Long-term readers of this blog may recall the quirky indie flick Faces that I reviewed way back in March 2015.
It was an imaginative and intelligent movie that ticked a hell of a lot of boxes.
So you can imagine my delight when the good folks at Theatre of Terror asked if I would like to take a look at their newest offering, a throw-back anthology flick, named after the production company itself.
Would this be a showstopper? Or would I be wishing for the final curtain?
THE THEATRE OF TERROR (2018)
STARRING: Tom Ryan, Lauren Renahan, Heather Brittain O’Scanlon, Adam Ginsberg, Scott Gorbach, Sarah Schoofs, Russell Hackett, Bob Cleary, Alan Rowe Kelly, Randy Memoli, Marc Abbott, Christopher J. Murphy, Paugh Shadow, Tim O’Hearn, Tommie McGuckin, Heather Drew, Patrick ‘Bone Man’ Boyer
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I’ll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.
The Theatre of Terror opens with a young woman (Renahan) discovering a flier about a campaign to save a historical movie theatre facing closure.
Upon arrival, she encounters the theatre’s decidedly odd proprietor (Ryan) who proceeds to demonstrate the power of film by showing her a series of gripping and disturbing shorts.
The first of these - The Gift - follows a woman (O’Scanlon) who has lost an enviable career, a loving family, and her own sense of self-worth. Resorting to prostitution, a nightmarish encounter with a customer sees her forced to take refuge in a quaint antique store. But is there more to the shopkeeper (Ginsberg) and his wares?
The second story - The Bookworm - follows an introverted young man (Gorbach) who uses his sizeable inheritance to purchase a library. However, he soon comes to suspect that more than literature can be found on its dusty bookshelves.
The third segment - Abducted - is the story of simple Ned (Hackett) who becomes captivated by a series of strange phenomena in the forest near his home in the wake of a number of mysterious disappearances.
The fourth story is entitled Endangered and follows a group of animal rights activists (including Renahan again) who decide to take action to protect the local grey wolf population. However, after an act of sabotage goes awry, they realise that isn’t just the wolves that are at risk in these woods.
THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): The Theatre of Terror director Ryan has made no secret of the fact that this movie is his love letter to classic anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. With that in mind, the movie delivers in spades.
There’s real variety in each of the stories contained within, and they take on a wide range of themes and sub-genres. But the thing that makes Ryan’s movie stand out from the crowd is a focus on characters.
Each segment feels as if it is the characters that Ryan has created that drive the story, rather than a ‘cool’ set-piece or plot twist. It makes each story more gripping because you actually know, understand, and - most importantly - care about the protagonists.
It certainly helps Ryan’s cause that he has assembled some very talented actors for the movie. Both Heather Brittain O’Scanlon and Adam Ginsberg from The Gift are arguably the standouts.
O’Scanlon is quite brilliant and delivers a brave, believable, heartbreaking performance that left me eager to see more of her in the future.
There are also impressive and show-stealing turns from the subtle and assured Gorbach and a crackling and maniacal Alan Rowe Kelly, whose Tales of Poe was well reviewed here at the House before.
The actors are given plenty to work with, even with the comparative brevity of each short, and they run with it.
These are not just compelling storylines, they are diverse too, meaning that even if you may not like one of the segments one of the others is sure to hit the spot. From psychological dramas to gory creature features, Ryan shows his range throughout The Theatre of Terror.
Often ambitious undertakings, such as the monster effects that are central to a couple of the shorts here, suffer in indie flicks due to budgetary constraints. However, there are a couple of great practical effects on display here, in both the Bookworm and Endangered segments, that are genuinely great.
Credit too must go to the ToT scouting team for securing the historic Loew Theatre for the wrap-around segments of the story. The beautiful and dramatically ornate old picture house is the perfect setting for this film, a building so rich in character that it practically becomes one in Ryan’s story. Wonderful work.
And while the visual effects are undoubtedly impressive, it is Ryan’s direction that packs the biggest visual punch. He knows how to frame a shot, to tell a story through his visuals, and the right times at which to use subtlety to create far more effective chills than over-the-top gore and jump scares.
This sort of dread-inducing storytelling was used so effectively back in the days when The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Night Gallery ruled the airwaves. It’s only fitting that a man paying homage to these shows should have such a strong grasp on what made them so iconic to begin with.
This means that it doesn’t quite have the polish that you might see in a multi-million dollar big screen offering such as those churned out by Blumhouse. Do please adjust some of your expectations accordingly.
One such example here might be during the Abducted segment. While the visual effects that bring the Bookworm and Alpha Beast to life in the segments I mentioned above are quite fantastic, those on display here don’t quite hit their lofty standards.
Another possible problem to some viewers is one that is endemic in all anthologies - unless the viewer has a very wide range of tastes, some segments are likely to leave them cold. What’s more, the difference in tone can jar somewhat and The Theatre of Terror is no different.
This is a tough criticism to make - variety is essential to the success of an anthology, otherwise it becomes repetitive and uninspiring very quickly, but it does affect cohesiveness.
Ryan has cleverly slowly escalated his stories, starting with the quietest and most subtle, slowing building to the most extreme of his tales. However, this does have an effect on the pacing. The first half of the movie is significantly slower than the second. I enjoyed the subtlety of these quieter early stories, but genre fans of more intense fare may well find themselves clock watching here.
Those same fans may also find fault with the scares on hand too. Not every segment is an out-and-out horror story, and most (like the classic TV series that inspired them) are perhaps more creepy than a nerve-shredding fear fest. If you are looking to be left unable to sleep in terror, this is probably not the movie for you.
VERDICT: The Theatre of Terror is my kind of anthology. It shows variety and heart in its storytelling, no shortage of skill in its filmmaking, a strong and compelling cast, and a note-perfect callback to some of the greatest shows to ever shape the genre.
No, it’s not a perfect movie, suffering from a few of the problems inherent in this form of storytelling, but Ryan’s work is never less than charming. It’s a fine showcase for the talents of him and his clearly very dedicated cast and crew. If you are in the mood for a clever, creepy throwback with plenty of heart, Theatre of Terror is the movie for you.
You can buy the movie at its official web site here. Also, check out Theatre of Terror’s Facebook page here - why not give it a like while you’re there? I’m sure these very talented filmmakers would appreciate it!
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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.