It’s spooky season, so it’s time to dust off the keyboard, crack the knuckles, and limber up my brain to talk about a little dandy for you. Shudder has served up a delicious little treat to keep you clutching your blanket on a dark, gloomy night with the horror anthology film, The Mortuary Collection. But don’t worry, it isn’t all scares (it’s also just a lot of fun).
The film takes place in a seaside, Derry-like town known as Raven’s End, where dark secrets and evil deeds are part-and-parcel with the town’s secret history. Great lengths are taken to place the timeline of the segments in previous decades (1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s), providing a visual history of the town’s grim legacy. The framing location is a cavernous mortuary, made all the more surreal by the presence of the looming old mortician, Montgomery Dark, played excellently and with incredible magnetism by Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers).
One dark night, a beautiful stranger knocks on the door asking about the “Help Wanted” sign in front of the mortuary. Thus, the game begins.
First off, this is undoubtedly a horror movie; the tales are punctuated with wonderful practical gore effects and disturbing thematic elements, which of course purport a recompense for an evil deed. But there’s a discussion within the structure that hits on a key element of horror discourse in the 21st century: how do you scare or keep a horror savvy audience engaged?
(I’ll come back to this)
The audience surrogate appears in the form of Sam (Caitlin Custer), who raps on the mortuary door looking for (perhaps) more than a job. To quote a line of dialogue by genre legend Tom Atkins, Sam gains entrance and company with the mortician and basically tells him – thrill me!
What follows is a series of parables harking on subjects such as contraception and STD’s, a Job-like appraisal of will that tests the very limits of marital bond, and the blurred lines of expectation versus reality in familiar circumstances. The tales, themselves, are wonderfully macabre and feature some truly fantastic practical effects.
On the most basic level, each tale confronts the frailty of trust, albeit in the most horrifying ways and with the most disturbing outcomes possible. Whether it’s the intimate act of sex or the vow to protect your spouse in sickness and in health, the distillation amounts to the dissolution of trust. Writer/director Scott Spindell uses these ominous tales and this wonderfully creepy, unassuming seaside village to trap these fears we all have within this narrative context.
The ideas embedded within are the stuff of nightmares, but because the story holds no indexical relationship to the world we live in, it makes for an enjoyable trip down some dark, morbid alleys. Much care was taken to construct a fictional town where evil could live right next door undetected, as each frame is beautifully packed to the edges with atmosphere and production design. The same way Stephen King has framed the evils of small town life within fictional entities such a Derry, the horrors presented in Raven’s End are a direct reflection of our natural world but exist within a fictional setting. This is another way of the filmmaker saying “trust me, you’re safe…I made all of this up”. This is true for the horrifying comeuppances we witness, but the basis of each tale is very real and very relatable, which is where the horror comes in.
I don’t want to go into specifics of each tale or the denouement that brings forth even more untold secrets, but I will say that many of the beats you’ll find familiar.
However, I do believe it’s by design and is not a detriment to the storytelling. The tales, themselves, are nothing new but that doesn’t detract from their raison d’etre. It would be an understatement to say you know the set-ups and morality behind each tale, but Spindell manages to subvert your expectations as each tale reaches it’s crescendo. There’s plenty of times where you might think, “I know exactly where this is going”, and you’ll likely be partially right, but again that’s not the point. You know fairly early on that each segment will devolve into a twisted, horrifying mess, but you’re compelled to give Spindell the benefit of the doubt to see the payoff.
He earns this trust by creating an engrossing world and paying each segment off in a way you might not expect, while still feeling like you knew it was coming. There is a sense of active participation on the part of the audience, which is commonly present in horror cinema. It’s another reason we love the genre. Spindell lays forth a familiar predicament for each scenario, and the character actions are predictable if not completely pre-determined. In order to teach someone a lesson, they must err, and we know this. The penalty suffered by the unsuspecting characters, however, is where the film may shock you and where we get our money’s worth.
I keep coming back to trust because it not only plays an integral part within the narrative, but it also works within the relationship between the film and the audience. By laying out well-worn scenarios with predictable character choices, we (the audience) are trusting our knowledge of horror and the tropes that have been part of the genre for decades, and Spindell is adept enough to include this within the narrative.
While Montgomery Dark is recounting these old tales to Sam, she derides his attempts at scaring her by pointing out the predictability of the tales and the hokey notion that for every evil deed there is an equal but opposite reaction. These are fundamental aspects of horror that we’ve been cementing into our brains for decades, as is shown by Sam’s almost rude reaction to the mortician’s tales. Again, this film is a mixture of fun, gruesome anthology horror and a commentary on filmmaking and genre fandom in our modern age.
It succeeds at juggling both and provides a macabre magicality that feels oh-so-welcome at this time of the year.
The Mortuary Tales is streaming on Shudder.