It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Theatre Bizarre

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Theatre Bizarre

The Theatre Bizarre is an old-school horror anthology and pet project of some of the genre’s most recognizable names.  A young woman is mysteriously drawn to a broken down old theatre where a disturbing half-man, half-puppet presents six spine-tingling tales: The Mother of Toads (Richard Stanley), where a newlywed couple encounter an ancient Lovecraftian religion dedicated to a horrible monster; I Love You (Buddy Giovinazzo), a meditation on a relationship poisoned by mistrust and obsession; Wet Dreams (Tom Savini), features an unfaithful husband getting his just deserts in this reality and others; The Accident (Douglas Buck), a glimpse of the life and death horror of the mundane world as told to a child;  Vision Stains (Karim Hussain), follows a junkie who chronicles the memories of her murder victims, which she re-lives after injecting their vitreous fluid directly into her eye; and Sweets (David Gregory), where a couple find that their relationship based on binge eating takes a strange turn.

Horror Buffet – Take What You Like and Leave the Rest

I’m not sure why anthology films have fallen out of fashion in North America, but growing up Creepshow, Creepshow 2, and Tales from the Darkside: the movie had a big impact on my imagination, and I miss the format (I even saw Creepshow 2 in the theatre – which not only dates me but also how long it’s been since an anthology movie got wide release).  Because of that, I was looking forward to the Theatre Bizarre and only slightly concerned that the movie’s six stories would be too short for the filmmakers to do anything with.  While I didn’t enjoy every tale, I liked the majority.  I suspect most of the crowd felt the same, though I’m sure everyone had different opinions on which segments they liked and disliked – that, I think, is the strength of the anthology structure.
The other strength of anthologies is that they are the filmic equivalent to short stories, a format perfectly suited to the horror genre (and not just because it’s my favorite way to read horror stories – I love Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Stephen King’s Night Shift is the book that got me interested in horror).  I like to think that horror is about infecting someone with a disruptive idea, an idea that hides in their brain and won’t go away (often remembered at such inopportune times as walking down an empty street in the middle of the night).  Short stories are such an effective delivery for horror because they deal with a single idea, stripped of any distraction, and freed from the need to dilute it over the course of an entire novel (or film).  During the question period after the screening, it was nice to hear the filmmakers were given complete creative freedom over their segments, and I think each of them took advantage of the format to tell focused short stories (even the ones I wasn’t crazy about).
The wraparound story (featuring genre perennial Udo Kier) that ties the segments together does its job of moving from one section to the next smoothly.  It doesn’t stand out, but I think that’s the point, as it would distract from the other stories.
The Mother of Toads is a great little monster story.  The set-up is creepy (with an excellent performance by Catriona MacCall as the old woman), the monster looks fantastic, and the ending pays off.  That it has a liberal helping of Lovecraft mythos is just icing on the cake.
I Love You is also a strong entry.  It reminded me of the clever storytelling of the Twilight Zone – only with good acting, and modern dramatic sensibility (no offense to Rod Serling – it will always be a classic).
I didn’t care for Wet Dreams.  Maybe it was the similarity in theme to the superior I Love You that makes it seem flat in comparison, but I felt Tom Savini’s entry lacked any emotional depth and came off cheesy (it looked good though).  If I Love You is a great chapter in the Twilight Zone, Wet Dreams is a bad episode from Tales from the Crypt (which is why I’m sure some people will love it).
The Accident really stands out from the crowd for its complete rejection of any supernatural or traditional horror elements (and for that audacity alone this might be my favorite segment).  The story is so simple, but so effective at reminding the viewer that we tell scary stories to distract ourselves from the terror of everyday life.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who had painful images from childhood come bubbling back to the surface after watching this.
Vision Stains has one of those ideas at its heart that you absolutely want to steal, and completely lived up to its promise (the double edged sword of any great idea).  Its narrative, about our obsession to know everything, hit home (as I’m sure it will for others in our Google and Wikipedia age).  Vision Stains also boasts some of the gnarliest (and well done) eye injuries I’ve seen, so fair warning to the squeamish (and those who have a hard time watching others put in contact lenses).
I’m on the fence about Sweets.  On the one hand the vivid, surreal feel of the segment is fantastic.  On the other, I felt the impact of the ending was blunted by relying on a series of gross-outs.  At this point in the day of screenings, I was starving, and in spite of my hunger Sweets had enough of an effect on me that I didn’t make a trip to the concession stand, so in the final analysis I guess I have to judge David Gregory’s work a success.
The Theatre Bizarre is recommended (especially for those who remember films like Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside with fondness).  The film’s discreet segments make it perfect to throw on next Halloween, and watch between bouts of handing out candy.  I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy every part (or even that you’ll like the ones that I did), but there’s enough quality storytelling in the Theatre Bizarre that it hits more than it misses (and the segments are short enough you won’t mind sitting through the misses).

RPG Goodness

Watching Vision Stains, I couldn’t help but think the whole eye-injection thing would make a very creepy way to cast the spell speak with dead in a dark steampunk game or a twisted version of Eberron.  With much of D&D fandom, myself included, showing a renewed interest in the game’s pulp fiction/sword and sorcery roots, there’s a general feeling that D&D’s magic system (of any edition) is too ‘high fantasy’ to gel with that approach.  Rather than scrap the whole magic system, I think Vision Stains demonstrates that something as simple as cosmetic changes to the way that spells are cast (the somatic and material components in 2e and 3e) can completely alter the tenor of even the most innocuous magical effect (in the case of the film, humble information gathering).  The following are a small sample of common spells altered to add an element of the dangerous, weird and horrific to magic in D&D games:
Bear’s Endurance, Bull’s Strength, Cat’s Grace, Eagle’s Splendor, Fox’s Cunning, Owl’s Wisdom – the recipient of the spell consumes a pickled organ (usually a heart to improve physical attributes or a pineal gland for mental attributes) belonging to a creature with a higher score in the appropriate statistic.  This makes finding suitable component sources difficult for individuals who want to improve an already fantastically high score.
Cure Wounds – the wounds of the living are healed by grafting chunks of flesh from the bodies of the fallen.  Discoloration due to a difference in species between donor and recipient fade after twenty-four hours.
Detect Magic and Identify – the caster enters a deep trance through the use of an inhaled or injected drug.  This drug is harvested in an unsavory manner or from an unpalatable source such as illithid brain juice or powdered grave mushrooms.
Floating Disk – the material focus for this spell is a metal or wooden lip disc that must be worn for the spell to function.
This wouldn’t be much of a monster focused blog if I didn’t mention the Mother of Toads again.  While watching the film it struck me that the creature in Richard Stanley’s segment was a lot like a D&D bullywug, and a Cthulhu mythos connection to this monster (which I’ve always felt was under-appreciated) would go a long way in redeeming its appearance on the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (where they were lamely defeated by giving them giant flies to eat).  Well, after a little research, it turns out there is a connection (that’s actually a little tangled back and forth).  The Mother of Toads is inspired by a Clark Ashton Smith story of the same name, written as a part of his Averoigne cycle, a collection of tales that also inspired the classic module Castle Amber.  Just as likely, bullywugs could have been inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’s more famous addition to the Cthulhu mythos, the frog-like Tsathoggua (the man liked his frog beasties).
Either or, the best way to make the connection concrete is to immortalize the mother of toads in monster form…

The Mother of Toads

“Pierre awoke in the ashy dawn… Sick and confused, he sought vainly to remember where he was or what he had done. Then, turning a little, he saw beside him on the couch a thing that was like some impossible monster of ill dreams; a toadlike form, large as a fat woman. Its limbs were somehow like a woman’s arms and legs. Its pale, warty body pressed and bulged against him, and he felt the rounded softness of something that resembled a breast.” – Clark Ashton Smith, Mother of Toads.


Nature DC 10: The mother of toads is an agent of the fetid and swampy primordials that created the bullywugs, and is worshipped as a deity by all the batrachian creatures of the marsh.
Nature DC 15: Some rumors hold that the mother of toads is incredibly ancient, the first bullywug hatched from the original god-egg that spawned the race before it could breed true.  Since she is unable to reproduce with other bullywugs, the mother of toads mates with degenerate cultists and human captives.

The Mother of Toads in Combat

The mother of toads takes perverse pleasure in using illusions to lure unwary travelers into her embrace while her pets and servants hide nearby.  In the event of combat she reveals her true, disgusting form, immobilizing foes with swarms of frogs, and weakening them with a spray of secreted slime.  The mother of toads usually chooses the strongest and most virile looking male to control with her hallucinogenic saliva – committing unspeakable acts with the mind controlled slave once his companions have been eaten.


The mother of toads dwells in a rustic cottage at the edge of a wild and dangerous swamp where she poses as a friendly herbalist and healer.  The swamp is littered with weird and sinister primordial idols from the time before the dawn war.  The mother of toads children (bullywugs, as well as giant frogs and toads) are never far off and always heed her commands.

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