The Mortuary Collection (2019)

Multiple choice question. Anthology horror movies ride a seasonal spike in popularity as we approach:

(A) Halloween (B) The Election (C) End Times (D) All of the above

The Mortuary Collection, written and directed by Ryan Spindell, is comprised of five tangled tales of terror, vigorously spun by Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), the looming and gloomy mortician of the town of Raven’s End.

His audience is Sam (Caitlin Fisher), a steely job applicant with a severe curiosity for the more macabre aspects of post-mortem employment. Much to her delight, Dark digs deep into a dreadful drawer of local lore that winds inevitably back to the present.

He recounts the bizarre and gruesome fates that befell several unfortunate citizens of Raven’s End, ending up as customers in the morgue of Mr. Dark’s rambling hilltop funeral home.

At a swinging party, a trip to the toilet turns fatal for a stylish dame (Christine Kilmer) who gets too nosy with the medicine cabinet.

The campus Casanova (Jacob Elordi) is forced into reluctant fatherhood, and finds he just isn’t built for it.

A dutiful husband (Barak Hardley) gets the dirty end of the stick when his blushing bride turns catatonic right after the wedding.

Finally, a determined babysitter wages war with an escaped lunatic during a violent thunderstorm.

Each story prompts critical discussion as to whether the protagonists in question deserve their unhappy endings. Dark insists that actions have serious consequences and old rules should not be violated.

Sam scoffs at his morality plays, eventually revealing her true face in an ending that turns out to be the most outrageous segment of them all.

What’s not to like?

There’s gorgeous gore galore. The art direction, practical effects, and set design are uniformly excellent. Dark’s massive funeral home is dressed to the hilt with eerie details, crammed to the rafters with sinister flourish.

The Raven’s End Mortuary looks every inch a decaying stronghold of stories and secrets, one that seemingly winds downstairs forever.

Clancy Brown, a seasoned character actor (and voice of Mr. Krabs on SpongeBob SquarePants), towers above his costars in these grim surroundings, hitting on all cylinders as a host who tells each tale with obvious relish, while splendidly attired in a dusky wardrobe, undoubtedly purchased at the same Big & Tall Man shop recommended by Angus Scrimm.

The Mortuary Collection is top-shelf storytelling, on a par with not only the upper echelon of anthology horror films (Creepshow, Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror), but the creepy old comic books that inspired them in the first place.

Check it out. Check it all out. Time may not be on our side.

The Wretched (2019)

Nothing good ever comes from spying on the neighbors. Just ask Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

With nods to both the Hitchcock classic and more recent fare like Fright Night, The Wretched delivers familiar frights amidst familial turbulence, as a troubled teen suspects the lady next door of being a 1,000-year-old witch.

Budding juvenile delinquent Ben (John-Paul Howard) gets shipped off to a sleepy Great Lakes resort town for the summer, where he works for his dad (Jamison Jones) at the marina.

He even has his arm in a cast, just like Stewart’s photographer.

During a brief interlude when he isn’t brooding, Ben notices that the family next door seems to have a fluctuating number of children, and that the hot mom (Zarah Mahler) is prone to nocturnal ramblings.

Written and directed by the Pierce Brothers, The Wretched covers a lot of well-traveled territory, particularly the nostalgic coming-of-age adventure ala Spielberg or Stranger Things.

It also speaks to the fragility of the family unit, and about how kids without that stabilizing spiritual force in their lives are vulnerable to … enchantment?

Not to mention the possibility of being consumed and forgotten by the outside world. Now that’s scary!

In the Dark Mother, we get a horrifying and ghoulish creature/villain, and I fervently wish the Pierces had given us a bit more backstory, but perhaps that’s coming in the next movie.

I confess to my uncertainty of a sequel, but I’m taking this opportunity to wish it into existence, because we all need something to look forward to.

 

 

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.

Pandemic (2016)

Nothing like a little light entertainment to help shake those quarantine blues.

Can we interest you in a first-person, point-and-shoot craptacular, with a side of zombie dressing?

Sporting a tagline of “You are humanity’s last stand,” Pandemic puts the viewer squarely behind rotating POV cameras in a breakneck race to save uninfected survivors in post-plague Los Angeles.

Nutshell: A virulent contagion has swept the nation, transforming average citizens into berserk cannibals. After the fall of New York, survivor Lauren (Rachel Nichols), heads to LA where doctors are in short supply.

Assigned to a four-person rescue team tasked with rounding up survivors and testing them for infection, Lauren, Gunner (Mekhi Phifer), Wheels (Alfie Allen), and Denise (Missi Pyle), cruise the streets in a retrofitted school bus, dodging and dispatching meat-seeking freaks and armed gangs of plunderers.

Although the team has been specifically ordered not to go in search of family members, this directive somehow gets lost in all the excitement, and personal agendas threaten to derail the mission.

My wife commented that Pandemic is more of a sketch than a movie, and there is truth to that. With only minimal time given to character exposition, it’s the seat-of-the-pants mayhem that’s designed to carry the story, and indeed, there’s no shortage of high-speed splatter.

Unfortunately, director John Suits doesn’t generate much actual adrenaline, and the action seldom rises above (old) video game quality. When the POV perspective shifts rapidly to different characters, it becomes disorienting trying to follow the identities amidst a barrage of choppy, spastic editing.

Instead of freely reveling in post-apocalyptic/undead shenanigans, it took Dustin Benson’s screenplay shifting its focus to Lauren’s private mission, to keep me involved on a basic level.

Rachel Nichols brings surprising depth to a role that could have been adequately filled by a CGI sock puppet, and her supporting cast, particularly Phifer and Pyle, more than pulls its own weight.

Pandemic does not break new ground or offer much in the way of spectacle, but time passes quickly, allowing us to put our own viral anxieties on the back burner.

That’s gotta be worth something, right?

 

 

Babysitter Wanted (2008)

The subject is babysitters. Talk about a thankless job. Minimum wage, shitty snacks, bratty kids, and knife-wielding maniacs? Hard pass.

But what can you do when you have no bed to sleep in? Get a job, slacker.

Angie (Sarah Thompson) is a new student at a Northern California community college, with a dorm room that includes a sullen stoner roommate, but sadly, no bed. Beneath a bunch of Missing Person fliers on the community bulletin board, she finds a number for a babysitting job.

Once employment is secured, Angie looks forward to eventually getting a good night’s sleep.

Complications abound. The job is way out in the boonies and Angie’s shitbox car won’t make it. Also, there seems to be a horribly scarred bald dude following her.

At this point, Angie could probably write off her anxiety as a bad case of freshman jitters, since Jim Stanton (Bruce Thomas) and his wife Violet (Kristen Dalton) appear to be honest, hardworking farmers who just need someone to watch their little boy, Sam (Kai Caster).

What could possibly go wrong? Let’s put it this way: the scary scarred dude is the least of her worries.

In my estimation, writer and co-director Jonas Barnes utilizes the babysitter premise far more effectively than Ti West did in the similarly themed House of the Devil, which came out the following year in 2009.

While West is undoubtedly a gifted visual stylist, HotD comes across as a painfully self-aware exercise in genre clothes. The onscreen shocks were distant and removed, as though filmed through a dispassionate filter.

Babysitter Wanted is savage and satisfyingly visceral, with a cast that plays it to the hilt, including the always-dependable Bill Moseley in a rare non-maniac role.

Sarah Thompson, who looks a bit like Jennifer Garner, imbues Final Girl Angie with fire and fortitude, which comes in mighty handy when the kid she’s being paid to watch wakes up hungry as hell.

Wouldn’t you know it? He’s got dietary restrictions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dead Shack (2017)

Warning: Stranger Things template in full effect.

A trio of nosy teens and their piss-poor adult supervision spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Since the name of the film is Dead Shack, we can assume they don’t get their cleaning deposit back.

Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) gets roped into a camping trip by his obnoxious friend Colin (Gabriel LaBelle), which works out fine since he has a major crush on Colin’s sister Summer (Lizzie Boys).

