Is there anything better than low-budget horror?
I mean, sure, the studios get things right on occasion. There's a few franchises that have captured my heart. I've been slashed to ecstacy, thrilled to chills, and absolutely horrified by the big budget folks once in a while.
But, seriously. There's nothing I love more than sitting down with a good old-fashioned low-budget, indie spirited project and letting it absolutely take me away.
This is what happens with Tom Ryan's latest indie horror anthology Return to the Theatre of Horror, a four-short horror anthology that captivates, creeps, chills, and makes me anxiously giggle my way through 2-1/2 hours of all the stuff I really love about horror.
In the anthology, Ryan himself portrays a mysterious projectionist who willingly plays host to a young intruder and offers him the chance to watch four spine-tingling tales of terror on what would appear to be a classic movie screen in an abandoned old moviehouse. These wraparound scenes could so easily have been throwaway scenes, yet they're absolutely essential in setting mood, atmosphere, and even the narrative arc of the entire anthology. Ryan himself is a creeper, sort of what I'd call paternally horrifying.
The anthology kicks off with Soothsayer, a sci-fi tinged short starring Anthony Robert Grasso as a brilliant scientist working alongside his assistant (Samantha Lacey Johnson) to create a time machine. When a new device gives him a glimpse into what the future holds, he becomes determined to prevent it. Soothsayer carries retro vibes not far removed from old episodes of The Twilight Zone. It's a fiercely beautiful short film that I wasn't expecting yet one that I loved from beginning to end.
Next up, and my favorite from the anthology, is Splinter. Based off a story by Todd Staruch, Splinter stars Jim Thalman as a man whose recently inherited home becomes much more than he ever imagined. While renovating, he steps on a small splinter. With a wound that refuses to heal, he slowly learns the history of the town, its people, and his family's terrifying legacy. As a double amputee myself, two stumps you know, I found myself giggling with nervous delight at this increasingly bizarre yet impossible to ignore horror short that explodes thanks to Thalman's absolutely riveting performance. This is a mind-blowing short film with horror that snags you deep in the bones and extraordinary special effects.
In Haunted, Brett Eidman is Carl McGavin, a predatory paranormal investigator. He's short of a ghostbuster without all the laughs. He receives a call from a widow (Jenn Plotzke) and her daughter who have been increasingly bothered by a poltergeist ever since her late husband's passing. McGavin accepts the job but ends up with an awful lot more than he ever expected. McGavin hits it out of the ballpark and Plotzke's always on her A-game.
Finally, there's Robot. With darker Spielbergian meets Stranger Things vibes, we wrap up the story of Jack, our young intruder, with another sci-fi tinged horror flick that finds Jack retrieving a small robot from a crashed meteriorite. The bad robot becomes both companion and souvenir and so much more. Robot tosses in X-files vibes galore and this dazzling little short makes you loudly exclaim "How did they do that on a low budget?"
Return to the Theatre of Terror may not be perfect horror but it's perfectly a blast from beginning to end with four fantastic short films and wrapping scenes that could easily stand-alone or be fleshed out to make yet another short. While there's not a chainsaw to be found here and nothing to please true gorehounds, Return to the Theatre of Terror is retro, classic, creepy, and an absolute blast.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic