Home Film Ryan Spindell on ‘The Mortuary Collection’ & the Art of the Horror Anthology – Exclusive Interview

Ryan Spindell on ‘The Mortuary Collection’ & the Art of the Horror Anthology – Exclusive Interview

by Nicolás Delgadillo
Director and writer Ryan Spindell poses in costume as a butcher holding a bloody heart in his hands.

With Halloween just around the corner (and with Covid-19 still keeping many theaters closed), there’s no better time to sink your teeth into all of the different horror movies streaming services have to offer. The obvious choice would be the horror-focused Shudder, which has been continuously launching hit after hit on the platform. One Shudder exclusive that’s well worth your time is The Mortuary Collection, from writer and director Ryan Spindell, which stars Clancy Brown as a brooding and mysterious mortician with a passion for storytelling.

Spindell proudly showcases all of his inspirations in the anthology film, which features everything from tentacled monsters to reanimated corpses to exploding nether regions. But simply paying homage isn’t what makes a great story, as the filmmaker explains in our exclusive interview. We talked about the long journey of going from making shorts to his first feature-length film, how horror films today are lacking fun, and what it’s like to work with an icon of the genre.

Clancy Brown as Montgomery Dark sits and ponders at his desk in Ryan Spindell's 'The Mortuary Collection'
Clancy Brown in ‘The Mortuary Collection’ courtesy of Shudder

What made you want to turn this into an anthology film as opposed to a series or a mini-series?

RS: That’s a great question. I don’t think anybody’s asked me that. So, originally I did want to do a series. I’m a huge fan of Tales from the Crypt, I’m even a huger fan of The Twilight Zone. That was sort of the big one for me as a little kid. I used to be really scared of horror movies, so I wouldn’t watch horror at all, but I did watch The Twilight Zone with my dad. He had them all on VHS and that was like a bonding thing. It was weird to be a little kid watching black and white movies. I was even aware of it at the time, but you know, you do it because your dad is into it.

You think your dad’s the best person in the world, so you want to emulate him. Even after he fell away from the series, I kept watching and interestingly, it really became the foundation for almost everything I’ve done ever since. I tend to be drawn towards that classic style and I just really loved what [Rod] Serling and the other writers of that series would do with one or two characters in one space and the stories they could tell. If you don’t see it for a while, you tend to regulate it to this kind of B-movie type of vibe, but then you watch it again and you’re like, “Oh no, these are super nuanced, super interesting characters.”

And it’s just written so beautifully. That was sort of my way into it and I love the series. When I moved to LA, I had been making a bunch of short films in film school. I had fallen in love with the format and I was like, I really want to make an anthology series that’s great again. I feel like there have been a few attempts along the way that hadn’t really worked out so well. And every time one came around and kind of didn’t work, I feel like the ‘anthology series’ idea got wiped away and then nobody would do them again for another year. So I started thinking, “What’s the thing that I think is missing from them?” And the thing I felt missing was really great scripts, really great stories, and three-act structures that really pay off in interesting ways.

I started collecting this whole list of different ideas for episodes I had and I was going out – and this was very naive of me – but I was traveling around LA as a new filmmaker with a couple of shorts under my belt. I was like, “Hey, what’s going on with Tales from the Crypt? Can I remake that show? Hey, what’s going on with Creepshow, what’s going on with Eerie?” I’m going after these ridiculous IPs that nobody’s ever going to let me touch. Eventually, I became hip to the idea that this wasn’t going to happen as far as an IP goes. So I started thinking, well, maybe if no one’s going to let me in on a series at that level, maybe I can make a feature that kind of establishes a new type of IP? I hate the word ‘IP’ because it was a love for the format and love for horror movies that inspired it. But I did think in the back of my mind, if I could create something that gets people’s attention, potentially it could be a launching pad for a series and that’s kind of how the movie came together.

What made you want to incorporate your original short, The Babysitter Murders, into the film?

RS: I had been watching a lot of Amicus movies. I had been watching a lot of the old classic anthology movies and Creepshow was that original anthology movie that I remembered as a kid. I started digging deeper and really looking at these single director efforts – I really fell in love with that format. I had these different shorts and so the initial thought was that I will just take my favorite shorts that I’ve written and tie them all together in one overarching story. At that time, The Babysitter Murders was one of the four shorts I had partially written on my computer and put together as a feature.

First, I wrote the entire feature with the shorts, the wraparound, and everything. I knew that was going to be a really tough sell for studios – to try to get an anthology movie made for a lot of the reasons I just mentioned, which is, they’re just very tough to market. They’re very tough to sell and the studios don’t like them very much. So I looked at the four shorts in the movie and I picked the one that had the least locations and the least cast that I could actually pull off on my own. I went into Kickstarter with some friends and we financed the single short and then we used The Babysitter Murders as a way to raise money for the rest of the movie.

