The Mortuary Collection – Fantasia Film Festival

Written & Directed by Ryan Spindell

USA/ 2020/ 110mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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

Bible John – Pleasance Courtyard

Written by Caitlin McEwan

Directed by Lizzie Manwaring

A recipient of Pleasance’s Charlie Hartill Theatre Reserve 2019, Poor Michelle offer their interpretation on a killer who was never caught, and the culture surrounding him – Bible John.

Gaze around this festival and one prevalent feature will leap at you: serial killers. Musicals, theatre and comedies centring around murder, death and killers litter Edinburgh. It’s by no means a new fascination, we’ve been obsessing over those who would cause grievous harm for centuries, holding them in reverence, canonizing them in history through obsession.

An unsuspecting office finds four women, who know each other only in passing, share one key love, podcasts. Specifically, podcasts surrounding serial killers and unsolved murders. When Bible John becomes the new ‘hot topic’, the girls become enthralled by the case. They turn their passion into an obsession, seeking answers for the lives he would take and for the safety of women across the world.

McEwan’s script blends a gruesome sense of humour, perfectly capturing the natural conversations we have around true crime. For the most part, a delicate balance occurs of characterisation, dramatic tension and even the odd music interlude.

The minimal setting, they make use of every aspect they can, without placing dependence on anything. Video projections are present but never overstay a welcome, sparingly used. No, the delivery from these four performers is what drives Bible John. The sincerity in their ambition to figure out the killer’s identity is entirely believable – one can imagine that sleuthing was already what these four are doing in their spare time. Lizzie Manwaring’s direction offers a comfortable environment, given the subject matter, knowing precisely what to draw from each performer, that is until the ending.

There is, we must mention, a disconnection with Poor Michelle’s production. Towards the finale, a shift in aesthetics occurs, which if taken a different way, may have been a tremendous, movement inspired ending. As it stands, the revisit of the Barrowlands removes much of the tension previously built over the show.

We find a sickening joy in watching the likes of The Staircase, Making a Murderer or listening to Serial and Monster, but for some, they offer more than fascination. They’re warning signs, things to store in the backs of our minds for if this ever happens to us. Bible John has such passion, and so many details it wants to convey that as it works itself into a frenzy, the ending loses what made the production appealing. Otherwise, with a hint of dark humour, Bible John is a look into one of Scotland’s darkest murders, placing gender, violence and fascinations front and centre.

Tickets available from: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/bible-john/performances

Poster courtesy of: Katie Edwards

Drowning – Pleasance Courtyard

Directed by Stephen Ross

Written by Jessica Ross

By 2008, all four of the Lainz Angels of Death have been released from prison. These four Austrian women, nurse’s aides at the Geriatriezentrum am Wienerwald in Vienna took the lives of 49 (officially), men and women. Labelling them as mercy killings, the women would gain a new method of life-taking, switching from morphine overdoses to Drowning their patients.

There is an attempt to inject dark humour. The best laughs are often the ones which are followed by an inhalation of self-censorship. At the rotten core of Drowning, is an inspection of the unimaginable – an examination of evil. Or at least, it attempts to do so. Its humour is one-note, tasteless but not in the grotesque fashion, more just in the dead-flat department.

The golden rule is show, don’t tell. This wobbles in Ross’ script. The characterisation of the four women is unbalanced, perhaps we’re merely craving more but the depth isn’t as profound as it could be. When delivering monologues, all the performers try to give their character justice. It’s incredibly ham-fisted, however, with all the caricatures present: A drunken nurse, A pill-popper and the seductive, alluring temptress.

Marrying colour with death is quite an inventive stance to take, especially given the pale nature of the condition. Drowning, with it’s smothering blues is a visual production. It’s intense though, bathing us rather than finding a balance in hue.

What little props are available, get put to canny effect. In particular, four bathtubs – solemn reminders of the nurses’ methods of ‘mercy’. There are minds behind Drowning which should enable it to work, but this cannot save poor writing. The two-dimensional characters feel like they’re only the cover art for a far more interesting story.

Drowning never attempts to vilify these women. They are not martyrs, nor does it paint them as monsters. They are human, but insultingly they are stereotypes. Drowning is a Fringe production which had promise but severely lacks direction. In a Festival littering itself with the hot-commodity that is death and serial killers, this one has little life to offer.

Tickets are available from: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/drowning