By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Clancy Brown (Pet Sematary Two, Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption) as its ghoulish master of ceremonies, THE MORTUARY COLLECTION has been warmly embraced by fright fans since it world-premiered at Fantastic Fest last year. Now a Shudder exclusive, this stylish, amusing, inventive yet old-school anthology film is the passion project of Ryan Spindell (50 States of Fright, The Babysitter Murders) who forged his own creative path to make the jump to feature-length filmmaking while still embracing his love for short-form storytelling. Rue Morgue sat down with the writer/director and star to discuss the anthology format, how they found the perfect stand-in for the town of “Raven’s End,” and why sharing stories is an essential part of the human experience.
Tell us a bit about the origins of this project. Why did an anthology seem like the right fit for your debut feature?
RS: I think the project was born out of my love for short-form horror specifically. I’ve always been a big reader, and the more hectic my schedule gets, the less time I have for novels, so I tend to lean into my old favorites like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson. I’ve always been taken back by how wonderful those stories work in a condensed [format], and sort of bummed that there isn’t really a venue for mainstream audiences to see these stories. I think what ends up happening is you get a lot of people that take these really great ideas, and they try to stretch them into a 90-minute movie, and they meander and kind of fall apart in the second and third acts.
So, I had all of these different short horror ideas kind of rattling around in my brain, and I made a big list. I picked my four favorites, and then I really started thinking about a wrap-around, because I have always been a huge fan of horror anthology movies. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I love about them and what I’m not so keen on and then started trying to build a wrap-around that kind of hit all those marks that I thought a lot of the other anthology movies were missing. I wanted a wrap-around story with some real meat on its bones, pun intended. That’s really how [the character of] Montgomery Dark came to life and how Clancy became a part of the project.
Clancy, you’ve played absolutely everything, but this is a unique character even for you. What drew you to the project?
CB: You read a script, and everyone is very good at reading a good script. They can all tell it’s a good script. And so then you’ve got to go meet the guy that did it just to make sure that he’s for real and not a jerk. Because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a shoot. It’s going to be long days and early days, and so you’ve got to make sure you’re working with people you like. And at the same time, you’ve got to see if he gets along with me and everything. As soon as I met Ryan, I was just a minute away from doing it as soon as he told me that everybody in Hollywood has rejected him except for this noble few that he had gathered around him. Then I was like, “Sign me up. I want to be part of that small cadre that shows the business that they’re wrong.”
RS: Which is something that you don’t expect when you’re talking to somebody of the caliber of Clancy. You kind of go into the meeting, and you think, “Oh, man. How do I convince this guy who has been in so many of my favorite movies and played so many of my favorite characters to come on board this little, tiny, ragtag guerilla team?” And it turns out that it was the tiny ragtag guerilla team itself that inspired him to be a part of it, which was really cool.
How did you go about crafting the character? Was “Montgomery Dark” all on the page, or did you two develop him as you went along?
CB: Yeah, it was pretty much on the page. It was very much an Angus Scrimm kind of a deal, but there was a subtlety to it. There were also callbacks [to] all the great anthologies of the ’50s and ’60s. So, there was a camp element. [Maybe not] a camp element, some much as it was like an old-timey vibe from a previous generation, a more formal kind of thing. Ryan then would just nudge me little bits here, little bits there. Once the clothes, and the look, and the voice come, then it’s really up to Ryan to just kind of push, and pull.
RS: We had an interesting approach to this project because there’s a big part of the movie that lives in this nostalgia for horror of the past – be it anthology films or just classic genre cinema. Everything in the movie started with the iconic elements that I just genuinely love: The creepy house on the hill with the cobwebs. The looming, foreboding mortician who lurks in the shadows. It began with a foundation of the horror that I hold close to my heart, but then from there, it was like, “Okay, now how do we start to subvert this? How do we start to twist this, and how do we start to evolve this into something that’s a little bit fresher and a little bit more interesting?”I think that the stories themselves, they’re specifically designed to have these really simple spines. And that’s where Clancy and the rest of the cast came into play. We had the house, and the costumes, and these reference points, like Angus Grimm. We knew where to start, but then it became sort of like, “Who is Montgomery really? Who is Montgomery when he’s not doing a funeral? Who is Montgomery…? Why is he in this house all the time? Does he get lonely? Does he want somebody to talk to? Is he sad? Is he trapped?” And so once we started having those conversations, it really evolved into something special and became a balancing act between playing the archetype that we want to pay homage to, but also do it in an interesting way that maybe isn’t quite what you expect.
CB: Yeah, one of the cleverest things that Ryan does with the scripts and his movies…is that he depends on his audience to be horror literates. Cinema and horror literates. As soon as you’re horror literate, you enjoy this movie so much more. And we’re all horror literate. Let’s face it, everybody is horror literate. Everybody knows these nightmares from our childhoods.
That’s something that’s very front and center in the film: it’s subversive and knowing, and self-aware without being, for lack of a better word, obnoxious about it. How do you go about threading that needle?
