeremy Kasten includes Udo Kier on his wraparound track, and tears quickly through the production of his mega-shorts. It’s really difficult to discern some of what he’s saying thanks to the fact that it appears to be phoned in, but he does a good job overall. Richard Stanley, who supplied a fantastic commentary for Severin’s release of Hardware speaks quickly, and offers up amusing anecdotes about the filming processes and his stylistic choices (apparently Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava’s films were a visual influence, which I can see). Actress Victoria Maurette and cinematographer Karim Hussain are also included here, and are eventually joined by producer Fabrice Lambot. Buddy Giovinazzo is extremely pleasant on his solo track, and sticks pretty strictly to the basic facts of production, though he does take the time to compare his short to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and some of the other shorts in Theatre Bizzare. Tom Savini is joined by producers Michael Ruggiero and Robert Lucas. Savini is generally in control of this particularly fun track, and recalls the short’s long history, parts of which date back to incomplete projects from the ‘90s. They’re all much easier to understand than Kasten, but also sound like they’re being recorded off of a speakerphone. Karim Hussain is joined on his Vision Stains track by star Kaniehtiio Horn and editor Douglass Buck (who did not record a commentary for his own short, The Accident). Hussain is charming enough, credits the guilty parties for their contributions, and does his best to include the more awkward Horn and Buck in the discussion. The final track features David Gregory alone, mostly discussing the technical and stylistic pieces of the film (the general colour palette is supposed to be similar to that of vomit).

The disc also features a series of informative (but somewhat repetitive following the commentary tracks) interviews with editor Ryan Turek, including David Gregory (15:00), Buddy Giovinazzo (10:30) and Jeremy Kasten (12:50), a brief, five part behind the scenes featurette covering The Accident, Mother of Toads, Theatre Guignol, Sweets and Vision Stains (7:50), and a trailer.

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I’m sure I just set my expectations too high based on the participating directors, but regardless of presumption, I can’t mark The Theatre Bizzare as anything less than a disappointment. The worst news is that the sections I was most anticipating, those directed by Richard Stanley and Buddy Giovinazzo, are the most disappointing. The better news is that the final three entries are actually pretty good, and probably worth the time, assuming you’re a discerning horror fan. I’m disappointed Severin couldn’t get a Blu-ray release together for their pet project, but this standard definition DVD release looks and sounds pretty good, outside a few unattractive digital artefacts, and the extras are plenty entertaining and informative.