THE MORTUARY COLLECTION, which I viewed as part of Fantasia Fest, is a fantastically grotesque anthology horror film based on the EC Comics’ aesthetic of violent yet ultimately moral tales of humanity and the evil that men (and women) do.
EC Comics was a comic book publisher in the 1940s through the mid-1950s that started out as Educational Comics and then became Entertaining Comics. They had many different types of comic books but after the death of Maxwell Gaines, the founder, his son William Gaines took the company in a more mature and shocking direction. When most people think of EC Comics, they think of the specific horror series The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and the best known, Tales From The Crypt, which you will probably recognize because of the TV show and subsequent movie adaptations. EC also published war and science fiction comics. There was also a series of British films in the seventies, also in the anthology format, that used the EC aesthetic from Amicus.
The best known of those films are the ones adapted by esteemed horror author, Robert Bloch from EC stories entitled, unsurprisingly, Tales From The Crypt, and, for a change of pace, The House That Dripped Blood. Robert Bloch wrote, among other classics, Psycho, the book on which the movie was based. He was a protege of H.P. Lovecraft and loved a good pun. Amicus Films made six of these anthology films in addition to the ones I’ve listed. Two of the others were written by Bloch and based on his own short stories. EC’s horror stories specialized in extremely moral tales with a grimly humorous sense of irony. EC’s biggest success however was the comic Mad Magazine. The Comics Code of the 1950s was instituted specifically to tame EC’s horror comic books.
With anthology films, there is usually a framework story at the beginning and the end to introduce you to the character that tells or introduces each of the tales. In the case of Tales From The Crypt, the popular Crypt Keeper was the story guide. With THE MORTUARY COLLECTION, the story begins with a very old mortician, Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) officiating over the funeral of a child who gets a couple of visits from two young people. The young boy, who has a camera and seems to want to be a reporter, runs, but Sam (Caitlin Custer), a young woman who seems to have an unstated purpose to come to the mortuary, stays and applies for a job. While going through the application process, Sam dares Dark to tell her a scary story, and the movie proceeds from there. Dark isn’t really a host per se, more of a character that serves as a bridge for each of the tales which is a direct throwback to the Amicus Films anthologies.
THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is written and directed by Ryan Spindell, who previously directed the horror short The Babysitter Murders, which Spindell manages to work into the plot of this film in the most amusing way. The cinematography is by Elie Smolkin and Caleb Heymann, which is done in rich jewel tones, emerald greens, bright yellows, and darkness and the color scheme extends to costuming as well. Watching plumes of mint green smoke waft from the mortuary sign was so pretty to a horror fan like me. The film has an extravagant palette, which I wasn’t expecting since I was assured that the film was low budget. Whatever that budget was it was spent wisely, and the creators did a great job of making it look like it cost way more than it actually did. The film really gets the EC aesthetic and uses it to the best advantage. The twists and turns actually escalate as the film proceeds and moves from relatively simple setups where you can probably guess what’s going to happen to “Wait, one goddamn minute, I did not see that coming.” I can pay THE MORTUARY COLLECTION the ultimate compliment of revealing that this reviewer was so sucked into the film that I started yelling at the screen of my laptop trying to change the fates of the characters on screen and in denial of what was about to happen.
This film really goes for it. It tackles topics that I don’t really see horror anthology films tackle, like the true meaning of the wedding vow: ‘til death do us part. If you’re about to accuse the film of being woke because of some of these subjects, bear in mind that EC Comics prided themselves on their moral tales and tackling socially relevant and highly political topics. This film is less overtly political than concerned with the ethics of the individual characters in each story. Like with EC and the Amicus Films, if you do wrong, wrong will boomerang on you in the tenth power. Each of the stories packs a wallop and while they each give you the vicarious thrill of seeing the evildoer punished, Spindell has added a level of empathy even for the human monsters. It gently prods you with the idea, stated by one of the characters, that in real life the bad guys get away with it.
The actors were chosen well. All of them are believable in their roles and do good work. Clancy Brown is an odd yet subtly threatening presence. Caitlin Custer gains your sympathy and trust playing a believable young brat. Jacob Elordi is every preening frat boy you’ve ever met and loathed on sight. Tristan Byon is a delight as the nosy young, nascent reporter. Barak Hardley is pitiable as the distraught husband. Sarah Hay ably pulls off the feat of playing a character who is kind of not there. Ryan Spindell does have a good eye for talent and the ability to direct actors, which is a vital quality that not all directors have.
THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is a deftly constructed tale of crime and punishment that has surprises for even the most jaded horror fan, a genuinely ironic sense of humor, and very little pity for its characters. That’s a good thing. THE MORTUARY COLLECTION is now one of my favorite anthology horror movies because it not only managed to scare me, it made me care about the people in it. Like some of the Amicus Films movies from the 1970s, it made me feel dread and has that slightly sickening sense of terror that I’ve never quite been able to shake after watching those films as a kid.
Also, if anyone complains about how horror, especially good horror, doesn’t have political and social subtext, you can tell them that EC Comics and Amicus Films would like to have a word with them.
If you like to be scared, THE MORTUARY COLLECTION brings terror-filled fun. The Crypt Keeper, The Old Witch, and The Vault Keeper would approve.
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