Tell Me A Story: The Mortuary Collection (2019)
“Some tales even I find too unsettling to recount.”-The Mortuary Collection
Imagine Creepshow. Now imagine that instead of Stephen King and EC Comics, it drew its aesthetic and ethos from Neil Gaiman stories—with more than a little EC Comics still in there for good measure. That’ll get you pretty close to The Mortuary Collection.
I love a good anthology horror movie, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen a really good one. In his feature-length debut, writer/director Ryan Spindell changes that.
According to the Kickstarter through which the film was partially funded, The Mortuary Collection is intended as a “love-letter” to the ‘80s, “a time when all things weird and wonderful seemed possible.” But, as with this year’s other semi-anthology horror throwback, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, this film seems to actually be more of a love-letter to the ‘80s’ love of previous decades yet.
One of the more endearing traits of The Mortuary Collection is how heavily art-directed it all is. Everything here feels period, even when we’re not quite sure what period it is exactly. A kid at the beginning bicycles past ‘50s cars and everyone watches ancient tube TVs and there’s not a cellular phone to be seen and the mortuary at the center of the film’s framing story is a building out of time (maybe literally) filled with archaic leftovers.
It is in this framing story that The Mortuary Collection shines brightest. Clancy Brown, having a blast under some extremely heavy makeup, plays “Montgomery Dark,” a mortician who is “10 feet tall and a hundred years old” and maybe a murderer, as some kids whisper amongst themselves at the beginning.
While he is immediately painted as sinister, however, and his aesthetics are an obvious—and obviously intentional—nod to the Tall Man of the Phantasm films, the point-of-view quickly switches from fear of him to following him as the kids scurry away while the camera trails Dark back inside. “Creepo,” he muses, echoing the name one of the kids called him as they departed, “that’s a new one.”
Caitlin Custer plays the girl who arrives at the mortuary, ostensibly to inquire about the “help wanted” sign out front. Initially as a sort of warning of what she can expect should she take the job, Dark begins a series of stories, telling how the mortuary’s various clientele came to be there.
Dark is obsessed with stories, you see, which is partly where that Neil Gaiman comparison I made earlier comes in, because the film is obsessed with stories, too. With telling them, with how they’re told, with what they mean, and with what they tell us about ourselves. “The world is not made of atoms,” Brown says in voiceover, the first words we ever hear in the movie, “it is made of stories.”
The framing device of the sinister mortician telling scary stories about how people died to the young girl is a pretty obvious one but, like the film’s final installment, “The Babysitter Murders,” which Spindell had previously released as a standalone short, it is here to subvert our expectations.
Part of the genius of the framing device is that it allows Custer’s character—as audience surrogate—to comment on the stories as they’re being told. She and Brown have a wonderful rapport, which keeps the framing narrative alive, even while it gets at least as much screen time as any of the other segments. The way the “Babysitter Murders” short is folded in also gives the framing story extra life and weight.
“It’s a bit far-fetched, don’t you think?” Custer’s character asks, after the film’s short, sharp first segment, which takes place over only a few minutes, in a single room with a single character. “I was expecting something a bit more substantial. Maybe an ironic comeuppance or a big twist.”
The verbal sparring between Custer and Brown allows the film to let the audience know that it’s in on the joke, even while it still gets to take itself as seriously as it needs to—Brown puffing up the classic spooky ghost story, Custer knocking its feet out from under it. It also builds a genuine and unexpected tension between the two characters.
We’re primed to root for Custer and assume that Brown is playing the villain, but from the start the film makes it seem like she’s got something up her sleeve every bit as much as he does, and the two feel like equally matched players maneuvering in a game of storytelling chess.
So, that’s the framing story. How about the segments themselves? That first one gets us started on good footing. It’s brief and simple; “fun,” as Custer’s character calls it, to Dark’s disappointment. After that, the next couple of installments are pretty standard Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt fare, at least as far as plots are concerned.
“A tad predictable,” as Custer points out. “Someone commits a sin; they pay a horrible price. Rinse, repeat.” In one, a womanizing frat boy finds himself pregnant after a one-night-stand; in another, a man pays a terrible price for taking the “’til death do us part” bit of his wedding vows too literally. “The Babysitter Murders” closes out the quartet, turning the comeuppance theme on its head until it doesn’t.
Predictable doesn’t necessarily equate to bad, though, and all of the tales involve nice practical effects—along with occasionally unfortunate CGI assists—whether that means simple gore effects or actual creatures, of which the film has a few. The jokey “Unprotected” segment is probably the film’s worst step, and even it is more on-point than not for most of its running time.
It helps that everything shares the same directorial hand and over-designed aesthetic. (Over-designed here is merely a descriptor, not a criticism. I love things that are over-designed. See also: everything Guillermo del Toro has ever made.) But on their own, none of them would make the film work as well as it does. It is in the wraparound segment that The Mortuary Collection lives or dies. Fortunately, for me at least, it lives quite nicely indeed.
I’ve compared The Mortuary Collection to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark a couple of times now, and not just because it’s so surprising to find two films in one year that are so mired in the past, obsessed with storytelling, and so aesthetically similar in so many ways. Yet there are as many differences as similarities.
In spite of how the final segment wraps into the framing story, The Mortuary Collection is a true anthology film where Scary Stories was not. It also doesn’t have as much to say about the function of stories and storytelling—or about nostalgia—as that film does. That isn’t necessarily a problem, though. Not every movie has to swing for the fences, and small comforts are just as necessary as bigger ones.
While The Mortuary Collection has more than a few nods to kids-on-bikes and babysitters-in-peril horror, it is nowhere near as all-ages friendly as Scary Stories. All the segments are quite bloody, and there’s an unfortunate exploding penis effect in the “Unprotected” story, just as an example.
“Tell me a story,” Custer’s character says to Brown when she first sits down across from him. “Something dark and twisted. Something awesome.” It’s a sentiment we can probably all share, and, for me at least, The Mortuary Collection manages it in fine form.
Update: The Mortuary Collection is now out on Blu-ray from RLJE entertainment. Check it out.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.