Deviant, demented and occasionally delicious, “The Theatre Bizarre” offers a hallucinatory flashback to the heyday of omnibus horror while also making a statement about the art: For all its Grand Guignol-inspired excesses, what separates this all-star-helmed portmanteau from the rest of the slavering genre pack is its intelligence, humanity and sense of perverse mischief. Not every installment here may be as good as the next, but each has its hideous virtues, which may help the project slip out of the specialty straitjacket and shroud itself in crossover appeal.
The project’s chief architect, producer David Gregory, decided to give himself and six of the genre’s most provocative practitioners the same budget with which to concoct something loosely connected to the graphic traditions of Grand Guignol. All the directors here have proven themselves adept at shock cinema; Douglas Buck’s “Family Trilogy,” for instance, remains one of the more potent marriages of physical and psychological dread produced over the past decade. But the free rein Gregory gave them seems to have sent them into realms of not just visceral but also emotional and moral anxiety, with results ranging from the strictly gruesome to the gleefully sordid to the gently intimidating.
While the omnibus’ six chapters and eponymous wraparound (starring Udo Kier and directed by Jeremy Kasten) were produced independently of one another, themes nonetheless arise, coincidentally or not. Dysfunctional sexual relationships are front and center: In South African-born Richard Stanley’s “The Mother of Toads,” an obviously mismatched couple — he’s an anthropologist (Shane Woodward), she’s a ditz (Victoria Maurette) — have a fateful encounter with a old gypsy woman (Catriona MacColl), who morphs first into a sex bomb who seduces our hero, and then into a slimy amphibious monstrosity.
In “I Love You,” cult fave Buddy Giovinazzo presents a couple nothing short of horrifying in its domestic dysfunction: A clueless husband (Andre M. Hennicke), awakening with a gash on his hand and a gap in his memory, is verbally emasculated by his wife (Suzan Anbeh), whose account of her marital indiscretions leaves him and the viewer nothing short of withered. The effects in “I Love You” (notably, some artistically rendered arterial bleeding) are grisly, but they’re nothing compared with Anbeh’s performance. More prankish, but ghastly in its own right, is celebrated f/x wizard Tom Savini’s “Wet Dreams,” in which an abusive husband gets his just deserts in appallingly Freudian fashion.
Gregory’s installment, “Sweets,” is built on an ingenious visual metaphor: confectionary as both the food of love and its ultimately corrupted byproduct. It’s a great idea, and d.p. John Honore makes the most of it with a wealth of candy-colored imagery. But when the ghastly seductress of the piece (Lindsay Goranson) succeeds in reducing her increasingly pudgy lover (Guilford Adams) to a puddle of mush and then moves on to more savory attractions, “Sweets” goes a bit off the rails.
Likewise, “Vision Stains” is a better idea than it is a realized story, although helmer Karim Hussain (who shot both his and two other installments) makes the most of its horror potential: A woman out to “preserve” the stories of women who have lost their reason to live uses a hypodermic to withdraw the fluid from their eyeballs, injecting it into her own to provide herself a window into their memories and pain. Whether or not the short quite works, the visuals make the skin crawl.
Ultimately, the centerpiece of “The Theatre Bizarre” is Buck’s “The Accident,” which would qualify as a model of the short-film form regardless of its genre or surrounding content. Beautifully shot by Hussain, the story concerns a little girl (Melodie Simmard) who witnesses a bloody roadside mishap involving a deer and a motorcyclist (Bruno Decary) who only moments earlier had waved at her through her car window.
As the girl asks her mother (Lena Kleine) questions about life and death and Mom responds in narrative, it becomes clear that “The Accident” is about storytelling itself — why we tell stories to each other and ourselves; how stories ameliorate the terrors of life; how even the most ghastly tales are comforting, precisely because they span the unbridgeable void between what we can know and what we can’t. Within the framework of “The Theatre Bizarre,” Buck’s little girl represents all the viewers and the storytellers, who happen to have chosen horror as their means of explaining the unspeakable.
Production values vary but are generally first-rate.