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.

Ghost Stories (2017)

As a whole, Ghost Stories is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the individual tales in this anthology vary in terms of intensity and originality, it’s the wraparound narrative of Professor Philip Goodman (Andrew Dyson, who also co-wrote and co-directed) that effectively binds the whole dreary package in sorrowful strings.

Goodman is a skeptic and writer whose mission to debunk psychics and paranormal phenomenon has made him a familiar figure on British telly. He’s tasked with testing the validity of three unique cases, each told by a surviving protagonist.

A night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse) is haunted by a ghost child; an irresponsible teenager (Alex Lawther) recounts a terrifying encounter in his father’s car, and a wealthy businessman (Martin Freeman) confronts a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his son.

Each story has at its heart, an instance of parental failing that leads to grim consequences for the parties involved, particularly for the clueless professor who sets out to define the unknown, and ends up consumed by it.

Ghost Stories does not offer buckets of viscera or a breathtaking assortment of effects wizardry, but rather demonstrates in austere fashion that paranormal events are rooted in the sins and injustices of past deeds.

Our ability to atone for those sins remains unknown. In other words, we may not be able to “wiggle off the hook” in a spiritual sense for long-buried grievances.

And if you’re the spiritual sort, that’s pretty scary.

Ready Or Not (2019)

More scenes from the class struggle, as rich people hunt down an unlucky bride-to-be in Ready Or Not.

With the economy currently floating facedown in the pool, financial horror movies (Parasite, The Perfection, Cheap ThrillsWould You Rather?) continue to strike fear throughout the land, and with good reason.

We’re all hanging from the same thread.

Nutshell: Grace (Samara Weaving) is a scrappy, beautiful blonde engaged to Daniel (Adam Brody), the fabulously wealthy son of a family whose fortune was built on games (cards, not video).

As is the custom, the newest member of the family must participate in a game to be chosen randomly by drawing a card. The contest begins at midnight and concludes at dawn.

So what are we playing this year? Go Fish? Checkers?

As the title suggests, it’s Hide and Seek with Capital Punishment, and Grace must find a place to hole up till the sun rises. The family mansion and grounds are roughly the size of Connecticut, so hiding isn’t too difficult.

But, as we all know, rich people cheat to get ahead, so the hunters use hidden cameras to track their quarry.

Ready Or Not is directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and the tempo is brisk, punctuated with frequent violent episodes played for dark laughs. When all three maids (who look like Robert Palmer dancers) are accidentally murdered, their plutocrat employers are quick to express mild annoyance at the lack of reliable domestic help to clean up a growing mess (of bodies).

The script, by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murray, is full of revelations about the origins of wealth in our society, mostly having to do with infernal pacts made long ago.

Face it, rich assholes continue to make the best villains, because it’s so satisfying to see them pay for their crimes against humanity.

Quite a nice change from real life, but that’s the magic of cinema—making our unfulfilled dreams come true since the dawn of the 20th century.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color me impressed.

What with stormtroopers, tear gas, Covid, and the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s history bidding for my anxiety contract, a pleasure cruise on the SS Lovecraft proved to be a bracing tonic for my ailing brain.

So long, sanity! Pick me up after the show.

Writer-director Richard Stanley deserves the positive reviews because Color Out of Space is pretty darn good. All the paranoia and cosmic malevolence that one associates with H.P. Lovecraft is present and looks splendid.

Nutshell: Nicolas Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, a yuppie with the bright idea to move his brood from the Big Apple to rural Massachusetts, in the hopes it will prove beneficial in curbing the cancer currently loose in his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson).

Life on the Gardner’s alpaca farm seems serene, till the peace and quiet is cancelled by the arrival of a small meteorite, which contaminates the environment and turns everything a lovely shade of lavender.

You know the drill. Everyone and everything mutates horribly, but at least it’s in a color I can tolerate.

Cage plays Nathan somewhat against type, shedding the vengeful hero image for a doofus dad with bad glasses, and Color Out of Space is the better for it. His talent for comic madness is on full display, but stops short of cramping the action.

As darkling daughter Lavinia, Madeleine Arthur gets the most screen time and does an estimable job in a performance that transcends the usual goth stereotypes, even as she proves to be the film’s pivotal character.

Unfortunately, her two brothers fail to rate a blip on the Interesting Scale, so it’s up to Tommy Chong as (surprise, surprise) a neighboring hippie reprobate to carry some of the dramatic load.

During a time of multiple crises, my movie demands become simpler as comfort carries more weight than ambiguity and nuance. With Color Out of Space, my needs are fully met.

Cosmic Horror trending during an extinction event makes perfect sense, if you think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pyewacket (2017)

The nerve of these kids today!

Once upon a time, you bring a delightful baby girl into the world. Next thing you know, the ungrateful brat is summoning an evil spirit to cap your ass!

Sullen teen Leah (Nicole Muñoz) butts heads with her flaky mom (Laurie Holden) following the death of their father/husband. Rebellious, angry, and smarting from Mom’s new whip-cracking parenting style, Leah sensibly turns to sorcery to remove the old hag from the picture, so that she’s free to spend more time with her loser friends.

We’re not talking voodoo dolls here. Leah goes full-tilt boogie in raising up the titular malevolent entity, including slicing open her own arm during a frenzied ceremony in the deep, dark words.

Much to her chagrin, all signs point to a successful ritual, and right around the same time Mom starts cutting her some slack, evidence of a demonic presence becomes impossible to ignore.

Canadian writer-director Adam McDonald (Backcountry) gets the most out of his raw materials in Pyewacket, including a tough, multifaceted performance from actress Nicole Muñoz.

It’s a rather stark, unvarnished production that relies on slow-drip tension, spooky woods, and agile cameras to keep us glued to our chairs.

Without gore or a body count, McDonald boldly doubles down on mood and atmosphere till the whole thing blows up—including a mother-daughter relationship that literally goes to hell.

 

 

 

 

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.

 

Dead & Buried (1981)

Dead & Buried is a 40-year-old fright flick that has remained available on cable since the Reagan Administration. Now that’s staying power!

We open on the quaint seaport town of Potter’s Bluff, where friendly townsfolk frequently gather to savagely murder unlucky tourists, all caught on camera for those special vacation memories.

Sheriff Gillis (James Farentino) is inevitably handed the case, but he’s distracted at home by his wife’s (Melody Anderson) increasingly strange behavior, which includes teaching her fourth-grade class about voodoo.

Gillis consults with dapper Dr. Dobbs (Jack Albertson) the jazz-loving town coroner, who complains that closed casket funerals are a drag, because no one can fully appreciate the artistry it takes to make a comely corpse—especially ones that have been burned alive or had their throats sliced.

The murders continue unabated, while the sheriff dutifully gathers clues that point to pretty much everybody.

The ending is Rod Serling-meets-Angel Heart, as Gillis realizes he has more in common with his neighbors than he’d care to admit.

Most of Dead & Buried‘s notoriety comes from being the followup to Alien for screenwriters Ronald Shusset and Dan O’Bannon, as well as makeup mastermind Stan Winston, whose gore effects are brutally efficient here.

In some ways, this is a dated artifact that looks downright hokey at times. Compared to Alien, it’s all the way down to earth and mundane in appearance.

That said, Dead & Buried is creepy as hell and full of small-town weirdness, like Norman Rockwell taking a stab at Dorian Gray.

It’s also the final live-action appearance of veteran actor Jack Albertson, best known as Charlie’s bedridden gramps in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

In Dead & Buried, Albertson goes out in grand fashion, as a hepcat mad doctor with delusions of grandeur and visions of immortality.

We should all be so lucky.

 

Demon Wind (1990)

Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead = The Velvet Underground.

I accept that it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get where I’m coming from. It’s an undeniable influence.

Nearly 10 years after Raimi and Bruce Campbell caught lightning in a bottle, Charles Phillip Moore and his crew unveiled a delightfully unfettered homage, Demon Wind, about another bunch of old teenagers assailed by occult forces in a rural location.

Corey (Eric Larson) and his girlfriend Elaine (Francine Lapensée) meet up with a group of friends and stereotypes to solve the mystery of Corey’s grandparents, who perished under mysterious circumstances during the Great Depression.

Turns out the family farm (more of a tattered theater set, really) is on land originally claimed by a devil-loving preacher and his followers who were set ablaze by townsfolk with no taste for human sacrifice.

Once Corey and his comrades reach the farm, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly, we’re at a Dead show, with ghouls coming out of the woodwork.

I’m not recommending Demon Wind because it’s a brilliantly conceived film that was nurtured to life by the artistic vision of writer-director Charles Phillip Moore.

Rather, it’s the sort of slap-dash amateurism (it was filmed in seven days) that drove Ed Wood to create flying saucers out of paper plates and a cockpit from a shower curtain.

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and the makeup and practical effects on Demon Wind, though plentiful, range from barely adequate to comically half-assed.

Moore employs a similarly scattergun approach to the narrative, seizing and abandoning ideas with random enthusiasm.

One of the doomed kids, Chuck (Stephen Quadros), is a magician with a black belt. His friend Stacy (Jack Forcinito) has a shotgun with unlimited ammunition.

Chuck still carries a torch for Terri (Lynn Clark) who now belongs to homophobic meathead Dell (Bobby Johnston).

Poor Bonnie (Sherrie Bendorf) gets turned into a doll, and no one seems to care.

Magic spells are cast. You can tell because that’s when the bloopy, hand-drawn animation appears.

The entire cast looks as though it just stepped out of a Huey Lewis video. Feel free to hit pause and ridicule the myriad lame looks available to pre-grunge adolescents.

And don’t worry about Corey’s friends dying. When the pack gets thin, Amazon thoughtfully sends more.

Stinky cheese makes the tastiest snack, no?

Altar (2014)

You might as well toss a coin. Heads we watch, tails we skip.

Based on the well-worn premise that shit can always get worse if there’s a ghost on the loose, Altar is haunted house hijinks with a decent cast. At its best, the British production, written and directed by Nick Willing, serves up The Shining Lite for viewers satisfied with pedestrian paranormal thrills.

Renovation specialist Meg Hamilton (Olivia Williams) packs up her family and moves from London to the shadowy and desolate Yorkshire Moors, to restore a shadowy and desolate mansion once owned by a sorcerous couple back in Victorian times.

Husband Alec (Matthew Modine), a frustrated artist, immediately falls under the house’s malign influence after cutting his thumb and thoughtfully bleeding all over the goddamn place. He then retreats to his artist studio to brood and bleed some more.

With the parents absorbed in their respective career dramas, daughter Penny (Antonia Clarke) starts seeing spooks, while younger brother Harper (Adam Thomas Wright), is repeatedly told to go to his room by an increasingly frazzled Mum.

The story offers nothing new, as Alec eventually goes full-on Jack Torrance, and Meg is left to defend herself and the kids from Psycho Dad and his newfound enthusiasm for occult rituals.

Olivia Williams gives it a spirited go, but the spectral events in Altar are pretty routine, save for the ending itself, which is delightfully grim.

Whether an inspired conclusion is worth sitting through a mostly tepid setup, is something I can’t speak to at the moment.

Heads or tails, it’s your call.