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

Little Evil (2017)

When I was a kid, my mom introduced me to the horror classics of her youth whenever I was fortunate enough to be left behind while my father went deer hunting. We watched Carrie, Halloween (which she and my dad had gone to see in the theaters on their first date, although he left halfway through and waited for her in the lobby), and one of her favorites, The Omen. In case there are any among you who have never seen it (and shame on you), The Omen stars Gregory Peck as an American diplomat whose child dies at birth; he is convinced to adopt a local orphan instead. He and his unwitting wife name the child Damien, and as the child grows he starts to suspect, correctly, that little Damien is the Antichrist. There were a few sequels (including one where the adult Damien, played by Sam Neill, is an American politician) and a remake released on the apropos date of 06/06/06.

Although the remake is one of the better revisitations and reimaginings of the early millennium (perhaps helped by the fact that I find both Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber to be quite charming), my new favorite follow-up is 2017’s Little Evil. Adam Scott plays Gary Bloom, the new husband of Samantha (Evangeline Lilly) and thus stepfather to Lucas (Owen Atlas), who dresses and acts just like Damien, including using a “goat” sock puppet to talk in a low demonic voice. Samantha is completely blind to (or hilariously complacent about) the blatantly supernatural events happening around her: bloody rain, flickering lights, the backwards speech of the priest at their wedding, even Lucas’s use of a compelling voice to tell his teachers to kill themselves.

Gary gets conflicting and terrible advice from the other stepfathers in his community, including Victor (Kyle Bornheimer), Wayne (Chris D’Elia), and Larry (Donald Faison). The best and worst of these is Al (Lady Dynamite‘s Bridget Everett), his co-worker and a woman so butch she considers herself to be a part of the stepdad community. Everett all but steals the show here; she’s hilarious, and her deadpan delivery of her lines about her own stepson and her relationship with the new wife are perfectly timed and exquisite. Rounding out the case are the always-welcome Sally Field as a social worker and Clancy Brown as Reverend Gospel, an end-times theologian.

After Lucas causes his birthday clown to set himself on fire, Child Protective Services gets involved just as Gary seeks out professional help, including the assistance of a demon hunter, just as in The Omen. But unlike The Omen, Little Evil evolves into a story about something else: fatherhood, and the need for good role models. The film ultimately makes a surprisingly heartwarming statement about the nature of paternity and the importance of love over biology.

The film is not without a few low points, of course. There is a bit of the film that drags in the middle, as it gets wrapped up in some of the typical dudebro lowbrow comedy that we’ve come to expect from directors like Judd Apatow, but director Eli Craig (who gave us the fantastic horror comedy/pastiche Tucker and Dale vs. Evil back in 2010) shifts back into gear pretty quickly after this, and the high points more than make up for the less-than-perfect moments. Lilly is also a high point of recommendation; embodied by another actress, Samantha might have come across as dim-witted or inept, but Lilly finds the perfect balance between defensive (but lovingly) maternal and comically missing the point.

Little Evil is a Netflix original, so it’s presumably not going anywhere soon. If I were you, I’d use the last days of January to watch as much Futurama as you can before it leaves the streaming platform at the end of the month. But when that’s done, go back and check out this easy-going comedy. And also, watch The Omen if you haven’t already, you Philistine!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond