The Mortuary Collection (2020)

One of the more uniquely charming aspects of horror nerdom is its consistent enthusiasm for the genre. Whereas superfans of pop culture behemoths like Star Wars or the MCU tend to relentlessly complain about the very thing they supposedly love, horror nerds are almost enthusiastic to a fault. There’s no morally repugnant, shittily slapped together frivolity of a horror film that won’t attract some lone weirdo to defend its honor as a highlight of the genre, which is the exact kind of rehabilitative positivity I like to see in online film discourse – even when I personally dislike the movie in question. Unfortunately, that communal enthusiasm does come at a cost. Once you start following enough horror media types from online publications like Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and Dread Central it becomes near impossible to determine which hype cycle to believe and which to ignore. Every week, there’s a fresh slice of direct-to-streaming horror #content that’s met with drooling enthusiasm from online horror geeks, most of it terminally bland at best. The community’s exuberance is infectious, which is how you end up watching hours of serviceable, 3-star titles like Satanic Panic, Porno, The Beach House, and Riot Girls on the promise that they will Totally Blow Your Mind, bro. Puzzling through that persistent enthusiasm to pick out the titles actually worth your time can be exhausting, and it’s a code I’ve been working on cracking for years.

The Mortuary Collection might be one of the few Horror Media-hyped titles from this year that actually meets the expectations set by its rabid enthusiasm online – even if just barely. A by-the-books, straight-to-Shudder anthology film, there shouldn’t be much for this seasonal Halloween programming to live up to. This isn’t a situation like the recent Books of Blood anthology on Hulu, which “adapted” horror legend Clive Barker’s iconic short story collection by draining it of all its intelligence & discomforting sexuality for a flavorless TV show pilot. The Mortuary Collection is an entirely original set of horror vignettes directed by a first-time no-namer (Ryan Spindell) for a streaming service that specializes in churning out mediocre low-budget productions in this exact milieu. Still, it was met with instant online hyperpraise attempting to canonize it as the best horror anthology since Trick ‘r Treat, a guaranteed future cult classic that will be streamed on loop for infinite Halloweens to come. That’s difficult to believe, not only because most direct-to-streaming movies have the cultural longevity of a fart in the wind, but also because I’ve so recently seen a masterful film that pulled off its exact tone & structure to much greater success: 1995’s Tales from the Hood. In both films, an eccentric mortician leads a visiting stranger through a series of vignettes involving the deceased clients in his morbid place of business, while his captive audience reacts to each story incredulously until their own tale is told in due time. Both films are well made. Both mix broad humor, excessive violence, and moralistic social commentary in with their traditional scares. Only one achieves that mixture with a distinctive political or storytelling POV, however, and the other is likely to be forgotten among the dozens of other routine, decently told productions just like it.

If there’s any one thing that distinguishes The Mortuary Collection within the grander horror anthology tradition, it’s Clancy Brown’s performance as the horror-host mortician in the wraparound. Brown has had plenty of memorable, meaty roles as a character actor over the decades (most notably as the creepy preacher from Carnivàle), but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him have this much fun. He is living his full Vincent Price fantasy in the wraparound story (with some hints of Angus Scrimm in his costuming), making a full meal out of every line he’s afforded. His foil is a smartass, jaded teen who’s seen way too many horror movies to be fully won over by his Spooky Mortician schtick, a line of post-Kevin Williamson meta-humor that only underlines how familiar & routine everything surrounding Brown’s performance can feel. And even the novelty of that performance is reminiscent of Clarence Williams III’s over-the-top antics as the kooky mortician in the Tales from the Hood wraparound. Which is fine. The truth is that horror movies don’t have to be wholly original or The Greatest Thing Ever to be worthwhile. I don’t believe The Mortuary Collection earns its initial hype as the next great horror anthology we’re going to be collectively rewatching & discussing every Halloween into perpetuity. It doesn’t meet that metric, but it also shouldn’t have to. It’s worth at least one spooky-season watch as a well-behaved, over-the-plate horror anthology, which is a much more reasonable expectation for productions on its level of budget & prestige – one that many other Horror Nerd Darlings don’t come anywhere near satisfying.

-Brandon Ledet

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