Along for the ride are Colin and Summer’s party hearty dad Roger (Donavon Stinson) and his bored alcoholic girlfriend Lisa (Valerie Tian), who has zero interest in bedding down in the boonies with a bunch of goofy adolescents. At least not while sober.

Inevitably, the snoopy kids stumble upon a neighboring house owned by a lady in body armor (Lauren Holly) with a passel of undead kinfolk who need regular meals. Tonight’s Special: You!

Unfortunately, Roger and Lisa are too busy playing cards and getting plastered to listen to such an outlandish story, so it’s up to these wily misfit teenagers to save the day.

Dead Shack lives up to its potential and delivers splashy fun and flying body parts in Raimi-esque abundance.

With all the baggage present, director Peter Ricq could simply have allowed these characters to speak their minds, give voice to their dissatisfaction, and engage in Dysfunctional Family Feud for the entire weekend, but then we’d have a Tennessee Williams play instead of a grisly and often-amusing Zombie Comedy (Zom-Com).

We liked it. Worth a look.

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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Patton Oswalt was tweeting about this one recently, his observations growing increasingly agitated—and no wonder. Bone Tomahawk is a horse opera throwback that any John Ford fan will recognize without too much difficulty.

It’s your basic, “OK men, let’s get us a posse and go save our womenfolk” tale, that gradually winds its way into an atavistic nightmare and a grueling denouement. And having goddamn Kurt Russell as the dutiful and superbly mustachioed sheriff doesn’t hurt one bit.

Russell portrays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a turn-of-the-century lawman who watches over the frontier town of Bright Hope, situated somewhere in the Southwestern badlands.

One fine evening, he and Chicory (the amazing Richard Jenkins), his backup deputy and comic sidekick, spot a fugitive in their midst (David Arquette), a craven bandit on the run from a tribe of bloodthirsty cave-dwelling savages, who have trailed him to his present location.

Oh, and they’re cannibals.

The next morning, Hunt discovers that the bandit, Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have been abducted by the fearsome flesh eaters.

A posse consisting of Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder (Scott Fox), a sartorially splendid gunfighter, and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a rancher with a broken leg, and husband of the kidnapped damsel, sets off in pursuit.

For most of Bone Tomahawk‘s two-plus hours running time, we plod along with the cowboy quartet on a near-hopeless quest.

Don’t let the languid pace cause a premature bailout, because this is where writer and director S. Craig Zahler demonstrates a sure hand. Alternating between meandering scenes of Larry McMurtry-esque cowboy banter and violent episodes of gunplay, Zahler keeps a tight rein on his players, moving them stoically forward to a hellish confrontation with a horrible enemy.

And to their credit, the principle cast members (especially Russell and Jenkins) acquit themselves smashingly.

Hunt and his men prove to be fallible, but honorable avengers, capable of extraordinary acts of courage, even under extreme circumstances. These include helplessly watching a captured comrade writhe in agony as a clan of troglodytes readies him for supper. Suffice to say there’s more to this meal preparation than washing your hands.

Bone Tomahawk has its cringe-worthy moments, but the savagery is a vital story component, serving as a chillingly effective worst-case scenario, and not merely a cheap excuse for guts and gore.

On the other hand, if you’re hungry for guts and gore, you surely won’t be disappointed by the time they arrive. Strong work!

Deep in the Darkness (2014)

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A rather tepid adaptation of Michael Laimo’s book of the same name, Deep in the Darkness concerns a new-fish doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas) who takes over a rural medical practice on the outskirts of Nutsyville, where the simple inhabitants share a terrible secret about the lurkers in the forest.

The story has oodles of  scare-potential as the rather clueless Dr. Cayle (Thomas) gets acquainted with a race of nasty troglodyte tunnel-dwellers that call the shots with the local hillbilly population.

The doc’s new neighbor, Phil (Dean Stockwell, who tries his best), attempts to get Cayle on board with the idea of sacrificing animals to their vicious little landlords, but the latter dithers and procrastinates, while his wife (Kristen Bush) seemingly has little trouble adapting to their strange new surroundings.

