TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS: “THE THEATRE BIZARRE”

Catriona MacColl in Richard Stanley’s ‘Mother of Toads’

TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS: Karim Hussain, Richard Stanley and Douglas Buck talk about their Grand Guignol-inspired anthology horror film The Theatre Bizarre

———————————-

In 2003 I was at a post-Fantasia screening party having my tarot cards read by the enigmatic and charming Richard Stanley, whose work was being showcased with a mini-retrospective at the festival. Fellow filmmakers Doug Buck and Karim Hussain were twittering around, plans were being made, ideas were being hatched, and most importantly, lifelong friendships were being formed. The three would weave in and out of eachother’s personal and professional lives for years to come, and now David Gregory of Severin films has brought all of these iconoclastic filmmakers together – along with Combat Shock’s Buddy Giovinazzo, FX vet Tom Savini and Gregory himself – for an anthology horror film with a gritty bite. While comparisons are already being made to the forthcoming genre anthology Paris I’ll Kill You (which includes heavy hitters such as Joe Dante and Vincenzo Natali among its ten directors), The Theatre Bizarre promises to be its explosive underground doppelganger, with some of the most uncompromising talent the genre has seen in the last three decades given full creative freedom.  Richard Stanley (Hardware), Karim Hussain (La Belle Bête) and Douglas Buck (Cutting Moments) spoke to us about how the film is shaping up, and the intricate collaborative efforts that have made this visionary project possible.

———————————–

Theatre Bizarre poster art

How did this project come about? Who initiated it and what was the deciding factor for all the filmmakers who are involved?

Karim Hussain: David Gregory of Severin Films initiated the project and it was him in conjunction with Fabrice Lambot of Metaluna, the French co-producers, who put together the line-up. His idea was to do a sort of Grand Guignol version of Aria [the 1987 anthology in which filmmakers such as Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg made segments based on famous arias], collecting unconventional filmmakers working in the genre and doing something that crossed the lines.

Richard Stanley: I was screwing around with a glow-in-the-dark ouija board, as one does, when some form of seemingly disincarnate entity claiming to be a minor daemon advised me in the strongest possible terms to read the relatively obscure short story by Clark Ashton Smith, ‘The Mother of Toads’ and adapt it into a short film. From that moment on the project took on a weird momentum of its own. Within a few weeks of completing the screenplay it was picked up by David Gregory from Severin Films. I wasn’t really aware of the other film makers involved in the project at the time although I’m sure we all shared similar motivations, guided if not by some invisible hand then by the desire to get back into the director’s chair and scare the living daylights out of the ticket paying public.

What were the guidelines each filmmaker was given for the project?

Richard Stanley: The project was loosely inspired by Oscar Méténier’s Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, rather more in spirit than actual form. Other than that one thematic consideration and the inevitable constraints of budget and schedule the directors were given completely free reign over their segments from casting to final cut, a commendable state of affairs for this day and age when runaway political correctness tends, all too often, to stifle individual expression. It was that freedom that ultimately clinched the deal and made it possible for me to return to dramatic cinema after all too many years in the wilds of mondo weirdo documentary film making.

The roster of participants is impressive – some of the most visionary, confrontational voices in genre cinema – the project really seems like a dream come true for fans. Can you each tell me a bit about your episode?

 

Doug Buck: Yes, the roster is impressive, which is one of the real thrills of working on this. I’ve been a big fan of Richard Stanley and Buddy G for a long time… and, I’m embarrassed to say, I used to follow Tom Savini around horror film conventions a bit like a lap dog in awe back in the day. And Karim, as you know, has become a real friend and collaborator over the last few years, so working with him has been great.

Doug Buck’s ‘The Accident’

Regarding my episode, of course, the first idea when you hear Grand Guignol, is lots of sex and violence (and, based on the scripts and the footage I’ve seen so far, the final film is definitely not going to skimp on either of those!). As I was thinking about it, I thought maybe it would be more of a challenge to do a little vignette that would be more a reflection on why exactly horrific spectacles like Grand Guignol… and, more in general, horror in all the arts… exist in the first place. Why do we need to process these kinds of images? It’s obvious to me it’s a way to help us process the painful realities of life… things like mortality, and suffering and injustice. So I tried to reflect these ideas in a small story about a young girl, ready for bed, who, with the help of her mother, tries to understand and grasp the tragic and haunting accident they had witnessed on the road earlier that day. It’s a small slice, but one I hope that will have a profound sense of sadness with it and maybe be a little bit of a breather amongst the mayhem of the other episodes!

