MORTUARY (2006)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on January 13, 2006, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Mortuary is a goofy and grisly good time, and it might have been even better if it felt like the director and writers were trying to make the same movie. Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch’s script very evidently was intended to be played as a straight and spooky horror tale, but Tobe Hooper has brought it to the screen with an over-the-top approach in which several of the scenes and supporting performances border on camp. That’s surprising, considering how well the trio’s dark sensibilities meshed on their previous collaboration, Toolbox Murders.

Of course, there are those who find Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be just as much a black comedy as a serious nail-biter, and Mortuary goes far further than Hooper’s grimly suggestive classic in terms of outrageous grue. The result is opening in a handful of California test bookings, and is certainly more fun to watch with a packed, enthusiastic audience than it probably will be when seen on DVD at home. If any recent fright feature is tailor-made for rowdy midnight viewings, Mortuary is it.

The basic premise is time-honored: a family moves into a spooky new home, and weird stuff starts happening. In fact, things get strange even as they’re moving in, with the help of a bizarre realtor who seems to have stepped in from an episode of Twin Peaks. The new abode is a mortuary, which mom Leslie (Denise Crosby) thinks she can shape up and turn into a lucrative new business to support teen son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and little daughter Jamie (Stephanie Patton). Of course, the place needs one hell of a fixing up, and Jonathan is soon learning about its bizarre and frightening history. He also meets and is immediately attracted to Liz (Alexandra Adi), who works for her aunt at the local diner and seems to already have a boyfriend, Grady (Shallow Ground’s Rocky Marquette). In the movie’s one true reflection of modern values, however, Jonathan is happy to discover that Grady is gay, and thus poses no opposition to his romantic pursuit of Liz.

Everything else about Mortuary is happily old-school: the creepy cemetery next to the titular dwelling, the cryptic clues to its nasty past, the characters who explore dark crypts they shouldn’t and the gang of teen jerks who hang out at Liz’s aunt’s diner and harass our young hero, and are thus immediately marked for death. Or, sorta death; they return from their apparent demises in a grotesque state and go right back to the diner, where they take part in the first setpiece that truly points up Hooper’s playful approach to the material. Meanwhile, the cadavers Leslie works with are also getting feisty, and soon everybody—all those who’ve survived, anyway—is running all over the house, the crypt and the underground tunnels that connect them, trying to escape and put a stop to the zombies and a creeping black fungus that has been reanimating them.

The movie is a little vague about how the fungus, the twisted family who once owned the mortuary and the zombies are all connected, though not for a lack of attempted expositional explanation; what we have here, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, is a little too much backstory getting in the way of the story. Mortuary works best in its second half, when all the foundations have been laid and Hooper and co. can get down to the business of assaulting the characters with plenty of walking corpses (fun extreme makeup FX by Toolbox’s Dean and Starr Jones) and other icky stuff. There isn’t that much actual blood and gore in the film, but there’s plenty of decaying flesh and black vomit spewing all over the place, so gross-out fans will be more than sated. There’s a nice grindhouse feel to the craft contributions, too: Rob Howeth’s production design will have you believing they actually found the most rundown mortuary in the country to film in, and Jaron Presant’s cinematography, at least at the screening this writer attended, has a kind of grotty, second-generation-print quality that suits the material just fine.

So if Mortuary isn’t the return to grisly form that Toolbox Murders represented, it does prove Hooper capable of still going for broke and having some fun. Put it this way: If you’re expecting the brutal and savage Hooper of Texas Chainsaw, you’ll probably be disappointed, but those who love his brazenly ridiculous Lifeforce are likely to get a kick out of this one.

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