Next thing you know, she’s preggers! You’d think a doctor would have better access to contraception, but such is not the case.

Neither director Colin Theys or writer John Doolan bring much enthusiasm to the project, and significant story points spill out in haphazard fashion, with all the care of a starving hobo going through a Dumpster.

Then after what seems like an eternity (actually just 100 minutes), we’re presented with an unsatisfying, left-field ending that packs all the wallop of a question mark materializing after “The End” credit appears.

Other than the casting of Stockwell and Blanche Baker, Deep in the Darkness has precious little going for it. It’s not awful by any means, but genuine frights are few and far between.

The only real question you need to ask yourself, is “Why bother?”

Citadel (2012)

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Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Written and directed by Ciaran Foy,

Citadel is a Scottish/Irish co-production filmed on location in some of the most unbelievably desolate and blighted locales of Glasgow and Dublin that I’ve ever seen on film.

The decaying housing projects and ruined grey landscapes make an ideal setting for a particularly harrowing urban fairy tale about an anxiety ridden single father who must protect his infant daughter from a marauding band of feral children.

After seeing his wife attacked by a trio of menacing urchins—and being powerless to help—Tommy Cowley (Aneurin Barnard) has developed a rather whopping case of Agoraphobia, one that requires him to treat the affliction with counseling sessions and trust exercises.

In this case, Tommy’s phobia is perfectly justified, as he lives in a dismal housing development with his yowling daughter Elsa, born despite a comatose mother who never recovered from her vicious assault.

To make matters considerably worse, it appears that the same pack of nasty kids is on his trail once again. Even while he gets advice and comfort from a sympathetic nurse (Wunmi Mosaku), Tommy comes to realize that these murderous moppets can smell and trace his fear—and as an Agoraphobe, he lights up the night like a shining beacon.

Driven to desperate lengths, Tommy teams up with a deranged priest (James Cosmo) to battle the little blighters.

Foy’s deft blending of grim, dystopic reality and dark mythic quest is extraordinary. Barnard is a revelation as Tommy, a young man who has no choice but to get his shit together and take arms against a hideously relentless foe.

The term “reluctant hero” was tailor-made for this crazy kid. We can’t help but root for him and hope that he can somehow overcome his crippling fear and fulfill his quest.

CHUD II (1989)

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Without a doubt one of the lamest, tamest brain-dead horror-comedies of all time.

CHUD II has nothing whatsoever to do with the original CHUD (1984), a decent fright flick about Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers (CHUDS) who roam the sewers and tunnels beneath New York City devouring whatever stray sucker that encroaches on their turf.

CHUD II isn’t even on the same level as the average Troma Team release—and that’s saying something. The credits list David Irving as director and Ed Naha as writer, but the whole thing seems like it was derived from a none-too-bright sixth grader’s “really weird dream.”

Steve (Brian Robbins, a sort of poor-man’s Corey Haim) and Kevin (Brian Calvert) accidentally lose the cadaver that’s supposed to be on display for their biology class and decide to steal another one from a nearby disease control center.

To complicate matters, the new stiff, nicknamed Bud (Gerritt Graham, a really funny actor who, to his credit, gives it the ol’ college try), is actually a hungry hungry zombie that was created by the military to be an eating and killing machine.

Once reanimated, he falls in love with Katie (Tricia Lee Fisher), Steve and Kevin’s lab partner, and creates a mob of zombie pals through his contagious bite. One of the zombies is Steve’s poodle. Idiotic, unfunny hijinks ensue. You will not laugh.

If you’re a fan of Murder She Wrote, you might get a kick out of all the cameo appearances from a veritable Who’s Who of television actors from yesteryear, including Larry Linville (M*A*S*H), Norman Fell (Three’s Company), June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost in Space), and Jack Riley (The Bob Newhart Show).

Or perhaps you’ll appreciate Robert Vaughn’s (The Man From Uncle) hammy turn as a deranged army colonel. Oh yeah, and Bianca Jagger appears at the very end of the movie for some reason.

But I’m betting you won’t make it that far. Frankly, I’m surprised I did.