Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Shudder: The Mortuary Collection

The overwhelming majority of anthology films must be horror movies. Yet, they rarely get many scares out of their framing sequences—even though those are the parts we most remember. Let’s put it this way, when you hear the title Tales from the Crypt, do you think of a particular story or the ghoulish Cryptkeeper host? In this case, we have a worthy storyteller. His name is Montgomery Dark, a mortician by training, who tells a young woman about how some of the most interesting bodies came to his funeral parlor in Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Dark looks like he could be related to Angus Scrimm, but his wardrobe and the mortuary’s décor are wonderfully old world, in the style of the great Amicus horror anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s. Sam is a bratty snooper, who is obviously up to no good, but when she inquires about the help wanted sign, Dark is only too willing to interview her. It seems like the Raven’s End Mortuary doesn’t get a lot of applicants. Yet, as their discussion progresses, Sam convinces him to tell her about some of the most unusual bodies he worked on.

Essentially, Dark starts with a Lovecraftian warm-up joke. It is very funny, but lightweight, which she calls him out for. She much more approves of his following yarn, wherein a sexually irresponsible frat boy gets an unlikely taste of his own medicine. It features some wicked body horror, but it tries too hard to be woke (but yes, Sam appreciates that).

The third (or second proper) tale is surprisingly poignant. Wendell Owens is a decent fellow, who still earnestly loves his wife, but the burden of caring for her in her locked-in catatonic state has left him exhausted and desperate. He finally resorts to euthanasia, but his attempt takes a strange, fateful twist. This is a shockingly poignant story, with Barak Hardley’s heartfelt performance inspiring pathos and sympathy rather than scares.

By far, the strongest constituent story is the final one, which Sam tells herself—but the wrap-around narrative, which does indeed build towards something, is the best part of the film. Her anecdote starts off as a stylish homage to
Halloween and the entire babysitter-slasher sub-genre, but it takes a mordantly ironic twist. It is a wild ride that directly leads into the sinister conclusion of her interview with Mr. Dark.

Genre veteran Clancy Brown has the perfect stature and voice to play the imposing Dark. He makes full advantage of both, chewing the scenery in a way that honors and plays with the horror tradition. He is jolly good fun to watch, while Caitlin Fisher is rather droll serving as a mouthpiece for viewers’ reactions, but she also keeps us guessing regarding Sam’s true purpose.

Admittedly, the film is considerably uneven, but the extreme swings are still effective in their own way, especially the darkly morose segment featuring Hardley’s memorable work as the poor, hapless Owens. Nonetheless, most horror fans will focus on the wonderfully baroque set and design work that make the Mortuary quite a macabre world unto itself. This is the stuff we watch horror anthologies for. Highly recommended for horror anthology fans,
The Mortuary Collection starts streaming tomorrow (8/15) on Shudder.