Written by: Howard Avedis, Marlene Schmidt
Directed by: Howard Avedis
Starring: Mary Beth McDonough, David Wallace and Bill Paxton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I could run things smoother if people died between 9 to 5."
Mortuary is yet another bait-and-switch horror movie in more ways than one. Not only is its marketing especially misleading (it seems to be sold as a film where people will be coming out of their grave to wreak havoc), but it also starts out doing one thing before doing something different altogether. And, by 1983, the “something different” that it eventually becomes wasn’t different at all, as Mortuary becomes another slasher, albeit one with a few different tics and a somewhat intriguing cast.
But first, it’s about a couple of idiot kids poking around in the titular mortuary, where Mr. Andrews (Christopher George) holds séances and fires his workers for screwing around. That’s what happened to Josh (Denis Mandel), and now he’s back with his buddy Greg (David Wallace) to roll some big tires around the place (or something). Anyway, they catch Mr. Andrews in the act again, Greg wanders off, and Josh gets gutted by a guy in a black robe, leaving Greg to wonder just what happened to his buddy. To track Josh down, teams up with his girlfriend Christie (Mary McDonough), whose nightmares about her father’s recent death may be connected to the strange events at the mortuary.
All of this sets you up for something supernatural; between the séances and bad dreams, all signs point to some otherworldly voodoo being conjured up to terrorize this bunch of kids, who are like the Mystery, Inc. gang to Christopher George’s creepy old man. Even worse, Christie’s own mom (Lynda Day George) seems to be in on the plot and totally unwilling to listen to her wild claims about her father actually being murdered instead of perishing in a car accident. Maneuvering the kids against their parents like this subtly resembles stuff like A Nightmare on Elm Street, and you maybe even think the parents are hoarding some kind of secret; after all, Mr. Andrews supposedly even tormented his own son (Bill Paxton) by locking him up in the mortuary with dead bodies when he was a kid. Now, Paul Andrews is weird the dweeby kid with a crush on Christie, and Paxton is actually really charming in the role, a stark contrast to the rest of the sleepwalking cast (McDonough at least has an excuse sometimes, as she literally sleepwalks in some scenes).
At some point (maybe halfway through), Mortuary takes a hard left turn, as just about everything that’s put on the table is yanked away. I’ll leave the particulars for you to discover, but it ends up being another familiar traumatized psycho revenge story. Cut from the same Psycho cloth that got tattered as it passed hands from one slasher to the next (Pieces, which both the Georges previously starred in, especially shredded it), Mortuary at least doesn’t paint itself into a corner in terms of the killer’s identity. When you first see their chalky, Pazzuzu-inspired make-up, you can kind of make out who it is anyway, and an odd mid-movie conversation between McDonough and Day George gives up the ghost early; from there, it stays the course, and, without spoiling the identity, I’ll say the killer is kind of delightfully nuts. Their shtick involves embalming bodies, and the climactic sequence unfolds in the shadow of a scene that’s kind of similar to both Tourist Trap and Happy Birthday To Me, complete with an audience of corpses on hand. One just wishes everything before this was as cool, as Mortuary ends up being a little malformed and undercooked since it quickly shifts from a conspiracy plot to a whodunnit in the span of one scene.
And despite so much going on, there’s actually precious little slashing involved, which is doubly odd since an early scene introduces us to a bunch of Christine’s friends. You expect them to serve as fodder, but they’re never heard from again, leaving the film to hover around her and her preppy beau. McDonough is a long way from The Waltons here, obviously, but she’s still sweet and innocent enough to be a final girl. She’s often paired on screen with Lynda George, playing a typical suburban 80s mom, and there’s a scene where she and her on-screen daughter seem to be engaged in a nightgown competition in which they attempt to out-cleavage each other (the winner? Us.). Mortuary marks the final on-screen appearance of her husband, George, who passed away shortly after the film’s release; one wishes he had a more memorable final turn, as he sort of disappears after being an early suspect here. Then of course there’s Paxton, making another appearance in an ‘83 slasher (the other being Night Warning), who actually makes a full-blown appearance here. Unlike a lot of these early-career horror turns, his is more than just a bit role, and it’s especially fun to see him dorked up as an awkward kid.
He’s certainly one of the few things to really like about Mortuary. If you’ve got an 80s fetish, you’ll find more things between the feathered hair and the roller skating rinks, and the film looks and sounds very much like any other early 80s slasher movie, right down to the cornball dialogue and one hell of a nonsensical final shot. Unfortunately, it’s just not a very good one, save for the killer’s getup, the climax, the cleavage, and Mary McDonough’s body double. Scorpion Releasing seems intent on dragging all of these to DVD, god love ‘em. Mortuary represents the latest offering from Katarina’s Nightmare Theater, where it’s been restored and looks quite good; as usual, they leave the grain structure intact, so it looks like an 80s movies. The extras include an on-camera interview with composer John Cacavas, the “Nightmare Theater mode,” and the film’s original trailer, which somehow features Michael Berryman as a grave-digger who has an unfortunate run-in with the corpse he’s just buried. If you’ve listened to a word I’ve said in this review, you know not to expect anything along those lines in Mortuary, but you may be wishing to see that movie instead. Rent it!
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