Horror seems to lend itself easily towards anthological presentation. The success of series like American Horror Story, which harnesses classic fears like ghosts and witches, and Black Mirror, which instills newfound fears of technology, are proof that the format is alive and well. But an anthology film is a much tougher project to get right, making The Mortuary Collection, written and directed by Ryan Spindell, all the more impressive in its ability to not just maintain the quality of its several different stories, but to keep them interconnected both thematically and stylistically.
The films stars the incomparable Clancy Brown as Montgomery Dark (“it’s a family name”), the local mortician for the spooky, storybook-like town of Raven’s End. Dark – who speaks slowly and deeply like Paul Frees’ Ghost Host of Disney’s Haunted Mansion – is a lonely man who’s creepy demeanor scares off children and who’s excitement over something like, say, a little boy’s funeral, makes adults give him a wide berth. When a girl named Sam (Caitlin Custer) arrives at his abode looking for a job, Dark finally has the perfect opportunity to tell some of his favorite gruesome stories, and Sam is a surprisingly willing audience.
The first story is short and simple: A woman (Christine Kilmer) alone in a bathroom is besieged by a gnarly pair of tentacles. It’s pretty basic fun, and Spindell has Sam basically do my job for me by commenting how she was expecting something “a bit more substantial” and how the story needs “an ironic comeuppance or an unexpected twist”. Dark, a bit taken aback, supplies her (and the audience) with just that in the following two stories. One has an almost National Lampoon feel with a college frat dude named Jake (Jacob Elordi) looking to score with women by pandering to modern and “woke” sensibilities. When he hooks up with new student Sandra (Ema Horvath) and – unbeknownst to her – removes his condom, he’s given a nasty dose of karma the following morning.
The third tale centers on a down-on-his-luck man named Wendell (Barak Hardley) who is stuck in his apartment taking care of his terminally-ill wife, Carol (Sarah Hay). It’s obvious that Carol isn’t ever going to get better, but she’s also not kicking the bucket any time soon. What’s Wendell to do? You know where this one’s going, and so does Sam, who tells Dark that his stories are becoming a bit predictable. She then takes it upon herself to tell the final story of the evening, which has a teenager slasher vibe, complete with a very 80s, synth-heavy score. The only downside is a plot involving an escaped patient from the local insane asylum, which, as much of a staple of the genre that may be, is a tired and problematic depiction of the mentally ill.
There’s a lot of gooey, gross-out moments in The Mortuary Collection, and the film’s many macabre effects are exceptionally impressive. Spindell, taking a page from the likes of Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt, blends the gruesome with the fun and wears both his influences and his love of the horror genre on his sleeve. A lot of the movie has a very whimsical, fantasy feel, but this makes it a bit tough to figure out who the targeted audience is. The main story of Dark and Sam feels very R.L. Stine-esque – spooky yet accessible to children. But a couple of the stories are blatantly not child-friendly, nor should they be, so younger audiences are lost while older viewers may be turned off by the film’s initial onset.
But the film is one made by a horror fan for horror fans, and Spindell’s stories don’t disappoint. There’s action, genuinely unexpected twists, buckets of blood and guts, and a sharp, wicked sense of humor running beneath it all. Great performances from the cast and a grandiose score from the Mondo Boys – who also worked on She Dies Tomorrow – tie this anthology film together quite nicely. Spindell’s future career, whether it remains in horror or not, is one to keep an eye on.