In one of the six short films that make up The Theatre Bizarre, a girl asks, “Mommy, why do we die?”
I don’t know the answer, but if we couldn’t die and we were forced to watch The Theatre Bizarre at gunpoint, we would have no way out. And that would be unfair.
The Theatre Bizarre is awful in practically every respect. It’s rife with awful characters doing awful things for awful reasons. Aside from gore, nudity and an undercurrent of misandry, each story would seem completely disconnected from the next if it weren’t for the root framework, in which a woman visits a mysterious theatre and is herself subjected to the shorts – which is indeed proven to be a fate worse than death.
Where the film becomes interesting, and probably why it has received critical acclaim, is in its inspiration: the Grand Guignol (translation: The Big Puppet), a Parisian theatre that offered audiences naturalistic horror shows until the mid-20th century.
Just like the segmented structure of The Theatre Bizarre, a show at the Grand Guignol would feature five or six plays, usually brutal and bloody, that adhered closely to the theatre’s naturalistic sensibilities. Theatrical naturalism was a novelty in the Guignol’s heyday – it meant that plays were less about fantasy and poetry and aristocratic characters and more about regular people being stabbed with chisels. These shows paved the way for the short horror anthologies we’ve come to know and love, like Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside, The Twilight Zone and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
Unfortunately, though indisputably bizarre, The Theatre Bizarre seems a weak homage to the Guignol’s legacy. The acting is poor; of the six, only four segments really fit the “naturalistic horror” bill – one is supernatural soft core porn, and the other is just plain boring; and, finally…it’s not scary.
Horror is hard. Like comedy, it’s about tension and release; however, while comedy is about truth and pain, horror is about threat and the unknown. In perhaps the best of the shorts, Vision Stains, a trampy woman fascinated with other people’s memories discovers a way to experience them personally – by killing homeless people and extracting their memories from their eyeballs via syringe.
The concept is interesting, but the threat is misplaced. If anything, the woman is a threat to others, except since her victims are all junkies we aren’t compelled to fear for them. It surfaces that her curiosity is a threat to her own safety, but we don’t really care about that either, since it’s illogical. Instead of being afraid, we’re mostly just confused.
Rumor has it that a second installment of Theatre Bizarre is set to shoot later this year, and I say: Bring it. Short film is an ideal medium for horror, and modern audiences are ready for more splattery throwbacks to Edwardian France. However, the new directors better amp up the threat, the tension and the terror if they want to do their inspiration justice. Many of the Grand Guignol’s former patrons are deceased, but I doubt very much that they died of confusion and boredom.