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Fantasia ’20 Review: “THE MORTUARY COLLECTION” exhumes horror history in a spooky-smart anthology

Wednesday, August 19, 2020 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Review


Starring Clancy Brown, Caitlin Fisher and Jacob Elordi
Written and directed by Ryan Spindell
Mountain Path Entertainment

It didn’t take long for THE MORTUARY COLLECTION to sell me on its cannily, restlessly retro-modern sensibilities.

Ryan Spindell’s lovingly crafted, diabolically crafty ode to Amicus anthology horror (playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival) opens somewhere in the halcyon ’80s of genre classics past, within the tastefully eerie seaside vista of Raven’s End. Pitched between Amblin’s wondrous ephemera and the more propulsively ominous thrust of early Sam Raimi, the small town is an engrossing backdrop, if one Spindell only breezes past as a young boy (Tristan Byon) rides his bike toward the film’s real setting: a creakily towering funeral home presided over by the creakily towering Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown, having ghoulish-enough good fun to tell us that’s a family name).

Inside, Dark busies himself with the work of all horror-movie undertakers: getting entirely too into a child’s eulogy, cleaning up corpses and frightening any grievers in attendance or intrepid rugrats who’d dare venture up to the mortuary’s double doors. He’s approached by the smart-alecky Sam (Caitlin Custer), who’s seen a Help Wanted sign outside and has her own reasons for poking around the parlor. “Tell me a story,” she insists, arms brattily crossed, and Dark obliges, spinning a few grim and ghastly tales of how the unfortunate souls on his slabs met their makers.​

In the first and shortest segment, a ’50s housewife (Christine Kilmer) retreats from a social gathering to snoop through an acquaintance’s medicine cabinet, only to uncover eldritch terrors she can’t easily close back in. Next, a ’60s-set short staged on a freshly coed college campus reveals itself to be a withering rebuke of young men who couch horndog tendencies in the language of female empowerment, centering on a fraternity libertine (Jacob Elordi) who stealths a young woman (Ema Horvath) and pays a gruesome price. What is there to be said about stories like this one, inverting across gender lines the sexual anxiety and ensuing violent discharge of something like REPULSION or MULHOLLAND DR., other than that it’s about time?

Moving to the ’70s, another story captures the agony of abiding by that old matrimonial chestnut “Till death do us part,” packing Gothic gravitas and a surprisingly complex study of devotion into its tale of a man (Barak Hardley) caring for his sickly bride (FLESH AND BONE’s Sarah Hay) while despairing at the question of when it will all end. It all leads up to the riotous ’80s time capsule that is “The Babysitter Murders,” starring Custer and Ben Heathcoat. An inspired deconstruction of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN that pits innocent babysitter against escaped psychopath on a stormy night, it openly revels in the requisite genre touches–from a retro-classic Westinghouse TV set and handy meat tenderizer to the voyeuristic camerawork and gleefully kinetic editing–even as it undercuts our expectations. It’s a neat trick Spindell somehow pulls off without appearing cheap or, worse, self-satisfied.

Condensing these macabre morality plays into an accessible anthology format, THE MORTUARY COLLECTION doubles as an aesthetic pleasure-trip back through four related but distinct eras of horror cinema. Whether it’s subtle red-and-blue lighting that tints some proceedings with a comic book’s pulp poetry (à la CREEPSHOW), fire-eyed gremlins plucked from Steven Spielberg’s ’80s playbook or the grandly imposing mortuary itself (redolent of Corman’s Poe productions on the inside, though its exterior played a role in THE GOONIES), Spindell borrows from the best.

But this homage is no memetic plundering, nor hollow reproduction. THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is self-reflexive in the playful spirit of Wes Craven, its stabs at genre resurrection finding new ways to twist the knife that both heighten Spindell’s scream-weaving approach and modernize it–critically, without making the mistake of assuming the latter will ensure the former. It’s not enough, Spindell knows, to merely turn the tables on the collegiate playboy of his second tale, for example, and recast him as a victim of his own chauvinism, unless the corresponding comeuppance is delivered (and oh, is it delivered) with grotesque imagination and verve.

That Spindell so clearly relishes the use of explosively goopy prosthetics there and elsewhere communicates the sense that THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is a hand-signed love letter to many a horror epoch, not just the more classically ghostly days of EC Comics and Amicus anthology fare. There’s Cronenbergian body horror here, and sci-fi-tinged spooks on the order of ALIEN and POLTERGEIST. Something too must be said for Mondo Boys’ extraordinary work in crafting songs that instantly set the tone for each short. Check out Nisalda Gonzalez playing Nancy Sinatra to Mondo Boys’ Lee Hazlewood on one standout, “Find Me in the Fall,” which recalls that duo’s intoxicating “Summer Wine” as Elordi’s wolfish frat bro descends into his preferred hunting ground. Just as great is their prowling, howling “Fast & Sweet” with Kestrin Pantera, which shows up in “The Babysitter Murders” as Spindell turns what could have been an average sequence of Custer’s Sam preparing dinner into a finger-licking tribute to everything slick, savory and style-forward about this chosen period of slasher flicks.

Like last year’s more narratively straightlaced SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, another spooky picture (though not an anthology) about the importance of which stories we tell each other, THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is lit autumnally and with vintage flair. Spindell’s production values are carefully considered in their fluidity, the look of each short shifting to embrace the hallmarks of its day even as one atmosphere bleeds into the next. Consider the warm, soft-lit color tones Spindell establishes for his ’50s-set segment, from Kilmer’s housewife’s bright yellow swing dress to the pastel blues of the bathroom where she meets a daffily cruel fate. More Gothic touches pervade the ’70s-set tale that works its haunted romance fully into a rotting apartment complex and rickety elevator ride, culminating in an ethereal sequence of throbbing reds. The wraparound segment, despite handsomely merging all the distinct tones and styles into a shared reality, ultimately leans too heavily on chintzy CGI, though that’s frankly spot-on as a period reference.

One popular rule of anthologies is that they’re only as successful as their weakest link, but underestimated even by many who subscribe to this wisdom is the value of a strong framing story. The best of Amicus preferred a portmanteau approach, with the in-film shorts layering in clues and creeps that functioned like signposts on the way to whatever destination the filmmaker had in mind. With his gangly frame and sunken-in eyes, Brown’s morbid mortician directly riffs on the PHANTASM franchise’s Tall Man, albeit with hints of the Creep’s supernatural menace in CREEPSHOW and the sonorous, scenery-chomping solemnity of TALES FROM THE HOOD’s Mr. Simms. Like the film surrounding him, Dark is a knowing composite, but what makes him more than the sum of his parts is Spindell’s framing of the undertaker as one side of a feature-length genre dialectic, with Sam’s perpetually know-it-all attitude the smarmy next-gen rejoinder to any narrator bent on telling a good old-fashioned tale.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but all of your stories are a little predictable,” she says at one point. “Somebody commits a sin, they pay a horrible price, rinse, repeat.” Dark eyes her gravely, then intones: “The form may be familiar, but the message is timeless. No evil deed goes unpunished.” He has a point, as does she, and THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is ultimately inclined to roll the bones in his favor, setting up a satisfying sting for its closer that works much like the film as a whole: paying bloody-hearted tribute to the long legacy of frights that came before, while passing the skeleton keys of this storytelling down to a new generation that’s been sufficiently educated in what should (and should not) survive any changing of the guard.