Saturday, July 17, 2010

Mortuary: Meanwhile, In Yet Another Movie…

The title for this post is from one of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and is best said in an exasperated tone of voice when you have no idea where the movie you're watching is headed. Not in the "I can't anticipate the next plot twist" sense, but in the "wait, where did this come from…I thought they were…what? What?" sense.

This sort of confusion isn't the only problem with Mortuary, but it's one of the big ones.

Part of any well-made horror movie  is a clear thesis. That is, we should have a good idea of the movie world's internal logic, narrative rhythm, and (within reason) a sense of what threat or types of threats the protagonists are going to face. There's always room for surprise and unusual juxtapositions, but these are effective because they riff on a set of rules that are clearly established at the start. Yanking the rug out from under someone doesn't really have the same surprise if they'd never gotten their balance in the first place.

Mortuary starts off simply enough - single mother and her two children (son and daughter) move to a small town so she can take a job as the town undertaker. It isn't really made clear what happened to the last undertaker, but it's been awhile since the town had its own (which has to suck - if there's any work you don't want to have to ship to the next nearest town, it's the handling of your dead). Mom and the kids seem a little on edge - you get the sense that this wasn't their ideal situation, the kids don't want to be in such a small town, but Mom seems glad to have the job. The fish-out-of-water trope is probably not enough to carry an entire horror movie, but it can definitely add edge to the central premise, so okay. Mom doesn't have much time to get the mortuary ready for business, so that becomes a priority.

The initial premise isn't bad, and the first look at the titular mortuary is promising as far as mood and setting go. The family will be living above the business (of course), and it's a big, old house with all of the necessary equipment in the basement. Everything has been left neglected for some time, so it's suitably decayed and creepy. Getting that sense of long-term abandonment can be tough, because it takes more than dust, cobwebs, and sheets over the furniture. This place really does look like it's been unattended for some time - there's even icky black mold on the walls and, for some reason, a lot of old bags of salt.

So, mortuary with a mysterious past, some mother-child tension, a small town. There are a few different places you could go from here. So maybe it's one of those small towns with a secret and a dislike of outsiders. The kids do have a bit of a run-in with hostile local kids, but they are so cartoonishly douchey that they break any sense of menace. You're immediately taken out of the movie with a reaction along the lines of "Jesus, who actually says or does that?" Actually, the acting is a weak link throughout. Movies don't always require subtle, nuanced, deep performances, but they should at least be un-shitty enough to not be an active distraction. There are more than a few points where I'm not just aware that I'm watching actors, but I'm actually cringing. Tough to maintain the mood like that.

Fortunately, before we can dwell on any emerging silliness,  we learn that the black mold in the mortuary basement has some interesting properties - it makes people who come into contact with it violently ill (no surprise there), as well as hostile to the point of homicidal and focused on infecting other people with the mold. Ahhhhhh, so we've got sort of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type thing where the kids and mom aren't going to know who to trust while they try to eliminate the threat! Okay...

No, wait…the mold also makes the dead come back to life. So there are also zombies.

So we've got evil mold that both brings the dead back to life and mind-controls the living. So there's this tug-of-war between what should be the paranoia and tension of a trust-nobody type story and the more direct terror of a holy-shit-the-dead-walk type story. Add to this some disruptively overwrought acting, and the whole affair feels not just disjointed and cluttered, but also tonally off - scenes that should be fraught and upsetting are somewhere between gross and comic instead. We don't feel scared, not just because we can't buy into the events at hand but also because it's too hard to know where to focus - who cares if the live people are a threat? There are dead people walking around and that's way worse. Eventually, the source of the evil mold is revealed, introducing a supernatural element (oh, did I mention the clumsy allusions to H.P. Lovecraft throughout?), and the whole thing wraps up with a cheap, incoherent jump scare that makes no sense even in the admittedly scattershot context that came before. It almost felt like the filmmakers said "well, how are we going to end this?" and then just…did, leaving the viewer to wonder both what sort of movie they were supposed to be watching, and what the point of any of it was in the end.

And, oh yeah…the director was Tobe Hooper, responsible for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Something tells me this one won't be going on any demo reels anytime soon.

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