Karim Hussain: The episode that I shot and directed (I also shot Richard Stanley’s Mother Of Toads and Doug Buck’s The Accident as a DP) is called Vision Stains. It’s a strange story

about a crazed writer living in a sort of heroin slum who believes that visual memories get trapped within the vitreous fluid of the eyes that see them, so like a junkie for images, she goes on a strange killing spree and shoots up the contents of her victim’s eyes into her own, but not for sadistic purposes… To see their lives and write down their stories, giving them a voice. Of course, she’s completely insane, so all of this is probably in her head. Things progress when she realizes that everyone’s stories are uncannily similar…

 

It’s based on an old feature script I wrote around the time I did the first draft of what eventually became Nacho Cerda’s The Abandoned. Since it was such a crazy story that scared away so many producers throughout the years, I took the opportunity of Theatre Bizarre to dust it off, change some elements and condense it into an episode.

The real treats of Vision Stains are the cast. Kaniehtiio Horn (also known as Tiio Horn) is an amazing actress who’s a rising star in Canada, having been in The Wild Hunt, Leslie My Name Is Evil and recently Good Neighbours. She has an intensity and sense of bravery that is uncommon with young up and comers, she’s really perfectly suited for my world and has guts to spare. I was pleasantly surprised that performers like them, who have regular roles on high profile Canadian mainstream TV shows that are rather white-washed, would be so into genre cinema that pushes the boundaries. The more I work as a cinematographer as my main profession and only occasionally take on directing duties, the more I see that my principal interest is working with the performers. I love them, no matter what their quirks. The most important lesson I learned after Ascension, my second

feature as a director, where it was quite tough with the lead actress, was that no matter what tricks your cast members pull, you have to love them at all costs. If you start to hate them, it will hurt the film.

 

Richard Stanley: Dreams. Nightmares. I never could tell one from the other. In any event I trust our collective efforts will inspire a good many uneasy hours for the audience.  In The Mother of Toads I wanted to take the archetypal figure of a medieval witch, ably embodied by Catriona McColl and recontextualize her for the 21st century, putting the original folk myths through the filter of the twilight worlds of Fulci, Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. These ideas crystalized into the traumatic tale of a young American couple, an anthropology student and his girlfriend, touring the south of France who fall under the sway of a genuine, old world sorceress who draws her powers from a black book of ancient lore alleged to be the real life inspiration for Lovecraft’s ‘Necronomicon’. Aided and abetted by her crawling, hopping familiars the witch uses the book as bait to ensnare, seduce and ultimately possess and devour her victims, whose secular western culture leaves them utterly powerless to defend themselves against the timeless, irreducable, eldritch evil that she represents.

 

The project also marks Tom Savini’s first return to directing for a theatrical format since 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake. How did Savini fit into the equation?

Karim Hussain: Originally a different FX artist turned director was supposed to do an episode, but when he dropped out due to other commitments, Savini was a natural to come on-board. I’m actually quite a fan of his Night Of The Living Dead re-make and he did some of the best Tales From The Darkside episodes. Many of the directors in Theatre Bizarre are cult directors who nonetheless, due to their genre-blending and confrontational, not always commercial styles, only direct features sporadically. Savini’s probably done the more mainstream films of the lot, but his episode, judging from the script (I haven’t seen images yet, though it is shot), is probably one of the goriest and angriest of the anthology, which was never really a characteristic of his previous work. I guess time doesn’t mellow us all!

Richard Stanley: I think all of us have been inspired by Tom, one way or another.  Like myself, his return to the chair was long overdue. His visceral FX creations helped set the pace and give the other more visceral episodes such as Mother of Toads and Karim Hussain’s  Vision Stains a decent run for their money. I think viewers can safely expect to see some pretty extreme things when Theatre Bizarre finally rolls into town and gives up its secrets.

 

Are any of  the films actually based on grand guinol scripts, or is the relationship to grand guinol more in spirit and form?

Karim Hussain: The scripts are all original, with the exception of Richard Stanley’s which is inspired by a short story. None of them are adaptations of Grand Guignol plays, but resemble them in spirit for the most part. I’d say Richard’s, which is much more Lovecraftian and Bava-esque in its vibe, is probably the most fantastic of the lot, quite different from the more realistic edge the Grand Guignol plays had, and Doug’s is the most radical in its counter-programming. It probably has more in common with The Sweet Hereafter than anything purely horror. In terms of realistic, psychological and brutal violence, I’d say Buddy Giovinazzo’s episode is pretty strong.

I’m extremely excited to see a new film from him, as I think he is one of the best actor’s directors working today, yet not even remotely heralded to the level that I think he deserves. David Gregory’s Sweets is pretty crazy gory as is Savini’s, in the purest Grand Guignol tradition.

