Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection has had a long, strange journey to Fantasia Fest. His short The Babysitter Murders was well received on the festival circuit back in 2015, but due to sporadic funding issues and other technical challenges, the rest of the planned anthology was shot piecemeal over the next 4 years. Described in press materials as a “love letter” to various vintage genre fare, the final version of the film uses the classic portmanteau structure, each of its four tales situated between a framing narrative.
In the seaside town of Raven’s End, mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) presides over a Gothic style funeral parlor, as feared by children as he is respected by adults. After the service for a boy, an inquisitive young woman named Sam (Caitlin Custer) arrives to interview for a job as an assistant. As the pair tour the building, Dark tells the stories of how various unfortunate souls have ended up on his slabs.
The chemistry crackles between the two actors in the wraparound. Clancy Brown is clearly having a blast playing Montgomery Dark as the sonorous storyteller, riffing in equal parts Phantasm‘s eerily laconic Tall Man and the arch scene stealing of Tales From The Hood‘s Mr. Simms. Caitlin Custer’s Sam is glib to the edge of brattiness, acting as an audience stand-in for the generation raised on more meta horrors, full of smart-ass questions and unafraid to take a poke at familiar tropes along the way.
The tales themselves are no less confident in execution, and Ryan Spindell uses each capsule story to deliver a slate of unique textures and tones. A pickpocket at a party is too curious to leave well enough alone. A playboy frat brother plies his smarmy charm on the wrong girl, and ends up with much more than a broken heart. A once loving husband is fraying at the edges caring for his catatonic wife, and is faced with an unfathomable choice. A teenage babysitter must fight for her life when an escapee from a mental asylum breaks in on a dark and stormy night.
The entries run the gamut from eldritch monsters and Gothic-leaning ghost stories, to bloody body horror and slick slasher action. It’s a lot to take on, even in the context of an omnibus film. However, unlike a lot of other recent anthologies, the fact that all of the segments share the same writer/director, cinematography team and music supervisor go a long way toward selling all of the strange happenings as part of a cohesive universe.
Raven’s End shares some common ancestry with other fictional small towns full of dark secrets and purposefully anachronistic aesthetics. It fits right in amongst Potter’s Bluff, Twin Peaks or Nightvale in the strange small town canon. Each of The Mortuary Collection’s tales take place in a different era, but none of the fads, fashions or furniture exactly sync up with their real world counterparts. This creates a reliably eerie disconnect that dutifully reads as retro, but is firmly set apart from naturalistic realism.
That detail oriented sense of design is part of what makes The Mortuary Collection stand out. It is clear that as much of its hard earned budget as possible was put right back on screen, as it both looks and sounds better than films with much more cash to spend. Cinematographers Caleb Heymann and Elie Smolkin fill shots with dusty golden light and corners full of creeping shadows. A critical fight scene during an intermittent power outage is a highlight, as bright flashes of lightning pound between bouts of darkness, and the remnants of a pillow’s feathers drift through the air.
The majority of the effects are practical, and Oscar winning ADI Studios delivers gooey monstrosities and gory set pieces with aplomb. Music supervisors The Mondo Boys do some lush traditional theatrical scoring, but also deliver several perfect period pop songs that sound like they were forgotten gems dug out of a dusty record shop bin.
The Mortuary Collection isn’t perfect, but its flaws are all forgivable given its top notch visuals and a cheekily charming script that avoids devolving too far into snarkiness. The first vignette is slightly underdone, feeling more like a character sketch than a fully realized story. Considering how much is packed into the final few minutes of the film, it could have been perhaps cut to allow the grace notes room to breathe. The character of Sam is perhaps a bit too perfect of an audience substitute, and is only really allowed a less Greek chorus like dimension in the back half of the film.
These are both minor quibbles, and The Mortuary Collection is still a triumph overall. The film is both dripping in fan friendly nostalgia and a remix of familiar elements that feels fresh. In an era full of gritty realism and arthouse horror hits that take themselves way too seriously, its gleefully gory commitment to spooky fun is as refreshing as a cool autumn breeze. The Mortuary Collection is an absolute treat for monster kids of any vintage, with carefully crafted tales that contain a little something for genre fans of all stripes.
Wicked Rating – 8.5/10
Director: Ryan Spindell
Writer: Ryan Spindell
Stars: Clancy Brown, Caitlin Custer, Mike C. Nelson, Christine Kilmer
Release date: September 21, 2019
Studio/Production Company: AMP International, Trapdoor Pictures
Run Time: 108 minutes