If you’re a fan of horror anthologies you may be interested in checking out an upcoming film entitled Theatre Bizarre, which features several short films all revolving around the concept of “Grand Guignol“. Rather unique for an anthology is that each segment is being helmed by a different director, with those taking part including old-school names like f/x master Tom Savini (Night of the Living Dead remake), Richard Stanley (Hardware), Buddy Giovanizzo (Combat Shock), Severin Films topper David Gregory (Plague Town), Doug Buck (Sisters remake), Karim Hussain (Ascension) and Jeremy Kasten (The Wizard of Gore remake), who was responsible for the “wraparound” story tying the other six segments together.
B-D’s Chris Eggertsen recently stopped by the Los Angeles set to take a gander at Gregory’s segment entitled “Sweets“, starring actress Lindsay Goranson (Plague Town) as a twisted femme fatale who finds herself falling in love with the latest victim she’s been tasked with delivering to a murderous underground group. You can check out the full report inside!
Ok fine, so I don’t actually know what he looks like without his clothes on, but I at least got a pretty good idea based off the naked, headless “corpse” – which Koch used his own body as the mold for – that I found lying in the sun outside the “Sweets” soundstage (located at Los Angeles’ Atomic Studios) during my visit there in January. Not that every detail was representative of Koch’s actual anatomy.
“I hand-sculpted those“, he told me, alluding to the corpse’s genitalia. And by god if they weren’t the most realistic faux-cock and balls that I’ve seen…well, ever really.
The scene being filmed currently was a work-intensive one for Koch – involving, as it did, a number of complex gags necessitating copious amounts of blood spatter, a fake sculpted head, and intestines made from pizza dough (seriously). I was around for the most important bit, involving a decapitation via meat cleaver.
The set itself, constructed on a large soundstage at Atomic, was essentially a restaurant designed with the sterile atmosphere of a health clinic in mind; if you’ve ever wondered what an eatery located inside an abandoned hospital room might look like, this may have been close to what you pictured.
A row of tables draped in white linen sat against the back wall, topped with discarded plates and calla lilies leaning in clear glass vases. In the center of the room, a metal gurney that carried a stomach-churning spread: hot dog and hamburger buns, discarded corn husks, lengths of dirty white rope and wadded-up napkins, all jumbled up together in a puke-worthy collage. Headless white mannequins, their forms shining indifferently under the hot lights, shared space with a wayward I.V. stand nearby. On a low stage located at one end of the space, a band dressed in red and black uniforms sat fiddling with their instruments. The overriding characteristic of the room, however, were the pristine white walls – unfeeling and clinical, ironically broken only by the mural of a large, black human heart.
The decapitation gag required the actor in question, attired in nothing but a white bath robe, to get down on all fours and hang his head low while an assortment of black-clad background extras formed a tight half-circle around him. At the center of the group stood a tall, skinny woman, strawberry-blonde hair tied in an up-do and outfitted in a sexy ensemble of short black cocktail dress, tights, and spiky high-heeled shoes. In her hands, the cleaver gleamed.
In the film you will know this character as portrayed by cult actress Lynn Lowry –
best known for starring in a string of low-budget ’70s genre films including Cronenberg’s Shivers, Romero’s The Crazies, and Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad – but she’d already wrapped her scenes by the day I arrived. In her place was production designer/actress Lorry O’Toole, providing the legs of Lowry’s character Michaela – the only part of her anatomy necessary for this particular shot.
The decapitation effect was accomplished through a combination of the aforementioned severed head, one extensive length of rope, a heavy spray of fake blood, and the precise coordination of all involved. There were frustrations, of course – either because the head wasn’t “popping off” quite right, or O’Toole’s cleaver swipe didn’t look realistic, or the blood spray wasn’t sufficient, or a stage light exploded in the middle of rehearsal (this actually happened) – but in the end it all came together in one gloriously gory and effective take. However, that would be far from the extent of the carnage.
“Pretty much the rest of the day is going to be blood“, Gregory told me as we sat down to lunch later. “This whole white [set] is gonna be covered [in] red pretty much. I just want body parts, and flesh [and] blood flying everywhere. One of my favorite shots of all time is the arm chop in [Argento's] ‘Tenebre’, where the woman gets her arm chopped [off] and [her blood] just sprays all over the white wall! That’s why we’ve got this black-and-white palette here.”
Best known over the last decade for helming a series of documentary featurettes included on the DVD releases of old, mostly genre, films – ranging from ‘The Wicker Man’ to ‘Evil Dead’ – Gregory gained further attention in 2008 when he directed the narrative feature Plague Town, a horror film in which a vacationing family is terrorized by a group of deformed children in the Irish countryside. Taking that and a 1995 student short entitled Scathed into account, “Sweets” stands as Gregory’s third foray into narrative filmmaking, a realm he’d be interested in pursuing further if not for that pesky roadblock of actually having to secure financing first.
