THE MORTUARY COLLECTION (2019)

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Studio:      Shudder
Director:    Ryan Spindell
Writer:      Ryan Spindell
Producer:  Allison Friedman, T. Justin Ross
Stars:     Clancy Brown, Caitlin Fisher, Christine Kilmer, Jacob Elordi, Ema Horvath, Barak Hardley, Sarah Hay, Ben Hethcoat, Mike C. Nelson

Review Score:

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Summary:

An odd mortician and an unusual teenager tell each other strange tales of creatures, killers, mystery, and murder.


Synopsis:     

Review:

Horror¡¯s heydays of top-shelf anthologies like ¡°Creepshow¡± (review here), ¡°Tales from the Crypt,¡± and Amicus classics keep slipping further away. The common tactic in indie horror nowadays is to lump a bunch of unrelated shorts together until they add up to feature length. Then the slop gets sluiced into a DTV trough by a distributer who barely bothers with a perfunctory illusion that the segments are unified in any real way.

That¡¯s why ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± feels like a breath of fresh anthology air. It isn¡¯t just what writer/director Ryan Spindell does well that makes the film work. It¡¯s also what Spindell, who has only ever made shorts before, doesn¡¯t do. Namely, he doesn¡¯t repurpose any previous projects by forcing them to fit into his movie. As far as I know, ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± features new material, complete with a fully integrated wraparound that¡¯s more than mere narration. Segments are linked by similar aesthetics and recurring background characters, yet still tell their own tales. In other words, ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± comes together under one cohesively themed vision, just like a traditional horror anthology should.

The film¡¯s first ten minutes are spent setting up the frame where macabre mortician Montgomery Dark tells fearsome fables to prospective teen employee Sam. That¡¯s a lot of time to get going. Although mismanaging minutes becomes an issue later in the movie, kicking off with extended interplay actually allows the film¡¯s weird world to fully settle into its delightfully dark tone.

Thanks to terrific production design and equally excellent VFX, ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± looks like a multimillion-dollar production even though it was made for much less. An IMDb note says the film¡¯s four stories take place across different decades starting in the 1940s and concluding in the ¡®80s. Maybe that¡¯s true or maybe they all occur in some indeterminate amalgamation of eras. Clunky contraptions and anachronistic analog equipment accentuate retro environments along with detailed pieces such as stained glass windows and other unique props. Newspaper headlines hint at an asylum riot and a serial killer called ¡®The Tooth Fairy,¡¯ both of which come up again down the line, but add to an air of a living, breathing little town in a creepy corner of the sleepy suburbs near reality.

Shots of a bicycling boy over Mondo Boys music continues mixing flavors of Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, and R.L. Stine. ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± embraces this eclectic feel for a mood that hits a sweet spot with gore-loving adults who are still monster kids at heart. The movie contains some comedy, though spookiness always comes first. Clancy Brown hams it up a bit by playing Montgomery Dark like an articulate Lurch, but knows to reign it in so he never leans from the line ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± rides between straight horror and gallows humor.

The first short only creates a simple springboard for some cool camerawork and creative creature effects. Sam evaluates the segment accurately by echoing exactly what goes through your own head afterward. She tells Montgomery, ¡°It¡¯s not bad. I was expecting something a bit more substantial, maybe an ironic comeuppance or a big twist. But, it was fun.¡± Sam even raises the pitch of her voice on ¡°fun¡± as if to highlight she¡¯s being generous about her assessment.

¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± contains a number of meta lines like that. Early on, Montgomery muses, ¡°It¡¯s not the length of the story, but the quality of the content within.¡± Later he tells Sam, ¡°You have committed one fatal storytelling sin: you have underestimated your audience.¡±

What lines like these tell me is that beyond thinking through his stories, Ryan Spindell carefully considered how they might be received. He has anticipated reactions, acknowledged potential shortfalls without being arrogantly cute about it, and adjusted accordingly. ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± thus unfolds in a deliberate manner so the movie becomes a complete front-to-back experience designed with escalating entertainment in mind instead of randomly rotating through a collection of shorts.

Montgomery¡¯s second story tells a seemingly typical tale about a philandering fraternity brother whose promiscuity leads to a devilishly unanticipated reversal of presumptive gender dynamics. What isn¡¯t typical is how Jacob Elordi plays his namesake. Rather than being another immediately contemptible college kid, Jake¡¯s misogyny sees its skewed morality tinted with a touch of grey in an accompanying sob story. The notion that redemption might be possible makes Jake less caustic than this sort of guy usually is in such stories, which keeps the segment captivating through characterization.

A shout out goes to Rich Mento for the film¡¯s quality casting across the board. None of the roles are flashy and none of the actors are widely known names. But everyone offers the right pinches of personality so we feel like we¡¯re following actual people, albeit the kind that exist in mildly flip fright films.

I¡¯d inch up the review score if the back end were pared down to turn a finish line jog into a frenzied sprint. 110 minutes affords too much time to feel momentum skitter, particularly when the final segment relies on a protracted fight sequence engaging in repetitive action without emphasizing suspense. The piece has a killer swerve that earns a satisfied grin. But it¡¯s not quite the ¡°dark, twisted, and awesome¡± story Sam initially asked for, and that¡¯s partly due to the runtime.

An extended epilogue doesn¡¯t do the film any big favors either, although I enjoyed the movie enough to appreciate Spindell building carryover content for possible follow-up films. I suppose I can¡¯t praise ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± for creating an entire mythology unto itself and then complain about it being overly indulgent with its world in the same breath.

Besides, there¡¯s far more to like or love about the movie than there is to dislike or hate. The honed technical craftsmanship on display demonstrates that Ryan Spindell¡¯s skillful eye matches his passion for cinematic storytelling. Quick cuts, canted angles, lighting motifs, and plenty more filmmaking tricks put a fire to the film¡¯s feet. ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± only slows because someone couldn¡¯t be convinced to edit out everything unnecessary. Yet the 80% or so that is essential stays hot with frights, fun, and flair, marking ¡°The Mortuary Collection¡± as an overall outstanding horror anthology, especially when put up against contemporary indie peers.

Review Score: 75