Among the many deviant delights of the 15th annual Fantasia festival, omnibus film The Theatre Bizarre stands out as pure catnip for local genre fans. The compilation features an impressive roster of directors, including cult legends Richard Stanley (Hardware), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock) and effects master turned actor/director Tom Savini, along with Montreal-based horror/arthouse provocateurs Karim Hussain and Douglas Buck, Jeremy Kasten, and the project’s mastermind, producer/director David Gregory. A native of Nottingham, England, Gregory emigrated to the U.S. to pursue a career directing making-of documentaries for DVD reissues of classic horror films. After some years of this, he cofounded the distribution company Severin Films, dedicated to the restoration and reissuing of cult films.
While Gregory was touring the festival circuit promoting the Severin-distributed cult hit Birdemic (including a stop at last year’s Fantasia), he happened to see the 1987 omnibus film Aria, a collection of opera interpretations from a variety of famous directors. Gregory had the notion of creating a similar film in the horror genre, with directors selected from “people I’d met on the festival circuit or whose films I’d restored.”
As a theme to tie the shorts together, “the idea was to set it in a Grand Guignol theatre.” This theatrical form thrived in France from the late-19th to mid-20th century; “people would go to watch these violent melodramas, and it was hugely popular until the Second World War, when suddenly it wasn’t so funny anymore. Ever since then, the term Grand Guignol has been used to describe anything extremely over-the-top and violent. So that’s the term I gave [the directors]—‘your movie will be playing in this theatre.’”
Jeremy Kasten, another L.A.-based filmmaker who Gregory discovered through Kasten’s theatrical “Halloween spook shows,” was chosen as the director of the film’s connecting segments, featuring Udo Kier as the host of the titular theatre. And though the films certainly fit with the Grand Guignol theme, they’re remarkably different in style, ranging from old-school monster movies to thought-provoking art pieces.
One of the film’s most striking segments comes from Montreal-based director Karim Hussain. Entitled “Vision Stains,” it tells the tale of an obsessed woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) who kills desperate street people and steals their memories (through graphic and gruesome pseudo-scientific means) in order to preserve their stories.
A rare horror flick with emotional heft to match its gore content, the film is grounded by Horn’s intense performance. “In North America, it’s becoming harder to make movies that push boundaries,” complains Hussain while praising his star. “Many young actresses are just interested in looking pretty, and thumbing their nudity riders with their agent over their shoulder. She’s not like that—she’s a real actress with guts.”
Also a cinematographer, Hussain shot two other segments in the film, including the contribution from the reclusive Stanley. The director had “kind of disappeared into the wilderness after being fired from [1996 Marlon Brando flop] The Island of Dr. Moreau,” says Gregory. “I didn’t know if he was still interested in filmmaking, but as it turns out he had this script.”
Reached by the Mirror in his native South Africa, Stanley describes his screenplay as having appropriately supernatural origins. “One of the credited screenwriters, Moag, is a fictional demon rather than a human being,” he explains, “because when we were putting it together, we channelled from a Ouija board.” Inspired by the spooky atmosphere in Stanley’s adopted home of the Pyrenees, the film follows a young tourist couple who get caught up in the local mythology—learning, as Stanley says, that “just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t make it go away.”
Perhaps the most exciting segment for hardcore horror fans is the contribution from legendary effects master Tom Savini. His short, which he directed and stars in, is an exploration of dreams. “When you dream, that’s the closest you are to being God,” Savini explains. “Even though it’s absurd, you totally believe in the world you’ve created.” The opening scene explores a primal male phobia in graphic terms. Savini anticipates that “guys that watch it will grab their crotches, and women will cheer!” For a short, the film includes a number of impressively over-the-top set pieces. “If my name is on something, you expect a bloodbath,” says Savini with a laugh.
All the directors (who’ll be in town for the Fantasia screening and at a conference to discuss the film) speak highly of Gregory’s vision, and the upstart impresario has assembled a truly unique mishmash of genres under the Grand Guignol umbrella. “I’ve always liked things that you can possibly say are both beautiful and disgusting at the same time,” he says with a chuckle. “I like that you can mix things at two ends of the taste spectrum in that way.”