Ryan Spindell’s anthology isn’t the deepest slice of horror, but its glossy sense of fun carries it along.
The horror anthology film has had a resurgence in the past decade. Thanks to the popularity of 2012s V/H/S, a collection of inventive horror shorts that built off the late-2000s found footage craze, it’s impossible to scroll through the horror section of any streaming service without drowning in new spooky anthologies. And it makes sense: The subgenre can scare horror fans in as many different ways as possible. It’s the cinematic equivalent of sitting around a campfire telling spooky stories. Some tales are better than others, sure, but if one is lacking in the frights department, maybe the next story will be the one that gets you.
Shudder’s The Mortuary Collection is the rare modern horror anthology that attempts to bring in stylish, campy fun like the classics of the genre such as Creepshow and Trilogy of Terror. The good news for horror lovers is that it mostly nails it. It’s set in a giant Adams Family-style funeral home where ancient mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) lives. He’s surrounded by never-ending hallways filled with books and stories that he’s very willing to share when a young woman named Sam (Caitlin Custer) shows up looking for a job.
Besides having the excellent name, Montgomery Dark—I guess if you’re born with that name you kind of have to grow up to be a creepy mortician—loves how stories shape us. The amount of times he monologues about the power of storytelling makes it seem like he should have become a creative writing teacher instead of a funeral home director, but we all have our own journeys.
Monty is so passionate about stories that he begins the movie in a booming voiceover: “The world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.” This may be the dumbest opening line of all time, but the way Brown sells it—just as he sells his entire character—is so deliciously cheesy that it’s impossible to not love. Clad in a dark overcoat and ridiculous old-age makeup, Brown knows the kind of movie he’s in and delivers like he studied from the Acting School of Vincent Price and then got an MFA from the Crypt Keeper.
Writer/director Ryan Spindell makes a bold choice by setting the film in different past eras from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. It’d be a risky move without the production values to back it up, but luckily The Mortuary Collection does. From the nightmare version of Animal House in the second tale to the fake ‘80s slasher film in the final segment, each short is richly detailed with the pastiche of each decade. There are also some sneakily catchy throwback songs that play throughout the movie, which ties everything together.
Spindell’s vision comes into full, horrific power in the second (and best) story where a frat guy, Jake (Jacob Elordi), pretends to be a feminist so he can manipulate young college girls into sex. When he “forgets” to use a condom with Sandra (Ema Horvath) one night after a party, things take a turn when it becomes a Junior situation but taken to its most disturbingly graphic conclusion. If you squint, there’s a statement on the country’s burgeoning women’s liberation movement that was coming fast in the ‘60s, and how men have always pretended to be progressive in order to exploit women. Spindell, however, is mostly here for the exploding penis.
There may not be much under the glossy surface, but there are still plenty of gory pleasures to be had.
Similarly, the other stories are thematically weak like a carnival haunted house, but those can still be a blast. The opening tale about a pickpocket named Emma (Christine Kilmer) who gets stuck in a bathroom and has to escape a tentacle monster lurking in the medicine cabinet is short and dementedly fun. It’s a graphic reimagining of the wholesome monster movies of the ‘50s that works as an excellent preview for the rest of the film.
But in the grand tradition of anthology horror, The Mortuary Collection has one skippable segment. Here’s, it’s the third story where a husband, Wendell (Barak Hardley), takes care of his wife, Carol (Sarah Hay), who’s in a vegetative state. It plays out like a dark morality play from an average Tales from the Crypt episode, but it still has its moments, especially during an elevator scene that goes from overwhelmingly graphic to romantic (but still graphic) by the end.
It then leads to the final story, which has actually been around since 2015 when Spindell made it as a horror short called ”The Babysitter Murders.” about a killer who stalks a babysitter (Custer, in another role) as she watches a scary movie about a babysitter being stalked by a killer. It’s a clever meta twist on the ‘80s slasher genre and, while it’s predictable, it’s still a fun ride.
As with every anthology film, there are highs and lows. (It’s part of the charm of these movies.) But The Mortuary Collection keeps things mostly on a high note. Even the lows are still worthwhile thanks to Spindell’s commitment to capturing a specific time and place. There may not be much under the glossy surface, but there are still plenty of gory pleasures to be had.
The Mortuary Collection spooks up Shudder on Thursday, October 15.