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By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

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.

The Mortuary Collection 1

Synopsis

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…

The Mortuary Collection 2

General Thoughts

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 3

Verdict

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:

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Evolution (France, 2015)

“You know, my mother’s not my mother either.”

The only things I knew about Evolution beforehand were that it was French, it involved the sea, and that it was reportedly very strange. All of these are true. The seaside setting had also led me to assume that there was at least a touch of Lovecraft. This, I am less sure about. If anything, Evolution feels like an old-fashioned fairy tale retold by David Cronenberg.

Evolution 1

Synopsis

Nicolas lives in a seaside community on a volcanic island. He spends his days playing with the other boys in its narrow streets or on the black sands of the beaches. When he can, he swims in the sea, indulging his fearful obsession with starfish. It is there that he spots the corpse of a boy his own age, lying amidst the coral. When he tells his mother about this, she only admonishes him for swimming somewhere so dangerous.

The community in which Nicolas lives is a strange one. It is populated only by adult women and prepubescent boys. They all live in boxy concrete houses with simple furniture and no electricity. There, Nicolas is fed a grey gruel filled with what appear to be worms and given regular doses of a bilious black tincture his mother tells him will help with the changes to come.

Things grow even stranger as Nicolas and a number of his friends are admitted to the island’s hospital. The women there keep a tight rein on the boys, subjecting them to regular examinations, injections and surgery. By night, the nursing staff watch films of cesareans with clinical detachment.

As boys will, Nicolas rebels and tries to uncover what is happening to him and his friends. One of the nurses takes pity and starts to hint at horrible truths. But will she prove his salvation or his destruction?

Evolution 2

General Thoughts

Evolution is shudderingly beautiful. When preparing these reviews, I pause films occasionally to take screenshots. While some make me work to find three interesting snaps, I usually end up with more than I can use. Still, I have never taken as many as I have with Evolution. I could happily have captured every frame of it, from the lush underwater panoramas to the creepy medical facilities.

The storytelling in Evolution is subtle and unnerving. As the mystery unravels it delves into some truly uncomfortable areas. All this is accentuated by slow, artful cinematography and the uncanny design of every aspect of the film. It all goes to create a sense of the island being idyllic on the surface but with a creeping corruption lying deep within.

The women on the island are especially unsettling. All are pale, slender and androgynous, with slicked-back hair and eyebrows so sparse they may as well not be there. Their mannerisms are detached and affectless. They have crawled out of the uncanny valley, capturing the alien essence of Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Evolution 3

Verdict

Evolution is the very definition of a film that is not for everyone. It is slow, uncomfortable and deeply weird. Some horror films set out to scare you. Others just slowly chip away at your sense of reality. Evolution lies very much in the latter camp. And this can be alienating.

People wanting a straightforward story may be frustrated. Evolution is a film that states little but implies much. The answers are largely there, even if no one says them out loud. In fact, this is a film with very little dialogue, a perfect example of “show, don’t tell”. This also plays into the strangeness of the island and its residents, adding to the overall creepiness of the atmosphere.

Personally, I was enraptured by every minute of this film. It plays into so many of the things I love in weird fiction that it feels like it was made for me. The mixture of body horror, corrupted innocence and fairy tales is as entrancing as any siren’s call.

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:

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan) (Indonesia, 2017)

“There are only dead people in the cemetery. Dead people are harmless. The dangerous ones are the living.”

A few months ago, I watched Joko Anwar‘s 2019 folk horror film, Impetigore. It was interesting and unusual enough that I pegged him as a director to look out for. When I noticed that there was another of his films on Shudder, I quickly added it to my list. While Satan’s Slaves is far from original, it is probably the scariest film I’ve seen this month.

Satan's Slaves 1

Synopsis

Rini’s middle-aged mother dies after a long illness that left her bedridden, ringing a handbell when she needed attention. After the funeral, family members start to hear the bell ringing from their mother’s former room. Rini’s three younger brothers start to see manifestations of their mother, turned into some kind of monster.

With medical bills having bankrupted the family, Rini’s father heads off to raise some money in the hope of saving their home. In the days that follow, Rini and her brothers fend for themselves as ghostly manifestations increase. This reaches a crisis point when their grandmother dies under mysterious circumstances.

After finding a letter, Rini gets in touch with Budiman, an old friend of her grandmother, who claims to know the root of their problems. Rini learns that her parents made a terrible pact with a satanic cult in order to have children. Now, the price must be paid for this deal. The whole family finds themselves under siege by demonic forces, cultists and the living dead.

Satan's Slaves 2

General Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, one of the great appeals of watching horror from around the world is seeing common tropes reinvented, or at least given a local spin. While the basic story of Satan’s Slaves would work just as well in the USA or UK, it feels refreshing to hear characters talking about Iblis and djinn instead of Satan and demons.