Director Ryan Spindell with actress Caitlin Fisher on the set of 'The Babysitter Murders'
Director Ryan Spindell with actress Caitlin Fisher on the set of ‘The Babysitter Murders’

Are there any specific Twilight Zone episodes that really stick in your mind?

RS: There’s one episode that I really loved called A World of His Own. It’s amazing because it’s all literally set in one room and it’s three actors and basically in real-time. There are no time jumps. It’s just one drama playing out beginning to end. It essentially revolves around this writer who has discovered that anything he writes on his typewriter, when he creates characters, they become so real to him that they actually start existing. His wife comes home one day and he’s kind of canoodling with this other woman and the wife bursts in his office and the woman’s not there. And she starts to accuse him of cheating on her.

She’s looking for secret trap doors in the room. She’s like, “Where’s this girl, I saw you through the window. You were cheating on me.” And he’s like, “I wasn’t cheating on you. I promise.” Finally he admits to her, he’s like, “Look, my characters become so real that they exist. It’s an amazing thing, but this is real.” And she’s like, “You’re trying to gaslight me. You’re trying to make me think I’m crazy.” So he does it for her and he creates this other woman before her eyes and she still thinks he’s fooling her, so he opens a safe in the wall and inside the safe, he pulls out an envelope and inside the envelope is the character description of his wife. And she takes it and she’s like, “This is bullsh*t!” She throws it in the fire, it burns up and she disappears. And it’s played for comedy, it’s played a little bit broad, but the underlying implications are actually pretty dark and pretty interesting when you really get into it. It really affected me.

There’s a lot of blood and gruesome stuff in this movie, but it still has that element of fun to it. How do you approach striking that balance?

RS: I don’t know if it so much pertains to the gore itself, but the tone of the overall piece. This kind of again goes back to me being a big wimp when I was a kid and not really being able to watch horror movies. I didn’t have the same experience a lot of kids had, like being really young and watching slasher movies because I avoided them like the plague. It wasn’t until I saw Sam Raimi’s movies and Peter Jackson’s early movies – these auteur filmmakers who are having more fun with the genre – that I found my way in because I have always been very much an art kid. I love to draw and I love to paint.

I love to build things with my hands. I remember watching those movies and seeing the artistry come across. So my in-to horror were these more stylized, fantastical movies. There was a sense of fun to them as opposed to really trying to create dread. Even though now as a fan, I watch everything. Still as a creator, I’m drawn to the lighter, more fun types of horror films that were the ones that initially introduced me to the genre. Poltergeist is a huge movie for me, and I really would love to see Steven Spielberg make more horror movies. That would be awesome. Even though Tobe Hooper directed it, which I will stand by!

I love that fun and just more of a popcorn sort of way. I think that has dictated how my movies are written. I write them all as quirky as possible, and then I have the actors play them as straight as possible. With those two components coming together, I’ve found this nice balance of overall tone. And because it’s sort of an elevated tone, what it does when the gore happens, it’s more for the shock and fun than it is to repulse. The same gore gags in [The Mortuary Collection], you could put into a different tone of a movie and they would have very different effects. It’s more about how you feel leading up to the gag more so than the gag itself, but sometimes you just want to go big and weird with the gag too. You want the blood splatter to be bigger, larger than life. You want the monsters to be slimier than usual. You lead into the comic-booky nature of it to play up that tone.

Let’s talk about Clancy Brown, he is just fantastic. Did you already have his character fully formed in your mind or did you just give him an overall idea and he kind of took that and made it his own?

RS: I did have a pretty well-rounded character ahead of time. A big part of the movie was that when I first started writing, it was a love letter to the movies I adored in the past. My initial inclination, when I was writing everything, was to lean hard into the archetypes that I really hold near and dear to my heart. I liked the big creepy house on the hill. I liked the stoic, eccentric mortician character standing in the shadows – all of those things that drew me to the genre to begin with. But then as the script began to develop I started saying, “Okay, well now I’ve got the homage film down, how do I start to elevate this to something different?”

Because an homage is fun, but it doesn’t make a story. It doesn’t make cinema, in my opinion. You have to find something new to do with it. And so that started opening up these questions. I was thinking a lot about the Crypt Keeper from the Tales from the Crypt series. I was thinking about how, you know, when we go into his crypt, he pops out of the coffin, he laughs, he’s got his puns, he tells us a story, and he’s kind of putting on a show, but like, what happens when we leave? Is he lonely in the crypt? Is he trapped there? What is his day-to-day like when he’s not performing for the audience? That’s where Montgomery Dark, Clancy’s character, really started to come to life.

