In justifying why his adaptation of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series would not be an anthology, as the books had always been, Guillermo del Toro spoke critically of the anthology format, saying, “An anthology is only as good as its weakest segment. It’s never as good as its best segment.”
While that statement is…debatable (I feel like horror fans are more likely to revere a film for the cherry-picked best moments/segments and simply shrug off the weaker parts. For fuck’s sake, Trilogy of Terror is still listed as a classic and virtually the entire planet agrees that that movie is a complete wash except for the final story.) you can see Del Toro’s sentiments reflected in a number of modern stabs at the horror anthology that try, with varying degrees of success, to outsmart the hoary old-format.
For example, Mike Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat crosscuts and overlaps the various segments so it will feel less like a collection of unrelated stories. Other films go in the opposite direction, using multiple directors and packing in so many stories that the movies don’t even bother trying to work as a cohesive whole, instead feeling more like a playlist of random shorts strung together. Even the eventual Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark movie, despite Del Toro’s protestations, was functionally an anthology film, albeit one where the framing device was bloated to such a degree that it became the main thread—taking up much of the running time.
Writer/director Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection, available via Shudder isn’t interested in trying to outsmart the legacy into which it is stepping. It’s a classically structured anthology film with a heavily made-up Clancy Brown as our host and guide through a series of short, gruesome tales. Spindell avoids Del Toro’s proclamation not by messing around with the tried-and-true format for this sort of fare but with a somewhat simpler approach: If an anthology is only good as its weakest entry, then make sure every story is really fucking good.
Brown plays a foreboding (but not necessarily unkind) mortician Montgomery Dark (a name to make Bradbury weep!) who presides over a mortuary/funeral home stuffed to the breaking point with all manner of knickknacks and oddities he’s collected from various, um, ‘clients’ over the many years of his tenure in the house. And there are books. So many books. Many restless books. After one particularly sobering funeral service, Dark is approached by a strange young woman, Sam (Caitlin Custer), inquiring about the ‘Help Wanted’ sign out front.
As he shows Sam around his none-more-Gothic estate and explains the ins and outs of his line of work, Dark illuminates the strange history of their small town with a few macabre tales from across the years.
In the first, a pickpocket makes the mistake of prying open a sealed bathroom door at a party. Then, a frat boy learns a grisly lesson in the importance of safe condom use. In the third story, a miserable man decides to rid himself of his sickly wife and learns “Til death do us part” is a bit more binding than he might have thought. And finally, a babysitter faces off against a deranged killer escaped from the local asylum.
As a writer/director, Spindell shows one clear knack that serves him very well: Pacing. The stories all vary in length, but none ever feel like they are overstaying their welcome. The opener with the pickpocket picking a lock is essentially a bite-sized bit of fun that gets in and out with little muss or fuss, while the second and third stories are slower burns towards outrageous payoffs. But even these longer entries move with an assured sense of forward momentum, never feeling like they are lapsing into wheel-spinning to eat up time even as Spindell takes the scenic route to gory punchlines.
And The Mortuary Collection is delightfully gory. ‘Delightful’ is a word that comes up a lot while trying to describe this one, in fact. The tone and performances are arch without ever sliding into camp (the wonderful exception being a palpably giddy Brown, ripping out entire walls of scenery with his teeth), and for as gross and gruesome and just plain damn mean as Collection often gets, there’s a spirit of play that renders the various grotesqueries not only acceptable but outright fun.
Sometimes horror is effective for the way it makes you recoil back from the violations you are witnessing. And sometimes, horror is effective for the way it makes you lean in and celebrate as blood flies and ghouls dance. The Mortuary Collection is an example of the second, following Brown’s lead and positively reveling in every macabre twist and turn.
Spindell is also smart enough to shift the visual language and tonal balance with each story so he isn’t just whacking you over the head with a frying pan of nightmares. The frat boy story indulges perhaps a bit too much in Raimi/Wright-esque smash cuts and zooms, but it’s the only portion of the movie to utilize that technique, and it’s an approach that works with the well with the sweaty, wet energy of that story’s body horror tale. With the subsequent story of a murderous husband, Spindell prioritizes stillness, bathing his shots in atmospheric darkness and letting shots liiiiiiiiinger while dread steadily mounts. And by that point, he’s more than earned your trust enough to merit patience, assured that whatever punchline this is building to will be worth it.
Maybe that’s why it’s always better for an anthology film to be the product of one director, versus the more grab-bag approach we get with things like the V/H/S series, or Tales of Halloween or, gulp—The Twilight Zone Movie. Even as the stories vary wildly, there’s still a feeling of intention and purpose to how they fit together. Spindell makes a remarkably assured debut with this picture, stretching what must have been a tight budget so that even as small-scale as these stories are (most play out in only a few rooms, if that) they are visually opulent with arresting color palettes that don’t feel indebted to any one specific prior film or filmmaker (versus other folks who are still trying to remake Creepshow over and over again—this includes the sporadically fun Creepshow series).
The Mortuary Collection is immediately a perfect fit for Halloween, exemplifying everything fun and wicked—and wickedly fun about this time of year. Even as it transgresses beyond any barrier of good taste, the spirit is one of naughty play rather than misery. It’s fun to be scared, and it’s fun to do the danse macabre and linger for a while among the monstrous and the unsettling. The Mortuary Collection has cruel fates in store for all its various sinners, but what lingers most for the audience member is Clancy Brown’s cackling glee as each tale ends.
That, and the hope that maybe just maybe someday he’ll have some more tales to tell.
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