RS: I don’t know if it was ever intended to be as meta as it comes off. Initially, I was talking to Justin, my producer, and he was saying, “We need to figure out what ties all this together. What’s the theme of the overall movie that makes this all one.” And we were talking a little bit about, “Oh, it’s all evil deeds…eventually you have to pay the price.” But I knew it couldn’t be that because that’s already built-in. That comes with the [anthology] territory. We know those stories. We’ve been telling those stories since we lived in caves. I think it came down to my love for stories and storytellers. I kind of locked in on that, that this was a bit of a love letter to the people, not just the stories, but the people who are telling them. Then I started thinking a lot about how Sam [Caitlin Fisher] and Montgomery feel about stories themselves, and the debate between them about what makes a good story, and what makes them work and what doesn’t make them work. And I sort of lost track of the question here, but I feel like I was coming around to bring it home…
CB: See? That’s why you’ve got to go make a movie with this guy. It’s like, how do you say no to that?
RS: Okay! But once this idea of stories and storytellers came into play, then I realized that I could have the two characters talking about stories in a direct manner because it’s organic to what the job is, we were able to talk directly about the format without looking at the camera and winking.
Clancy, the argument could be made that being an actor is being a storyteller. Does that resonate with you in terms of this film and your performance?
CB: Well, sure. You’re always hired to serve the story. Maybe some people are hired to sell a movie to make people buy tickets or something. I don’t really know why anybody gets hired. I know why I want to do projects, it’s because they are telling a story, and they need me to embody some part of that, some role in the telling of that story. I don’t think anybody has hired me to be the draw of the film, and for god sake, that would just be…that’d just be too much responsibility.
You are the draw here!
CB: I’m not though. I’m not. Maybe for this little, tiny budget film, but there is nobody going, “Hmm, Clancy Brown, Brad Pitt…” Nobody is doing that.
You’d be surprised.
CB: And Ryan would have hired Brad Pitt in a second if Brad Pitt came out and said, “Hey, Ryan, I really want to do your movie.”
RS: That is not true!
CB: That is so true!
From a production standpoint, the film is just stunning, with a really interesting, elevated, retro but timeless look. Is that how you always imagined it would be?
RS: Yeah! I was thinking about campfire stories, when it’s just you and your friends kind of trying to freak each other out. The ones that really stand the test of time are the ones that are timeless. They’re not then. They’re not now. They’re sort of any time, and it kind of gives them this sort of fantastic quality. So, I think we were leaning into this fantastic horror fantasy thing because I knew that the tone was going to swing a little bit wider. It was going to be a little bit more comic-booky and a little bit more cartoony. I wanted people to have that distance. So, I think that from a storytelling perspective, it was very much planned. From an aesthetic perspective, I’m a huge geek about old-timey artifacts. I remember as a young film student thinking I would kill to see Jean-Pierre Jeunet make a straight horror film. [His films] have all this texture and all of this amazing world-building, so, it was like, can I take that aesthetic and package it in more of a Spielberg-y fashion and see how that plays?
Clancy, you spend the bulk of your screen time with Caitlin Fisher. Can you tell us a bit about your working relationship?
CB: I was already smitten with her from watching The Babysitter Murders, and she has been with the project as long as…well, maybe not as long as Ryan, but the longest of anyone probably. It was kind of their party that I was crashing or that I was invited to, so I felt like I was in pretty good hands. She’s a rare actress. She’s really good, and she could care less. All she cares about is doing her role, and telling the story. She brought her family with her, and that’s the most important thing in the world to her. Somebody like that I can work with for the rest of my days. She’s about the work and nothing else. It’s nice.
RS: Clancy, Caitlin, and the whole cast just had to kind of show up and execute. They had to already be in the role and living and breathing it. I think it’s a testament to look at the actors across the board and realize that you just show up, you get thrown into costume, you’re fighting a tentacle monster, and you’re selling it. That’s such a crazy task.
CB: Yeah, all the performances are great. I don’t know what you did to them! What did you do to them?
RS: I think I’m good at picking actors, but I just get really lucky. [When] you see an actor that clicks, you just know it intuitively. You always know when they’re not right intuitively, too, even though sometimes you’re forced to cast those people because of time, or budget, or whatever. But yeah, I feel so blessed. I don’t even use the word blessed, but I’m using it here – I feel blessed to have such great actors in this film.
Can you tell us about shooting on-location at the Flavel House?
CB: The creepy house on the hill is an actual house in Astoria, Oregon. It’s a historic house, and it’s a museum most of the time. You go in, and it’s a maritime captain’s kind of thing. It’s really spectacular. It looks big, but it’s way bigger on the inside. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s such an interesting house. So interesting. Go ahead. You’re the one that scouted it, I’ll shut up about it.
RS: No, I think you summed it up. It’s right in Astoria, Oregon, which is where they shot all the exterior stuff for The Goonies. That’s what it’s most famous for.
Do you have a connection to Oregon? How did you end up shooting there?