A giant ghastly house with a sign outside that reads "Raven's End Mortuary - Help Wanted" as seen in Ryan Spindell's 'The Mortuary Collection.'
”The Mortuary Collection’ still courtesy of Shudder

He has these moments during his eulogies where he goes big and puts himself all the way in, but then everyone leaves and he’s just trapped in this mortuary with his books and these cobwebs and creaky floors. What’s that life like, and does he want to be there to begin with? So there was a lot of work put into evolving the character prior to Clancy coming onboard. But what was nice when I met with Clancy, I had the concept art, the script, and all of these details laid out – he got it right away without really even having to talk to me because aesthetically, he could see it all.

He showed up, we put him in this amazing prosthetic makeup, these crazy teeth that were like tons of tiny little piano keys in his mouth. And he immediately had at least the base level of Montgomery Dark, like, instantly. I think my only note at the top was that he doesn’t have an accent because it’s very easy to go into a British sort of droll. But then that conversation was, “Why are you telling me stories? Do you like telling these stories?” We had a whole complicated backstory as to why he loves storytelling and how, once Sam comes into his office, he might be wanting to get it over with and get through things quicker, but she keeps asking about stories and he can’t resist. He has to tell these tales because nobody will listen to them. It really became this back and forth with Caitlin Fisher – who plays Sam – and Clancy, the characters began to take shape as we were working through it.

I love the voice that he goes with. I instantly thought of the narrator for the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney.

RS: That is such a high compliment. I actually wanted to recreate the exact organ music from the Haunted Mansion ride and put it into the mortuary. But we obviously couldn’t do that for copyright issues. So I basically had our composers go create their own version of what the Haunted Mansion ride might sound, but not something that’s a rip off and they did a beautiful job of it. Lots of little details that are hidden in the movie and that was the benefit of making it over this long period of time and being able to really hyper-focus on the details.

You had the premiere at Fantastic Fest last year. What’s it like being able to show the film on a big screen to an audience as opposed to launching it now on a streaming service?

RS: The tough part is that, as is normally the case with independent movies, you’re hustling down to the wire just to get the film delivered in time for the festival. By the time we had our premiere screening at the festival, I hadn’t slept for a few days and it was just all such an overwhelming, surreal experience. I don’t really remember a lot of it. It was like a trauma that you blackout and then later on people say, “Hey, the screening went great!” And I’m like, “Oh, did it?” They’re like, “Oh, you did a little speech.” And I was like, “Oh, did I? Okay, cool.” What a cool festival to premiere at, what a bummer to like, not even be quite there. But that is the case, especially with a movie like this. It took us several years to get this film made. It really was the penultimate moment of this insane journey to try and make this ridiculously ambitious movie with no money.

So that instance, I don’t have very clear memories of it. But we did get a few other screenings before the pandemic happened and those were incredible. The audiences were amazing. We did Toronto After Dark, which is so cool. We did Fright Fest in Glasgow, and that was incredible. It’s easy to complain; my whole festival run got shut down because of the pandemic. We had maybe 23 different international festivals that I was going to travel to and finally do the thing you dream about every day of production. All of that went away.

But at the same time, I have friends who have made movies and never had any screenings at all because they were supposed to premiere at SXSW or Tribeca and they never had anything. So I consider myself incredibly lucky that we got to have a couple of screenings before everything fell apart, because they really are reaffirming. Making films can really beat you down into the dirt, especially when you are doing one at this budget level. The screenings are an essential part of seeing the movie with an audience and remembering why you did it to begin with. On top of that, being able to meet other filmmakers – your peers who have gone through the same thing you have – who you can commiserate with and talk to, and just get excited about the craft, which is why we’re all here to begin with.

But then on the flip side, I think premiering on Shudder has been an unexpected dream for us because it’s such a cool platform. The people that work there are fantastic. Ultimately, it’s a platform where the people who subscribe to Shudder, which is over a million people now, they watch almost every movie that appears on there, which means our movie is being seen by millions of people around the world. That’s crazy. As someone who has only made short films my whole life, that’s a crazy thing to think about – people all around the world watching our film. So no complaints over here. I’m still ready for things to go back to normal, for people to go to cinemas again and see movies how they’re intended, but this is the best case scenario for us.

Shudder has been knocking it out of the park lately with their exclusives. Have you had time to watch anything this Halloween season?

RS: I really loved Scare Me, I just thought it was great. It felt like a weird spiritual cousin to The Mortuary Collection. It deals with so many of the same themes of stories and storytellers and what makes a good story and what breaks a good story, but done in such a clever, contained way. I would kill to be able to write a movie that’s so simple to execute – and I know it wasn’t simple to execute, it’s executed wonderfully – but to just think in such a contained way and then just explore as they did. I think it was really cool.

