Fantasia 2011: THEATRE BIZARRE Review

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Fantasia 2011:  THEATRE BIZARRE Review

The anthology film is a strange beast, something tough to pin down because the filmmakers assemble their parts separately, often with little knowledge of how the whole thing will come together.   Then, disparate films rest side-by-side, inviting, nay, demanding comparisons amongst the offerings.   For whatever reason, it has been popular today to build these collections around neighborhoods and stories in various large cities around the world (Paris Je T'Aime, Tokyo, Toronto Stories, etc.) yet, I think this type of film, especially when it exceeds 3 segments, plays best like a good music album;  rhythm and flow of the individual tracks, a hit single or two, and a few slow boilers that may reveal themselves as dark-horse favourites upon subsequent viewings.  The Theatre Bizarre has its genesis in Montreal's Fantasia, but its component parts were made by a diverse collection of filmmakers who traffick in gore and brains well outside the studio system.  The films various chapters were made in four different countries, while retaining the feel of something build from the DNA of this particular film festival, focusing more on the FAN than the ASIA.  Hosted in the framing segment by the king of grotesque and camp, Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein, The Kingdom) as a decaying creaky wind-up toy with no doubt sinister intentions, it is a clearinghouse classic horror and gothic tropes and a slaphappy distillation of auteur influences.  Give the directors a little bit of money, encourage them to call in favours and work with old friends, and otherwise, let them do their own thing, like any splattery work of horror, throw stuff at the wall (or the viewer) to see what sticks.  And what does stick?

It seems that the thing playing on the minds of directors, almost collectively, is the crumbling relationship.  A fall that pushes far past a simple 'we can still be friends,' into the realm of obsessive and possessive.  One of several entries that dwells on the theme, Buddy Giovinazzo's I Love You, in which a smitten (and somewhat clueless) husband is told in the harshest, most vulgar manner possible his wife's infidelities, direct and to the point under harshest of white light.  While it certainly gets bloody, the real gut-ripping is in the cool and emotionless (but not agenda-less) manner which leaves for no uncertain terms: "your penis and my vagina never liked each other," before rattling off a laundry list of otherwise lewd acts of infidelity.  This anti Romeo and Juliet packs a real wallop entirely from the performances its two leads, Susan Anbeh and André Hennicke who feel like a bloodier, more raw take on Mike Nichol's Closer.

Less successful is Tom Savini's Inception-esque Wet Dreams, which starts of strong with a husband imagining his wife's lady parts as a Lovecraftian insect.  Shocking, yes.  But the short's dreams within dreams structure loses the purity of that jolt, clearly the inspiration for the piece that works better than talking through it or pan frying the leads member.  Wet Dreams, unfortunately, castrates itself.  

Then there is Sweets from David Gregory which takes the fetish of sex and candy to dizzying delicious places.  Receiving blunt rejection from his girlfriend, truly a relationship gone sour!  Our pudgy and pathetic protagonist, looking like Mark Ruffalo after a week long Cheetos bender, makes a final plea to win her back.  Recalling the myriad sex acts and flirtations of the relationship as consumption of cream and sugar, it is Grand Guignol (aside:  I tried to resist using this phrase, the obvious intent of the anthology, but alas, have failed) filtered through Willy Wonka before ending up as a Buñuel tinged comedy of manners.  If you loved Georgi Palfi's Taxidermia, this one will tickle your sweet tooth and leave you running to ritually purge yourself afterwards.


Richard Stanley's segment, Mother of Toads, is equal parts Lovecraft, E.C. comics and gothic travellogue.  A story inspired by the pagan directors guardian spirit, Moag, and apparently written via Ouija board channelling (I am unclear as to whether or not to take that with a grain of salt, but know also that the film was inspired by Clark Ashton Smiths short story of the same name) and shot in the French Pyrenees near the Cathar enclave of Montsegur.   The signature shot of Stanley's chapter is not the clammy Cthulu beastie played by Catriona MacColl (fantastic both in and out of toad make-up), but rather the landscape which positions us as mere insects (or tadpoles) from a gods eye point of view.  While looking for occult curious in France, and squabbling with his girlfriend, the unfortunate and naive American ends up following a suspicious lead on an authentic copy of the Necronomicon and ends up with 'Beer Googles' in his head long tumble for the tome.  It gets to the slime and goop in good time, but could perhaps use a trim or two watching the neglected girlfriend take a swim in a hotel pool.  I believe we want to go off reservation, not sit in the comfy air conditioning and a few minutes of civilization, something Stanley knows a thing or two about, and a trim would lock down the atmosphere all the better.

Karim Hussain (many will remember his gumball-laced-with-acid cinematography from another Fantasia genesis project, Hobo with A Shotgun) directs Vision Stains, perhaps the single most winning concept-idea in the series, one that begs a feature length film version.  A mysterious woman preys on drug addicts and prostitutes, women only, to foster a substance abuse problem of her own.  Extracting the vitreous humour, the fluid in the eye, and mainlining it as a kind of narrative-heroin it not only provides a lot of opportunities for Giallo-like eyeball maiming, but also a reflection on storytelling and our addiction to the bigger and more forbidden fruit.  The unorthodox serial killer keeps Joe Doe notebooks, and epic number of them, of her Jane Does, until presented with a diabolical opportunity that comes with disastrous consequences.  Recalling Darren Aronofsky's visceral debut, pi, with a gristlier and grimier visual palette, the only hinderance to the 'visual' (pun intended) storytelling is a voice-over that insists on doing all the leg work for the audience.  I recall advice from David Mamet that if a story can be told as a silent film, it should be told as a silent film.  If this is ever scaled up to a full feature (a la Fruit Chan's Dumplings in Three Extremes) I hope as an audience member I get the chance to do the heavy lifting.

Perhaps the best chapter in this anthology is Douglas Buck's, The Accident, the which-of-these-kids-is-doing-the-wrong-thing of the series.  A meditation on how a child comes to understand that we all have to face death, it is constructed in the manner of a grim bedside story as a mother reconciles a car accident witnessed between a motorcyclist and a deer.  Quiet, emotional and grounded in realism, it diverges so heavily from the other flamboyant and violent chapters and walks away the winner, conquering by virtue of not belonging and getting an emotional rather than visceral response.  Featuring a staggeringly intimate performance from the little girl that must have been an interesting experience at her tender age to have that conversation on film.  The actress was sitting behind me during the screening, I am guessing (hoping) only allowed to see her segment amongst the other gristly entries, and I would love to know what her reaction was, as this chapter should speak to people of any age.  We all have to come to grips that people die for seemingly no reason, and words are hard to find, even if it is strangers, but at some age we also have to develop a coping mechanism.  The Accident handles its subject with tenderness and grace.

While not a huge fan of the wrap-around segment, which could have lost several non-Udo minutes without any consequence (I wonder what Aaron Woodley, director of also horror-prop-house driven Rhinoceros Eyes, would have done with the material) it does indeed tie things together a manner which suggests that in Horror, in any genre, storytelling is the still the key, and this keeps hard-core fans and curious bystanders coming back for the chills and thrills of cinemas most transgressive genre.

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