RS: This movie was always going to be this sort of fantasy, and we needed a very specific location, kind of a New England, Lovecraftian thing. Going to the East Coast was going to be a real pain, so we shot as much as we possibly could in Los Angeles on the interior. We would find old abandoned buildings and repaint them, dress them, and sort of pull off all the interior stuff, but eventually, we needed to find the town of Raven’s End somewhere because we couldn’t build it in the computer or practically for sure. The first place we went was the Pacific Northwest because it has the epic trees, the coastline, and the geography. We did a whole tour of Oregon with a locations guy up there, Gordon, who is the best, and we eventually landed in Astoria. It was the last town we went to, and as soon as we saw the Flavel House, we were like, “Oh, this is a no brainer. This is the place.” Like Clancy said, it’s interesting because if you look at pictures of the house, you can’t really tell the scale from pictures because everything is larger. So, what looks like a normal door in the picture, you show up there, and the normal door is like twelve feet tall. It really was a massive space, and it was so cool that they let us come in there and just transform every single room into something else completely.
CB: Yeah, they were great, but you treated them well, too. You took care of the space. That’s to your credit.
RS: And the town of Astoria, we were there for two months, and it’s a very different vibe than Los Angeles where people are sort of burnt out on films. We really made a lot of these legit friendships with the people who ran the town. The police showed up and shut down roads for free because they were excited about it. We had dinner with the city commissioner. It wasn’t even like a sales pitch, it was like genuinely cool people who wanted to help us make this movie. There was something really refreshing and invigorating about that. So, whenever things were tough, and it was raining, and it was cold, and I hadn’t slept in a couple of days, I could look around and see local people showing up in vintage cars for free just to be in the movie. I’d be like, “All right, I think I can do this. One more day.”
How did you strike the right balance between practical and visual effects in the film?
RS: The initial inclination for this movie was to have zero visual effects. I’m not against visual effects, but the idea was to not have any, and we ended up getting an amazing practical effects company to come on board, and they agreed to do all of the gags for our crazy low budget. They built the key stuff from scratch, but a lot of the secondary gags were all repurposed from other things. We actually have elements from the original Tremors repainted and repurposed within our film, which is really cool. The only place where we had to really lean heavy into some visual effects was the very end sequence, and that’s because the whole production almost came to a standstill because we had a certain location in mind to shoot it that we weren’t able to get at the last minute. So we had to build a set on the fly, a partial set, and try to cobble it together. It was like an emergency triage situation that we found ourselves in. I hope that people are forgiving of the areas in which we weren’t able to get the Michael Bay visual effects to bring it over the finish line, because it’s sort of charming. It’s charming in its rough around the edges nature.
You mentioned that you picked your favorite short stories for this one. Does this mean there might be a second MORTUARY COLLECTION on the horizon?
RS: I know I want to do that very much. In my mind, Raven’s End is a town full of stories. I think there is something lurking in every shadow. I think there are creepy crawlies in every corner. Clearly, Montgomery has a massive collection of books and stories from all the eras collected in his home. I would love to expand it more, and there is a story that I know Clancy really liked that was in the initial script that we had to cut all together just because the movie was going to be like 37 hours long.
Clancy, do you have a favorite remaining segment?
CB: I like “’Til Death Do Us Part.” Was that the third one? But that’s because I’m married, and I’m old. That one… you feel the dilemma, and it gets to you. It’s also very funny and horrifying. It’s a great one – all the emotions from A to B. It’s more heartfelt than Tales from the Crypt, I think. All of these have a little bit of heart, except maybe the first one is a little cruel, but the other ones are more heartfelt, I think.
Since it’s October, if you could pair THE MORTUARY COLLECTION with one film for a Halloween double feature, what would it be?
RS: Wow. I guess I would probably pair it with another anthology movie and make it a night of short horror. I would go with the Amicus film, Asylum. Because I think you could start at that very serious, very dark, very British brand of anthology film, and then I think I’d end with a more fun fantastical modern take. I think that would be a nice fusion. And then Clancy could do a Vincent Price thing in between!
What do you both hope viewers take away from THE MORTUARY COLLECTION?
RS: I’d just like the horror anthology format to come back in a real way. I think aggregate films, like the V/H/S series, are really cool, but I also love the idea of a single feature crafted by a single team and the cohesiveness of that. I think there isn’t much support for them outside of the independent market, and there have been a lot of bad ones, and that kind of perpetuate this idea that horror anthologies don’t work. Audiences don’t want to see multiple stories. So, if this movie can even be one small step towards this format becoming more mainstream, I think I would be happy.
CB: I would want people to leave wanting more, and maybe arguing about stuff. Saying, “Did you see the thing in the background? Did you see the butterfly? Did you see that moment?” “No, I didn’t see that.” So, they have to go back and see it again and again. Maybe like resubscribe to Shudder or go back to the theater and see it.
RS: You know what’s interesting? I have found that there’s a number of people who say they watched the movie and they liked it. But then they watch it again, and they really love it. I’m biased obviously, but I think this is a movie that rewards multiple viewings.
CB: Well, it’s a horror movie, so once you know the gags, there has to be something underneath all the jokes. You go back the second time, and you realize, “Hey, actually there are a lot of things underneath all the jokes here.”
CB: There’s another story.
THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is now streaming, exclusively on Shudder.