The Morbid Souls of “The Mortuary Collection”
The following review contains spoilers – reader beware!
Tentacles pull a pickpocketer into a bathroom medicine cabinet. A womanizing frat boy becomes pregnant with a supernatural creature. A man is haunted by the corpse of his catatonic wife. A babysitter fights an escaped lunatic – but nothing is what it seems. These are just some of the horrors that await in director Ryan Spindell’s critically acclaimed Kickstarter-funded anthology, “The Mortuary Collection” (2019).
The key ingredients to a great horror anthology are believable characters and the messages they deliver (okay, and maybe a little gore and shock value for good measure). More often than not, the characters exist to suffer a grisly fate after revealing an important lesson or “moral of the story” to the viewer. This is emphasized in “The Mortuary Collection” when the character Sam tells mortician Montgomery, “All of your stories…are a little predictable. Someone commits a sin, they pay a horrible price.” To which Montgomery replies, “The form may be familiar, but the message is timeless: No evil deed goes unpunished.”
While “The Mortuary Collection” indeed follows the format of “you reap what you sow,” it refreshingly tackles uncomfortable topics in a stylish, phantasmagorical way. Spindell weaves a rich tapestry of morbid and meaningful tales that span across four decades in a small fictional town. Before I spotlight a few of the film’s unfortunate souls, let’s take a look at the keeper of their stories, Montgomery Dark.
Meet the Mortician
Actor Clancy Brown steals the show as Montgomery Dark, the eccentric mortician and owner of Raven’s End Mortuary. Montgomery has a likeness to the Tall Man (“Phantasm” series), but it’s emphasized by Brown that Montgomery is an amalgamation of many horror tropes. Montgomery acts as storyteller for the first three tales in the film, followed by a fourth tale from Sam, a drifter who appears at the mortuary looking for a job. The exchanges between Montgomery and his new hire act as our framing story.
Montgomery houses a library of records on the deceased citizens of Raven’s End, a quaint waterside town where people have a tendency to mysteriously die or vanish. Through his autopsy work at the mortuary and his knowledge of the town, Montgomery knows everyone’s secrets. While showing Sam a body in the morgue, Montgomery tells her, “Look closer, the devil is in the details.” Traces of magnesium in the corpse’s upper palate leads us into a story about the woman’s demise and the resulting breakdown experienced by her husband, Wendell.
1970s Story: Wendell
Wendell is faced with a situation that becomes so over-the-top, you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or cover your eyes. For reasons unexplained, Wendell’s wife Carol becomes catatonic. Soon, Wendell is in a purgatory of living the same day on repeat. Every night, he cooks and elaborately plates gourmet meals for Carol, then immediately tosses the food into a blender so she can drink it and spit it up. It’s torturing him to see her vacant stare. More than anything, he wants her to give him a sign that things will get better. The plot thickens when Carol’s doctor provides Wendell with an option: painkillers to make her “go to sleep forever.” Wendell contemplates if he can live with another year of the same thing, knowing Carol won’t improve. Earlier in the story, Wendell’s neighbour boasts about how she’s been going on cruises and “seeing the world” since her husband passed. So, for Wendell, part of him sees the doctor’s option as a light at the end of the tunnel.
This story walks a fine line between Wendell wanting what’s best for Carol and wanting what’s best for himself. And that selfishness makes him feel guilty as hell. Spindell does a stellar job exploring all facets of this dark situation. Today it would be a conversation to have with your family/spouse, though of course, no one wants to have it. We don’t want to talk about death and dying, or scenarios where we can’t make decisions for ourselves. I think it’s unclear if Wendell and Carol had previously communicated their wishes about what to do in the event there was a medical situation. (I’m not even sure how stuff like this worked in the 70s.)
Wendell opens each pill capsule and mixes the contents into Carol’s soup. Of course, after she’s given the pills, she moves! (This is likely a hallucination, as we’ll see a recurring pattern of Carol reacting whenever Wendell tries to get rid of her.) Wendell immediately performs the Heimlich maneuver and Carol spits up the soup. Unfortunately, Carol slumps over…and she’s impaled by a small statue on the table. Wendell calls the doctor and is advised to dump the body in the ocean, so he gets to work and places his wife in their wedding trunk. Carol wildly springs at him, and Wendell yanks the statue from her head. Carol falls back into the trunk, dead once again. And of course, she doesn’t fit, so in “Evil Dead 2” fashion, Wendell decides to amputate her. For the rest of the story, Wendell struggles to keep Carol dead in his mind. His guilt repeatedly manifests as he’s haunted by a ghoulish Carol, his wedding vow to love her in sickness, and memories of happier times.
Later, the police find Wendell with the trunk, rambling to himself. The price he paid for trying to get rid of Carol was his sanity. This story was very much in the spirit of “The Tell-Tale Heart” because Wendell can’t handle the teeter-tottering between his love for his wife and the guilt he felt to be free from her. Carol’s constant illusion of movement is the heartbeat under the floorboards. This is a relatable story in that many people have a loved one who they have to make difficult decisions for. But of course, this story takes that scenario several steps further and descends into madness.