 

What can audiences expect in terms of visceral vs. psycho-dramatic thrills?

Karim Hussain: I think most of the episodes cross the line between art-house and visceral horror. It’s not an easy, traditional genre piece that just is out there to give a roller coaster gore ride to audiences. I love those kinds of films too, but depending on the episode, these are more personal, intimate films for the most part.

Richard Stanley: I do not doubt that we’ll be serving heavily from both dishes, touching on physical and emotional extremes in equal measure as is our want.

Being cut from somewhat superstitious cloth I hope to bring something extra to that equation – some authentic old world supernatural frissons to stir into the general psychophysical mayhem. And be warned – there will be toads!  Real big goddam toads and more slime and lashings of ectoplasm than you can shake a stick at!

Doug Buck: They can expect a lot of both. There’s going to be a tons of straight-out hardcore grand guignol moments, especially Tom and David’s episodes, for sure, but then just think about Buddy’s work. It’s always psycho-dramatic. And having read his script, I can guarantee for his fans out there, they won’t be disappointed. It’s a real Buddy G film. And Karim, similar to Buddy, falls between both presentations, visceral and psychodramatic.
Doug and Karim – how did you guys end up being such a team? This is only one of many projects you’ve now collaborated on. How would you describe the dynamic of your relationship?

Karim Hussain: Doug Buck is an extremely important friend and collaborator to me. He’s the editor of my episode and I shot his, a dynamic that seems to work well between us. Over the years we’ve written some stuff together but started shooting as a team with The Broken Imago teaser in Argentina in 2008 and since then we’ve constantly been collaborating on production as well. Both The Accident and Vision Stains were line produced in Montreal through a company we started together. Doug edited Olivier Abbou’s Territories, a feature I shot as a cinematographer that will hopefully come out in 2011, and did a brilliant job with it. Something people don’t always know is just what a great editor he is and how well he can adapt to a style he’s not necessarily known for as a director. Territories is a very fluid and visceral movie mostly shot handheld and he totally embraced that world. Shooting The Accident for Doug was a great change and challenge, because we had moving vehicles, children, animals and had to close off half a highway on a very limited budget and schedule. It’s so different from the other episodes, so we got to flex alternate muscles on this one. There’s a pretty startling sequence that I can’t really talk about, but one that I think we’ll all remember shooting for quite some time. It’s a Doug Buck movie in the Family Portraits sense, though a little more visually ambitious.

Doug Buck: I met Karim 13 years ago when he was a programmer at the Fantasia Festival and he and Mitch Davis programmed my short film Cutting Moments. It was clear right away that, though our backgrounds and experiences were quite different, we shared many common interests in the more subversive side of things, especially in cinema. I’m certainly more mild mannered than Karim, but, ultimately, down deep, we remain two angry young men looking to say fuck you to society’s conventions, which I’d dare say is a sentiment we share with most of the filmmakers on this project on one level or another.

Doug Buck (l) + Buddy Giovinazzo (r)

We had always spoken about possibly collaborating together, but it wasn’t until I moved up here to Montreal that we really finally had a chance. And it’s been a pleasure. We both have an innate trust in each other’s instincts and abilities to help each other make our films better. I like having Karim about on my set as I direct and I believe he feels the same about me when he directs. And since I’ve been moving into editing films as something to do in-between directing and Karim has moved into being a director of photography between his projects, it’s allowed us avenues to collaborate on each other’s projects. It’s been great to watch Karim really flourish as a director of photography. And, for someone who’s a bit of madman, when it comes to being on-set, Karim is one of the most professional film people I’ve ever met.

There’s a real spirit of collaboration in this project. Do you find that you guys really feed off eachother creatively, or is the collaboration more economically-motivated?

Doug Buck: Aside from my own episode, I’m also editing Karim’s, Tom Savini’s and David Gregory’s episodes. As we’re all in the same boat on this project (ie, working with a limited budget), mostly all know each other and have a real appreciation for each other’s work, it definitely has fostered an open collaborative relationship between us all. For instance, we’ve all read each others’ scripts and have been open to the comments. David has also fostered this atmosphere by keeping us in the conversation on things like deciding upon the order of the episodes. And, like I said earlier, it really feels that all of us are very excited by the challenge of this project.

Karim – in addition to your own segment you also lensed Richard Stanley’s – who you worked with on the script for Nacho Cerda’s The Abandoned. What was it like working with Richard again, and what kinds of things do you think you’ve learned as a filmmaker over the years wearing so many different hats in terms of moviemaking?