“Honestly, the actual money-raising part of the process is so time-consuming that I’m spending a lot of time restoring and releasing other people’s movies and doing the featurettes“, he admitted with some resignation. “The thing is, just because of the kind of things I like to do, it’s not like movie companies are gonna come knocking and say, ‘hey, we want you to direct this’.
“[While] the stuff I do is genre-based, [they're] also the kind of genre films that I want to make“, he said of his off-kilter sensibilities. “So it’s better if [we] can find a way to produce it ourselves, so we can do what we want…The fact that we have a distribution company is a big help in that respect.”
The company he speaks of is the aforementioned Severin Films, the specialty distributor Gregory started with partners Carl Daft and John Cregan back in 2006. Severin specializes in finding and restoring provocative cult films on DVD, in addition to niche theatrical fare including James Nguyen’s “so bad it’s good” midnight-movie hit Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Theatre Bizarre is one of the rare Severin projects totally developed and produced by the company in-house.
The anthology film brings together seven independent genre filmmakers – Gregory, makeup effects guru Tom Savini (Night of the Living Dead remake), Richard Stanley (Hardware), Doug Buck (Sisters remake), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), Karim Hussain (Ascension) and Jeremy Kasten (The Wizard of Gore remake) – each of whom directed a specific segment to be featured in the movie (with Kasten helming the “wraparound” story tying all of the shorts together). All were given complete freedom to film exactly the story they wanted, so long as it adhered to the general concept of “Grand Guignol“.
For those who know the term only as an adjective, Grand Guignol was actually a theater in Paris from 1897-1962 that became known for running plays featuring climactic scenes of gore-soaked carnage. Legend even has it that Max Maurey, who served as the theater’s director from 1898-1914, judged the plays a success only if at least two audience members fainted during the performance.
Gregory was inspired to put the project together after making a featurette for the 1987 anthology film Aria, which similarly featured a group of auteurs – including Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell – who were each given free reign to complete a short piece based on a specific aria (i.e. an elaborate song intended for performance by a solo vocalist).
“It’s a very wide umbrella to give a director creative freedom: ‘Go ahead and come back with a movie that’s set to an aria’“, said Gregory. “I wanted something as wide as that. And I thought Grand Guignol on the one hand is the Parisian theater from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, but since then it’s become kind of this adjective for…I always say like the ear scene in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is a good example of Grand Guignol cinema, because it’s just something that’s like, ‘Wow, shocking! Blood!’ So it really encompasses a huge amount. And you say that to the directors: ‘come up with your own story, you’ve got creative freedom, deliver me a film within a certain time frame, we’ve all got this budget.’”
“Sweets” stars actress Lindsay Goranson as Estelle, a woman who works at a specialized restaurant run by Michaela (Lynn Lowry). The hook is that the women belong to a bizarre and murderous underground group, with Estelle functioning as the seductive bait used to lure in potential victims. I spoke to Goranson – dressed in black skirt, white blouse, high heels, and corset – during lunch in the bright sun outside the soundstage to get her take on the perverse character. The actress earlier starred as one of the “good guys” in Plague Town, so she was excited by the prospect of getting to play a darker role this time – albeit in a story with veins of black comedy running through it.
“She’s a cool character because she has to be interesting and nice enough to seduce these men, obviously, and twisted enough to then [kill] them“, said Goranson, batting a pair of intensely long fake eyelashes as we spoke. “So that’s kind of a fun thing to play…you know, so much humor is very dark, and scary, and gross. And this one is very decadent. Which David likes. David likes that pretty gore.”
The twist on the story is that, though Estelle has already taken part in a number of these murderous schemes, she begins to develop feelings for latest sacrifice Greg (Guilford Adams) and starts to waver on whether she should follow through this time.
“The men that she seduces, she usually doesn’t get any sort of emotional attachment with them“, she told me. “This one’s a little bit different.”
“It’s basically about the end of a very torrid love affair which involved a lot of addiction“, Gregory said of the plot. “And…how the end of the love affair culminates with the absolute ecstasy of that addiction.”
Gregory described the film as being the most over-the-top – and therefore most kindred with the original Grand Guignol concept – than any of the other segments, each of which he described as featuring their own unique spin on the idea.
“That doesn’t mean it’s the most violent, because some of the other ones are pretty grim“, he continued. “But mine really goes [to] kind of…phantasmagorical areas.”