1960s Story: Jake
A decade prior to Wendell’s story, we’re at a fraternity in Raven’s End, where we meet Jake. Jake’s opening scene is passing out condoms to women he intends for him and his buddies to sleep with – but he disguises all of this as sexual liberation, encouraging empowerment through condom use and hiding behind a “wholesome boy” facade. Jake meets new student Sandra who brushes him off at first when he invites her to the upcoming frat party, and he’s so confused by it because he always gets what he wants. Sandra says, “Yeah, maybe,” when asked to attend his evening soiree. However, Sandra attends the party, and they hook up. Sandra gives Jake a condom, and when he fusses, she dishes his own words back at him – “But I want to be empowered.” Unhappy, Jake puts the condom on but later secretly removes it.
Stealthing is no joke, and it’s a serious issue brought up in the film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thing brought up in a horror film. There’s social commentary in all the stories in this anthology, but I think in this one it’s most apparent – it explores issues of equality, consent, toxic masculinity, STDs, and more. Jake wakes after his night of partying with a huge rash on his netherregions. After a visit with the same doctor from Wendell’s tale, it’s revealed that Jake is pregnant. Yes, this story features a male pregnancy, which totally wasn’t on my radar. It’s suggested that Sandra has something supernatural about her (it’s not entirely explained).
Jake calls Sandra after several attempts because he couldn’t quite read the number she left after smearing it from his mirror. Classic Jake – he wasn’t expecting to ever talk to her again. He finally reaches her, and once again, Sandra flips the script: “Who is this?” He has to remind her that he’s “Jake from the party the other night” and he wants to see her again. Jake tries to leave the frat house but is caught in a surprise ceremony by his frat brothers for reaching the milestone of sleeping with 67 women (one for each of the founding members of the fraternity). In one of the most unexpected scenes in the film (I screamed), Jake’s bros lift his pregnant body in the chair so he can hang up his flag, and his water breaks, raining supernatural ooze all over everyone.
If that wasn’t over-the-top enough, Jake arrives at Sandra’s house and her parents help to deliver the baby “the same way it got in.” Jake’s most treasured part of his anatomy explodes, and a monstrous spawn is delivered. Before Jake’s demise, he expresses how “unnatural” his pregnancy is, and how it also reminded him of when he was “fat,” to which Sandra’s mother rolls her eyes. Sandra’s mother scoops up the creature and adds it to the nursery with the other spawn creatures. This was definitely one of those jaw-drop/shock stories, but I loved the way it explored topics that are still so relevant today. Whether it’s the 1960s or the 2020s, there will always be a Jake looking for someone who isn’t a Sandra – someone he can manipulate. He felt it was the most “natural” thing in the world to behave the way he did, but he was shocked by the “unnatural” results, experienced by women everywhere (an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy).
1980s and Framing Story: Sam
Although I’d like to detail every character in “The Mortuary Collection” and the lessons they learn a little too late, I’m running out of room. Let’s appropriately end with Sam, who takes over from Montgomery as narrator of the fourth tale. I’d rather not reveal much because this film is really worth checking out, but we have an unreliable narrator for this fourth tale. This is another refreshing approach to the anthology format. As the audience, we usually have to trust what’s being shown or told to us, but for “The Babysitter Murders” segment, everything we think we know is wrong.
I wonder if Montgomery truly knew Sam’s intentions all along. Sam isn’t at the mortuary for the reason she claims – she’s there for something else, and we find out why after her story about babysitting for the Kublers (Dr. Kubler is the only character to appear in every story, the 1950s tentacle story being the exception). In an unexpected way, Spindell reveals how Sam is connected to the town’s “Tooth Fairy Killer” announcement in the newspapers at the beginning of the film. Sam’s story about fighting an escaped lunatic to protect a child transitions into a revelation of her true motives for being at the mortuary, and in turn we learn more about Montgomery’s motives for needing a new hire.
Earlier in the film, Sam complains how it’s so typical how everyone in Montgomery’s stories is punished for their sins. But Montgomery makes a good point that “No evil deed goes unpunished.” He also emphasizes that there’s a balance in all things, and we all have a part to play – even Sam. There’s a final culmination of events that end with charred spirits of dead children emerging from the books in Montgomery’s library. And, like a puzzle, much of what is revealed in the film comes together. Scales are balanced, to Montgomery’s joy. Montgomery puts on his top hat, steps outside, and—well, you should see for yourself.
“The Mortuary Collection” is so rich in terms of subtext and how it approaches the characters while they deal with surreal “this can’t be happening to me” situations. This film explores what people would do when faced with the impossible, and it’s such a twisted and timely ride. I hope “The Mortuary Collection” continues to receive love and I can’t wait to see what Ryan Spindell has in store for us next.
You can find “The Mortuary Collection” on Shudder and Blu-ray. I highly recommend the Blu-ray (with reverse cover art!) as it contains more than two hours of special features.
Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University and currently has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.
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