The Mortuary Collection (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
The opening credits sequence of Ryan Spindell’s horror anthology shows terrific promise. We follow a paper boy making his usual early deliveries across the small island town of Raven’s End, a place so drenched in fog and humble simplicity that stories of Stephen King could fit right in. In between moments offer strange details: tentacles caught in a fish net, missing persons posters, a report of a killer having escaped from a mental asylum. Here is a place that’s beautiful on the outside, but look a little closer and realize that something sinister is afoot.
Upon first glance, it looks like a love letter to horror fans. It is all the more disappointing to discover that the deeper we get into its viscera, the material does not offer much freshness. In the middle of it, particularly the first segment involving a pickpocket (way too short and sans convincing tension) and the third segment which tells the story of a man who decides to murder his comatose wife (more on this in a bit), I caught myself thinking that I’ve seen far creepier “Goosebumps” and “Tales from the Crypt” episodes. At least in those shows, they are not afraid to embrace extremes, particularly when horror verges on comedy. In this anthology, punches are held back for the sake of winning over audiences instead of challenging them.
I find irony in this because in the wraparound story, we meet a mortician named Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) who has a penchant not only for storytelling but also for the messages imbedded in such stories. After a boy’s funeral, he meets Sam (Caitlin Custer), a young woman who wishes to gain employment. During the tour of the creepy funeral home, we learn of her confidence, zeal, and curiosity. She, too, is quite fond of scary stories. She cannot help but to ask about the books that line his office walls. Mr. Dark tells her that each one is actually a record of stories involving residents who lived on the island: how they died and, more importantly, why.
The four segments are cautionary tales imbued with social commentary. But a question: How can they be truly effective when power behind such stories are held back for the sake of digestibility? Consider the aforementioned third segment. There is an inherent sadness to this story. Wendell (Barak Hardley) is tired—not just in the body but also in the spirit—of taking care of his spouse who can no longer move, communicate, and reciprocate the love he gives her. We get the impression that he’d been taking care of her while in this state for years. But instead of genuinely engaging in the controversial—and sensitive—topic that is euthanasia, notice how it is eventually reduced to yet another segment involving chopped up bodies, having to get rid of it, and the like. It takes a potentially beautiful segment with something genuine to say about our own humanity—our limits—and reduces it to just another “He lost his mind” cliché.
Perhaps best of the four is the second segment—precisely because it pushes far enough for the story to be memorable. Frat Boy Jake (Jacob Elordi) meets Nice Girl Sandra (Ema Horvath). She is invited to attend a party. She accepts. They meet later that night and end up in his room. She asks him to wear a condom during sex. He accepts, reluctantly. But he can’t seem to perform with it on and so… he takes it off without her knowledge. The next morning, he finds… well, something unexpected. This segment is without a doubt a cautionary tale and it is pregnant with social commentary: gender, sex, role reversal, patriarchy, disease, responsibility. And guess what else? It is both scary and riotously funny, from initial situation up until its eye-popping, gross-out denouement.
The rest of the collection fails to follow its example. Although it introduces the possibility of a sequel, I am not entirely optimistic because Segment 2 comes across as an outlier instead of the norm. But if I were optimistic, I would say that at least the writer-director has proven to be capable of delivering on a high level. Cheers to a darker, leaner, and meaner follow-up. This one doesn’t have enough bite. No, not even the Tooth Fairy story.