Written & Directed by Ryan Spindell
USA/ 2020/ 110mins
Hedging bets on spectacle, poetic language and loving references, Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection seeks to emulate the masters of horror (without their budgets of course). Where money is tight, ingenuity follows, and where love for a subject matter blossoms – so too does an exceptionally well-constructed anthology of short films become something special. Montgomery Dark, the keeper of stories, and humanities definitive gift has been doing his job for many a year – but now it seems, someone else needs to take up the mantle, and allow this old hand a well-deserved rest in peace.
In anthology films, the narrative tying the stories together is often nothing but an afterthought, a filler piece a thin veil in which to wrap their tales. Well, writer/ director Spindell had little intention for this, as The Mortuary Collection’s grim, grinning, arcing tale has merits as a standalone venture. This is principally down to the legendary Clancy Brown as Dark, especially the chemistry he shares with mysterious visitor Sam, as his demeanour brushes up against Caitlin Custer‘s troublesome nature and energetic performance.
Individually, the four shorts are just as impressive as each other, each serving a narrative or traditional ‘moral’ purpose. Spindell’s intention is less to teach, and more to illustrate that these stories needn’t be accurate or valid for the messages to be timeless.
Each hits its mark individually, whether it’s the introductory story, a simple tale of an unlucky thief who can’t help by pry open the locked door behind which a hideous creature waits, or a body-horror which would make Ridley Scott himself envious for its laceration of patriarchal fears of pregnancy and stubborn male pride. The third piece is a remarkably touching story which sees a loving husband driven to madness after his wife enters an unresponsive catatonic state. In a film rife with gothic comedy, over-the-top stunts, and gruesome effects, Barak Hardley‘s heartbreakingly accurate depiction of a genuine moral quandary – which ends with a rightfully grizzly end and some haunting creature design – is an exceptional stand-out performance.
Thankfully, these grotesque beasts refrain from computer effects (by and large), opting for tangible prosthetics and wizardry from Amalgamated Dynamics. From grand outdoor visages to minuscule details which stitch clues into the background, Karleigh Engelbrecht‘s set design sells the film’s atmosphere in a clash of opulent grown-up Goosebumps and Lovecraftian awe. These references to a ‘bygone’ era of horror litter the text, from the simple visuals to the subtle nods; in particular, the score and musical composition from the Mondo Boys, where hints of John Carpenter’s work are of apparent inspiration.
A textbook example of burying leads, the overarching story of the passing of a young girl and Dark’s arrangement of the wake are peppered with small details which, when tied together, culminate in a fitting finale for a contemporary anthology that drips with nostalgia. The stories to cherish are the ones even the storyteller hasn’t heard yet, and a delightfully twisted spin on the urban legend of the babysitter murders closes out the collection. This then feeds into the climax of the relationship between Sam and Dark, featuring a comeuppance worthy of any horror baddie – and a few nightmares to boot.
Unashamedly beaming with love for shlock horror anthologies, particularly the infamous masterpieces of the 70s and 80s, The Mortuary Collection is the sort of quality film which has been missing of late. Gradually it escalates the stakes, tempts the audience in with the promise of nostalgia, gore and monsters, but steadily forges a separate path.
Available on-demand as part of Fantasia Festival from August 20th
Review originally published for The Wee Review