As mentioned before, the segments will all be tied together with an overarching plotline in the spirit of previous anthology films. In this case, the story involves a young woman finding herself trapped inside an old theater and being forced to watch as one by one the stories play out before her, each of them contributing to a change in her character as the film progresses. Presiding over it all will be a mysterious host, taking the young woman through each of the thematically-linked plotlines that lead to her ultimate transformation.
While planning the project Gregory took stock of previous entries in the horror anthology sub-genre and found that, while they’ve proved fairly consistent in number since the days of silent cinema, the multiple-director format presented a rare opportunity to bring together a wealth of directing talent in a single film. Of course, the emphasis here is less on featuring the work of A-list directors than it is on giving lesser-known visionaries a crack at the anthology format
“I’ve met a few directors because of the films that we’ve distributed and [from] doing festivals“, said Gregory, of making the connections necessary to get the project off the ground. “And I figured if I could get some people who were in kind of the first, second, third feature level as opposed to the like ['Aria'-level directors]…not that there’s anything wrong with them, but I just wanted to do it more for the youngblood[s].”
Not that all the directors taking part in Theatre Bizarre are new to the scene. While the project does feature relative freshmen like Buck and Hussain, it also gives a fresh shot to more seasoned hands like Stanley and Giovinazzo. Gregory was particularly interested in what Stanley had been up in the years since his early ’90s heyday.
“[Severin] released his movie ‘Hardware’“, said Gregory of the director. “And he’s been kinda out of the game for like twenty years or something, since he got unceremoniously removed from the [1996 remake of] ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’. He’s done documentaries and stuff, but he hasn’t actually done anything narrative. And he showed so much promise when he did ‘Hardware’ and ‘Dust Devils’, like, ‘when’s this guy’s next movie?’”
The biggest name among the helmers is undoubtedly Savini, who was brought in by co-producer Michael Ruggerio. Typical of a production by the master of gore, Gregory promised that the effects in his “Wet Dreams” segment – with a little help from another effects god – will be nothing short of top-notch.
“[They're being done by] people from his f/x school“, Gregory told me. “But from what I heard, they really came to the set fully, completely, and utterly prepared, because obviously they’re doing it for Tom Savini…Apparently the f/x are amazing. I saw a couple of tests – in fact Greg Nicotero built one of the tests, just as a favor to the production – and it’s pretty fucked up. [Laughs]”
Once the entire film has been edited together (as of the date of my visit they hadn’t yet decided on the order of the segments), the plan is to take the finished product on the festival circuit, with targets being the Fantasia Festival in Montreal, Sitges in Barcelona, and other genre-specific showcases.
“Hopefully we’ll have it out in time for Halloween“, Gregory told me of his long-term distribution hopes. “It’d be nice to see it get some sort of theatrical [release].”
Nevertheless, he was nothing if not realistic about Bizarre‘s honest chances in a contemporary theatrical marketplace that has proven hostile to independent film.
“Probably the goal is trying to do a Video On Demand [deal]“, said Gregory, in response to my mention of the emerging at-home distribution model. “I think with something like this…the theatrical is probably gonna be the festival run, honestly. It will show in theaters at various festivals, maybe some midnight [showings] here and there and around. Because again, a lot of these films just kind of go to the independent theaters in the big cities. The Silent Movie Theater, and the Nuart [both located in Los Angeles], and things like that. You never know.”
At the very least, it’d be great to see Koch’s hand-sculpted cock and balls up on the big screen.
Writer’s Note: For the record, here’s the rundown on the other five segments in the film, as described to me by Gregory:
‘Mother of Toads’ [Richard Stanley]: “A Lovecraftian story about…a toad sorceress who basically seduces an American tourist in the French Pyrenees. That’s where it was shot. The locations are incredible.”
‘Wet Dreams’ [Tom Savini]: “It’s about a very paranoid husband and the things that he imagines that his wife is doing to him, or could do to him.“
‘I Love You’ [Buddy Giovinazzo]: “Kind of [on a] realis[tic] level…about what we do to hang onto our lovers when they’re leaving us.”
‘The Accident’ [Doug Buck]: “[He] very smartly took the other route and said, ‘I’m going to do something that’s like the opposite of what I think everybody else will be doing’. And he’s doing something that’s more of a meditation on real violence vs. screen violence. It’s in the mind of a child seeing real violence vs. the violence in scary stories.”
‘Vision Stains’ [Karim Hussain]: “It’s almost like this brutal kind of realism, set in the near future about…about a woman who’s addicted to other people’s thoughts. And she basically takes their blood and puts it in herself to get their memories into her head.”