At the same time, an awful lot of Satan’s Slaves doesn’t feel very fresh. This is a film that borrows heavily from greats of the genre. That’s not necessarily a problem — horror films are often riddled with nods to their influences. Here, however, it’s a little more blatant, with images lifted directly from The Grudge and Ring and arguably Night of the Living Dead, The Changeling, The Sixth Sense and Poltergeist. While it doesn’t ruin the film, it is a little distracting at times.

Satan's Slaves 3

Verdict

I can’t fault Joko Anwar’s ambition. Satan’s Slaves is a film bursting with ideas, if not always original ones. Unfortunately, this is as much a problem as a boon. The film simply tries to do much much, becoming muddled at times. It packs in ghosts, curses, possession, zombies, creepy kids, satanic cults, Faustian pacts, and ritual sacrifice. There’s even a throwaway reference to backmasking. Revelation follows revelation to the point that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s really going on. It’s a lot.

Despite all this, Satan’s Slaves is still hugely enjoyable. It’s one of the rare films I’ve seen in recent years that managed to creep me out. I found myself wondering whether I really wanted to keep watching it just before bedtime, which is usually a good sign. The tricks Anwar uses are simple, common ones, but he uses them well. Even before the end of the first act, we have scene after scene that builds a palpable sense of dread, drawing out our fear of what we might see next.

The only thing that undermines this is an over-reliance on jump scares. Far too many scenes end in a sudden musical sting and a brief glimpse of something horrible. Despite my usual animosity towards jump scares, I have to admit that Anwar executes them well. My main gripe is that so many filmmakers use them lazily, especially as gratuitous fake-outs, followed by the release of laughter. Every jump scare in Satan’s Slaves is earned, and all pay off.

I definitely recommend Satan’s Slaves. It is different enough from its obvious inspirations not to feel tired. And even when it seems like you’ve seen this film before, it still offers enough chills to be worth your time.

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:

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

Eaten Alive (USA, 1976)

“Why don’t you just take that cigarette and grind it out in my eye?”

Given how many of this month’s films I’ve picked at random, I’ve been pretty lucky so far. While a few have been a little dull, all have had at least some appeal. Well, today things change. Eaten Alive is a genuinely awful film, and not in a quirky, fun way.

Eaten Alive 1

Synopsis

Eaten Alive sets its cards out in the first scene, opening with an attempted sexual assault — the first of many. Clara, a new recruit at Miss Hattie’s brothel, is sacked after refusing the violent advances her first customer, Buck. As grim as the film is, this scene still comes across as uncomfortably titillating.

Now homeless, Clara ends up at the Starlight Hotel, a squalid dump in the swamp outside town. The mentally ill proprietor, Judd, goes into a frenzy when he learns that Clara worked for Miss Hattie. He mutilates her with a scythe and feeds her to his pet crocodile.

This cycle of stabbing new arrivals and letting the crocodile eat them continues throughout the night. As business models go, this seems to be an unsustainable one. Judd is not in his right mind, however, probably due to the deafening country music he constantly listens to.

Things unravel for Judd as the young daughter of one family of victims escapes into the crawlspace under the hotel. At the same time, Judd keeps her mother tied to his bed, gagged, but is still unable to stop her from rattling the metal bedframe. All of this threatens disaster for him as Clara’s family arrive, looking for her. Will Judd contain the situation? Is there a limit to how many people one crocodile can eat? And can he please tune his radio into another fucking station?

Eaten Alive 2

General Thoughts

Eaten Alive was Tobe Hooper’s follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and it is clear that he was trying to recapture the same grubby, transgressive magic that made his breakout film such a phenomenon. This attempt falls short, however. While Judd is as deranged and violent as any of his predecessors, he comes across as less a monster and more just a muttering misogynist with a farm implement and a menagerie. It’s clear that Hooper envisioned Eaten Alive as Psycho with a crocodile, but Judd is no Norman Bates.

For all its problems, Eaten Alive has an impressive cast. As well as an unnervingly young Robert Englund as Buck, we have the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley, as well as television’s Morticia Addams, Carolyn Jones, and the rugged features of Stuart Whitman. They all deserve to be in a better film.

Eaten Alive 3

Verdict

Eaten Alive isn’t the worst film I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s not even the worst film I’ve reviewed on this site. I did enjoy parts of it, especially the last five minutes or so. Overall, however, its grimy misanthropy just ground me down. This is a film that devours joy as Judd’s crocodile devours guests. By the halfway point, I was just wishing that everyone on both sides of the camera would get eaten and I could go on with my life.

There is a leering prurience to Eaten Alive that is deeply off-putting. This is hardly unique amongst ’70s horror films, but it is especially marked here. While the settings of its sexual assaults, abductions and blatantly gratuitous nudity are hardly glamorous, there is the uncomfortable feeling that we’re peeking into someone’s fantasies here.

