By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Bill Paxton, Mary Beth McDonough, David Wysocki
Directed by Howard Avedis
Written by Howard Avedis, Marlene Schmidt
Produced by Hickmar Productions
Are you ready for casual gaslighting, incestuous incels, and impromptu marriage ceremonies that end in wild machine gun fire? No? Well too bad, we’re watching MORTUARY.
It’s the dawn of a new day here at the Sematary, and we’re kicking things off with 1983’s MORTUARY on Shudder. That’s right, we’re taking a bit of a permanent hiatus from covering new releases and returning to the original purpose of the column: digging out forgotten films from the bottom of streaming service catalogues. I’m cheating a bit with MORTUARY, as it’s part of a recent slate of films dumped onto the service in celebration of Shudder’s 61 Days of Halloween, but I felt it was more than appropriate to kick off the column’s new direction with this mostly overlooked slasher classic.
You might not realize immediately that MORTUARY is a slasher when you watch it for the first time; the film takes it’s time revealing what it actually is and throws every red herring in the book at its audience. MORTUARY teases a Society-like cult of adults who gaslight teens and conduct seances in secret, a pissed off spirit that possesses our protagonist every time she sleeps, and a hooded stalker who stabs stragglers with his trusty aspirator, and keeps you guessing to the very end as to how all these things will be tied together. The identity of the killer IS fairly obvious; anyone who has seen an 80’s slasher before will clock him at the 30-minute mark if not sooner. But that won’t affect your enjoyment of this batshit 80’s film buoyed by excellent performances from the likes of Bill Paxton, Christopher George, and Lynda Day George. In my opinion, the film really reaches it’s potential when the identity of the killer is revealed and its cards are on the table; with one red herring out of the way the extent and particular variety of the killers’ neuroses is put on display, and loose threads that have been dangling through the film are suddenly and satisfactorily tied up. Even the end-credits’ scare feels unique; typical of other films in this subgenre, sure, but with an original spin that feels like it could have only come from this film.
“The unique combination of influences that make up the DNA of MORTUARY make it a standout amongst it’s slasher contemporaries.”
That’s a thing I can say about MORTUARY in general, really. There is a lot the avid 80’s slasher fan will recognize in this film as either clichés of the genre or things that are cribbed from other films. But the way that MORTUARY blends these elements with elements of other subgenres, constructing the threat of the cult and integrating a possession side-arc with hints of psychological horror, allows MORTUARY to construct a DNA that feels entirely its own. The unique composition of this film makes it a lot more memorable than some of it’s contemporaries, and Bill Paxton’s performance in particular was stellar enough to push it into slasher superstardom. Or at least it should have been.
I’m a little torn on MORTUARY’s messaging, specifically which angle to approach it from. The film primarily takes potshots at incel ideology, with the killer being someone who can’t get laid and has to use an aspirator (a metaphor for his tiny, tiny penis) to assert his dominance, killing those who stand in his way and murdering the women who won’t sleep with him. His endless pursuit of the film’s heroine is a marked refusal of her own autonomy, his fixation on her having more to do with filling the void in his own life than being in any way about her; it’s an incisive if unconventional critique of how the patriarchy objectifies women, how men like the antagonist see women as objects to fulfill their own desires. The film’s messaging on mental health is a bit of a mess, but well, it was the 80’s and this is a slasher film: while Christie is eventually vindicated, her character has a bit of an Electra complex going on. Moaning “Daddy” in her dreams while she dreams of her father’s murder before apparently being possessed by his spirit, her distrust of her mother and claims that she didn’t care about her husband, and not being able to sleep with her boyfriend because of the memory of her father are all part of a knot that this columnist is not smart enough to untangle, and so I’m just going to leave it alone. The antagonist’s mental illness frames it as dangerous, even murderous, continuing the slasher films’ track record of not dealing with these issues well. Neither of these people are mentally well; the fact that they are brought together in the climax, and that the protagonist is saved from being united with the antagonist by her boyfriend, suggests that some are rescued while others aren’t. If the film didn’t also imply that some SHOULD be rescued while some shouldn’t, that wouldn’t be a bad message.
I’m giving MORTUARY a 9. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s definitely one of the underseen gems of its genre. Check it out.