 

Karim Hussain: Working with Richard as his cinematographer was great and it was an extreme honour he asked me. I had big shoes to fill, considering how great Hardware and Dust Devil look, and was extremely relieved and pleased when Richard told me how happy he was with the images. As a cinematographer, I’m all about the director and working to get their vision on-screen, doing as much as I can to help them out and add to what they want. Richard is very Hitchcockian in his approach. Everything is planned out in advance and storyboarded, but he’s quick on the draw to adapt to budgetary and schedule limitations. It’s been way too long since Richard has been behind the wheel and it’s a damn shame. He’s as fresh, creative and ready to rock as he has ever been. I think his leaving London and moving to the ancient Occitan town of Montsegur in the middle of the French Pyrenees (where we shot the movie) has done wonders for him. He’s definitely in his element there, a magical and surreal environment.

Richard Stanley

Richard – You’ve had a pretty nomadic, extra-geographic lifestyle, from what I understand, and you are currently living in the middle of the French Pyrenees – how do these isolated environments affect your work?

Richard Stanley: I’ve never been much of a fan of the so-called ‘real’ world and having recently relocated to the remote, Pyrenean enclave of Montsegur I was keen to take on a project whose bloody roots were nurtured by the pagan traditions which  are still strong and vibrant in these mountains, a landscape thus far relatively unexplored on film. I find working in an isolated environment such as this serves to focus the cast and crew as well as giving me the chance to bring the audience images unlike anything they have seen before. Of course, in practise, this required hauling state of the art digital technology into a very rugged, essentially medieval environment and scheduling ourselves around the life cycle of those aforementioned toads which are native to the area and play such a pivotal role in our fearful fable’s folkloric roots. The experience of working with Catriona McColl on the principal location, reputedly situated over one of the seven real life gateways to hell should prove to be a most memorable one for both myself and the audience.

What can you tell me about the Terra Umbra project and how do all these occult tendrils fit together variously in your work?

Richard Stanley: Much of my work has concerned the notion that mythology is an active process rather than some harmless relic of the antediluvian past. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and being of sound mind and a relatively rational nature I’ve spent most of my life sitting on the fence, fascinated by stories of the supernatural and the invisible world while sorely lacking the necessary material evidence to honestly believe in its existence. In the summer of 2007 an event took place that shattered my former view of the world and my position in it, propelling me into a spiralling series of adventures so bizarre and unlikely that I realized I would never be able to place them before the public without first presenting the necessary facts to support and contextualize my claims. Besides, I realized it was time to place some sort of account of what we had found in the public domain, just in case I fell through a hole in time and didn’t get another chance to set the record straight. The sheer density of the material lends itself to non-linear access, enabling the reader to gauge their own level of involvement. We plan to make the core data more widely available in a series of e-books, the first of which ‘Shadow of the Grail’ is already out on kindle from Amazon while the main site is updated and maintained as a sort of ongoing rabbit hole in consensus reality.

Most, if not all of you have been to the Fantasia festival – is this how you all met eachother originally?

Karim Hussain: Fantasia is an extremely important part of the process and also to my career. Many important friends were made in the Summer of 1997 where we first met and started a sort of group that continue to stay in touch and work together. I think it’s safe to say that Theatre Bizarre, with the team that currently is in place, could never exist without Fantasia!

Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘I Love You’

Doug Buck: Thinking on it, it is in fact where I first met Richard Stanley, Karim, Buddy G and David Gregory. Fantasia has been a huge part of getting us together and seeing each others’ work. I’m pretty sure the other guys feel quite like I do, that Fantasia is a special festival that provides a welcoming and intimate experience for both the filmmakers and the fans. We’ll see, if the stars align and Fantasia accepts the film, nothing would please me more than to have us all on stage before a Fantasia audience introducing Theatre Bizarre!

Richard Stanley: Fantasia certainly brought us together and, in my opinion, it remains the finest festival of its kind. Our common sensibilities, a shared taste for unmitigated carnage and a determination to liberate the audience’s consciousness by whatever means available made us into friends. And sometimes it’s good to go out and surf with your friends. Just for the sheer hell of it…

 

——————–

Interview by Kier-La Janisse

About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, Owner/Artistic Director of Spectacular Optical Publications and founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver, was the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) and contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington, 2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (PS Press, 2017). She co-edited and published the anthology books KID POWER! (Spectacular Optical, 2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (Spectacular Optical, 2015) and Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017), and is co-editing Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television for release in late 2017. She is currently writing A Song From the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time: Children’s Programming and the Counterculture, 1965-1985, monographs about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter and Patricia Birch’s Grease 2, and is in development on a TV series based on her book House of Psychotic Women with Rook Films.

Reply

Comment guidelines, edit this message in your Wordpress admin panel