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.

Hell House II: The Abaddon Hotel (2018)

Hey! Let’s “check in” with Hell House LLC mastermind Stephen Cognetti, and the second installment of his infernal found-footage franchise.

The Abaddon Hotel picks up a few years down the road from the fatal Halloween reopening of the first film. In the interim, the boarded up inn has become a destination for ghost hunters, thrill seekers, and documentary filmmakers—all of whom end up missing.

Despite a local police presence to shoo away curious cats, the Abaddon continues to attract unfortunate wayfarers, including investigative reporter Megan Fox (Jillian Geurts), sole Halloween survivor Mitchell Cavanaugh (Vasile Flutur) and smug TV psychic Brock Davies (Kyle Ingleman).

Film and video from a variety of doomed sources is thoughtfully edited together so we too can enjoy the accommodations at Pennsylvania’s only four-star haunted hotel, now with a new and improved Hell Mouth that’s hungry for fresh souls.

Writer-director Cognetti (aided by dozens of relatives, if the credits are to be believed) expands and colors the nascent concepts left germinating since the first movie.

We finally get to meet kooky cult leader Andrew Tully (played with devilish panache by Brian David Tracy), who fills us in on his devilish “business plan” for the Abaddon.

See, it never closes, and there’s always a fire burning in the basement, just like Tom Bodett’s Motel 666.

Cognetti is not only dexterous enough to fill in the holes from the earlier film, but he lays the foundation for Part III, revealing that a wealthy media mogul has developed an unhealthy interest in the Abaddon.

Stay tuned! I know I will.

Final Prayer (2013)

Let sleeping gods lie. They wake up cranky.

In writer-director Elliott Goldner’s found-footage frightmare Final Prayer (original title: The Borderlands), a team of investigators from the Vatican gets swallowed up by a powerful pocket of pagan worship in rural England.

As we all know from The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church has its fingers in dozens of occult pies, and always stands ready to dispatch expert emissaries should the need arise.

A report of supernatural hijinks at a remote country church is reason enough for the Pope to assign hard-drinking clergyman, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), Gray (Robin Hill), a novice film and audio tech, and officious Vatican rep Mark (Aidan McArdle), to confirm or debunk the phenomenon.

The tiny congregation is headed by Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who fervently believes that the sounds of babies crying and objects moving by themselves in his church are proof of a miracle.

The team has different ideas. Mark thinks it’s a hoax; Gray is perplexed and frightened, while Deacon sees parallels with an older case that didn’t end well.

Fortunately for us, the protagonists get so used to wearing their headset cameras and mics during the course of the investigation, that we get the inside scoop before All Hell Breaks Loose, which happens in spectacular fashion during the final scene.

I advise patience during the first 45 minutes or so. Final Prayer takes a while to get rolling, but the slow burn pays off with a finale that is outré in the extreme.

By then, you’ll be on the hook with the rest of us.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rearview and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Jaimie’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Jaimie must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Jaimie passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. So much so that even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Witch In The Window (2018)

Heartwarming horror for the whole family?

Sure, why not? No one’s going anywhere in this pestilence.

Even without gushing gore or a massive body count, The Witch In The Window successfully induces chills the old-fashioned way, with well-written characters that find themselves in over their heads.

Simon (Alex Draper) is a dutiful part-time parent to Finn (Charlie Tacker), an articulate 12-year-old suffering from abandonment issues and existential dread. In an effort to bond with the moody kid, Simon invites Finn along to help him restore and flip an old house in rural Vermont.

It’s a realistically awkward trip, with plenty of failed conversations. The estranged duo eventually form an alliance when they realize the former tenant was an evil witch (Carol Stanzione) who’s trying to make a comeback.

Like that Spielberg dude, writer-director Andy Mitton strategically places the father-son dynamic squarely in the middle of the action, as Simon, a perpetual underachiever, decides that what he wants most is “a good house” for his family.

You have to admire that kind of commitment.

As an avid peruser of unattainable real estate, I could have told Simon that a good house in the country is hard to find. There’s always unforeseen issues with the wiring or the foundation or whatever, and it pays to be a flexible negotiator.

To Simon’s credit, he gets a killer deal. This place has acreage, a pond, and functional outbuildings.

On the downside, there’s a live-in caretaker whether you want one or not.

 

 

Hell House LLC (2016)

In which the haunters become the haunted.

Five friends form a professional haunt company, staging elaborate Halloween tours in creepy locations. The opening of their latest attraction is not entirely successful, as most of the staff ends up deceased in gruesome fashion.

The police and civic authorities shut down subsequent investigations, but five years after the Halloween Holocaust, a documentary crew attempts to solve the mystery by tracking down and interviewing the lone survivor.

For fans of the found-footage genre, Hell House LLC doesn’t disappoint. Writer-director Stephen Cognetti peppers the premises with ghosts, demons, a Satanic cult, a big scary clown, and enough paranormal pageantry to make up for any quandaries about who’s supposed to be running the camera in this scene.

I cheerfully recommend the movie, and may go so far as to check out the two sequels it inspired.

Note to filmmakers on a budget: Behold the beauty of a found-footage film; the iPhone cinematography actually enhances the dreadful atmosphere, forcing the trembling viewer to strain for every grainy terror captured.

The very existence of sequels to Hell House LLC proves that someone made their money back—and that’s enough to keep the iPhones rolling.

 

Body At Brighton Rock (2019)

Two words: Deceptively simple.

On the surface, writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s Body At Brighton Rock is about a novice national park employee (Karina Fontes) who discovers a corpse on a remote hiking trail.

Benjamin vaults from this premise into a a vast, confusing wilderness where predators lurk behind every tree, and a tenderfoot’s training is put to the test.

We quickly learn that part-time park guide Wendy (Fontes) isn’t the most motivated employee, after she shows up late (again) for the daily assignment posting. Wendy’s friends waste no time in reminding her that she’s more of an “indoor” type and not really suited to the more rugged demands of national park stewardship.

Shamed by her coworkers’ low opinion, Wendy swaps duties with her pal Maya (Emily Althaus), and sets out on a lengthy hike to post new seasonal signs all the way up a distant peak.

As it turns out, Wendy’s posse is very perceptive. The neophyte ranger loses her map and ends up in the middle of nowhere with a dead cell phone and a walkie-talkie that looks like it came out of a cereal box.

Let’s add one dead body, a vaguely menacing stranger (Casey Adams), and claw marks on tree bark to ensure young Wendy spends a sleepless night jumping at every snapped twig.

Body At Brighton Rock looks and sounds like a survival situation, and it is. But Benjamin intuitively pushes a number of buttons that ramp up the tension to include Wendy’s understandable self-doubts about her ability to handle some very intense circumstances.

The movie also works as an engrossing coming-of-age vision quest with a bit of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry thrown in for good measure.

Deceptively simple, highly recommended.