I also saw Books of Blood. I had heard mixed reviews, but I actually thought it was really cool. It’s definitely a higher budgeted anthology than ours for sure. But they had some really cool imagery in there. What I’ve been sort of struggling with is looking for more movies that are fun. I guess this goes right back to what we started talking about at the beginning. I love horror, I watch horror year-round, but for some reason, when Halloween’s coming, I want fun, spooky horror. And that’s so rare. It’s so hard to find that.

Caitlin Fisher as Sam stares at a dead butterfly in a glass vase as seen in Ryan Spindell's "The Mortuary Collection.'
 Caitlin Fisher in ‘The Mortuary Collection’ courtesy of Shudder

So many of the big horror movies currently have been very serious. You have Midsommar, Hereditary, stuff like that, and those are horrifying. I love those movies a lot, but they’re definitely not much fun. My wife and I had been watching horror movies and we watched your film together. So we had a good time doing that. Then we watched The Babadook, and neither of us had seen it before. She checked out, maybe like a half hour in. And I was just like, “Oh man, this is a lot.”

RS: That director [Jennifer Kent] is an expert at getting under your skin. It’s such a crazy talent. I was just listening to a podcast the other day and they were talking about The Babadook and I was like, “I gotta watch this again.” Because I remember watching it when it first came out, and I do want to revisit it now that I’ve recovered. It’s really affecting.

Are you a Stephen King fan at all?

RS: Oh, I’m obsessed. I grew up in Maine in a little town, very Derry-like, on the coast. A town stuck in amber and still feels like it’s the 1950s even today. So that was like, required reading.

I have a whole Stephen King bookcase.

RS: That’s amazing. Do you have a favorite Stephen King book?

It’s been The Stand for a long time. That was one of the first ones I read that just blew me away. I like the really long ones. I love The Stand, It, 11/22/63. My wife loves Bag of Bones.

RS: I’ve read all of his short story collections at least three times. They’re so f*cking cool, man.

Right now I’m reading Everything’s Eventual by him.

RS: That’s a great book. I’ve read that one twice. I love that book.

Do you have any future projects that you want to tease?

RS: I’ve got a few little things. I did an episode of a series called 50 States of Fright with Sam Raimi last year. It’s on Quibi, and I know that Quibi is a controversial platform, but I think this series alone is worth at least taking a look. I think so far they’ve made nine episodes and they’re all filmmakers handpicked by Sam. He gave us budgets and time and just let us do what we wanted to do, which is very rare for this kind of thing. You’re really watching unique short films from some interesting up and coming creatives. I’m writing two episodes for season three right now that is supposed to go into production in early 2021, which is exciting.

And those are just great ways to really play and make shorts that you’re not financing yourself because otherwise, you’re putting all of your credit cards in to make some of these stories. I’m attached to do one segment of a horror anthology movie for MGM. That’s pretty cool. It’s sort of a remake of a movie from the 90s. That’s gonna be really fun. And I’m working on a TV show and I have a feature script that I’m just finishing a draft at the time now. So I’m wearing a lot of hats and all of them are similar.

What’s it like to work with Sam Raimi?

RS: Oh my god, man. The best. Evil Dead 2 is probably the movie for me that really turned the corner and it made me want to make movies. I know that’s a cliched answer, but it’s so amazing. I assumed he had to be a total son of a b*tch just because of how much I worshiped him. So when I met him, he was the nicest person. When he introduced himself to me he was like, “Hey, I’m Sam Raimi, I’m a big fan!” as if I didn’t know who he was, I’m like, “I’m working on the Sam Raimi show. I know who you are!” He’s just great. He’s really working with interesting filmmakers that are sort of looking for a break. That’s so amazing for these visionary staples of the genre to open up and help other people along the way, because we need that now more than ever. And Ghost House Pictures and Sam Raimi is such a good place for people to end up.

I was right at the age when his Spider-Man movies came out and that was it for me. Those are still my favorite ones.

RS: I agree. Hot take here! Spider-Man 1 and 2 are still the best Spider-Man movies.

They are! It’s amazing that he’s going to do a comic book movie again, with Doctor Strange. That’s nuts.

RS: I’m excited. I’m really excited, but I will be honest, selfishly, I want him to do another Drag Me to Hell or a horror movie. I want Sam Raimi and I want Peter Jackson to get back to horror.

He has to cash the Disney check, then he can do it.

RS: Exactly.

More on The Mortuary Collection

Follow Senior Film Critic Nicolás Delgadillo on Twitter: @NickyD715

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