Sunday, October 18, 2020

I Could a Tale Unfold...

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V.

I wish I could have seen The Mortuary Collection (2019, directed by Ryan Spindell) in a movie theater with a big crowd of teenagers. Alas, the Covid-19 pandemic put the kibosh on that even if the realities of contemporary distribution wouldn't have accomplished the same thing. I am green with envy for the Fantastic Fest audience that saw the film in September of 2019, but that seems like another world from this distance. In any event, The Mortuary Collection is an audience film if ever there was one, and I feel like the world is all the poorer for having to view it on Shudder in the solitude of our living rooms, however nice our home systems might be. It's a fun film, with set pieces designed to goose an audience but good.

The Mortuary Collection, as its title suggests, is an anthology film. Most anthology films rise and fall with the quality of their individual stories. It's the nature of the beast that some stories are better than others. It's a rare anthology in which the quality and tone of the stories is consistent throughout. It's even rarer that the framing sequence manages to be integrated with those stories in any satisfactory way. This film manages that feat. The framing sequence concerns the creepy mortuary of Raven's End, whose proprietor is one Montgomery Dark. Dark collects the stories of the people he's charged with caring for after their demises (untimely and otherwise). When a young woman named Sam appears in answer to the help wanted sign outside his establishment, he finds he has an audience for his stories. He tells three of them. In the first--a vignette, really--a woman at a party takes refuge in the bathroom to assess her takings. She's a pickpocket, and the party-going men are her marks. After she consolidates her earnings, she hears a sound from the medicine cabinet and tries to open it to see what's inside. She probably should have left well enough alone. The second story concerns Jake, a fraternity brother who greets newly arrived coeds with a bowl of condoms, a spiel about taking down the patriarchy by claiming one's sexual agency, and an invitation to a party at his frat house. One of the takers is Sandra, who duly shows up at the party later and proves to have a voracious sexual appetite. She's concerned that Jake might think she's the serial killer responsible for the disappearance of so many men on campus, and she's adamant that he use protection as they copulate. Jake doesn't like condoms, and when they switch positions after their first go-round, he slingshots his condom away without her seeing him. The consequences are dire. At this point, Sam switches from audience to critic, taking Dark to task for telling her morality tales, but Dark presses on. His third story concerns a man whose wife is in a persistent state of catatonia, and his desire to be free of her. His wife's doctor prescribes her a pain killer with a wink, telling him that it's "untraceable" if he wants an out. Reluctantly, he doses her with the pain killer, only to have her grab his arm in the first signs of life in quite some time. He induces her to vomit, but when she falls over onto the arctic hare nick knack he's given her, his ordeal really begins. Sam agrees that that story isn't bad, but the ending is a cliche. She disagrees that the bad will always punish and begins to relate a story of her own as a counter argument. In her story, she is a cheerleader charged with caring for a young boy on a stormy night. She's whiling away her time with The Babysitter Murders, the movie on television, until the movie is interrupted by news that there has been a breakout at the local asylum, and one of the escaped inmates is a child killer. Soon a man arrives on her doorstep seeking help. She's convinced that he's the lunatic, but all is not as it seems. All is not as it seems with Dark, either. He has an ulterior motive for telling Sam stories, and is satisfied with her capacity for storytelling as well. She gets the job, much to her sorrow...

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

The Mortuary Collection shows a deep affection for E. C. Comics and the Tales from the Crypt television series from the 1990s. Like its fore-bearers, it sports a tongue in cheek morality and a gleeful appetite for gore. Montgomery Dark is played by Clancy Brown doing his best imitation of Angus Scrimm, though once he opens his mouth to speak, his familiar voice makes Dark into one of the best horror narrators this side of the Crypt Keeper. This is a film that is conscious of its provenance and where it swipes from the past, it leaves its knife. Where it differs from past anthology films is in the relationship between the storyteller and the audience. Dark says that stories are the most important thing there is. "What is life but a story?" he says. He hasn't reckoned on an audience that's wise to his stories and who approaches them with a critical eye. This is a canny bit of metacinema, one that simultaneously deconstructs its horror movie-ness while inviting us viewers to groove on those very elements. It's telling us that it's a movie and using that as cover for its most outrageous effects. The style of the film is full-bodied Gothic and no apologies offered. It pulls out all the stops. It never met a camera angle it didn't like, a lighting trick it didn't want to try, or a design sensibility that was too ornate. This is over the top in the same manner as Sam Raimi or early Peter Jackson. Lovably so.

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

It is the nature of horror movies to act as a reflecting glass held up to the eras in which they are made. Even though there's a weird anachronism to this movie, it can't help but absorb the zeitgeist and reconfigure it. In this case, The Mortuary Collection relies on gender dynamics as both subversion and plot device. Only the story of the man with the catatonic wife seems unconcerned with gender politics--it has an actual heart beating inside it--but the other stories all turn the tables on social expectations of gender. In the frat party horror story, there is a commentary on rape culture in the foreground, while reproductive rights are only barely buried in the subtext. In the pickpocket story, we see a woman preying on men in social situations even as men are trying to prey on her. In the babysitter story, assumption about gender roles obscure the twist of the tale. Mind you, none of this is what the film is about, really. This is mostly a Halloween treat that rears up and says "boo!" It throws a horror movie audience a bloody hunk of red meat ("Fully of irony, deary. Good for the blood. Heh, heh."). But it adds seasoning.

The Mortuary Collection (2020)

The movie's best elements come from the byplay between Clancy Brown and Caitlin Fisher. Brown is clearly having the time of his life playing Dark, shading his basso-profundo voice into gorgeously sepulchral tones. Fisher keeps up by puncturing Dark's persona as a bunch of pretentious theatrics. It's a fun byplay. One wishes that this was the start of a series, with these two sniping at each other across a generational divide. Alas.

Anyway, this was an unlooked-for bon bon in an otherwise grim October. And what is Halloween for, if not for a bag full of candy?

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