Much of the presentation of Eaten Alive is puzzling. The entire production appears lit by 40-watt bulbs. Combined with the coloured gels on the lenses, the result is less atmospheric and more an advertisement for Specsavers. Similarly, the audio track sounds like it was recorded underwater. Judd’s mutterings are so muffled that whatever menace they might have carried is lost to inaudibility, especially when drowned out by the country songs blasting through his radio.

There are plenty of people out there who like Eaten Alive more than I do. I shan’t hold it against you if you are one of them. There’s undoubtedly a grindhouse charm to it. And, for all its faults, it rarely flags. Still, watching it has left me feeling grubby and even less happy with the world than I usually am. Maybe that’s what Hooper was aiming for.

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:

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!

By Scott Dorward

October Horror Movie Challenge

The Battery (USA, 2012)

“We’re not going anywhere. Mickey, that’s the point.”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s review of Black Sheep, I am utterly burnt-out on zombie films. It’s got to the stage where I actively avoid anything that involves zombies. Sometimes, enough people with similar tastes recommend one to me that I’m tempted to try it. This is why I relented on Train to Busan. While it was well-made, it was still just another zombie film and did nothing to rekindle my excitement.

The Battery is the first zombie film I’ve watched since then. So, did this one bite me?

the battery 1

Synopsis

There has been a standard-issue Romero zombie apocalypse. Mercifully, The Battery assumes we have seen enough of these and leaves us to extrapolate what we need to. Ben and Mickey are our survivors du jour, a mismatched pair of former baseball players brought together by circumstance rather than friendship.

The two men are travelling across New England, foraging for supplies, never staying in one place. Mickey is completely dissociated from their situation. He spends his time listening to music on headphones with no regard for how vulnerable this makes him. Ben is the driving force of the pair, laying down the laws of survival.

When Mickey finds some walkie-talkies in an abandoned house, they bring him into contact with a standoffish woman named Annie. She is part of a commune of survivors called The Orchard. This, she keeps telling Mickey, is not what it seems.

Energised by the possibility of restoring some form of permanence to their lives, Mikey leads Ben towards disaster.

the battery 2

General Thoughts

Fucking zombies. I remember watching Day of the Dead at the cinema in 1985 and wishing there could be more films like this. Even with this third instalment and the various Italian knock-offs, Romero’s take on zombies felt exciting and dangerous. I suspect that somewhere, when I made that wish, a finger curled on a monkey’s paw.

Horror as a genre has always been prone to cheap cash-ins. Zombie films just made this easier. Anyone with a camera, a bit of fake blood, and access to some quiet locations could make one. And dear God they did. Even before The Walking Dead staggered its way onto television, long overstaying its welcome, the rotting corpse of zombie cinema was stinking up horror. It has been at least ten years since I have been able to watch a zombie on the screen without groaning more than it does.

At least The Battery is more of a character portrait of its two leads than a straight zombie film. For most of the first two acts, we barely see any zombies. Those our protagonists do encounter present no serious threat. In fact, when Mickey is stalked by the undead form of a young woman, his reaction is to masturbate over her.

What’s more important is the developing relationship between the two leads. They were members of the same baseball team but barely interacted before things fell apart. Now, Ben has taken it upon himself to protect Mickey, often to Mickey’s irritation. While their ongoing disagreement about whether to settle in one place or move on every day divides them, the two begin to forge some form of uneasy friendship. Maybe Ben’s strategy of always being in motion should have warned them of the danger of attachments, however.

The zombies in The Battery are shamblers, weak individually but deadly in numbers. This is a point very much in its favour. Back before my love of zombie films rotted away, the slow, shuffling hordes of the dead always appealed more than any running, screeching rage monsters. They represented the implacable inevitability of death. You can run, escaping in the short-term, but they will always catch you in the end. Slow zombies are not predators — they are an existential crisis on legs. This is something The Battery definitely gets right.

the battery 3

Verdict

Like a number of films I’ve watched this month, The Battery is a slow burn. This is a film more concerned with ennui than terror. It spends most of the first act just following these two men around New England, Mickey’s headphones providing a musical soundtrack to their journeys through picturesque but desolate locales. There is some interaction between Ben and Mickey, but the emphasis is more on portraying their alienation. This came very close to exhausting my patience.

Fortunately, as our leads connect with each other and, especially, as the temptation of The Orchard enters their lives, the film becomes more dynamic. This is essential, as the final act of the film is largely a slow, drawn-out siege, with Ben and Mickey trapped in a hopeless situation. If the film had spent less time making us care about them as people, this might have been interminable. As things stand, it’s tense and even somewhat moving.

So has The Battery electrified my love of the zombie genre? It’s certainly the best zombie film I’ve seen in a very long time, but that could be as much of a plaudit as naming my favourite bout of food poisoning. I certainly don’t resent having watched it, and the latter half of the film engaged me more than I thought it possibly could. If you haven’t come to dislike the genre as much as I have, you may find a lot to enjoy here. Still, I can’t see myself shambling off to watch any more zombie films for some time.

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:

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.

If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!