By Scott Dorward
The Mortuary Collection (USA, 2019)
“Someone commits a sin, they pay a horrible price. Rinse, repeat.”
I am a sucker for portmanteau films. For a long time, it’s felt like their day has passed, however. Maybe television has taken their place, providing a more accessible format for short horror tales. Happily, The Mortuary Collection injects a fresh jolt of formaldehyde into this wormy old format.
Montgomery Dark is a creepy old man who runs an equally creepy old funeral parlour on the outskirts of an American town. He has an unusual way of seeing life and death. For example, as he conducts the funeral of a young boy, he tells the bemused mourners how we are all just stories. Funnily enough, they find little comfort in this.
When the funeral ends, a young woman, Sam, turns up unannounced, asking about a job. She is an inquisitive sort, repeatedly trying to peek into the child’s coffin. Dark steers her away and takes her into a book-lined office. The books, he explains, are filled with the stories of the dead. As Dark interviews Sam and shows her what the job involves, he intersperses this with macabre tales of some of the strangest deaths he has encountered. And here we have the meat of the film, with a series of short, nasty little stories revolving around death.
In between these stories, we learn more about both Sam and Dark, the kinds of people they are, and what secrets each is keeping from the other…
Horror is well-suited to short, sharp shocks. Sure, it’s hard to develop much emotional depth in what is basically a short film, but sometimes you just want a simple scare.
One of the first horror films I can remember seeing was the 1945 classic Dead of Night, which has haunted me to this day. Later, I encountered the Amicus portmanteaus, such as From Beyond the Grave and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, and fell in love. Creepshow revived the format in the ’80s, although by looking back at the lurid horrors of the EC comics from the ’50s.
While the last 10 years have brought us the V/H/S franchise and the marvellous Southbound, these are anthologies — the work of a number of different filmmakers. One of the strengths of the Amicus films, for example, is that each was made by a single writer/director team, giving them a more cohesive feel. And this is one of the merits of The Mortuary Collection. Even though the stories vary in quality, they maintain a tone and a vision.
The Mortuary Collection fits nicely into what I see as a very American school of horror. It is filled with the ghoulish glee of Halloween, playing with our fear of death while safely hiding behind ironic detachment. It is the horror of Charles Addams, Robert Bloch and maybe even early Ray Bradbury, the kind of horror that can turn a child into a lifelong horror fan.
With this in mind, it’s almost a shame that The Mortuary Collection is as gory as it is. The brief glimpse of an exploding penis, for example, may put parents off letting their kids see this film. At the same time, the stories themselves and the tone of them have an EC Comics charm that would make them perfect ways to corrupt the innocent.
The stories themselves are simple morality plays, similar to hundreds you’re already familiar with. They are unlikely to surprise any hardened horror fans. This is not the point, however. Between the well-worn tales and the playful delivery, The Mortuary Collection is comfort food for ghouls. Sure, you may groan at some of the punchlines, but the film assumes you’re in on the joke.
For all the fun of the stories, the highpoint of the film is undoubtedly Clancy Brown’s performance as Montgomery Dark. His sepulchral voice and menacing physicality were made for a role like this. It is a joy to see him given the chance to ham it up.
All in all, The Mortuary Collection is a slick, entertaining film. While its bones may be old-fashioned, they have been fleshed out with meat that should appeal to modern tastes. It is a welcome palate cleanser amidst today’s more generally serious horror fare.
Thank you to Jon Cohorn for recommending The Mortuary Collection.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – The Mortuary Collection (2019)
- 24 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 25 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 26 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 29 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!