The Traveling Theatre Bizarre

The movie that united filmmakers from around the world has terrorized audiences across the globe too.


When you get Tom Savini, Douglas Buck, Karim Hussain, Richard Stanley, David Gregory, Jeremy Kasten and Buddy Giovinazzo in the same room, things are bound to get Bizarre.

It was a logical conclusion to the breakneck, but relatively problem-free, production process of the horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre that the world premiere would be at Montreal’s Fantasia international film festival, North America’s pre-eminent genre showcase. After all, Theatre was built on the oddly subversive notion of giving fringe or unique voices within the genre an outlet to make a film that did not restrict them creatively.

Over the years, Mitch Davis and his team had programmed a vast selection of uncompromising works into Fantasia, giving a theatrical platform to films that would otherwise be overlooked by other major festivals due to their unconventional or esoteric nature. Indeed, as all indie producers do, we flirted with the idea of saving Theatre for [insert huge international fest that it would never be selected for here], but in the end we didn’t even submit it because from early on in the production process, Mitch assured us that no festival on the planet would give the film a world premiere quite like Fantasia.

And he was dead right. In fact, it was the first and only time all seven Theatre directors rolled into town. Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, myself, Karim Hussain, Jeremy Kasten, Tom Savini and Richard Stanley (many of whom had exhibited their work at Fantasia in the past) were accompanied by cast including Udo Kier and Lynn Lowry and a multitude of producers and crew members. After we landed in Montreal, we were greeted in every coffee shop by a blood soaked image from our film gracing the front cover of the Montreal Mirror, and copies of the original poster by Apricot Mantle were handed out amongst attendees. Our first screening was granted the opening Saturday-night slot in the main auditorium, followed by what I imagine was the biggest Q&A in the fest’s history — by biggest I mean in terms of sheer magnitude of people up there — then a party thrown at indie exhibition space Blue Sunshine. The next day saw a follow-up screening and a panel called “The Architects of The Theatre Bizarre” hosted by the ubiquitous Jovanka Vuckovic.

The Theatre Bizarre was born out of a frustration I had discussed with a number of filmmakers over the years about producers and distributors interfering in the creative process — a particularly annoying situation in horror, a genre which should be, but is often far from, synonymous with “no compromise.” Even at the low-budget level, it is not unheard of for busybodies on the business side to want to mold a film into what they think will be more commercial — or, to put it in a less “us vs. them” way, everyone has their opinion on what will make a better film. The first horror festivals I had attended growing up in England, all-night gatherings, showcased works that would never have seen the inside of a mainstream theater in uncut form, and in some cases not even the video stores, because they were too violent or weird. However, these were the films of most interest to me and, it would seem, the sold-out crowds at these underground events. I saw Buddy G’s Combat Shock at one such fest, for example, and that has yet to see UK release to this day.

My idea to approach filmmakers with the challenge of going back to their roots, offering them small budgets and complete creative control to deliver 10-to-20 minute shorts that would play in a Grand Guignol theater — if the Grand Guignol showcased movies. All got the same money, and it was up to them to put their crews together, shoot, edit, everything. Most of the people on my wish list had moved on to much bigger films since their uncompromising guerrilla early works, so I did not expect them to agree to such a wacky plan without some serious persuasion; even on a short, there’s a major commitment of time and effort. But to the credit of everyone who signed on, the carrot of creative freedom was enough to make them drop their real jobs and indulge that passion that led them into filmmaking in the first place. This, coupled with the idea of making movies with friends and colleagues, seemed like a challenge worth taking on.

We all immediately formed a bond of solidarity to do the absolute best we could with limited resources in order not to poison the whole perverse pie we were making together. Right from the start, we read each other’s scripts and made suggestions, then looked at rough cuts and did the same, but there was never a sense that the directors were threatened by such comments, because they ultimately had final cut. Several of them worked on more than one episode — Doug and Karim in particular, who edited and shot a few respectively. Finally, we all conferred on what order the segments should play with- in the movie. There was always the sense that we were contributing to a feature, as opposed to making isolated shorts.

This spirit would continue throughout festival run of The Theatre Bizarre. We traveled as a pack to various destinations in Europe and North America, though never was there a group quite as vast as the Fantasia posse. The biggest fest was probably Sitges — which to my surprise was like the Cannes of genre events, with all the requisite media, merch booths, parties and swarms of attendees taking over a beautiful Spanish coastal town — but we played tiny yet equally enthusiastic festivals too. It was pleasing that very few people were able to figure out just how low-budget a production this actually was.

That’s not to say it was unanimously well-received; as with any uncompromising work, the reactions ranged from absolute adulation to downright disgust. At the London Frightfest screening, for example, a particularly pissed-off punter stormed up to Karim demanding his money back, to which Karim responded that no art is meant to please everybody. The lad’s blood reached the boiling point as he spat back that the film was not art, just “shit!”

Speaking of extreme reactions, The Theatre Bizarre fainting epidemic began at Germany’s Oldenburg festival, prompted by an oft-repeated and frankly quite disturbing image from Karim’s Vision Stains involving an extreme close-up, a needle and an eye. Doug, ’Richard and his Mother of Toads co-writer Scarlett Araaris and Buddy and Gesine Giovinazzo were in attendance. The troupe were sitting outside the screening room when a man stumbled to the bathroom. They assumed he was inebriated, but when Doug went to check, he discovered the guy out cold on the floor, bleeding from his nose, having hit his head on the urinal on the way down. Doug ran out to get help, only to find the rest of the gang nursing another dude who had passed out in the doorway of the auditorium.

Both of Karim’s victims turned out to be just fine, and their female dates found their inability to handle the hard-hitting imagery amusing, but so began a spate of such incidents, which I believe totaled seven casualties in all. The most sensational was at the Gerardmer festival in France, where paramedics actually took the fallen fellow (they were predominantly men) to the emergency room. Karim was on hand, so the next day, his calendar was filled by interviews with French press wanting to know about his dangerous mise en scene.

The week after London’s Frightfest, we were at L’Etrange Festival in Paris, (Buddy, Gesine, myself, Doug, Richard, Scarlett and, for the first time, the delightful and somewhat legendary Catriona MacColl), where we had one of our most successful screenings in front of a terrific audience of cinephiles. The screening was followed by a party thrown by co-producers Fabrice Lambot and Jean-Pierre Putters — the latter something of a local horror hero, having founded France’s FANGORIA equivalent, Mad Movies— wherein all manner of cinephiliac discourse ensued about the film. I single out that particular event because it sent us crawling back into the womb one afternoon as we made a pilgrimage to the location of the original Theatre du Grand Guignol in the Pigalle area of Paris.

It was a particular joy for me to ride up to L’Etrange with Richard and Scarlett by way of their adopted home of Montsegur, deep in the French Pyrenees. This area is truly a place of magic and secrets. As we drove up into the mountains, the skies quickly bled into a deep purple. We reached a village called Rennes Le Chateau — a place with an old church, an inn and a bookstore that seemed to only stock Lovecraft-related tomes — and the heavens opened, pouring down hail upon us. I grabbed my camera and started shooting Richard, who, dressed in his signature black hat and cloak, raised his arms to the skies as he cast his gaze over the vast valley beneath. This would be the first image I shot of a documentary on Richard’s ill-fated attempt to adapt H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I had heard about Urani, the “unit sorcerer” on Mother of Toads; somehow, Richard thought Urani had had some supernatural involvement in putting us all together for Theatre Bizarre. Richard and Scarlett had first encountered Urani when they moved to Montsegur a few years before: While walking in the woods one afternoon, they happened across a small abode with a garden. Hanging by pieces of string from various branches were a selection of DVD covers of Lucio Fulci films, some of which starred Toads headliner Catriona. Their curiosity piqued, they ventured inside to introduce themselves to the proprietor, Urani, a sorcerer (hope I’m using the right term) and lifelong horror fan. He welcomed them in, and at one point, Richard noticed a VHS copy of Tourist Trap in the corner. Making a quip about how they might be the doomed tourists trapped in this region, he reached for it. To Richard’s surprise when he opened it, the box actually contained a copy of his second film, Dust Devil. Soon afterward, he saw a ticket from the Sitges festival glued to the wall — for Karim’s third feature, La Belle Bete.

My own encounter with Urani took place at Rennes Le Chateau a few moments after the rains retreated that afternoon. He happened to drive up as we were walking around the village. I was introduced to him, and noticed that draped over his driver’s seat was a well-worn I Drink Your Blood T-shirt. Blood was of course the genre debut of Lynn Lowry, who features in my Theatre episode Sweets. I started to seriously ponder Richard’s theory that Urani was somehow involved in the connective tissue of Team Bizarre.

I would spend the next couple of days as Richard and Scarlett’s guest as they regaled me with all manner of historical and mythical tales about the area, in between shooting interviews for The Misadventure of Dr. Moreau and enjoying the local cuisine. Richard’s stories are always fascinating, and for full effect are be heard from the horse’s mouth. One such tale during the Theatre tour involved him misplacing his passport at Oldenburg, delaying his return to France. When he finally arrived back at Toulouse station, it was very late at night and everything was closed. He sat down the river to contemplate his next move and promptly fell asleep, only to be awakened a few hours later being assaulted by a multitude of hungry rats.

By the stint of the U.S. premiere at Lincoln Center’s Halloweentime series in New York, we had played some 25 festivals around the world. This was gearing up to be one of the biggest yet, but a 24-hour freak snowstorm hit the East Coast that day, closing down subway lines and making travel into the city difficult for many. That said, plenty did brave the weather, and the screening was followed by a Q&A with exec producer Daryl Tucker, Tom, Buddy G, myself, Jeremy and actresses Lindsay Goranson and Lena Kleine, highlighted by the ever-charismatic presence of Udo Kier. Udo, just like the rest of us, was on board from the very beginning, knowing this was a passion project and more than happy to join the party when his schedule would allow.

The Theatre Bizarre made various midnight theatrical appearances across the U.S. before hitting VOD and DVD (the latter this month on Image Entertainment), and is finding distribution homes in other territories. Throughout the process, I was consistently heartened and impressed by the other filmmakers and their production teams, with their devotion to making something with sincerity despite the budgetary constraints. Once the film went out onto the genre-fest circuit, everyone’s willingness to go out of their way
to continually support a project that was essentially an experiment in horror was a testament to the integrity of those involved. Hopefully, we’ll find such a dedicated team for the proposed follow-up…


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