Friday, August 28, 2020

Fantasia 2020: 'The Mortuary Collection' Movie Review

Writer/director Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection has the honor of being the third anthology (or at least anthology adjacent) film I’ve watched at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival that places stories and the craft of storytelling front and center in the narrative. (The others being The Oak Room and Undergods.) 

The collection of horror tales aims to tip its cap to various influences, most notably the likes of Tales from the Crypt, Creepshow, and their ilk. But there are also nods to early Peter Jackson (there’s an exploding penis that could have been lifted straight out of Dead Alive), gooey Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and other homages. For my money, however, the best description is that it plays like fucked up Amblin. 

The aesthetic, tone, feel, and even the score practically scream Amblin. The film opens with a kid riding his bike through what could be the idyllic small town from The Goonies or Harry and the Hendersons, a picturesque hamlet that hides a dark undercurrent of weirdness. There’s also  similar throwback nostalgia reminiscent of the reverence for the 1950s so prevalent in Amblin movies from the early ‘80s. The stories here span decades, which gives the overall film an unmoored-in-tim quality. It’s all very Spielbergian whimsey and veneration, only with gore-soaked flourishes and an almost gleeful mean streak. 

When a young woman, Sam (Caitlin Custer), interviews for a job at the funeral home of Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), the topic quickly turns to stories and storytelling. And as so often happens in these situations, the two trade yarns, which forms the bulk of The Mortuary Collection’s runtime. 

For the most part, these entries are relatively small and contained, using a few actors and a handful of locations. For example, Dark’s first macabre tale involves a single woman (Christine Kilmer) in a single room and a cabinet door she should have left alone. The saga of a hunky, horny college boy (Jacob Elordi)who should have practiced safe sex is perhaps the most involved, with the biggest cast and most sets. While the mournful account of a man (Barak Hardley) drowning under the mounting pressure of caring for his invalid wife (Sarah Hay) takes place primarily in their apartment, though also adjoining hallways and elevators. 

Individual threads play out in relatively predictable fashion. A character commits a sin and pays a price. Something Sam notes during what becomes the creepiest job interview ever. But even with that, the film does what it does well, tightly crafting anecdotes that take on specific genre types, and injecting them with enough touches, not to mention blood, to keep them fresh and engaging. But that’s also an intentional choice, to begin with more rote stories, while the larger overall narrative builds to a climactic take on babysitter-versus-escaped-lunatic slasher tropes. The tweaks and subversions may not be fully revolutionary, but the film remains entertaining as hell throughout. 

An indie genre film with an indie genre budget, Spindell and company make excellent use of the resources at their disposal. The film never feels limited. It looks fantastic, glossy and grand, like something with much more money to play with. Though it often deals with contained stories, it’s never restrained. Costumes, sets, and makeup effects are all spot-on, intricately detailed, and slickly executed.

Any movie with Clancy Brown immediately has my attention, and he’s great  here. At first glance, Dark is what one might expect from a funeral director in a haunted town called Raven’s End. Wearing a black suit, made up with pancake makeup and a dusty wig, he looks like a long lost member of the Addams Family or the Munster clan. But he also has a dry, droll sense of humor to go along with his external creepiness. And Brown clearly has a damn good time with his affectations. 

Custer holds her own with Brown—the two almost exclusively share scenes with one another. She plays Sam as a sarcastic young millennial with no sense of boundaries, though she subtly infuses her persona with additional layers as the movie progresses, gradually shifting and twisting her character into something quite far from where she begins. 

My biggest issue with The Mortuary Collection is one I so often have with horror anthologies. Namely that the individual stories, as well as the surrounding narrative scaffolding, go on too long. Sometimes it’s only a bit overlong, though other times overstay by much more. While it’s noticeable here, it’s not nearly as egregious as in other examples, and in the grand scheme, it’s a relatively minor hiccup. 

The Mortuary Collection has a warmth and heart to go along effective scares and some stomach-twisting gore. It doesn’t do anything wholly shocking or open up any new territory, but that’s not the goal, and it does exactly what it intends. It’s a rollicking good time and a love letter to its inspirations, all while delivering spine-tingling chills and buckets of blood. To be honest, I usually don’t care for anthologies, I rarely find them compelling, but I whole heartedly recommend this one. [Grade: B+]

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