Review by: Geoff Arbuckle
From writer/director Ryan Spindell comes The Mortuary Collection. In this anthology film, we are given the history of the phantasmagorical town of Raven’s End. Spindell comes from a film school background where he then applied his interest in the classic television series The Twilight Zone to help him direct an episode of 50 States of Fright for producer Sam Raimi. Now, with his experience in shorts and television episodes, we now have Spindell’s first feature film.
Right from the beginning narration of “The world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories!” I was definitely intrigued. It then launches into this wonderfully whimsical score that evoked a little Harry Potter and a little Amazing Stories as we follow a young paperboy riding his bike with a card in his spokes as he delivers papers to the town of Raven’s End. Raven’s End is a misty, foggy burg in the Pacific northwest of the United States. Right away, the film scores points for its atmosphere and reverence to the fantastical subgenres of the 80s.
Our framing story features the wonderful Clancy Brown (Pet Sematary II, The Shawshank Redemption) as mortician Montgomery Dark. He meets a young drifter, Sam (Caitlin Fisher, TV’s Teen Wolf). Sam answers a help wanted request from Dark to work at the mortuary. “Monty” Dark has a room full of books. As she learns, it’s not just books about the town, or the people who lived and died there, but WHY they died. She asks him to tell her a story and soon, we begin seeing the dark history of this sleepy coast town. Throughout the course of the film, Dark tries to teach Sam, his new employee/potential protege(?), lessons of the job and the importance of their role in helping to usher people from one world to the next.
As with any anthology, you would come to expect either different visions from different filmmakers contributing to the whole, or for there to be a varying degree of quality that will sometimes range wildly, or both. The Mortuary Collection bucks all of those usual expectations. How this movie ranges is not in quality, but in tone. You can definitely see Spindell’s Twilight Zone influences. More accurately, it probably follows much more of a Creepshow and EC Comics vibe which brings us to the sometimes scary, sometimes humorous, but always quality Tales from the Crypt.
In the first two stories there’s not just a monster element but a slight sexual tone to them. The first story features a woman (Christine Kilmer) who is a bit of a 50s femme fatale who picks pockets but runs afoul of something unexpected. The second story features college hookups Jake (Jacob Elordi) and Sandra (Ema Horvath) and the aftermath of their all night sexcapades. Both of them have a cheeky sense of humor. These first two stories have a distinct modern day feel.
However, the third segment is something that if you described it to me, I would swear it was from the 90s Tales from the Crypt series, and it is perfect in its tone. It features a young couple getting married. The pretty young bride, Carol (Sarah Hay), gets very ill very quickly. The husband, Wendell (Barack Hardley), is tortured by having to take care of Carol. He’s forced to constantly care for her alone and faces constant and mounting bills. He’s given a chance to potentially free himself from this sad life he leads, but freedom doesn’t come as expected and doesn’t create the life Wendell counted on. This is, to me, the centerpiece of the entire story. The entire aesthetic and tone of the whole movie is drawn to this center point. It still has a little bit of that comedy. It still possesses that EC Comics feel. It still makes me think that the Cryptkeeper, at any moment, will pop up to deliver a quip or pun. It even has a jump scare and a little gore to make it appropriately scary. For added measure, there’s a distinct Edgar Allen Poe feel to it as it studies guilt, regret, anger, and sadness of internal demons.
For the fourth, and final, story in the anthology, we get Sam telling a story to Dark. It gives Spindell an opportunity to showcase his popular and well-received 2015 short The Babysitter Murders that stars Fisher herself. This becomes a relatively meta tale of a girl babysitting a little boy, Logan (a boy Dark was giving a funeral for earlier in the film before Sam arrived), while also watching a movie about a stalking killer coming after, you guessed it, a babysitter. This crosses paths with Sam’s reality as a newscast explains that a mental patient escaped the local loony bin. As the mental patient makes his way to the house where Sam is watching Logan, what happens is the kind of stuff you’d like to see in slasher movies with a very capable heroine going really above and beyond in her babysitting duties. It’s the most frenetic and action-packed of the stories, but still manages to fit into the overall feel of this anthology as it, too, is couched in late 70s vibes that ends with an EXCELLENT twist I honestly did not see coming that leads to another lovely little twist.
Obviously, the story segments are the driving appeal of The Mortuary Collection, however, it’s much more than just a collection of solid tales of comeuppance. This is a giant collection of ideas and aesthetic that makes this a wonderful movie to delve into. Clancy Brown, who was an executive producer on this as well, is wonderful as the mysterious Montgomery Dark. Fisher’s Sam works so well with him in their scenes. On top of that, there’s a timeless feel to the whole movie from start to finish. It opens with the paperboy seemingly delivering papers in a Norman Rockwell stylized 50s town with old style cars and storefronts. But Sam feels modern. Some of the context of the college frat guy hooking up with a shy girl feels modern in the way it discusses and shows sex. There’s still a general “old timey” feel to the setting, the cars, the outfits of the characters, and so on. Even the third and fourth stories that seem to be things that “just happened” to the characters, and thus they are still being processed at the mortuary, has a complete mix of various aesthetics. It plays to that Stephen King tone that these types of things happen all through the history of a town but also at the same time in a convergence of past, present, and future.
This period piece approach to stories is something that Spindell seems to excel in. All of his shorts that he made leading up to this film seem to be set in various places and various times in the past. It’s like he recognizes the correlation between setting and time and how that can have the impact the way a story can unfold. Add to that an excellent eye and touch for horror, great performances (especially from Brown, Fisher, and Hardley), an amazing score by Mondo Boys, some really solid makeup and special effects, and some excellent shots from Caleb Heymann and Elie Smolkin, The Mortuary Collection is one of the more fun and satisfying horror experiences I’ve had in some time.
I honestly loved this movie.